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Sure, there were pirates in the Caribbean, but the Great Lakes had them too

Oct 14, 2014

Michigan Radio's M I Curious project is a news experiment where we investigate questions submitted by the public about our state and its people.

As part of our M I Curious project, Shelly Scott asked Michigan Radio this question:

Have there ever been pirates on the Great Lakes?

“I thought: we’ve got such nice water bodies around here, why don’t we hear anything about fantastic things that happened on the Great Lakes?” she says.

Scott is an engineer at Ford and she’s also a leader of her daughter’s Girl Scout troop.  These 5th grade girls had some questions about freshwater pirates too:

“What do pirate ships look like? Was there any pirate treasure in the Great Lakes? How did they get away with stealing other people’s treasure?” asked Maria Kokko, Lilli Semel and Shannon Scott.

Freshwater piracy

"Although the pirates of the Great Lakes generally didn't have parrots on their shoulder, and rarely walked with a piece of wood for their leg, there were pirates on the Great Lakes." — Chris Gillcrist, executive director, National Museum of the Great Lakes

I took all of the Girl Scouts’ questions with me to Toledo to talk with Chris Gillcrist. He’s the executive director of the new National Museum of the Great Lakes.

“Although the pirates of the Great Lakes generally didn’t have parrots on their shoulder, and rarely walked with a piece of wood for their leg, there were pirates on the Great Lakes,” he says.

The most famous Great Lakes pirate operated around the turn of the 20th century. Gillcrist says Dan Seavey is the only man known to be formally charged with piracy on the Great Lakes.

“His most famous race is when he takes the Nellie Johnson and steals the Nellie Johnson, a little schooner, and is chased across Lake Michigan by the U.S. Revenue Cutter Services, and is eventually caught, put in irons — that’s something that’s very pirate-y — and brought to justice,” Gillcrist says.

Gillcrist says Seavey was known for putting up fake port lights so that ships coming in would crash on the rocks. Then, his people would board the ship and steal its cargo. Up until the mid-1800s, there was a Wild West mentality on the Great Lakes. Pirates stole beaver pelts, timber and sometimes entire ships.

He says pirate ships looked like every other boat sailing on the lakes: a schooner or a sloop. Back then, boats moved faster than the written word, so it was easy to get away with piracy.

“There’s no phone; there's no telegraph until the 1860s, 1870s and in that void, it was easy to steal a cargo and take it 20 miles down the road and sell it before word could get out,” says Gillcrist.

This was the mug shot of Dan Seavey which appeared in the Chicago Daily News in June 1908. A handwritten note on the photo, when held up to a mirror, clearly translates: "Dan Seavey--Lake Pirate."
Credit Door County Maritime Museum

Should we break out our treasure maps?

“Yes, there were boats that sank with gold on it,” says Gillcrist. 

Banks on the East Coast shipped gold to banks in Chicago and Detroit and other cities around the Great Lakes. But he says the people who insured that gold went to any length to get it back.

“The odds are all of that was recovered and there’s no need to run down and take a scuba lesson to go think you’re going to go make a lot of money finding gold on Great Lakes shipwrecks,” he says.

We had one more question from the Girl Scout troop:

Carolyn Cheyne asked, “I was wondering why pirates talk like they do like in movies… like why do they say 'arrrgh' so much?” 

Chris Gillcrist says Great Lakes pirates sounded just like everyone around them. 

“You’re going to find pirates with a Scandanavian accent up in the Wisconsin area," he says. "You're going to have more of a German-Irish dialect down in Ohio.”

Pirates in mittens

Gillcrist says pirates in our region were tough. But they were practical too. They wore knitted wool caps and mittens and sweaters. “It wasn’t usually a cardigan, it would’ve been a pullover, perhaps a turtleneck because it was cold in October-November,” he says.

And they were more domestic than you might’ve guessed. When the lakes iced over, the sweater-wearing pirates would head home until May.