Pirates on Lake Erie

At Umpqua River Haven we hear tales about the pirates of old such as Iron Jim Sallow and very early explorers like Sir Frances Drake who plundered in the Pacific Northwest just like any real pirate. Remember the tall ships from a previous blog? Drake’s Golden Hind was here.


 But! Pirates on Lake Erie???? Yes!!!!

The Maritime Museum of Sandusky, Ohio offers up all the great history of Lake Erie from the 1600s missionaries to the 1795 French and Indian War to the War of 1812 and Perry’s Battle of Lake Erie to harvesting winter ice to commercial fishing to freighting timber to piracy. Piracy? Yep. And there was lots of it on the Great Lakes.

The French and British Governments both hired pirates or privateers on the Great Lakes during the French and Indian War.  The British pirates led by George Colby attacked from shore in small boats. They would build fires at night on the shore of Lake Erie to lead the French to think they were near a port causing them to run aground on the rocks. Colby and crew would then destroy both ship and cargo which helped the British defeat the French.

William Johnson pirated during the War of 1812. He did not like the British and worked with the Americans. He moved to the US side of Lake Ontario and was paid, along with a band of assistants, to take British property. After capturing a small fleet of British boats, they discovered a letter from one British official to another with information that was helpful to the American’s war efforts.

Great Lakes pirate vessels looked like any Great Lakes Schooner or Sloop, too.


In the late 1840’s James Jesse Strang led a group of Mormons living on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. He would take them on raiding voyages to the mainland towns when he knew the men would be gone leaving the families unprotected. Boats that ran aground on the island in bad weather were usually pillaged by Strang and his Mormon crew. The island lobbied for a lighthouse and got one. But after it was built they would light decoy fires on shore causing ships to wreck so they could plunder some more.


Off the Canadian Shores of Lake Erie on the Long Point Peninsula pirates would copy the pattern of lights from a neighborhood lighthouse luring ships to crash at the end of the peninsula. Then the pirates would take the ship’s cargo. Because the area was so remote, by the time help arrived the pirates would be long gone. This practice was known as ‘Blackbirding’ and was prevalent throughout the 19th century.

Roaring Dan Seavey was a true pirate who operated mostly on Lake Michigan in the early 1900’s. He smuggled, poached, bootlegged alcohol and ran a floating bordello called the ‘Wanderer.’ On June 11, 1908, Roaring Dan and two comrades seized the ‘Nellie Johnson’ after getting the captain and crew drunk. Pirate and crew headed to Chicago to sell the stolen cargo. Eventually Seavy was arrested and tried for mutiny and sedition but the grand jury failed to indict him. Seavey died in 1948 in a nursing home.


A variety of methods to pirate timber during the 19th century were practiced on the Great Lakes. Timber pirates diverted floating river logs and made them their own. They would also cut large acreages of forest from unpopulated lands and from federal lands and load them on their ships to sell in the big cities. There was so much timber pirating going on during the 1850’s that the US government passed laws to protect forests for the Navy to build ships with.  And, the U.S.S. Michigan was tasked to put an end to timber piracy.

During the 19th century American fish companies trespassed into Canadian waters and also into US federally protected waters to obtain better catches. Prices were high at the turn of the century and the fish wars heated up on Lake Erie. The problem of fish piracy resolved itself when the fish population crashed and it was no longer lucrative enough to continue.

Some tools of the trade, including the cat-o-nine-tails.


The life style of a pirate was not without consequences. If caught, pirates were executed. Before sentencing would be carried out, the condemned pirate would be measured for his ‘gibbet.’ A gibbet was a wooden frame the body of an executed pirate would be hung from so that his family could not remove it. The gibbet was often more feared than the execution and served as a warning to other pirates as to the consequences of their illegal activities.

Visit: http://www.sanduskymaritime.org/ for more information.

Belay that, me hearties!


6 thoughts on “Pirates on Lake Erie

    • Thanks, Evergreen. I love writing. If you are interested visit the Home Page and you can sign up to Follow this blog and receive notice of new blogs when they are posted. Like the one I just posted today about Lake Erie Beach Glass!


  1. That was such cool information. I use to live in Ohio and always heard pirates did sail those waters. I remember after a bad storm over lake eria caused some gold deblooms? Don’t know how that’s spelled. But any way to wash up on shore but needless to say government steped in on that. But it just amazing of all the history in that area. I know it sounds bad but always thought pirates back then was so cool.


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