Early Island History
A destination for Native Americans, explorers, pirates, soldiers and sailors, fishermen and farmers for hundreds of years, Bald Head Island has evolved into a unique destination for vacationers, historians, and artists.
Smith Island’s cultural heritage began more than 400 years ago. Long before French and Spanish explorers discovered Cape Fear, Native Americans were fishing and hunting in the bountiful waters and forests of Bald Head Island. Midden sites (shell mounds created by harvesting oysters and other shellfish) have been found near the creeks.
In 1524, explorer Giavanni da Verrazano reached what is thought to be the Cape Fear River. In 1526, Lucas Vasques de Ayllon, a wealthy resident of Hispaniola, sailed with 3 large ships and 300 passengers up a river he called the Jordan. Modern historians agree this river was the Cape Fear. Sir Walter Raleigh’s colonists mention the island in their logbook of 1585: “We were in great danger of a Wreake on a Breache called Cape of Feare.” None of the attempts to colonize the Cape Fear area during the 1600s was successful. In 1713, the authorities in North Carolina granted the island complex to Landgrave Thomas Smith, a wealthy Charleston merchant, giving it the name Smith Island.
Though many pirates and plunderers used the island as temporary refuge, the most famous was Stede Bonnet, known as the “Gentleman Pirate.” Bonnet left his comfortable family life in Barbados and embarked on a life of crime and adventure on the high seas. He purchased a sloop named Revenge, outfitted it with guns and a crew, and set sail along the east coast. At one point, he was partner, guest, and prisoner all at once of Blackbeard, one of the most infamous rogues to fly the skull and crossbones. Bonnet was pardoned by North Carolina Governor Charles Eden, but failed to reform. He was captured in the mouth of the Cape Fear River and hanged in Charleston in 1718.