Lake Michigan Buccaneer
By Mikel B. Classen
It took many unusual individuals to create the unique, rich history of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, so it should not be surprising, that among them was a pirate. Back in its infancy, the Upper Peninsula was considered a territory of limitless opportunity with its rich mineral and timber resources. Another of its resources was the vast Great Lakes that also provided opportunities, not only for shipping and fishing, but also for marauding. In the late 1800’s, law enforcement on the water was rare, practically non-existent. The lakes were a source for all kinds of smuggling, poaching, even piracy. Dan Seavey, a schooner captain who docked in Escanaba, was a pirate that would sail out into the lakes and plunder wherever and whatever he could.
Born in Portland, Maine in 1865, Dan Seavey grew up around sailing and had the love of the sea in his heart. He spent all of his free time around the ships and the men who sailed them. Enchanted with the idea of the sea, he ran away from home at the age of thirteen to sail on tramp steamers. As soon as he was old enough he joined the Navy. He wasn’t one to take orders well and when his hitch was up, he honorably departed.
Next he tried working at catching smugglers and trespassers for the Bureau of Indian Affairs on Indian reservations in Wisconsin and Oklahoma. Still dissatisfied, he moved to Milwaukee where he set himself up in the commercial fishing business and opened a fish market. His love for the sea was reawakened and a love for the Great Lakes was born.
He got married, bought a farm and fathered a daughter. However, a few years down the road, he caught gold fever and left everything to move to Alaska during the gold rush. He returned from the gold fields empty-handed and broke.
Upon his return in the early 1890’s, he settled in Escanaba, Michigan where he opened a small freight boat service. Seavey acquired a schooner named the Wanderer where he lived part of the time. He also had a room in a boarding house in downtown Escanaba and, in later years, bought a permanent home.
With a small crew he would sail out of the harbor, the first to leave in the spring and the last to arrive in the winter. He would sail in as the harbor would be closing with ice, rigging and spars covered with icicles, the deck caked with snow, battered from braving the early winter storms. Most of the local sailors considered him slightly crazy, a notion later confirmed in their eyes.
Using his freight service as a cover, Seavey would sail into a port after dark with no lights on, then he and his crew would load everything on board that could be found and set sail before daybreak. He looted anything he could get: cattle, hay, leather goods, fruit – even women. All that was accessible on the docks that could be loaded before dawn would be gone. Upon the boat’s return to Escanaba, he would sell it as legitimate cargo and reap the profits.
Seavey loved kids and would spend time talking with them whenever he could. The boys of Escanaba would faithfully wait at the docks for his return. he would tell them stories for hours on end and taught a couple of the boys to sail. One Escanaba boy had been sitting and talking to Seavey for most of the day about sailing and a sailor’s life, enthralled with the romance of it. Upon leaving the ship, the boy’s father grabbed him and spanked him right there on the docks. As he turned to escort his son home, a hand gripped his shoulder and spun him around. The father found himself staring into Dan Seavey’s huge chest. Seavey took the father (a prominent businessman) down and resoundly spanked him, telling him to “leave my shipmates alone.”
Dan unloaded some of his plundered and illegal goods in Chicago. It was an entry into the black market where no questions would be asked. Shipment was always accepted regardless of the type of cargo and payment was immediately made in cash. Seavey refused to become the agent of any one faction of the underworld, selling to whoever came up with the cash first. This flaunting of independence made him many enemies on both sides of the law.
Seavey had many hideouts throughout Lake Michigan and had a homestead on St. Marin’s Isle. From there he would run contraband venison to Chicago in the fall when meat was scarce. The Booth Fish Company, a Chicago-based market with ties to the underworld, wanted Seavey’s venison empire. They sent a gang out on one of their boats to take over his territory. After a vicious fight, he was chased away by overwhelming odds. Victorious, the gang started back to Chicago with their news of success. It was just about dusk when Seavey caught up with them in the Wanderer. Again a tough fight ensued, but this time the pirate had equalized the odds. He had taken a canon that he had pilfered and mounted it on the bow of the boat. The fight ended when Seavey blew the other boat out of the water. None of the gang ever returned to Chicago and Seavey made it well known that the same fate was in store for anyone else who tried to cross him.
Dan Seavey loved to fight. He had a standing challenge that he would always go a few rounds with anyone who thought they could take him. He once sailed to Manistee just to fight a man that had a reputation for having never been beaten. Another incident occurred in Frankfort where Dan fought a man named Mike Love, in a large circle drawn on the ice in the bay. The fight was much publicized and there was a large turnout from the residents. Betting on the outcome seemed to be the spectator’s main concern while the two men battled in the snow and cold. It was reported that blows were exchanged for nearly two hours before Dan Seavey finally emerged victorious and announced that drinks would be on him at the nearest saloon.
Seavey salvaged wrecks and lured some ships to their doom by putting out false buoys, running them aground. After a wreck, Seavey would wait out of sight on the Wanderer until the crew abandoned ship. Then he would transfer their cargo to his ship, sail off, and sell it. This buoy trick had other uses, too.
Seavey once got the crew of the Nellie Johnson drunk in Charlevoix, overpowered her captain, tied him up in chains and tossed him over the side. He then took the schooner to Chicago and sold the ship and the cargo. When he returned to Frankfort, a wealthy man hired him to sail a yacht to Mackinac. Seavey didn’t know it at the time, but the man had set him up. As Seavey sailed past Port Betsie, a revenue cutter named the Tuscarora slipped out of the darkness and took up pursuit. It had waited out of sight in a cove until Seavey passed it. The chase went on throughout much of the night but Seavey knew the waters much better than the crew of the cutter. As he passed a harbor buoy, Seavey shot the light out and replaced it with a lantern on a barrel. The Tuscarora ran aground, but a change in the wind direction also changed Seavey’s luck. The stranded cutter fired a cannon shot across the yacht’s bow and he was forced to surrender.
He was taken to Chicago in chains to stand trail for pirating the Nellie Johnson. When he appeared before the judge, he cleverly explained that the captain of the schooner was drunk and had given him the ship and cargo in settlement of an old debt. Because the former captain of the Nellie Johnson couldn’t be found to dispute Seavey’s claim, the case fell apart and Dan was released. Ironically he was then deputized as a U.S. Marshall. The Great Lakes had been nearly impossible to patrol and the law difficult to enforce. It was decided that instead of chasing Seavey, they would get him to take the job of patrolling the waters and enforcing the law. The illegal whiskey smuggling, unlawful fishing, contraband venison and rampant theft had to be stopped, and Seavey could get into places where regular lawmen couldn’t. Also, with Dan now on the side of the law, a good portion of the illegal activities would cease because he was a major contributor. Seavey saw it as his chance to start over again, but just because he was now a lawman, his wild ways didn’t really change.
He tracked down an outlaw who had been stealing and selling whiskey to the Indians. Dan located him in a saloon in Naubinway. The outlaw told him, “If you can drag me outside, I’ll board your schooner for Chicago.” After a few drinks the fight started. Literally, hours of fighting followed, wrecking the saloon. The two would occasionally stop for a drink or two of whiskey. Finally Seavey slammed the outlaw against the bar, breaking most of the bottles of liquor. Afraid that there wouldn’t be enough whiskey left to finish the fight, he knocked the man down and placed a piano on his neck. After downing a few more shots of whiskey, he reconsidered and lifted the piano off the outlaw and asked him to join him in a drink before resuming the fight. The outlaw never got up. He died the following day. Marshall Seavey turned the body over to officials to be buried and turned in his report. He was never asked to answer for the killing.
While Seavey had a long lucrative career, making well over a million dollars in his lifetime in illegal activities, he wasn’t as hard-hearted as his occupation made him seem. He gave away all of his money to the poor and to benefit children.
When Seavey died in an old folk’s home in Peshtigo, Wisconsin in 1949, he died quietly, penniless. An end quite unbefitting the wild and rowdy buccaneer who often said he would rather fight than eat.