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How Florida Became a Hub for Pirates

After the arrival of Ponce De Leon in 1513, Florida became a destination for seafaring explorers. Within a few years of his arrival, St Augustine became a vibrant seaport and Spanish vessels began to use Florida's accessible shoreline as a key stop during their long journeys. Pirates got word of these stopovers and began attacking vessels. And just a few years later, Florida's Gulf became a hub for some of the most feared pirates of the time.

In the mid-1500s Florida named a Spanish admiral, Don Pedro Menedez as governor. Menendez drove the pirates out of Florida, but not before they left their mark. By the early 1800s pirates returned to Florida's shores where legendary buccaneers like Sir Francis Drake, Captain Kidd, and Blackbeard made history on the Florida coastline.

Florida's Long History With Piracy

Florida's Gulf coast was a common place for pirates to hide. Its many bays, rivers, inlets, and marshes provided perfect hideouts. The warships hunting the pirates didn't know the terrain as well, so when they were being chased, the pirates would head to the coast where they could disappear in the rivers and marshes.

The golden era of piracy along the Florida coast and the Gulf of Mexico was from 1650 -1730. Ships filled with treasures sailed the Gulf and because there was no central authority and strife between powers in the new world, piracy thrived. Scholars estimate that between 1715 and 1726 nearly 5000 pirates sailed the Florida Straights and the Gulf Coast.

The Return of Piracy in Florida

There was a resurgence of piracy in the wake of the revolutionary war in the late 1700s and early 1800s. This was a result of tensions between the French, the English, and the young United States. During this resurgence, there was a pirate/privateer stronghold called Barataria near New Orleans. Captured property could be sold in Barataria then smuggled to New Orleans and sold in the shops.

Jean Lafitte a retired pirate/privateer ran the town along with his brother Pierre.

Florida also proved logistically beneficial. Pirates often needed to stash their loot and the rivers and marshlands of the Gulf turned out to also be perfect for hiding loot, as much of the area didn't become settled until the 1830s.

A skull and cross bones pirate flag flying from the rigging of a tall ship

Privateer or Pirate?

There's a fine line between a privateer and a pirate. For many, their perceptions are simply wrong. The main difference is that a privateer was basically a naval mercenary working for their country. Jean and Pierre Lafitte began their careers as French privateers. Sir Francis Drake and Captain Kid worked for the English.

Piracy eventually declined when hostilities between the European powers ended. The privateers lost their commissions allowing them to seize enemy ships. They faced the choice between retiring or becoming pirates.

Sir Francis Drake is one of the first pirates to attack in Florida. Drake was a celebrity as the first captain to sail around the world and live to tell the tale. The Spanish called Drake the Sea Dragon and regarded him as the most ruthless pirate that ever lived.

Another "privateer to pirate" saga happened when the Lafittes lost their commission. They founded a smuggler's stronghold of Barataria. During the years from 1817 until 1820, Lafitte expanded his smuggling empire and started a colony in Galveston that transformed the island into a hotbed of smuggling and privateering.

Once they were no longer fighting each other, the navies and bounty hunters were quickly able to curtail the piracy problem.

Today, Florida is Again a Hub for Pirates!

If you're a fan, or just want to learn more about Florida history and the pirates that called it home, today you have plenty of “can't miss” destinations!

The Saint Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum, originally located in the keys is home to the largest and most authentic collection of pirate artifacts in the world. The museum relocated to St Augustine mainly because of the cities history with pirates having been pillaged twice!

In Key West, The Mel Fisher Museum is an entertaining venue to learn more about pirates, treasures, and shipwrecks.

If you're up for more of an adventure, The Shipwreck Trail is worth checking out. Located within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is designed for divers of all levels with everything from accessible dives to 100-foot deep dives. 

For example, The San Pedro just south of Indian Key is believed to have been captured by marauding pirates, pillaged, and sunk off the coast. The San Pedro is the oldest ship on the Trail and today, divers can see the remains of its Spanish treasures.

Florida's history is vibrant going back over 500 years. Long before we were even country, Florida had a dynamic existence as a hub for trade, and a hotbed for pirates and privateers in the new world!

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