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Beyond Belief- Pirates among us

There will be pirates among us this summer for the first ever Pirates Fest the last weekend in June. Luckily, I am not talking about real ne’er-do-wells and antiheros from the golden age of piracy like Captain Morgan, Captain Kidd or Blackbeard; just your happy go lucky Johnny Depp Jack Sparrow types. The Jack Sparrow character, along with Disney’s movie series Pirates of the Caribbean, made it possible for many of us to like pirates, and as a country we have become completely enamored with them since Disney Land opened it’s exhibit in 1967. They represent the scoundrel, albeit tame ones, that we only uncork on special occasions. Usually pirates have been limited to Halloween and have had to compete for our attention along with the gangsters, nurses, and ghosts we see on this once a year alter ego holiday manifestation.

If you have been keeping up with recent news you may have noticed that real life pirates have been working off the coast of Somalia which is on the east side of Africa. Their story and motivation is born out of the dire straits that the country of Somalia is in now, going through civil war and general lawlessness. Desperate times called for desperate measures. These later day pirates have taken to the seas with AK-47s and high speed launches to commandeer large cargo vessels at gunpoint. They take the passing vessels goods and food to a port they control and sell the confiscated bounty for personal profit. They are a good reason why real pirates need to be regarded with some trepidation and a reminder why pirates of the past need to remain “characters” for fun and entertainment and not be idolized.

If you have ever read the Master and Commander Series or know a little about the pirates of the south seas, you know that those “golden years” (1680-1850) were also lawless times on the high seas. According to Paul Gilbert at,  “piracy was the outlaw practice of preying on merchant ships and raiding coastal towns for profit. Pirates were often, but not always, mariner subalterns who had illegally obtained their ship and the captains were selected by the crew, and could be replaced at any time with a majority vote.”  This was truly democracy at its finest.

Here on the Great Lakes we had a few pirates of our own.  According to the book Great Lakes Crime: Murder, Mayhem, Booze and Broads by author Frederick Stonehouse, during the 1850’s there were gangs that plied the riverbanks of the Detroit River. If unsuspecting captains came to close to shore they were sure to lose their cargo. But the two most notorious, and I use that term loosely, great lakes pirates were James Jesse Strang and the Mormon Pirates of Beaver Island and Roarin’ Dan Seavey. James Jesse Strang was an early leader of the Mormon movement. After charismatic leader of the Mormons, Joseph Smith died, Strang dueled with Brigham Young to lead the faithful and he lost. Disillusioned, he and his followers set up an encampment on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. Their exploits on the lake were focused on casting down the lost and unfaithful souls, more of a religious quest for survival than unbridled piracy.

Dan Seavy on the other hand was the more traditional type pirate, sailing into ports and looting warehouses and ships and then taking the plundered cargo to Chicago to sell. It is a fuzzy line between Pirates and Privateers. Seavy appeared to be a little of both.  Paul Gilbert explains “Privateering consisted of the same pirate actions, but they were sanctioned by a government to be conducted against an enemy during war.  Many mariners engaged in both activities, during times of war, they were legitimate naval axillaries and if captured were treated as prisoners of war. Privateers were often, but not always, commercial ventures, financed by merchants and investors, with captains that worked for the ship owner.” We can’t be sure which category Strang fell into, but Captain Seavy certainly could easily have been called a Privateer.

I had a great-great-great Grandfather who was a “Privateer”. At the time that the Pirates were terrorizing the Caribbean, my relative John Graves was plying the waters between the orient, Europe and North America for hire on his own ship. The British and French were at war and the British were seizing US ships and pressing them into service for the King. Captain Graves eluded the British only to be conscripted into the US Navy to defend the east coast against the British fleet. He didn’t complain. Many of the American privateers at that time became Captains in the Navy. And that leads us to the Battle of Lake Erie.  Navy ships and privateers preyed on the merchant fleets as an on going act of war. Our fleet of support vessels here on Lake Erie came from many different ports. The captains had various reasons for supporting the US Fleet.

So no matter what flag you fly this year at Pirate’s Fest, remember we can all be patriots and pirates. Enjoy the celebration of piracy without condoning it. Perhaps even learn the lingo to blend in. There’s a website (, that will translate pirate speak for you. So before the month of June goes by learn a little pirate speak, be just a bit more wily, and perhaps for a few hours during Pirate Fest the scallywags in all of us will rule the town. I am of course speaking about pirate speak when I say: “Aye har they come mate aye, har the come.”


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