Michigan Pirates of the Great Lakes

Did you know there were a multitude of pirates who sailed the Great Lakes? Read more below for some of the most recognized pirates that have sailed in Michigan waters. Check them out – if you dare!

A road running through a forest to the shore of Lake Huron
View from New Presque Isle Lighthouse | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

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The Great Lakes pirates were some of the most fearsome and burly of any waters on the map.

These swashbucklers ruled the high fresh-water seas and made their living sailing and searching for treasure not known to Jack Sparrow – lumber, illegal alcohol and wild-game meat.  Known as Timber Pirates by some, these buccaneers would ship up to the Upper Peninsula to cut down wide areas of timber to sell to industrializing cities east of the state. Alcohol runners would even steal alcohol to sell in Detroit or Chicago, or trade for guns and loot. But they also had a culture of their own—dressing for the weather in knitted wool caps, mittens and sweaters and generally not speaking pirate but instead in the dialect of those surrounding them—with a Scandinavian accent up in the Wisconsin area, a more German-Irish flair in Ohio.

1. John Rackham 

John Rackham, or Calico Jack as he was often known for the colorful clothing he favored, is remembered as a small-time pirate from the 1700’s. He would steal anything from cash boxes to entire ships. Calico Jack would wait until a fisherman or woodcutter was away from their ship and sail off with it in the night. This pesky pirate was notorious for his stealthy crimes. Within the Great Lakes, he became famous for stealing things like fishing tackle, sometimes entire boats.

In October 1720, Rackham cruised near Jamaica, capturing numerous small fishing vessels, and terrorizing fishermen along the northern coastline. He came across a small vessel filled with 11 English pirates. Soon after, Rackham's ship was attacked by an armed sloop and was captured. Rackham and his crew were brought to Jamaica, where he and nearly all of his crew members were sentenced to be hanged.

2. James Jesse Strang 

In 1855, a religious gang on Beaver Island burned sawmills and stole $1,600 worth of goods from a local store, under the leadership of "King" James Jesse Strang. An article in the New York Times read, “The people along Lake Michigan, from here north to the Manistee, have been thrown into the most intense excitement by the operations of a gang of marauders, who are reported to be Mormons from Beaver Island and who have carried on their operations with a boldness, coolness and desperation rarely equaled in the the records of highwaymen.”

Strang, a self-proclaimed religious leader and king, quickly made foes among his own people, too. One of these, Thomas Bedford, had been flogged for adultery on Strang's orders, and felt considerable resentment toward the "king." Another, Dr. H.D. McCulloch, had been excommunicated for drunkenness and other alleged misdeeds, after previously enjoying Strang's favor and several high offices in local government.

In June of 1856, Strang was waylaid around 7:00 PM on the dock at the harbor of St. James, chief city of Beaver Island, by Wentworth and Bedford, who shot him in the back. Not one person on board the ship made any effort to warn or to aid the intended victim.

3. Dan Seavey

The most notorious Great Lakes pirate, though, may be none other than Roaring Dan Seavey, who started as a regular sailor in the U.S. Navy. After leaving the military he found himself a poor man with only his ship, Wanderer, to his name and took up a life of plundering only to later become the only man known to be formally charged with piracy on the Great Lakes.

Seavey was a thief who had eyes for large shipments of venison and alcohol, to then later sell at a higher price. Anyone who tried to stop him faced the cannon he held on board. He also was known for putting up fake lights that simulated a port so that incoming ships would crash on the rocks and he could steal their cargo. Seavey’s most famous escapade was his takeover of a schooner docked named the Nellie Johnson. The clever seaman invited the Johnson’s crew to drink with him, staying mostly sober himself. He then threw the drunken sailors off their ship and sailed it to Chicago, where he sold the Nellie Johnson’s cargo.

Seavey retired sometime in the late 1920s, and settled in the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin. He died in a Peshtigo nursing home on 14 February 1949 at the age of 84.

Editor's Note: Want to know more about these Michigan marauders? Strap on your peg leg and set sail to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum & Whitefish Point Light Station or the Alpena Shipwreck Tours