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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Getting Blackbeard's Name Right?

Noah Webster, Jr. (1758 – 1843)

Teach, Theach, Thach, Thache, Thatch, Tach, Teech, etc, etc...
By Any Other Name...

OK... seemed appropriate, but... I’m not sure that anyone, even a poetically-inclined William Shakespeare, can claim Blackbeard smells like a rose. Still, the quandary over this man’s name is a long-standing issue with Blackbeard’s historiography. While many, both laymen and scholars, have worried over the spelling of Capt. Charles Johnson’s most “notorious” character, Edward “Blackbeard” “Teach,” it will surprise many to discover that folks in the 18th century did not really care how their name was spelled in official documents—as long as the point was understood. This is very different from modern times. I’ve had people ask me my name, say at a doctor's office, and when I say “Brooks,” they respond “Is that with an ‘e’?” I’m tempted, as an historian of the colonial era, to jokingly answer “Does it matter?”

Spelling did not become a matter of consistency until the mid-19th century. Blame Noah Webster (the guy in the photo). Until then, spelling was almost always one phonetic variation after another. As a professional genealogist, I often heard client after client telling me that their family’s name was spelled such and such and that the family using a slightly different variation in the census from the next county over wasn’t related to them. But, how did the census taker know how to spell your name if you probably couldn’t read or write yourself or ever cared anyway? Yeah... under-educated census officials riding in the heat of summer in the wilderness spelled it whatever way looked right to them so they could get on to the next house a few miles away. And, your family probably started spelling their own name whatever way sounded right to the first educated person who got off the farm and opened a book for the first time. So... you're probably related to those guys next door - even if they leave off the "e".

From my genealogical study of the Thache family, oddly enough, there was indeed some consistency in this matter— unlike most American ancestors, the Thaches were not poor as dirt and did not grow up in a wilderness. Blackbeard’s probable grandfather, Rev. Thomas Thache, attended Oxford after all! From the good reverend’s family, in the county of Gloucestershire, England (of whom I believe Capt. Edward Thache to have belonged), the spelling of the name was almost always “Thache.”
Note also that Jamaican rectors of the Anglican church routinely spelled it "Theach" but most likely pronounced it "Teach." This was common in much of England and especially in Hiberno-English, where appear plenty of jokes about how Irish people pronounce “third” and “turd” the same. ["th" pronounced like a "t" as in "Thailand" or "Thames"]

With the Thaches of Jamaica, they seemed to use “Thache” also—in the documents that I believe they wrote themselves. Other legal documents, however, where a clerk wrote it for them, that clerk invariably attempted to spell their name phonetically —once three different spellings appeared in a single document: the 1706 deed from Edward Thache Jr. to his stepmother! The result? Many different spellings appear in documents, especially those written by captains, governors, clerks with depositions on various islands, and admiralty representatives across the Atlantic—people who had no idea how to spell such an unusual name anyway. These mean absolutely nothing and the debate over them is pointless. The family themselves used “Thache” more often and so, I have adopted this spelling.

Historians like to call the practice of impressing modern ideals onto the past “Presentism.” Presentism is almost always a fallacy. Times have changed and these types of ideas and practices also changed. If Blackbeard were alive today and some clerk asked him for his name, to which he answered “Thache,” that clerk is just as likely to ask him the same surprising question that they ask me: “Is that with an ‘e’?”

Ironically, the name "Thache" or "Tache" may actually come from a French word for "hook!" I know... how appropriate, right?

Meaning of Thache or Tache:
French: either from Old French tache ‘hook’, ‘buckle’, ‘loop’; ‘distinctive mark’, possibly applied as a nickname for someone with a deformity or distinctive mark. (Taché is an adjectival form of this name.) Alternatively, it may be a habitational name from any of various places named Tâche or La Tâche, for example in Charente-Maritime and Vienne. 

Romanian: unexplained. 

Source: Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press

Alternatively, "Thatch" means:
English: occupational name for a thatcher, someone who covered roofs in straw, from an agent derivative of Middle English thach(en) ‘to thatch’ (Old English þæccan ‘to cover or roof’). 

Source: Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press

Speaking of "Thache" without an "e":

Thachs of Perquimans County - 1729

A tax record from Perquiman's County in 1729 lists four "Thach" men: Thomas, Spencer, Leven, and Joseph. I have done an Ancestry search for Spencer and Leven Thach/Thache/Teach/Thatch, etc. No hits. I mean... absolutely no hits (with exception of Spencer Thach in Gloucester County, Virgina just north of the Albemarle). If you've ever used, you will understand why this is so unusual. 

Anyway, Spencers and Levens were early families of Jamaica. The idea that Blackbeard's half-brother, Cox Thache may have been named for Thomas Cox, assemblyman from St. Catherine's Parish gave me the idea that other Thache men may have been named similarly. Spencers also appear numerously in St. Catherine's Parish and Levens in adjacent St. Ann's where some of Lucretia's in-laws may also come from. 

This idea, plus the name "Thomas," a known half-brother of Blackbeard's, makes me highly suspicious of these men being related to Blackbeard. Thomas may have gone there only temporarily because we know that he dies in Middlesex, England in 1748. But, what if he accompanied some of his kin to Perquiman's before then? I have yet to find records for him much earlier than the 1740s in Middlesex. Where was he before then? Not Jamaica, as we learn from Cox's will of 1737. He was a mariner like his Dad and half-brother Edward - in other words, a transient sort.

If Spencer or Leven Thach were born in Kingston or Port Royal where Edward and his half-brother Cox lived as adults, they may not have had their births recorded - because records from those two churches did not begin until 1722 (Port Royal's St. Pauls sank into the harbor in 1692 from the earthquake when Kingston was founded)! 

Inventory of the estate of John Thach of Chowan County, 1780 - notice the names of sons Green Thach and Thomas Thach.

The family of John Thach and Mary Standin (married 1748) still inhabit the northern part of Perquiman's and Chowan, many in the Perquiman's County seat of Hertford. There were other Spencers, Levens, Greens (also another common Jamaican surname), and Thomases who were ancestors to these folks.

There's also been a lot of claims of heritage to Blackbeard from descendents of these families in Perquimans, Chowan, and Hertford. Even Ellen Goode Rawlings Winslow, editor/author of the History of Perquimans County mentions the possibility in the 1930s. Few have ever really given credence to these claims, and there's still no solid proof - yet - but these Thachs could indeed be related to the infamous pirate - no kidding!

And, please don't ask me why they left the "e" out of their family name!! 


Upcoming article on Blackbeard's genealogy:
“ ‘Born in Jamaica of Very Creditable Parents’ or ‘A Bristol Man Born’? Excavating the Real Edward Thache, ‘Blackbeard the Pirate’ “ in the July issue of North Carolina Historical Review...

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Update 12/9/2015: Above article republished by NC Historical Publications as Blackbeard Reconsidered and available here.

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