A Pirate Who Roved the High Inland Seas

Yesterday was International Talk Like a Pirate Day (that’s September 19th in case you want to mark your calendar for next year), a day to practice your “arrrrrrrrrs” and “ahoys” and maybe adopt a pirate name.

While we tend to think of pirates as tropical characters (at least in popular lore), pirates (lumber thieves, privateers, rum – runners) roamed the Great Lakes as well. Only one, however, was actually branded a pirate and formally charged for his actions. Dan Seavey – or “Roaring Dan” as he was known – was guilty of everything from poaching to running a floating brothel aboard his Lake Michigan schooner, the Wanderer. 

Roaring Dan Seavey Source: Wikimedia

Roaring Dan Seavey
Source: Wikimedia

Born in Maine in 1865 and the son of a schooner captain father, Seavey took to the seas as a teenager, first working aboard local vessels and then for a stint in the U.S. Navy. He came to Wisconsin in the 1880s where he met and married 14-year-old Mary Plumley, the first of his three wives. The couple moved to Milwaukee in the 1890s where Seavey had a small farm and operated a tavern with a partner on the waterfront.

Seavey soon met Milwaukee beer king Frederick Pabst who encouraged Seavey to invest in a mining company in Alaska. Seavey took his advice and pulled the first of what would become several disappearing acts. He sold his business and deserted his family to seek his fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush. The company went bust within a few years and Seavey came back to Wisconsin but not to his family. He soon disappeared again, resurfacing in Escanaba, Michigan, in 1900.

There, Seavey married Zilda Bisner. Four years later, Bisner filed for divorce, claiming domestic abuse, and Seavey fled once again onto the lake.

Seavey ran many different businesses in Michigan, both legitimate and not. He tried trapping, logging, lumber milling, and marine transporting. On the side, he also practiced the pirate-y arts of bootlegging, poaching, smuggling, and pimping. All of these activities made Seavey a recognizable character throughout the Lake Michigan port cities. Not to mention the fact that he was nearly 6 and a half feet tall and weighed 250 pounds.

And like any good pirate, Seavey was notorious for his barroom brawls and prize fights. One fight occurred on a frozen harbor in Frankfort, Michigan, in 1904. Seavey fought pugilist Mitch Love bare fisted for two hours before cleaning the ice with Love and collecting his winnings.

Seavey also made a significant fortune off his floating brothel. It was a brilliant move considering that the jurisdiction of local authorities ended at the water’s edge. Crafty schooner captains like Seavey would load their boats with alcohol and ladies and travel from port to port. Weekends and paydays were, unsurprisingly, especially profitable in port towns.

On June 11, 1908, Seavey and two accomplices stole a schooner in Grand Haven, Michigan, and headed south to Chicago intending to sell the ship’s cargo on the black market. The theft initiated a chase with federal authorities. The federal ship Tuscarora steamed after Seavey carrying U.S Deputy Marshal Tom Currier and a warrant for Seavey’s arrest. The Tuscarora eventually spotted Seavey’s ship near Frankfort and gave chase, firing a cannon that ended Seavey’s run. Seavey was arrested and arraigned for mutiny and sedition on the high seas.

Seavey’s luck had not run out, though. Despite the government’s best efforts to prosecute him, the grand jury did not indict him and Seavey was set free. How he got off when he clearly stole the ship is a matter of speculation but the act and the case forever branded Seavey a pirate.





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