Hornigold's early life is unrecorded, although he is sometimes claimed to have been born in the English county of Norfolk, where the surname Hornigold or Hornagold appears. If so, he might have first served at sea aboard ships whose home port was either King's Lynn or Great Yarmouth. His first documented acts of piracy took place in the winter of 1713–1714, when he employed periaguas (sailing canoes) and the sloop Happy Return alongside Daniel Stillwell, John Cockram, and John West to menace merchant vessels off the coast of New Providence and its capital Nassau, where he had established a 'Privateers' or 'Pirates' republic. By 1717, Hornigold had at his command a thirty-gun sloop he named the Ranger, which was probably the most heavily armed ship in the region, and this allowed him to seize other vessels with impunity.
On 5 September 1717 King George I Issued the Proclamation of 1717 "For Suppressing Pirates in the West Indies." This document granted a pardon to all pirates who surrendered themselves to any colonial governor or governor under the domain of the British Empire safe passage and were guaranteed a "clean slate" of their record. However, word of this did not get out to the West Indies and so in December 1718 another proclamation, or more famously known as the King's Pardon of 1718 was issued for the same purpose. In both of these documents, not only were pirates granted a clean slate on their record, but they were also offered a large sum of money for the capturing of other pirates who were guilty of piracy, murder, and treason against His Majesty. More specifically, for every captain who was captured, the person responsible would receive 100 pounds, equivalent to £14,000 in 2016, and for every lieutenant and "boatswain" a reward of 40 pounds (£5,700) was offered. Each level of member on a pirate ship had a reward placed on their heads from this point on.
Rogers granted Hornigold's request for a pardon, but he commissioned him to hunt down other pirates, including his former lieutenant, Teach (Blackbeard). Hornigold was to spend the next eighteen months cruising the Bahamas, hunting his former associates. He stalked but could not apprehend Charles Vane, capturing Vane's associate Nicholas Woodall instead, followed by John Auger, both of whom had accepted the same pardon as Hornigold but later slid back into piracy. In December 1718 Governor Rogers wrote to the Board of Trade in London commending Hornigold's efforts to remedy his reputation as a pirate by hunting his former allies.
In late 1719, Hornigold's ship was caught in a hurricane somewhere between New Providence and Mexico, and was wrecked on an uncharted reef. The incident is referred to in the contemporary account A General History of the Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson, which states, "in one of which voyages ... Captain Hornigold, another of the famous pirates, was cast away upon rocks, a great way from land, and perished, but five of his men got into a canoe and were saved." The specific location of the reef remains unknown.