A Wisconsin Pirate? Discover the Legendary Exploits of Captain “Roaring Dan” Seavey


When you think of pirate adventures – you probably don’t think of the Great Lakes.

But I’m sitting here – on International Talk Like a Pirate Day – writing a story about a man who was a buccaneer on Lake Michigan. He was accused of causing shipwrecks, kidnapping, operating a prostitution ring, booze-running, hijacking ships and even (gasp) selling stolen venison.

This man called Wisconsin home for most of his life. And he is the only person on record to be formally charged with the crime of piracy on the Great Lakes. This is his story…

Meet the Scallywag – Captain Dan Seavey

He was born in Portland, Maine and left home at the age of 13 to become a sailor. After serving in the U.S. Navy, he moved to Marinette, Wisconsin and started a family in the 1880s. Dan Seavey later relocated to Milwaukee where he had a farm and a small saloon.

But it would seem Seavey was not cut out for farming or family life. He abandoned his wife and two daughters, leaving home to seek his fortune in the Klondike Goldrush in the Yukon. Unfortunately, he returned empty-handed and pretty much broke.

Seavey’s wife, Mary, had no idea where he went and searched for him for almost five years. She finally found her husband tending bar in Milwaukee – but could not convince him to come home. He would later remarry a 22-year-old woman from Escanaba, Michigan

Somehow, Seavey was able to get his hands on a schooner in Escanaba. He named his vessel the Wanderer and began his career as a pirate of the Great Lakes. Interestingly – the schooner was initially built for the Pabst family of Pabst Brewing Company.

He spent most of his time on Lake Michigan – mainly in the waters of Green Bay – which was a center of maritime trade in the Midwest.

Roaring Dan Seavey - Pirate

Roaring Dan Seavey – Pirate

One of Seavey’s trademark pirate tricks was luring ships off course in the middle of the night. The tactic was known as “moon cussing.”  Seavey would manage to put out sea lights intended to guide the vessels, or even trick them with false lights.

The ships would crash into rocks. That’s when Seavey and his crew invaded and stole the cargo for their own profit.

Seavey was known for operating an illegal venison trade, and it’s believed that’s how he made most of his money. One account even claims that Seavey took out competition with extreme violence. He apparently fired canons at a ship belonging to the company Boot Fisheries – killing everyone on board.

However, there are many other dirty deeds attributed to this freshwater filcher.

Perhaps the most reprehensible allegation is that the man who became known as “Roaring Dan” would kidnap frontier women and turn them into prostitutes. It’s said that Seavey turned the Wanderer into a “floating bordello” charging men to spend time with his captives.

He was also known for being quick to get into fights with other men.

One story has “Roaring Dan” take on a professional fighter known as Mitch Love. The pair traded blows for two hours on a frozen Frankfurt Harbor in Michigan. Hundreds of people gathered to watch and many placed bets. As the story goes, Seavey came out on top and Love had to be carried away.

Seavey’s Greatest Feat – Stealing the Nellie Johnson

The most-often told story of Dan Seavey’s career as a pirate of the Great Lakes began over drinks on the docks of Grand Haven, Michigan in 1908.

As author Michael Bie explains in an article for Classic Wisconsin, Seavey had a big jug of booze with him, and he befriended some men by offering to share. Little did those men know – they’d just become the pirate’s marks.

As Bie puts it…

“One thing about sharing a jug: You never know how much the other guy is drinking.”

While the sailors got drunker and drunker, Seavey only pretended to swig. Soon, the men had passed out. Seavey simply tossed them overboard and went sailing away with their ship – the Nellie Johnson.

Of course, Seavey had a different story. He claims he won the ship fair-and-square in a high-stakes poker game. He stuck with that story until his dying day.

He sold much of the cargo in Chicago before authorities caught wind of the scheme, and Seavey took off again. But now the United States Revenue Cutter Service was hot on his trail – or wake as the case must have been.

The Tuscarora

The Tuscarora

A vessel called the Tuscarora pursued the allegedly stolen ship and even opened fire on it during the chase.

In a matter of days, the feds caught up to Seavey, He was arrested and brought back to Chicago in chains.

They charged him with piracy, which was a capital offense in 1908. He would have been hanged – but Captain Dan was one lucky pirate.

You see, as it turned out, Seavey had once been a crew member on the Nellie Johnson. This allowed his lawyer to take advantage of a technicality that quite literally saved the pirate’s neck. The charge was changed to “unauthorized removal of a vessel on which he had once been a seaman.”

Eventually, all charges were completely dropped. The owner of the Nellie Johnson failed to show in court for unknown reasons. Roaring Dan was free to go.

Life After Piracy for “Roaring Dan”

In an interesting twist straight out of a formulaic CBS crime drama – Dan Seavey switched sides and ended up fighting smugglers and piracy on the Great Lakes.

He took a job with the U.S. Marshals and used the Wanderer to thwart outlaws on the water in the Upper Midwest. Bie’s research uncovered a legendary tale in which Seavey took out a bootlegger by having a piano dropped on his head.

It’s unclear whether Dan Seavey ever completely gave up the pirate’s life. Some say he retired in the late 1920s. But others say he went back to crime during the Prohibition Era.

He lived into his 80s, and passed away at a nursing home in Peshtigo, Wisconsin. That’s where he apparently died penniless in 1949. Seavey is buried next to one of his daughters in Marinette at Forest Home Cemetery.

As it goes with many legendary characters – it’s hard to know where the truth ends and the tall tales begin.

Some folks described Dan Seavey almost like a Robin Hood sort of persona – giving away his pirate plunder to the poor. Many said he was often kind to children – giving them fruit and root beer while telling stories of his sailing adventures.

One thing is certain – he is one of the most interesting Wisconsinites in our state’s history.

And on this particular International Talk Like a Pirate Day, I think I’ll just talk like I’m from Wisconsin.

Find Out More About Captain Dan Seavey

This is a unique piece of Wisconsin history that you can learn much more about.

I highly encourage you to read Micahel Bie’s article on Classic Wisconsin – he conducted a lot more research than I did. For a Michigan perspective, check out a post from writer/photographer Mikel B. Classen.

There is an entire exhibit dedicated to Seavey’s exploits at the Door County Maritime Museum in Gills Rock.

And if you ever want to drink to the legend of Dan Seavey, you have to do it with a liquor made in his memory at Great Lakes Distillery in Milwaukee. It’s called Roaring Dan’s Rum – of course.

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  1. Yea great story

  2. My grandfather said that we maybe realted to him my cousins name is dan seavey and my grandfather is dean seavey live to know about him

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