Arrggghhhhh! We be settin’ sail today for treacherous waters. Don’t be surprised if we run into a ship full of scallywags. Who might they be? Pirates, of course!

How will we recognize them? We’ll know pirates by the flag they fly from their ships. Even more important than eye patches, peg legs and parrots, flags have always helped define pirate ships as the scourge of the sea.

Pirate flags — commonly known as “Jolly Rogers” — were personal symbols unique to each pirate captain. Pirates often designed their own flags as a way of saying something about themselves.

In the earliest days of pirates, pirate ships usually flew red flags. At that time, red flags were often flown by ships engaged in naval warfare as a sign that no quarter (mercy) would be given. In other words, they would fight to the death.

The French called these red flags joli rouge (“pretty red”). Although other theories have been suggested over time, most people believe it is this French term that was later brought into English as “Jolly Roger.”

Eventually, pirates began to design and make their own personal flags. Their goal was to terrify other ships into making a quick surrender. Don’t forget: pirates were ruthless thieves who survived by looting (stealing from) other ships at sea.

If they could loot a ship without a fight, they would not risk death or injury and the ship’s contents would not be damaged. Intimidating flags helped send the message that the pirates were outlaws who would not respect the usual rules of warfare.

Instead of red flags, they began to use black flags. Black flags were also scary, because they usually meant the ship was under quarantine because of disease. To make them even scarier, pirates began to add the common symbol for death: the skull and crossbones.

Other pirates used common symbols of the time. For example, many pirate flags featured an hourglass, which also represented running out of time or death. Other similar symbols included skeletons, swords and bleeding hearts.

In case you were wondering, pirates still exist today. In certain parts of the world, outlaws still take to the seas to terrorize and steal from other ships. Unlike pirates of the past, though, these modern-day pirates usually don’t fly flags like pirates of old did. Instead, many modern pirates lure ships to them by pretending they are in need of help. Flying a flag would allow target ships to identify pirates and flee.


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    • We can’t wait to see some of the pirate ship flags our Wonder Friends create and share, Melissa! How COOL that Blackbeard has a NC connection! :-)

  1. Dear Wonderopolis,

    I loved today’s wonder! I think tomorrow’s wonder of the day is about cooking report cards.

    I won’t be leaving another comment on Wonderopolis until Saturday, April 14, 2012 because I have school.

    Goodbye, Wonderopolis until Saturday, April 14, 2012!


    • Thanks for checking out today’s Wonder, TJ! We’re glad you loved exploring it! We’ll talk to you on the 14th! :-)

    • We like that guess about tomorrow’s Wonder, Grace…way to go! Thanks for being a friend of Wonderopolis! :-)

    • Hello, Hunter! Thanks so much for letting us know you thought this Wonder was COOL! We appreciate hearing from you today! :-)

  2. Wow. I love pirates! I love flags and I love to design them! I would love to design one for Wonderopolis! I would add lots of call backs!

    • We like learning about pirates, too, “D!” We think it would be GREAT if you designed a pirate flag for Wonderopolis! You can post a picture of your finished flag to our Wonderopolis Facebook or Twitter pages. We can’t wait to see it! :-)

  3. This was so cool. I would love to design a pirate flag, but was Blackbeard’s real name Edward Teach or is it the name of his ship?

    • That’s a GREAT question, khloemagik! Blackbeard’s real name was Edward Teach. His most famous pirate ship was named the Queen Anne’s Revenge. We’re hopin’ ye have a WOND-arrrrr-FUL day (pirate talk)! :-)

  4. The video really interested me. I never knew that so many pirate flags existed.

    I think tomorrow’s wonder is about health. Can you do a wonder on hurricanes/tornadoes? They really interest me.

  5. Well, I’m really loving pirates and love the Mythbusters pirate special! If you can watch it! Pirates wear eye patches for night vision!

  6. I loved this video. It was awesome. Can you do a video on gymnastics or sports because I’m really into gymnastics and sports.

    • Hi, NB Gymnast! We think a Wonder about gymnastics sounds like a GREAT idea! We have LOTS of SPORTS-related Wonders you might want to explore, too! You can visit them all here: Just scroll down and use the arrow navigation button at the bottom of the page to visit as many as you want! :-)

    • Hi, Janea! Please tell your friend that everyone in Wonderopolis says, “Happy Birthday!” We think it’s GREAT that you were thoughtful and remembered to wish her a happy day! :-)

    • Thanks for sharing what you think about pirate flags, Saad! We sure appreciate you visiting Wonderopolis today! :-)

    • That’s a really AWESOME question, John! We’re not sure what the most popular pirate flag is, but we bet it has a skull and crossbones on it! We sure wouldn’t like to see that flag flying on a ship coming our way! :-)

    • Thanks so much for sharing what you think the most popular pirate flag is, John! There are a LOT of pirate flags that include the skull and crossbones (or some combination of both and some other elements), so you just might be right! :-)

  7. That was so cool!

    I like playing pirates with my neighbor.

    Have a great day Wonderopolis!!!

    • Thank you SO MUCH for letting us know what you thought about today’s Wonder and for sharing personal connections to it, Brevan, Gretchen and all of our WONDERful KF Dragons friends! You guys ROCK! :-)

  8. I liked the question you guys came up with. Sometimes my siblings like to pretend to be pirates. They are so obsessed with pirates. Hope your next wonder is as wonderful as this one!!!

    • Thanks for sharing your personal connection to this Wonder, Cute Girl! We think your comment was AWESOME! :-)

  9. My school has a website and it teaches us about websites like Wonderpolis if it hadn’t been for my school I wouldn’t of found out about this website. :D

    • We can say for certain that we are SUPER glad your school has that website, Eric! We’re SO GLAD you like visiting Wonderopolis! :-)

    • That’s a SUPER guess, Abrianna! We’ll have to wait and see what the next Wonder might be! Thanks for being a friend of Wonderopolis! :-)

    • Thanks for leaving us a “wow” on this Wonder, Wow Girl! We’re glad you enjoyed learning about pirate ship flags! :-)

    • Thanks for leaving us this cool comment, Devan! We appreciate you visiting this Wonder and sharing your thoughts! :-)

  10. Hey Wonderopolis! :)

    I have always found pirates interesting, so when I came across this wonder, I was excited! I have learned that Pirate flags are called ‘Jolly Rogers’, and that skulls on flags represent death! A question I still have is who was the first pirate? Two words I learned were treacherous and quarantine. I would love to decorate my own pirate flag!

    Thanks, Bye!

    • We think it would be AWESOME if you decorated your own pirate flag, Team Unger 10! We’re also happy that you were excited to visit this Wonder of the Day®! :-)

    • Thanks for leaving us another comment on another Wonder today, Jackson! If you click on the links inside this Wonder about pirate flags, you can learn more about some of the best-known pirate flags and also see what they looked like! Happy WONDERing! :-)

  11. How come you people always comment things like “that’s great!” or “thanks for visiting” or “we think that’s cool, too” and even the classic “we like that too”. What ever happened to talking back?

    • Hello, Devan! Thanks so much for your comment today! We say those things because we really mean them! We appreciate every comment we get here in Wonderopolis, and we appreciate the Wonder Friends (just like YOU!) who leave them for us! :-)

    • Hi, Devan! We know lots of Wonder Friends who like skulls as artwork, and other Wonder Friends who don’t. We think it is a personal preference! There are many cultures around the world that use skulls and skeletons as decorations for celebrations. Everyone likes different things! Thanks so much for visiting this Wonder and leaving us this GREAT comment today! :-)

    • We’re glad you’re in a GREAT mood today, Devan! Thanks for spending some of your happy day here in Wonderopolis! :-)

    • We think a future Wonder about sugar gliders would be a GREAT idea, Devan! Thanks so much for suggesting it, and THANKS for being a friend of Wonderopolis! :-)

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts about pirates with everyone in Wonderopolis today, Matt! We’re glad you stopped by this Wonder! :-)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Do all pirate ships have flags?
  • What is a Jolly Roger?
  • Can you design your own pirate flag?

Wonder Gallery

Try It Out

Ready to design your own “Jolly Roger?” For inspiration, first check out this online photo gallery of famous pirate flags. Which ones do you like best? If you had been a sailor out at sea who saw a ship approach flying one of these flags, would you have been scared?

When you’re finished, get to work creating your very own pirate flag. You may not have a ship to sail, but you can proudly display it on your bedroom door if you want! Feel free to use whatever art supplies you have on hand. A construction paper flag is fine, or you can ask your parents to help you make a flag out of old clothes you can’t wear anymore.

What will your design look like? Will it include the traditional skull and crossbones? Or will your flag break new ground and look totally different? It’s up to you! You can make your flag scary, or you can make a flag that says something about who you are…especially if you’re a nice pirate!

When you’ve created your masterpiece, please share it with your Wonder Friends. Post a picture of your pirate flag to Facebook or Twitter. We can’t wait to see what you come up with!


Still Wondering

Check out National Geographic Xpeditions’ A Pirate’s Life lesson to learn some basic facts about pirates, including what they wore, where they worked and how they lived.


Wonder Categories/Tags

Wonder What’s Next?

Tomorrow’s Wonder of the Day takes a look at your food’s report card!

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