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Bones discovered in shipwreck off Cape Cod may belong to the ‘Prince of Pirates'

By Michael Kuhne, AccuWeather staff writer
February 23, 2018, 4:51:50 PM EST

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Archaeologists with the Whydah Pirate Museum in Yarmouth, Massachusetts, announced the discovery of 300-year-old human remains Monday that may belong to one of the most prominent men from the Golden Age of Piracy, "Black Sam" Bellamy.

On a frigid, April night in 1717, the famous Prince of Pirates, Sam Bellamy, and 144 of his crew members, aboard the Whydah Gally, were caught in the fatal grip of a powerful nor'easter while sailing near Cape Cod.

Bellamy, along with 142 members of the crew, perished beneath the icy waves around midnight as the storm's fierce winds and chaotic swells shredded the vessel apart after striking a sandbar approximately 1500 feet from the shoreline near Wellfleet.

"It was cold and foggy, and finding the shore was impossible," Whydah Pirate Museum lab archaeologist Marie Kesten Zahn said.

Whydah Pirate Museum

Archaeologists unearthing silver coins from a concretion at the Whydah Pirate Museum. (Facebook photo/ Whydah Pirate Museum Facebook/@discoverpirates)


The shipwreck sat for nearly three centuries under the waves until Barry Clifford discovered its remnants in 1984. Today, the Whydah Pirate Museum hosts archaeological excavations from the only authenticated pirate shipwreck ever discovered.

Kesten Zahn, along with the museum's field archaeologist Christopher Macort, said that the bone, which is believed to be a femur, was extracted from a 3,500 pound concretion of sediment from the Whydah's wreckage.

The bone has been sent to the University of New Haven for DNA testing where it will be compared with one of Bellamy's relatives currently residing in Devon, England. Despite the age of the remains, the team said they are optimistic that DNA can be recovered because of the way the bone was preserved underwater.

Due to the presence of iron and other elements in the vessel's wreckage, thick concretions of sediment formed over time around the remnants of the Whydah Gally and its lost crew.

"These artifacts are encased in these concretions," Macort said. "They are literal time capsules."

According to Macort, many of the concretions weigh just a few pounds but may be upwards of 12,000 pounds, the heaviest ever recovered from the Whydah to date.

"Iron was just used all over the ship; it was very common," Macort said.

As the iron oxidized in the presence of briny sea water, it created an electrolytic reaction, collecting with sand and other elements such as stone and clay to form the protective shell around the artifacts, according to Kesten Zahn.

DNA degrades in the presence of oxygen, but the protective encasing from the concretion and the cold New England waters have helped preserve the remains, Macort said.

Kesten Zahn spent nearly 300 hours extracting the bone from the large piece of sediment.

"It took quite some time," she said, adding that the many different materials that make up the concretion prevent any chemicals from being used, so she had to manually chisel away until the bone could be safely extracted.

"It was a very careful extraction and once we found the remains, that is where we focused [our attention]," she said.

In addition to the bone, many other artifacts were also recovered and will be analyzed by the team, Macort added.

Because of its proximity to other recovered artifacts, some of which are linked directly to Bellamy, the bone in the concretion may belong to the famed pirate.

Of the 145 crew aboard, 102 washed ashore and were buried, leaving 40 unaccounted for, including Bellamy.

"Bellamy was well-known to the people who lived in that area, he had lived in that part of the Cape before leaving and becoming a pirate," Kesten Zahn said. "If he had been one of the 102 bodies that were buried, it would have been recorded that Bellamy was among the dead."

According to Zahn, the probability of the bone belonging to Bellamy is 1 in 40.

"We passed [the DNA testing] to the University of New Haven," Kesten Zahn said. "They will do the whole extraction."

Before being commandeered by Bellamy and his crew in the Caribbean two months before the wreck, the Whydah Gally served as a slave trader's ship under the command of Captain Lawrence Prince.

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Bellamy and his crew managed to capture the ship and its cargo of ivory, gold and silver from its previous dealings after a three-day chase.

With only two ships in his possession before the capture, the Whydah became Bellamy's flagship vessel and the third ship in his armada.

Despite his methods, Bellamy was not considered to be an infamous or merciless pirate as portrayed in fiction, according to Kesten Zahn, who added that he was viewed by many in his day as a local hero.

After leaving his home in London and taking up residence in Cape Cod, Bellamy likened himself to "Robin Hood" and was well known for his generosity, which helped earn him the title, "Prince of Pirates."

According to Kesten Zahn, it will likely take at least one month to get the test results from the bone. If the remains are conclusively found to be Bellamy's, the famed pirate will finally be laid to rest in the soil of his homeland.

For more information about the Whydah shipwreck and museum, visit www.discoverpirates.com.

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