Otway Burns, Jr., privateer and legislator, was born in Onslow County in 1775, the son of Otway and Lisanah Burns. Burns’ father died in 1797, leaving a widow and six children. With little means for his education, Burns went to sea at a fairly young age. He became so well respected a sailor in the area that in 1806 the Onslow County Court bound an orphan to him as an apprentice mariner.
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By the outbreak of the War of 1812, Burns was a sailing master, commanding merchant vessels traveling between New Bern and Portland, Maine. When war was declared, he, like many other American mariners, chose to become a privateersman. Commonly considered legal pirates, privateers typically commanded lightly armed merchant vessels. Upon paying a bond and agreeing to abide by a certain set of laws and precautions established by the government, they were licensed to attack enemy shipping. The practice had been in use for over two centuries by the War of 1812, and was quite attractive to nations with fledgling formal navies, such as the United States.
Burns purchased a schooner named the Zephyr in New York, and sold stock shares in his vessel in New Bern and Tarboro. Among the initial shareholders were important merchants and political figures such as Edward Pasteur and William Shepherd of New Bern. Burns armed the vessel with six guns and recruited a crew of eighty. Renaming the vessel the Snap Dragon, he embarked on three successful cruises to the West Indies and Nova Scotia.
The first voyage, from 1812-1813, resulted in eight prizes taken, three of which were unloaded and burned. In June 1813, the Snap Dragon headed for Nova Scotia to intercept British vessels headed for Canada. Again, Burns returned with a number of prize vessels and their cargoes which ultimately fetched over half a million U.S. dollars. Each crew member received $3.000. A third, less successful voyage to the West Indies, followed in early 1814, but was cut short by an inconclusive engagement with a twenty-two gun British privateer. In the aftermath of the fight, Burns sailed the Snap Dragon up the Orinoco River in Venezuela to make repairs.
After the third voyage Burns, suffering from rheumatism, passed command on to Captain W. R. Graham. In May 1814 Graham took the vessel on her final voyage. A month later the ship was captured by the British sloop-of-war Martin. Nevertheless, Burns and the Snap Dragon, their exploits constantly expounded upon in the North Carolina press, became arguably the state’s greatest heroes of the war. During its career, the vessel took over forty prizes worth in excess of $4,000,000.
After the conflict, Burns settled into life as a shipbuilder and entrepreneur. In 1818 he constructed the Prometheus, the state’s first steamboat, in Swansboro. Two years later he developed a salt works and also a small mercantile store in Beaufort. By 1829, he had joined several business partners in operating brick kilns providing bricks for the construction of Fort Macon.
Aside from his business exploits, Burns also became an accomplished politician. He was elected in 1821 to the House of Commons on behalf of Carteret County. For the next fourteen years, Burns either represented Carteret as a member of the house or senate within the General Assembly. His last political acts in office included voting in favor of a new state constitutional convention in 1835 to consider increased western representation in the assembly and to elect the governor by popular vote. The act angered many of his eastern contemporaries, as the bill passed in the senate by a margin of one vote. However westerners named Burnsville, the Yancey County seat, in his honor as a result.
After retiring from his political career, Burns focused on his business investments and his family. He had borrowed heavily to fund his shipbuilding and other operations, and was ruined financially the economic Panic of 1837. His family life was in shambles as well. Burns had married his first wife, Joanna Grant, in 1809. However, his time at sea evidently put a strain on their marriage, and in January 1814 they officially separated. Joanna died in September 1814, and Burns remarried only three months later to Jane Hall of Beaufort.
The Burns family remained in Beaufort until shortly after Jane’s death in 1839. Three years earlier President Andrew Jackson had appointed Burns the lighthouse keeper of the Brant-Shoals Light boat at Portsmouth. After his second wife’s death, Burns moved to Portsmouth. There he married a third woman, Jane Smith of Smyrna, in 1842. However she evidently was dead by 1850, as the census only lists Burns, a “mariner” living “in dotage” in the home of John S. Hunter of Portsmouth.
In his final years Burns was known on Portsmouth for his penchant for drinking and quarreling. He died on October 25, 1850, and was buried without ceremony in Queen Anne’s Cemetery in Beaufort. On July 4, 1901, his grandchildren unveiled a monument upon his grave surmounted by a cannon reputedly from the Snap Dragon. A statue of Burns was unveiled at Burnsville eight years later. Another statue to his memory stands in Swansboro, the town of Otway in Carteret County is named for him, and his portrait is in the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh.
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, I, 282-283—sketch by Sarah McCulloh Lemmon and Tucker Reed Littleton
Lindley S. Butler, Pirates, Privateers, and Rebel Raiders of the Carolina Coast (2000)
Walter Francis Burns, Captain Otway Burns (1905)
S. M. Lemmon, Frustrated Patriots: North Carolinians and the War of 1812 (1973)