|Snapdragon Model by Jim Goodwin|
American ships were searched on the merest pretense and American seamen impressed. Indians were incited to unrest and the American flag insulted. To avenge these wrongs the United States went to war with Great Britain in 1812.
The most spectacular campaigns were carried on on the high seas and peculiar among these were the privateers fitted out to prey on British commerce.
The most famous of these was commanded by Captain Otway Burns, who was born and reared in Onslow County.
Captain Burns’ grandfather came to Onslow from Glasgow, Scotland, and settled on Queens Creek three miles by water from Swansboro. “His choice of lands near the sea afterwards profoundly affected the life of his grandson,” said Chief Justice Walter Clark.
Francis Burns had one son, Otway, father of Captain Otway Burns who was born in 1775 and must have remembered hearing wonderful tales about British warfare in America when he was only a lad. Otway was reared on the Burns plantation, which overlooks Bogue Sound in front and Queens Creek on the left. There the great white beach stands like mountains of snow and the old Atlantic is music to ears attuned to catch it.
At Swansboro sailors with boats from up and down the coast and as far away as the West Indies and South America told tales of the sea which fascinated the boy, as they had Sir Walter Raleigh long years before.
From them he “learned the arts and duties of a sailor, learned the strength and endurance which must be put into vessels which ply the storms of the ocean, learned and resolved to see and experience them for himself.”
He grew into manhood and in 1809 married Miss Grant, daughter of Reuben Grant, planter, merchant, legislator and prominent citizen of Onslow. In 1819 his only son, Owen, was born.
After marriage he determined to remove to Beaufort, which he did, but soon became Commander of a coaster plying between New Bern and points as far north as Portland, Maine.
He was on one of these trips when he heard that the United States had, on June 18, 1812, declared war on England. His friends urged him to remodel his ship into a privateer at once, but he considered her too slow so he sailed to New York and found a fast schooner, noted for its speed, which could be bought for $8,000. Closing the deal, he at once took the “Levere,” as she was called, to Beaufort and had her fitted out for war. The name was changed to “Snap Dragon.”
“Burns’ experience as the Commander of a Coaster admirably fitted him for the charge of a Privateer,” says Dr. Battle. “He had a frame of herculean strength and tireless endurance, a mind active and acute, a courage which knew not shrinking, a nerve which grew more steady in fiercest danger, a temper quick but never unsettling judgment, and an iron will which compelled obedience.”
The Snap Dragon was a Baltimore Clipper of 147 tons carrying 5 twelve pounders, 50 muskets and 4 blunderbusses. Her speed was such as to enable her to escape from many a trap cunningly laid. Sometimes we find her searching for British commerce on the coast of South America, again we see her up near Greenland, still on a British trail.
On her first voyage the Snap Dragon swept the West Indies and the Caribbean sea with the result that two barks, five brigs and three schooners, 250 prisoners and prizes valued at $1,000,000.00 were taken. A storm nearly wrecked the ship, which was saved only by the skill of Captain Burns. After some repairs at Maracaibo, he returned to Beaufort.
The second voyage led to Newfoundland, where he captured several prizes, but Captain Burns says he lost many of them because he was “cursed with a miserable set of Prize-Masters whose incompetence, drunkenness or disobedience caused the recapture of many prizes.” Captain Burns had his fun as well. One day one old fellow came on board, and being invited into the cabin said, “This does not look like one of our English vessels, but we do not care, so she does not trouble us.” Burns stayed with them all day and caught 500 or 600 fish.
Another time up near Greenland he saw an iceberg with a pond of rainwater upon it. The water being pure, the crew took on 40 casks. After paying expenses the men on this cruise received each $3,000 for his share.
The third voyage left Beaufort January, 1814. On March 3rd he met an English ship of 22 guns. A fight ensued in which the Briton rammed the Snap Dragon, breaking all the top mast and crippling her so that repairs were necessary at once. Thomas Green, William Barnes, John Hart and a negro named Charles Nurse were killed in the encounter. The cruise lasted four months and ended at New Bern.
Captain Burns was attacked by a more dangerous and subtle enemy, and when the Snap Dragon sailed on her fourth voyage she left her master on the shore suffering with rheumatism. Lieutenant De Cokely had long been Burns’ right-hand man and he was put in charge of the ship, but the genius of Burns was not there to save, and on June 29, 1814, she was carried to Halifax, a prize of the British Man-of-War “Leopard.” De Cokely was killed on the deck. The Snap Dragon was carried to England and her crew to Dartmoor prison.
This ends the story of the Snap Dragon. Such a man and such a ship brings to mind tales from the old Norse Vikings in ages long ago.
When we would condemn methods of warfare as conducted by privateers, we remember they were legitimate in those days and that they were the only recourse for weak nations when attacked by the strong, and that without the privateers the United States would probably have lost the war of 1812.
After the war Captain Burns returned to his ship building. One of the swiftest and best of his manufacture he named “Snap Dragon” in honor of the old warhorse he had loved so much.
His first wife having died, he in 1814 married Miss Jane Hall of Beaufort. For her he built a handsome home where he lived 23 years.
That his services were appreciated we know, for he was elected to the Legislature twelve years; seven years in the House of Commons and five in the Senate. As one would naturally suppose, in politics he followed that other sturdy old fighter Andrew Jackson. He viewed all matters of debate from a statewide standpoint. His fairness rose above sectional differences. The contest between the East and West was then on in full blast. The East, through an out-of-date system of representation, had control of the law making body and of course wished to keep it. The convention of 1835 was called to remedy this evil and although his home counties opposed the change, Burns favored it. He would sacrifice his popularity rather than his opinion. The vote in Carteret was 32 for and 352 against the amendments, while Onslow voted 97 for and 357 against.
After 1834 Burns was not a candidate for re-election. But his enlightened position was appreciated by the West so much that when Yancey County was formed, her county seat was named in his honor. Captain Burns received from President Jackson the appointment as life boat keeper at Portsmouth, North Carolina, where he and his third wife, who was Miss Jane Smith of Smyrna, made their home. For many years they lived quietly, but when his third wife died he soon followed, and on October 25, 1850, he passed away.
He was buried at Beaufort and a monument bearing one of the guns of the old Snap Dragon marks his grave.
As long as Onslow and the State can produce such defenders and such wise legislators as Otway Burns, we need not fear.