Monday, February 14, 2011

People: Carolina's Son

How little most Americans know about our second war for independence, the War of 1812, never ceases to amaze me. Despite that, it was with very little surprise that I found I knew nothing of today’s privateer until very recently. Though he was vastly successful at sea, taking upwards of 4 million American dollars in British prizes between 1812 and 1814, this daring sailor is only a regional hero in this day and age. If you don’t come from Swansboro, Burnsville or Beaufort in North Carolina, you probably don’t know him at all.

Otway Burns was born in the soon-to-be State of North Carolina in 1775. Little is known of his childhood in the port town of Swansboro but it is a certainty that he went to sea young, probably aboard merchant vessels. Like so many other pirates and privateers before him, Burns had a knack for sailing and he spent most of his youth at sea. He did stay by land long enough to marry his cousin, Joanna Grant, in July of 1809. The marriage was contentious from the start – Joanna required a prenuptial agreement – and produced only one child, a son named Owen. Disagreements would eventually lead to the couple splitting up, with Joanna taking Owen to live with her family and Otway gaining custody of his son only after Joanna’s death and a protracted legal case.

The lack of conjugal bliss aside, Burns was lucky at sea. Already wealthy enough to own his own ship by 1812, Burns and his partner Edward Pasteur decided to apply for an American letter of marque when war broke out with Britain. The two men went looking for a fast topsail schooner and found her in New York City. The Zephyr was a 147 ton, two masted vessel laid down in 1808 and perfectly suited to privateering. The men purchased her for $8,000, renamed her Snap Dragon (she would be known to her crew as “The Snap”) and Pasteur sailed her to New Bern, North Carolina to fit her out for their first cruise.

Once she was ready, carrying eight guns and a crew of around 100 men, Snap Dragon left port in October to begin hunting British merchantmen. Pasteur is listed as captain on this cruise, but according to more than one account Burns would take command in an engagement or other dangerous situation. One biographer describes him as “…impetuous, recklessly brave, always right in his instinct for action over the more timid counsel of other officers, and uncannily able to see through the ruses used by the British in an effort to decoy the ship into a trap.” Just everything a privateer needs in a captain.

Examples of Burns’ reckless bravery abound. His crew was largely literate and many of them left memoirs of their time aboard The Snap. There are recollections of Burns staying up all night in dirty weather to see his ship through “…for she wanted watching by such a man as he was…”. Repeated chases by British frigates and men-of-war were evaded with Burns at the helm, largely due to both excellent handling of Snap Dragon and her innate ability for speed. In one particularly impressive instance, a daring escape from the Spanish port of Santa Marta, Columbia, created the need to leave men ashore behind. Burns solved the problem of their incarceration – and potential hanging as pirates despite Spain’s neutrality – by capturing a Spanish military transport and returning to port with her as prize then threatening to hang every man aboard if his men were not safely returned. The Spanish flinched, the Snap Dragons were returned to their ship and Burns sailed away without a scratch.

Burns did not brook any resistance from his crew, either. When his marine sergeant and a few other men refused to return to Snap Dragon after liberty on New Providence in the Bahamas, sending word that they had “… not got their frolic out”, Burns flew into a rage. He took up a sword and went ashore, marching to the ale house where the men were partying by himself. The sergeant rose to defy him and Burns killed him on the spot before turning on the others and cutting each of them up sufficiently that no further argument was forthcoming. Those still alive returned to their ship immediately.

Snap Dragon sailed through three U.S. commissions, with Burns officially her captain for the last two. She covered the Atlantic coast from Venezuela to Newfoundland and brought in prize after prize, including British warships. On the final cruise, The Snap met a British man-of-war off the Orinoco River in Venezuela. Hours of fighting tore Snap Dragon up, dismasting her at the fore and breaking her bowsprit. She managed to evade her unnamed foe but it was only through a fortuitous meeting with another U.S. privateer, the Saratoga, that she limped back to Beaufort.

Burns days at sea were done after that. He was suffering from rheumatism and, though he continued as owner of The Snap, he did not take her out again. She was captured by HMS Martin off Halifax in June of 1814. Burns, now a widower, turned his attention to business and family. He built a house on Front Street in Beaufort, out of which he ran a taproom. He married again, twenty year old Jane Hall, and was set in his new home and marriage by January of 1815.

Otway Burns later life was one of industry and politics. He became a devoted follower of Andrew Jackson and joined his Democratic party, serving in the North Carolina legislature for eleven terms. In 1835 he suffered defeat over reform of the state constitution (Burns championed allowing education for slaves as well as the right to assemble for free blacks and slaves) and, in an example of bad luck and bad timing, lost his fortune to speculation. He was appointed to the post of keeper of the Brant Island Shoal Lightboat but this position brought contention as well, with Burns griping about the size and capabilities of his vessel. He was brought up on charges of withholding wages from the lightboat’s crew, but was cleared in 1843.

Jane Hall Burns died childless in 1839 and though Burns would marry and outlive a third wife, Jane Smith, Owen would be his only child. Otway Burns died in October of 1850, leaving nothing of his previous fortune behind, and was buried next to his second wife in Beaufort. Statues of the great privateer now stand in Swansboro and Burnsville, the town named after him. And there his memory lives on, which would probably be more than enough for a sailor like Burns.

Header: Otway Burns and Snap Dragon via Burns Financial


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Burns did pretty well for himself overall and he seems to have been on the "right" side in most things.

I guess that marine sergeant, on the other hand, never did get his frolic out...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I agree. The sergeant mostly just got his blood spilled from the look of it. Ouch.