Monday, December 15, 2014

Roaring Dan of the Wanderer

Roaring Dan’s Rum was named after the captain of the Wanderer, a rough, tough sailor, who made his fame by wrecking ships and stealing their cargo. He once sank the ship of a competitor with all hands aboard. Roaring Dan Seavey liked to sneak into ports and rob vessels that were tied up for the night. He also transported women for nefarious purposes, and was an important player in the venison poaching trade.


Yup. Because Roaring Dan was born in 1865, and did most of his pirating in the 20th century. In the Midwest. The Great Lakes to be specific.

Like a lot of pirates, Dan went to sea young, joining the navy at age 13. He married and had 2 children, and settled in Wisconsin, where he fished, farmed and owned a saloon. But like a lot of men who had been pirates before him, he wanted more.

Dan left his family in 1900 to head up to the Klondike in Alaska, joining thousands of others in a gold rush. But like a lot of others, he lost everything instead. Finally he fled south to Minnesota and acquired (we don’t know how) an old schooner, which he named the Wanderer.

One of Dan’s signature moves was to alter lights that marked the shipping lanes.  The practice was called “moon cussing” by the locals. Once a misguided ship had run aground, Dan would sail in and loot the wreck.

He also made so much money poaching venison on private land that the Booth Fisheries tried to beat him at his own game. Dan hunted down one of their ships, attacked it with a cannon, and sank it.

But his most famous exploit was capturing the Nellie Johnson. The adventure did not involve cannon, but rum. Dan showed up at the Grand Haven, Michigan dock where the schooner lay at anchor with friendly look and a great deal of liquor. He shared this with the Nellie Johnson’s crew. Once they were all drunk, he threw them overboard and sailed for Chicago, where he sold the cargo.

Pursued by the authorities, Dan was eventually arrested for piracy and dragged back to Chicago in chains. Conveniently, the owner of the Nellie Johnson never appeared to testify. Dan got away with it, and claimed for the rest of his life that he’d won the ship in a card game.

Like a lot of pirates, he eventually retired and became a law enforcer. Since the days of the privateers were long over, this took the form of a job with the US Marshall’s Service, where he worked to curb poaching, smuggling, and piracy on the great lakes.

Though the Wanderer was destroyed by fire in 1918, Dan stayed on the water, now using the kind of motor launch favored by the very smugglers he was chasing. When Prohibition made the sale of alcohol illegal in the US, he may or may not have smuggled liquor in from Canada.

In the kinder, gentler 20th century, it was possible for a pirate to actually retire. Dan stopped his activities in the late 1920’s. He died in a Wisconsin nursing home in 1949, at the age of 84.

We don’t think of pirates in the peaceful Midwest, but piracy is a worldwide practice. In fact, the Great Lakes have seen as much piracy as any other body of water. Rum running, venison poaching, illegal clear-cutting of timer on private land, these were the work of Great Lakes pirates, and many of them were colorful characters like Roaring Dan’s Seavey.

So when the cold closes in and the snowflakes begin to fly, raise a glass of rum to the pirates of the Midwest and remember that piracy is never too far away. 

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