Editor's Note: This article was updated on July 24, 2017 to reflect the current legal status of the shipwreck.
The struggle for Blackbeard's legacy is continuing 300 years after history's most infamous pirate was killed in the coastal waters of North Carolina.
The state of North Carolina is defending itself against two lawsuits brought by private interests in the excavation of the wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the flagship of Blackbeard’s small fleet of pirate ships. The Queen Anne’s Revenge went aground in 1718 just offshore from Beaufort. A few months after the grounding, Blackbeard was killed in a battle with British naval forces in the Pamlico Sound.
The wreck was found in 1996 by Intersal Inc., private salvagers based in Palm Bay, Florida. The state and Intersal made an agreement in 1998 that gave Intersal rights to make copyrighted photos and videos of the wreck. Meanwhile, divers from the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources began excavating the wreck.
Disputes about intellectual property rights emerged, however. Those disagreements were resolved in 2013 with a new arrangement involving the state and Intersal and Nautilus Productions of Fayetteville, North Carolina, which had made videos and photos of the site and artifacts that had been recovered.
But in 2015, the North Carolina State Legislature passed a law declaring that all images related to the Queen Anne’s Revenge excavation were automatically the property of the state and thus are public records not subject to copyright protection.
Intersal and Nautilus Productions have filed suit, and the legal actions are working their ways through courts in North Carolina. Meanwhile, no excavation work has been done at the Queen Anne’s Revenge wreck site since 2015.
Attorneys for the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources did not respond to a request for comment on the legal issues.
No "Aha" Moment
After years of official uncertainty, North Carolina state authorities confirmed in 2011 that the shipwreck just offshore from the small beach town of Beaufort was indeed the Queen Anne’s Revenge.
The ship grounded on a sandbar near Beaufort in 1718, nine years after the town had been established. Blackbeard and his crew abandoned the ship and survived.
For 15 years, the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources emphasized that the wreck, discovered in 1995, was "thought to be" the Queen Anne's Revenge.
After a comprehensive review of the evidence, those same officials declared in 2011 that they were certain the wreck was the ship sailed by one of history's fiercest and most colorful pirates.
"There was not one aha moment," Claire Aubel, public relations coordinator for the North Carolina Maritime Museums, said in 2011. "There was a collection of moments and a deduction based on the evidence."
There were two main reasons for the team's certainty, Aubel said: the sheer size of the wreck and the many weapons that were found in the rubble. (Related: "Pictures: Blackbeard's Ship Yields Ornamental Sword.")
No other ship as big as the Queen Anne's Revenge was known to have been in the area at the time, and a pirate ship would have been well armed, she said.
Shipwreck Loot Points to Blackbeard
Blackbeard achieved his infamous immortality in only a few years, operating in the Caribbean Sea and off the coast of colonial America before being killed in a battle with British ships in North Carolina's Pamlico Sound in 1718. (Also see "Grim Life Cursed Real Pirates of Caribbean.")
Some historians have speculated that he deliberately ran the Queen Anne's Revenge aground so that he could keep the most valuable plunder for himself.
Such loot has helped archaeologists link the wreck to Blackbeard since excavations started in 1997. Among the major recovered artifacts are:
—Apothecary weights stamped with tiny fleurs-de-lis, royal symbols of 18th-century France. Queen Anne's Revenge was actually a former French ship, Le Concorde, captured by Blackbeard in 1717. He forced Le Concorde's surgeon to join the pirate crew, and a surgeon at that time likely would have had apothecary weights.
—A small amount of gold found among lead shot. Archaeologists think a French crewman might have hidden the gold in a barrel of shot to conceal it from Blackbeard's pirates.
—A bell engraved with the date 1705.
(Related: exclusive pictures of Blackbeard pirate relics and gold.)
ID of Blackbeard's Ship Never Really in Doubt
The disclaimer about the wreck's identity was more an acknowledgement of the strict code of scientific scrutiny than the result of any serious doubts about the ship's identity, said Erik Goldstein, curator of arts and numismatics—the study of coins and tokens—for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia. Archaeologists working on the wreck were always sure of its identity.
State officials "were just being safe," Goldstein said. "At the beginning phase of an excavation, unless you find something like a ship's bell with the name engraved on it, it takes a little while to put the pieces together and gather documentary evidence. It was good, responsible behavior on the part of those folks."
There were two reasons for dropping the official doubt about the identity of the shipwreck, added David Moore, curator of nautical archaeology at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort.
First, the museum recently opened "Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge," a greatly expanded exhibit of artifacts from the shipwreck. Had the confirmation of the ship's identity not been made, curators would have had to title the exhibition something like "Artifacts From the Purported Queen Anne's Revenge," Moore said.
Also, removing the official caveat could help the museum secure private funding to continue excavating the wreck, Moore said. Although the state legislature provides some funding, he said, tight budgets are cutting into that money. (Learn how archaeologists discovered 23 shipwrecks in 22 days.)