Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

A Pirate in the Family

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on January 26, 2015

Tew
Thomas Tew (left) regales Governor Benjamin Fletcher of New York with tales of plunder at sea, in an engraving by Howard Pyle. Fletcher openly entertained Tew, even as he publicly denounced him as a pirate. Fletcher’s ties to Tew and men like him resulted in his being replaced in 1698 by Richard Coote, Earl of Bellemont. Tew had made his fortune by capturing a treasure-laden ship belonging to the Grand Mughal in 1693. Two years later he attempted the same feat in partnership with Henry Every, and was killed in the ensuing action.

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My father has devoted a lot of time in recent years to genealogical research, and has made some interesting connections. Although he uses the Internet in his work, he has so far eschewed Ancestry and similar tree-building sites, preferring to go about his work in a more traditional way. This is probably a good thing because, although I use Ancestry all the time, it’s very easy to get off on the wrong track when picking up information from other researchers’ self-made trees. It’s a little too easy to go click-click-click and, in the space of a few minutes, throw together something that’s pretty much worthless due to a single error somewhere along the way. But I digress. . . .

Recently he shared with me the story of one John Elston (or Alston), a young man from New Jersey who was seized as a pirate in the spring of 1698. I wouldn’t ordinarily claim kinship to someone I can’t trace precisely, but in this case the circumstantial evidence seems substantial. Multiple generations of direct-ancestor Elstons lived in and around Woodbridge, New Jersey (near the southern end of Staten Island) in this period, so it seems likely that John Elston, the “Accidental Pirate” from Woodbridge, is a collateral relative. His story is told in James Strode Elston’s The Elston family in America (Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing, 1942):

Only a few of the highlights can be given in perhaps the most colorful experience any Elston in this country has had. In “New Jersey Colonial Documents” is a four-page account of John Elston ‘s affidavit [of] May 27th, 1698:

John Elston aged about 20 yeares Declares that about the yeare 1692 being in London shiped himself. . . proceeded on the Voyage to the Groyne where. . . they Runn away with the said ship. . . . This said Elston being then asleep knew nothing of said Action till Comeing upon Decke found the Ship under Saile. . . Saies that the first land they made was the Cape de Verd Islands. . . thence proceeded to the Coast of Guinea touching at the Gold Coast and severall other places. . . that Dureing the time of theire being on the Coast they tooke two shipps Danes and Swedes Laden with Goods for the Guinea trade takeing as many men out of them as were willing to saile. . . turning the shipps a Drift, that in the Action they had a Dispute with said shipps for about halfe an hour looseing one man . . . went for the Cape of Good Hope but stopped not there but at the Island Madagascar . . . went for the Islands of Johanna and Cornaro [the Comoros Islands] where they went on shore and traded with the Indians [sic.]. . . sayled for the Cape that makes the Gulph of Arabia on the Redd Sea. . . at this time there was added to our Company 4 or 5 sayle more. . . came into the Bay of Bengali. . . A Little before Day a ship Came by us within about a Pistoll shott after which we made say]e and after Day fired at her, whome we tooke being a ship of about six hundred Tunns a slight ship haveing only their money on board the Quantity Reputed to be about (or more then) Twenty thousand pounds. Wee kept her in Company about 24 hours takeing out what we thought proper for our own use  and then lett her Goe … we fought about an hour and a halfe, she being about sixteen hundred Tunns forty or fifty Gunns mounted and others in hold. . . . We Entred her and kept her about  twentyfour hours. That we Esteemed her worth about two hundred thousand pounds. . . . Further on the Coast of India. . . touched a French Island neare Madagascar. . . . Directed our Course to the Vest Indies. . . Arrived at providence one of the Bahama Islands . . . aforesaid John Elston. . . and some others who went a shore at Fishers Island … by way of Fishers Island to East Jersey.

The colonial Governor of New York, Richard Coote, Earl of Bellemont, had originally seized John Elston and William Merrick on suspicion of piracy. But in a letter written July 1, 1698, Bellemont wrote to the Lords of Trade  (later the Board of Trade) that he could

find no evidence against them, so that they would be cleared on a tryall here, and I have no instructions to send them for England so that I must admitt them to bail. One of them is not now above nineteen years old, his name is John Alston, was about 12 or 13 years old and was a boy in the ship when [Henry] Every run away with her and as he said forced him away for a cabin boy, that he had no share with the rest-that he acted no ill thing with his owne hand, and could not avoid being in the ship, being forced away, his account appeared to me probable and inclines me to represent this circumstance to you Lordships that if you think fitt he may be represented as an object of His Majesty’s mercy.

The Lords of Trade in London evidently didn’t act on Bellemont’s petition for mercy in the case of Elston and Merrick, as they both remained in jail, denied bond by the Governor of East New Jersey, Jeremiah Basse, for months. But in February 1700 Basse wrote to the House of Commons complaining that “as it was his duty, [he] refused to bayle” (i.e., grant them bond). Whereupon Bellemont, “by a pretended Admiralty power forced them out of your petitioner’s hands, and set them at liberty upon insufficient bayle, to the great hazard and danger of your Petitioner.”

This was probably not the first time the governors of New York and New Jersey didn’t see eye-to-eye, and it certainly wasn’t the last.

The pirate captain Elston and Merrick allegedly sailed under, Henry Every (or Avery), was one of the most infamous of all buccaneers in the so-called “Golden Age of Piracy.” Elston’s affidavit matches, in broad terms, Every’s violent history in the Indian Ocean. This passage from Elston’s account

Every Flagat this time there was added to our Company 4 or 5 sayle more. . . came into the Bay of Bengali. . . A Little before Day a ship Came by us within about a Pistoll shott after which we made say]e and after Day fired at her, whome we tooke being a ship of about six hundred Tunns a slight ship haveing only their money on board the Quantity Reputed to be about (or more then) Twenty thousand pounds. Wee kept her in Company about 24 hours takeing out what we thought proper for our own use  and then lett her Goe … we fought about an hour and a halfe, she being about sixteen hundred Tunns forty or fifty Gunns mounted and others in hold. . . . We Entred her and kept her about twenty-four hours. That we Esteemed her worth about two hundred thousand pounds. . . .

sounds very much like a description of Henry Every’s attacks on the Grand Mughal’s flotilla in the summer of 1695. If so, Elston’s assertion that the pirates only took “what we thought proper for our own use  and then lett her Goe” is self-serving nonsense — Every’s pirates released the ships only after brutally torturing those they captured to get them to reveal their valuables. And there were plenty of valuables — reportedly over half a million gold and silver coins, in addition to crates and chests of jewels and other treasures. Each pirate’s full share was said to be worth £1,000 or more.

I’m dubious of Elston’s claim that he went a-pirating against his will; Defoe’s General History of the Pyrates, which is a near-contemporary account of the era and is the source for much of what we know about men like Every, makes it clear that those crew members who were not part of the original mutiny that began the voyage were offered the chance to go ashore:

The whole Crew being called up, to know who was willing to go on Shore with the Captain, and who to seek their Fortunes with the rest; there were not above five or six who were willing to quit this Enterprize; wherefore they were put into the Boat with the Captain that Minute, and made their Way to the Shore as well as they could.

It’s an interesting story, because this was a time when pirates were not only executed upon conviction, but often had their corpses tarred and gibbeted at a crossroads for all to see for months after — gruesome stuff. Six of Every’s men were convicted and sentenced to death at the Old Baily in London in October 1696.

Perhaps Elston and Merrick really did convince Bellemont of their innocence, or maybe there were other factors at play. Not long before Elston and Merrick were picked up, it had become known that the Governor Bellemont’s own pirate hunter, William Kidd (yes, that one), had himself turned to piracy. Bellemont managed to arrest Kidd in the summer of 1699, while Elston and Merrick were still apparently sitting in jail. Bellemont had Kidd shipped off to England, allegedly to prevent his own ties to piracy from getting a full airing in a local trial. In London Kidd was (inevitably) convicted and executed. You might think that during this period, Bellemont would be eager to show that he was tough on crime piracy, and hanging a pair of low-level pirates after a show trial would help demonstrate that. Instead, Bellemont cut them loose, over the objections of his fellow colonial governor across the Hudson. How Captain Kidd’s larger and better-known story may intersect with that of Elston and Merrick remains to be seen, but the cases were concurrent and all in the mix together.

It’s a curious story but, honestly, it does leave me conflicted. I’m not sure which is more embarrassing — having a real-life pirate in the family, or admitting that I’m kin to people from New Jersey.

_____________

Update, February 2, 2015: Digging further into some trees on Ancestry — a dicey proposition, for reasons I’ve probably mentioned before — it looks like John Elston was the eldest child of William and Elizabeth Cole Elston, and lived from c. 1683 to c. 1750. I’m descended through their fifth child (and fourth son), Samuel, born c. 1692. If true, that would make John “the Accidental Pirate” Elston my uncle.

_____________ GeneralStarsGray

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2 Responses

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  1. H. E. Parmer said, on February 2, 2015 at 2:05 pm

    Hey! I’m married to a New Jersey girl! (Which I suppose makes me broad-minded, for a Southerner, though it undoubtedly has several of my maternal ancestors spinning in their graves.)

  2. Jeremy Moore said, on August 11, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    Hello, After the recent death of my grandmother, Phyliss Moore (Daughter of Valentine Elston and Kate (Ince) Elston of Springfield, IL), I have come across this article and… THAT IS SO COOL!!! I saw the paragraphs you mentioned in the book, but the details you have added make it come alive.


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