A stunning act of piracy in 1839 shocked residents of the charming coastal community of St. Marks, Florida.

A stunning act of piracy in 1839 shocked residents of the charming coastal community of St. Marks, Florida.

Piracy on the Gulf of Mexico had been almost wiped out by 1839. Almost… but not entirely!

A dramatic pirate attack in Apalachee Bay off St. Marks caused an international sensation that year. It was a brutal reminder that the lure of freedom and riches still drew men to leave everything behind and pursue a career of piracy.

The incident took place on the General Parkhill, a new ship that sailed from New York in January 1839. Carrying a company of U.S. troops on their way to join the Army of the South then fighting the Seminoles in Florida, the ship arrived off St. Marks on the night of January 31st. Her captain, named Wilson, went ashore to arrange for the landing of the soldiers and his payment for transporting them. The ship was left in the command of her first mate, John Barney:

About four o’clock in the afternoon, the second mate attacked him with a water cask bin and knocked him down. He was severely stunned, and knew not how long he continued insensible. When he came to himself, he found the mate on top of him with a drawn knife. The mate held one arm, but he had the other at liberty, and with it he had defended himself from the blows aimed by the knife as well as he could: he struggled severely, but received stabs in several places, amongst which were one in his arm and one in his side. He called loudly for help, but not a soul in the ship gave him any assistance. A few minutes after he came to himself, he saw six of the men standing along side of him. They were six of the crew, whom the mate had instigated to assist him, and who were in a conspiracy to kill him (Captain Barney) and seize the vessel. He heard the mate call them by name when he (the Captain) was calling for assistance. – (Liverpool Chronicle as quoted in the Boston Weekly Messenger, August 7, 1839).

The St. Marks Lighthouse dates from the 19th century and is a beloved landmark and was a witness to the 1839 pirate incident off St. Marks.

The St. Marks Lighthouse dates from the 19th century and is a beloved landmark and was a witness to the 1839 pirate incident off St. Marks.

The brutal attack was far from over. Barney managed to break free and despite his wounds grabbed a musket that was leaning nearby. The musket was of the flintlock type still commonly used in that day. Flintlocks had to be primed with powder in order to fire:

…It was not primed, and he was retreating to his cabin and about to prime the musket, when they rushed at him, seized him, and confined him in the fore-cabin. When the crew were shipped, all arms were removed from the vessel, but they had, by some means or other, all got armed. He (the Captain) was standing in the fore-cabin, when the mate came in with his (Captain Barney’s)  sword cane: with this he ran the witness through the fleshy part of his side beneath his right shoulder, pinning him up against the cabin wall. In this position, unable either to sit down or draw out the weapon, he remained, nailed as it were to the wood-work, till next day at nine o’clock. Not content, however, with thus transfixing him, one of them, previous to their departure, fired a musket at him, which just glanced past his ear. They all departed from the ship, stealing a boat, with two hundred dollars, the ship’s compass, a silver mounted powder-horn, all the captain’s effects, and many other articles belonging to the owner. (Liverpool Chronicle as quoted in the Boston Weekly Messenger, August 7, 1839).

The first mate survived his numerous wounds but was unable to free himself from the spot where he was left pinned to the wall with a sword cane. He was still in that position when Captain Wilson returned to the General Parkhill from his trip into St. Marks:

Looking south across the marshes to Apalachee Bay and the scene of the 1839 pirate attack.

Looking south across the marshes to Apalachee Bay and the scene of the 1839 pirate attack.

…On returning on board the next morning, what was capt. W.’s surprise to find no one in sight on deck, and making search, he found that Mr. Barney and several of the crew, were secured below, in the fore-castle, and the second officer, named Lionel Watson, with six of the ship’s crew were missing. Captain Wilson soon learned, that shortly after his leaving a mutiny had broken out among the crew, and that the mutineers had proceeded not only to the commission of acts of violence upon the first officer, and those of the crew who remained faithful, but after driving them below as before described, they broke open the cabin, which they rifled of a watch, some fire arms, clothes, provisions, and every article of value it contained, amounting in total to some $900. Their piracy completed, they then took the stern boat, with which they made their escape. – (Niles National Register, August 31, 1839, p. 7.).

Captain Wilson returned to shore to seek help from the U.S. Army officers at St. Marks. They joined him with two patrol cutters to go in search of the pirates. They reached Apalachicola without spotting them only to learn there that a second act of piracy had taken place in St. Joseph Bay and that the two bands of pirates had joined forces!

Click here to read the next story in this series: The Pirates of Cape San Blas, Florida.

 

         



 

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