Pirates of the—What???!!!

4 Supposed Pirate graves in the Thyatira Presbyterian Church Cemetery near Salisbury, Rowan County, North Carolina. Owner/Source: Katherine Benbow, The Benbow Family Website

Four presumed pirate graves in the Thyatira Presbyterian Church Cemetery near Salisbury, Rowan County, North Carolina. Owner/Source: Katherine Benbow, The Benbow Family Website(1)

These four stones, three of which bear skulls and crossbones, and the fourth bearing only crossbones, are a source of great interest to the children in the church.

“According to legend, the pirates were executed, and court allowed their burial only if their stones carried the pirate symbol, and bore no names.”

Due to the distance from the coast, some have speculated that these men may have been highwaymen instead. Some have said that the men were former pirates who moved to the area, and that they were found out, and hung for their past crimes. Also, some say that the elders of the church were the ones forbidding the names on the stones. It would be interesting to find the court records for this case, if this is the truth. Yet others have said that the images actually indicate deaths from an epidemic disease. Without the dates for the deaths, it is difficult to verify the information(2).

When I first began searching for my Spence ancestors, I had no idea where they originated. My grandfather, William Franklin Spence (1884-1973), once sent me off on a wild journey into Kentucky. He thought his grandfather, William David Spence (1827-1907), was born in Kentucky. He was actually born in Tennessee, but it would take me a while to find that. So back in those early days, I searched the old county history books in for the Spence surname. When I finally discovered the Spences were in North Carolina prior to Tennessee, I followed the same procedure there.  All the North Carolina  county histories were piled on my table while I searched through the Index of each volume. It was on such an occasion when I encountered an interesting story in an old Rowan County History concerning the fate of three condemned pirates who were executed and then buried in the Thyatira Presbyterian Churchyard Cemetery near the town of Salisbury.


Of course, I had to read about it! Since I made no copy of the story, I am forced to recall it from memory.

As I remember, three dangerous pirates had been operating off the North Carolina coast, robbing, killing–doing all the dangerous things that pirates desire to do. Finally, these three pirates grew tired of their way of life and decided to settle down. They were afraid of being recognized if they settled on the coast, so they went inland to Rowan County. They became farmers and even married, raising families. And they lived their new lifestyle for some period of time. Then as fate would have it, someone recognized them. They were arrested, tried and convicted of piracy, and the three were sentenced to death by hanging.  Another problem arose after the three were executed: What should be done with the bodies? Murderers and thieves were not to be buried in church cemeteries with the righteous people. Apparently, the families of these pirates did a lot of begging and pleading. They wanted them buried in the Thyatira Presbyterian Church Cemetery. After much begging and pleading, it was finally ruled that yes, they could be buried in the cemetery. Their stones would not bear their names or dates. And so the pirates were buried in the cemetery with only skull and crossbone symbols on their gravestones(3).

I returned home with a story to tell Howard later that day, and he asked his usual question:

“How are they related to you?”

“They’re not related to me!” I told him. “I just thought it was a neat story!”

I remembered that neat story for a while and then forgot it when all the school projects and educational projects descended on me. And I didn’t recall it until a few short months ago while working on my fifth great-grandfather, William Spence and while noting the fact that he was in Rowan County in the early 1760s.

What was that story I read about Rowan? I wondered. That pirate story! Where did that happen in Rowan? Some Presbyterian Church?

William Spence was a Methodist, so I dismissed that idea. And I forgot about the pirate story again until just the other day.

I should write about that in my Cemetery Capers! I decided. I wonder whether those gravestones are still there.

Good chance, they weren’t. Well, after all–the old county history was written over a century ago–or so I thought–and the incident probably happened a century before that.

What was the name of that town?

I don’t know how I happened to recall Salisbury, but searching under that name brought me no satisfaction whatsoever! I had already realized I wasn’t going to have the Daniel Spence article ready this week since I had so many interruptions with more on the horizon next week.  In addition, I discovered more information than I thought I would find about Daniel–so that article will be in two parts when I finish it.  A portion of the first part is written, but it won’t be ready for release until late next week. And the more I thought about those three pirate graves, the more I was determined to find out more about them.


I have no idea where that came from. I remember getting up yesterday morning and heading across the bedroom when that name sprang into my mind.

Thyatira Presbyterian Church!


Now, I believe it is fair to say that the church does not talk about the pirates on their website. Yes, they are still very much in operation! Yes, they are the oldest church and were the first church in the area dating back to the 1750s. And if they were the only church in the area in the early 1760s–yes, there is a chance William Spence was there!

Now, for the pirates!

My question led me to the Benbow Family site and to the following notation:

Notes: Thyatira is located in western Rowan County at 220 White Road. The mailing address is Salisbury NC, but the church is situated out in the county ten miles west of Salisbury, between Salisbury and Mooresville, just off Highway 150.

From the church’s website:
“Thyatira is believed to be the oldest Presbyterian Church west of the Yadkin River. In fact, it is one of the oldest Presbyterian churches in North Carolina, and is known as the ‘Mother of Presbyterianism’ in North Carolina….”

“A land entry dated 1750 in Anson County records reveals that a ‘meeting House and burial ground’ were in existence here by that date. This means the meeting house was probably in existence as early as 1747. For many years it was known as Cathey’s Meeting House. The name was changed to Thyatira Church during the pastorate of Dr. Samuel McCorkle, in the late eighteenth century….”

“Thyatira’s historical cemetery dates back to the mid-1700s. The oldest known stone is that of a settler who died in 1755….”


See also:

My search for “pirates buried in a church cemetery” led me to a newspaper clipping from the Salisbury Post posted on the Treasurenet.com discussion board. I will set it out in full here:

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” just might be biggest movie blockbuster of the summer. But who needs Johnny Depp when we have pirates right here in Rowan County? Maybe.

For years, the legend has been told and retold about the pirates that are buried at Thyatira Presbyterian Church in Mount Ulla. It’s just a story, insists Susan Waller, a retired educator. But it’s one she’s told groups of schoolchildren who visited the cemetery over the years.

The story she tells is this: These four pirates decided they couldn’t live their lives the way they were, so they made their way inland, to Millbridge and Thyatira Church. They married and lived respectable lives. But one day, they were found out. They were tried and hanged. The families begged the church to let them be buried inside the cemetery walls. In those days, thieves weren’t allowed to be buried on sacred ground. The church relented, but chiseled only skulls and crossbones in the four small markers.

“There’s not a name and there’s not a date, so that’s the mystery,” Waller says. The pirates got a one-line sentence in James Brawley’s history of Rowan County. When discussing the Thyatira cemetery, Brawley wrote: “There are two markers said to represent the burying places of pirates.”

Over the years, there have been stories written about two or three markers. There are actually four there today.

The late Heath Thomas wrote a slightly different version of the pirate story in a 1961 Post article. Thomas wrote: “Her Majesty’s Navy captured a crew of pirates on North Carolina’s wild, lonely coast. They were brought ashore, tried before His Majesty’s judge and sentenced to the scaffold. “Three made their escape and headed to the frontier West — of which then Rowan was the last outpost. “They settled here, married and begot progeny. “One died before the settlers knew about his past and he was given a Christian burial here at old Thyatira where the Scots organized the church about 1753. “Later the other two of the pirate trio died, both within the year. But the whispers had come up from the coast. “They had pillaged and murdered along the Outer Banks and the Spanish Main. They were fugitives from the scaffold. “The dour Scots didn’t want the pirates to contaminate their sacred burial ground. “But a dead man must be buried somewhere. The congregation agreed to the burials, but on the condition that the markers carry an awful warning to the un-Godly.”

Poppycock, says Gary Freeze.

(OK, maybe he didn’t actually say the word “poppycock,” but don’t you think it sounds kinda pirate-ish?)

“Where’s the ocean? Where are the waterways?” asks Freeze, a history professor at Catawba College who specializes in North Carolina history. It’s illogical that pirates would be buried in those graves, Freeze asserts. “Piracy ended in the Atlantic in the 1720s,” he says. “There’s no record of anyone accused of being a pirate.”

For his part in the conundrum, Freeze asked a psychic who she thought was in the graves. She told him she thought that children were buried there. The skull and crossbones symbol has been used as a sign of disease.

But why no names, no dates?

That is a mystery, Freeze admits.

Pirates may or may not at Thyatira, but those who definitely rest inside the stone walls include Elizabeth Maxwell Steele, who gave gold and silver to Nathaniel Greene during the Revolutionary War; John and Jean Knox, great-grandparents of President John Knox Polk; Francis and Mathew Locke, early patriots; and Samuel McCorkle, Thyatira’s first pastor and a founder of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And befitting the area of the county, there are scads of Halls and Knoxes and Grahams and Steeles and Sloans. But maybe no pirates.

“If you wanna meet pirates, go see Johnny Depp,” Freeze says.

Interestingly enough, Freeze notes that the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie was fairly accurate in its interpretation of costumes and pirate life in general.


Go and visit Thyatira on a summer evening, when the air is cool and the sun is slowly sinking below the tall trees. Look and listen and take in the peaceful scene. Study those mysterious grave markers. You might conclude that this just may be the resting place of two, three, four pirates. Maybe.

Contact Susan Shinn at 704-797-4289 or sshinn@salisburypost.com(5)


Okay, so the “old county history” was originally published in 1976 instead of a century ago, as I originally thought. I may have hauled some additional Rowan County histories from the shelf to read more about the pirates. I can’t remember.

Someone responded to a question about the skull and crossbones on tombstones on Yahoo Answers, their response being listed as the best answer:

 It can relate to piracy but only if the crossed bones pass behind the skull IE the jolly roger.
If the crossed bones are underneath the skull, there are several possible theories: 

Relating to the Knights Templar, as they used the insignia to deter enemies. On crucifixes, sometimes the crossed bones are under the cross to denote Golgotha or the place of skulls where the crucifixion took place. Connected to some European churches, where the S&C displayed at entrances.

In 1700’s the southern Scots used the S&C on their headstones denoting death.
My thoughts are that the grave possible contains the remains of a Freemason, and the Fremasons used this symbol to denote a Master Mason. The grave looks significant for its time, even though you cannot read the inscription and date, I guess it could have been someone important and Freemasonary was common in officials and wealthy folk(6).

I must admit I find it strange that apparently these four are the only skull and crossbones gravestones in the Thyatira Cemetery. They probably belonged to some very young children who had not been named as  yet. I believe the fourth grave belonged to a child who died at later time.

However, I must also admit that the pirate story has a definite appeal.

Now, about William Spence and his presence in Rowan County in the early 1760s–



(1) Katherine Benbow, Owner, Source. The Benbow Family of the United Kingdom and Selected Allied Families Website. 30 October 2009. Date Accessed: 22 Aug 2015. Available online at: http://www.benbowfamily.com/showmedia.php?mediaID=343

(2) Katherine Benbow, Owner, Source. The Benbow Family of the United Kingdom and Selected Allied Families Website. 30 October 2009. Date Accessed: 22 Aug 2015. Available online at: http://www.benbowfamily.com/showmedia.php?mediaID=343

(3) James F. Brawley, Rowan County: A Brief History. Rowan County Free Press. Archive.com/Rowan County Public Library. Posted September 13, 2014. Originally Published: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History, 1974 – Rowan County (N.C.)178 pages

(4) Katherine Benbow, Owner, Source. The Benbow Family of the United Kingdom and Selected Allied Families Website. 30 October 2009. Date Accessed: 22 Aug 2015. Available online at: http://www.benbowfamily.com/showmedia.php?mediaID=343

(5) Susan Shinn,  Publication: Salisbury Post.  Date July 03, 2006 Section(s). Lifestyle Section(s) Lifestyle Page 0. Posted to the Treasurenet Website Discussion Board. Date Accessed: 22 Aug 2015. Available online at http://www.treasurenet.com/forums/general-discussion/274122-pirate-headstone-cemetary-photos-added-2.html

 (6) Scarlet. Yahoo Answers. (2008). “What Does a Skull and Cross Bones Mean When on a Grave?” Date Accessed: 22 Aug 2015. Available online at https://uk.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080716115929AAdXMMR

One thought on “Pirates of the—What???!!!

  1. I assume you’ve long since found out that the William Spence you were looking for is buried in Jasper, MO. If you need more details, let me know.

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