1908: Dan Seavey – Michigan’s Only Pirate?

June 11, 2022 all-day

Dan Seavey photo

He didn’t have a peg leg. There’s no evidence he ever uttered “arggh.” And, unlike a certain buccaneer popular at the movies these days, he didn’t wear eyeliner.

But “Roaring” Dan Seavey was, by legal definition and lengthy lore, a pirate — the only one arrested as such on Lake Michigan.

One hundred five years ago today — June 11, 1908, — Seavey made his mark by commandeering a Great Lakes cargo ship and sailing it to Chicago. He didn’t do it with swords and swashbuckling. “Apparently, he drank the captain and the crew under the table,” said John Moga, curator of a new pirate exhibit at the Door County (Wis.) Maritime Museum.

“He certainly wasn’t in the great and grand tradition of Blackbeard — of the pirates of the Caribbean,” added Frederick Stonehouse, who has written dozens of books on the Great Lakes. “He was a low-life scum.”

Ran off-shore brothel and casino

In June of 1908, as is the case today, there was a fascination with pirates. When Seavey, 43, was arrested and brought to Chicago “in irons,” the Chicago Tribune exclaimed: “Pirate on Lake Caught in Chase.” A Chicago Daily News reporter noticed Seavey “did not have the appearance of a pirate” but “wore a drooping mustache, which appeared to be in sympathy with his feelings.”

Seavey, after stealing the 40-foot schooner Nellie Johnson in Grand Haven, Mich., found no fortune in his pirating: He was unable to sell the load of cedar posts in Chicago and was captured back near his home in Frankfort, Mich.

Like Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, Seavey liked to drink — a lot. He also got into his share of scrapes and managed to weasel out of most of them. Indeed, though he was arrested on federal piracy charges, he was ultimately charged with a lesser offense. And when the owner of the Nellie Johnson failed to appear in court, Seavey was set free to sail the fringes of the law for decades. He smuggled alcohol during Prohibition and ran a floating off-shore brothel and casino that served miners.

“Dan Seavey would steal anything that wasn’t nailed down,” said Stonehouse. “He had his little bucket, the Wanderer, and anything he could throw on its deck and get away with, he’d do it.”

Not only did he drink with two fists, he fought with them, too. At 6 feet 2 inches and 225 pounds, he was a large man by turn-of-the-century standards.

Roarin’ Dan is a mystery that grows with each retelling. Did he really kill a man by dropping a piano on him? Did he really hunt gold in Alaska with beer scion Frederick Pabst? Where did those skulls he kept in the hull of his ship really come from?

“Somebody remembers what somebody’s dad used to say. It becomes mythic,” acknowledged Moga.

Died ‘a lonely man’

Seavey “didn’t talk much about being a pirate, but everybody else did,” said Thomas Dale Vinette, 92, who remembers Seavey in the 1920s hanging around Escanaba, Mich.

Vinette, now a retired boat builder, said Seavey once caught him and his friends using their fishing poles to steal apples off the deck of Seavey’s ship. “He bawled us out,” Vinette said, but then “he gave us each a good apple, without holes in them.”

“He was an odd guy working a little on the edge, making a buck wherever he could,” said Vinette.

Seavey passed away on Valentine’s Day 1949 at age 84, in a Peshtigo, Wis., nursing home. He died, wrote one journalist, “a lonely man.”

For the full article, see Andrew Herrmann, “Lake Michigan’s very own pirate; ‘Low-life scum’ fascinated city nearly 100 years ago”, Chicago Sun-Times, June 11, 2007.

For another, see Dr. Richard J. Boyd, “Roaring Dan Seavey : The Pirate of Lake Michigan”, Michigan History, May/June 2012, 44-48.

Michael Bie, The life and crimes of Dan Seavey, ClassicWisconsin.com 2009

Mikel B. Classen, “The Great Lakes Pirate – Escanaba Buccaneer

Ciaran Conliffe, “Dan Seavey-American Pirate“,  HeadStuff,  Mar 28, 2016.

Steven Neuman, “Roaring Dan Seavey: Pirate of the Great Lakes“, the Growler,

Kasey Steinbrinck, “A Wisconsin Pirate? Discover the Legendary Exploits of Captain “Roaring Dan” Seavey“, WhooNEW, September 19, 2014

Kristi Kates, “Pirates of the Great Lakes“, Northern Express, September 16th, 2013

Trent Sandusky, Great Lakes Piracy: Pirates Thrived on the Great Lakes Long After Their Golden Age; Roaring Dan Seavey and Other Pirates on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, February 14, 2008.

Rosie Rainbow,

Roaring Dan Seavey: Lake Michigan’s Pirate

Scott Atkinson, “Pirate of the Great Lakes“, Hour Detroit, October 31, 2016. :This is the tale of Roaring Dan Seavey, the lakeman who absconded with a ship full of cedar and led authorities on a chase up the coast of Lake Michigan

Leave a Reply