Old bones, perhaps a pirate’s, find eternal rest in coastal N.C.

As he lay dying in January 1735, Edward Salter asked to be given a decent interment.

He has been given three.

Salter’s bones – or what are generally believed to be Salter’s bones – were laid last month in what his descendants hope will be their final resting place, in the cemetery at St. Thomas Church in Bath. The private ceremony ended a long and sometimes undignified journey that began when North Carolina was an English colony and pirates roamed its coast.

The burial of North Carolina’s oldest known Caucasian skeleton in the cemetery of the state’s oldest still-standing church was a short, almost secretive affair that followed a protracted public argument over whose bones these had been in life and to whom they belonged after death.

“Well, we got him buried, and that’s what we were trying to do,” Brian Blount of Springfield, Mo., a distant great-grandson of Edward Salter and a legally recognized next of kin, said after the Oct. 9 funeral. “So I guess I’m satisfied.”

Salter’s posthumous travels began in 1985, when contractors hired to do an archaeological survey of a piece of corporate-owned Beaufort County land unearthed a well-built brick-and-mortar crypt. They found remains inside.

State archaeologists took the bones, presuming them to be those of Edward Salter – who, records show, had owned the land at the time of his death 250 years before.

That Edward Salter, according to records, was a former cooper, a seaman, planter, colonial assemblyman, founder of the local Anglican church, husband and the father of five children.

The bones, remarkably intact, were sent to Wake Forest University for study, and eventually returned to Raleigh, where they were stored in boxes alongside some pieces of the crypt.

Raleigh author and historian Kevin Duffus learned the state had the bones several years ago while doing research for his 2011 book, “The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate.”

In his extensive research on the notorious pirate, Duffus learned that when Blackbeard captured a ship near Puerto Rico in 1717, he took a cooper named Edward Salter from its crew to serve on his own.

“A cooper – a barrel maker – would have been a valuable person to have on a ship,” Duffus reasoned recently.

Salter may have been taken against his will or, depending on the living conditions on his own ship, he might have seen a chance to improve his lot.

Holes in Salter’s history

Either way, Duffus said, his research indicated that Salter was not aboard Blackbeard’s sloop, Adventure, in November 1718 when Blackbeard was killed in a skirmish with the Royal Navy.

Though Salter was later arrested and sent to trial in Williamsburg, Va., along with others who had served with Blackbeard, Duffus doubts the traditional story that they all were hanged. He has found a royal pardon that would have required them to be set free as long as they were not involved in the treasonous fighting against the king’s men.

Thus forgiven, Duffus’ research suggests, Salter and some of the others returned to North Carolina and settled in the areas they knew or liked best.

Duffus believes Salter settled in the waterfront community of Bath and built a new home and a life there. Salter even helped start St. Thomas Church. He signed a letter to ask permission from the Church of England to establish a parish, and he contributed money for a building. He died before the church was completed, so there was no church cemetery in which he could be buried.

When the state collected those bones from his former plantation two and a half centuries later, researchers treated them as if they were Edward Salter’s. In 2010, a judge agreed they were, and ordered the state to turn them over to the next of kin. Salter’s descendants let Duffus take them to a renowned forensic pathologist at the Smithsonian Institution to see what could be learned from them.

Using DNA, carbon-dating and isotope tests, Dr. Douglas Owsley could tell family members that the remains were of a 35- to 40-year-old white male who lived in the early 1700s in the mid-Atlantic region, and that the right side of his body was especially robust, consistent with his having worked as a cooper.

“But he couldn’t say without a shadow of doubt,” descendant Blount said, “that it was Edward Salter.”

When he had finished studying the bones, Owsley sent them back and the family set about trying to bury them.

St. Thomas’ doubts

Suzy Bennett, another descendant, lives in Indianapolis but visits Emerald Isle with her family every summer. She said the family’s first choice would have been to put Salter’s remains back in the spot where they were found, on the land along Bath Creek.

The landowner, PotashCorp, a Canadian phosphate mining company, said no. The company said it would allow the remains to be buried in an existing cemetery on land nearby, never owned by Edward Salter, and the site would be accessible only by appointment.

“So our next choice,” Bennett said, “was the church.”

But not just anybody can be buried in the shady half-acre cemetery at St. Thomas. It is so popular among visitors that church staff often feel like tour guides, and the organist can hardly make it through a weekday practice in the brick sanctuary without being interrupted.

The cemetery is members-only, and right now the church has about 130 members, 100 of whom attend regularly, said the Rev. Eric Zubler, the church rector.

In the manner of the Anglican church on which it’s based, the congregation has an elected board, the vestry, to make its important decisions. For a long while, Zubler said, the board could not agree on whether to allow the remains to be buried at the church, or what to write on a gravestone if it did.

Was Edward Salter, the Bath landowner, the same man as Edward Salter, the pirate’s cooper? And were these indeed the bones of either Salter? The epitaph would distill the answers to these questions.

“That’s a historical record,” Zubler said. “You want what you put on there to be the truth. We don’t want to mislead anybody.”

The St. Thomas vestry also didn’t want to sensationalize what the church regards as sacred ground by claiming to have a pirate planted among the saints. As it is, this whole region trades on the Blackbeard mythology. Excursion boats offer pirate tours in the summer; pirate re-enactors hold an encampment each fall; and the State Historic Site in town sells bottled bits of “pirate gold” and a range of skull-and-crossbones accessories.

While the church board considered the issue of the bones, Duffus and the descendants arranged for a temporary interment in 2011 in a mausoleum near the town of Washington, N.C. Zubler officiated. Duffus gave a eulogy fitting for the community pillar he believed the erstwhile pillager had become.

Finally, this fall, the vestry came to a decision. In 2006, the church had allowed the burial of 17 sets of aged remains that had been discovered as land was being cleared for a subdivision on nearby Creek Road, setting a precedent of welcoming the unknown Colonial-era dead.

A couple of months ago, Zubler said, the nine-member board voted prayerfully, and unanimously, to let Salter – or whoever he was – in.

Only the descendants were allowed to attend the burial, along with Zubler and a couple of church leaders. Duffus, who would have liked to arrange a fife-and-drum corps, was not invited. He watched from a car parked across the street.

The simple granite marker, in wording chosen by the vestry, reads, “Buried here are Colonial-era remains found on land across Bath Creek owned by Edward Salter, an early warden of St. Thomas Church.”