Sam Bellamy was in love. The object of his affection, according to Cape Cod lore, was Maria Hallett of Eastham, Massachusetts. Her parents liked Sam well enough but didn't think a poor sailor would make much of a husband. So in 1715 Bellamy went looking for his fortune.

He and his friend Palgrave Williams started out as ordinary treasure hunters, looking for shipwrecks. They found none. Rather than return empty-handed, the legend says, the determined lover became a pirate—"Black Sam" Bellamy.

It was the perfect career for him. In just a year of raiding, Bellamy and his crew plundered more than 50 ships on the Caribbean and Atlantic. They were getting rich—quick. And they were rebelling against a world that had sentenced them to grinding poverty. Bellamy's crew called themselves "Robin Hood's Men" and lived by a remarkably democratic set of rules.

Then came the coup of a lifetime. In February 1717 Bellamy captured the Whydah, a three-masted English slave ship. With her came gold and silver worth more than 20,000 pounds sterling—money earned from the sale of human beings. For men who might have earned two pounds a month as honest sailors, it was a fortune beyond belief.

"Lads, we've gotten enough," Bellamy is said to have told his men. "It's time to go home." The pirate fleet headed to New England—and Maria. But triumph turned to tragedy on April 26, 1717. A fierce storm sank the ship, killing Bellamy and all but 2 of his 145 men.