Born in 1775 on a plantation near Swansboro, Otway Burns had the sea in his veins at an early age. As an adult, he made and lost his fortune on or near the waters of eastern North Carolina. He became famous for his daring exploits as a privateer and later as an independent-thinking politician. He died destitute and virtually unknown, however.
As a young man, Burns partnered with Edward Pasteur, a New Bern physician, planter, and politician, in several entrepreneurial endeavors. Before the War of 1812, he and Pasteur had started a coastal trading business. When war came, the two tried their hands at privateering, a lucrative wartime business; with Letters of Marque from the government, privateers captured and burned or condemned commercial ships from enemy nations without punishment. In New York for $8,000, the two Tar Heels purchased Snap Dragon and commissioned it a privateer on August 27, 1812. Burns and Pasteur sold shares in their privateering venture to investors in New Bern, Tarboro, and Edenton.
Burns and Pasteur initially experienced difficulty when recruiting sailors. They started in New Bern, but many residents opposed the war and Burns’s and Pasteur’s enterprise. A local attorney, Francis Martin, called Burns a “licensed robber.” In response, Burns rowed ashore and threw the lawyer in the Neuse River. Afterward Burns and Pasteur sailed to Norfolk, Virginia and recruited the remainder of their crew.
The Snap Dragon became one of the more famous privateers in the history of the United States. The ship measured 85.5 feet long, 22.5 feet wide, and had a draft slightly less than 9 feet. Typically an 80 to 100-man crew had six to eight guns and an assortment of small arms at their disposal. Burns conducted three cruises in the Caribbean and off of the coasts of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and North Carolina. Burns captured approximately 300 sailors and 42 vessels with a total value $4 million. Yet the meteoric rise to fame came at a terrible, personal cost. His wife left him, taking his only son, Owen. Five years passed before father and son reunited.
After the war, Burns remarried, built a home in Beaufort, and started shipbuilding and masonry businesses. In 1818 he built one of the state’s first steamboats, Prometheus. The boat churned on the Cape Fear River between Wilmington and Smithville (now Southport). Burns was also co-owner of a brick kiln that produced bricks for the construction of Fort Macon. Burns also owned eleven slaves and a 340-acre plantation on the North River in Carteret County.
In 1821, Burns began his political career. That year Carteret County citizens elected Burns to the state House of Commons. Burns served seven terms in the House and four in the Senate. The Democratic legislator worked to improve the status of free blacks and lift restrictions on free blacks entering the state. Although a slaveholder, Burns supported education for slaves and free blacks, and although from eastern North Carolina, he supported measures to assist the western region. By 1835, disappointed easterners voted him out of office.
The end of Burns’s political career coincided with his financial ruin and another personal tragedy. The country experienced an economic depression during the late 1830s. His resources overextended in financing business ventures, Burns sold most of his property to pay debts. His political connections worked to his advantage, however, for he secured an appointment as keeper of the Brant Island Shoal Light Boat near Portsmouth. His second wife died in 1839. He remarried in 1842 and outlived his third wife. He retired to the home of John L. Hunter of Portsmouth, where he died on October 25, 1850. He is buried in Beaufort’s Old Burying Ground beside his second wife.
Rodney D. Barfield and David A. Norris, “Steamboats” in William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 2006); Lindley S. Butler, Pirates, Privateers, and Rebel Raiders of the Carolina Coast (Chapel Hill, 2000); Sarah McCulloh Lemmon, North Carolina and the War of 1812 (Raleigh, 1984); Jaqueline Drane Nash, “Snap Dragon” in William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina, (Chapel Hill, 2006).