Otway, NC Introduction - Origin of Name

Otway Burns

by Graden Paul

Before the War of 1812, Otway Burns was in command of a merchant-man sailing from New Bern to Portland, Maine. When he heard that war had been declared, he carried his vessel to New York, and changed her name to Snap Dragon, had her equipped as a ship of war. She was a vessel of a hundred forty-seven tons, and when first fitted out, carried a crew of seventy-five men, with armament of five carriage guns, fifty muskets, four blunderbusses. She was a beautiful ship and so swift she could walk the waters like a thing of life. Burns opened books of subscription in New to capital stock. Contrary to public opinion, privateering was legal and he had to fight a few times to make this convincing to a number of people.

For two years and a half, beginning in 1812, Burns traveled the ocean from Newfoundland to the northern coast of South America, near the Equator, capturing ships when feasible, placing prize crews on them, then sending them into ports with their riches. When this was not possible he relieved the enemy ships of their cargo and burned the vessels.

The first seven months Burns captured two barks, five brigs, three schooners, their cargoes valued at one million dollars, and captured two hundred and fifty prisoners. He met danger always from the enemy, and he was crippled many times by storms, but he always said, “If a vessel could scud nine knows an hour, no sea could board her.”

In 1814, Burns sailed with Decokely as his Lieutenant. He was putting into Beaufort Harbor for repairs when he saw a strange ship pretending to be poling. He happened to know that the water there was seven fathoms deep, so he drew near to investigate. He found old friends and acquaintances aboard the vessel, which delighted all his temporarily homesick crew. He then sailed into Beaufort for necessary repairs.

When the Snap Dragon made her last cruise, Burns was laid up in Beaufort with rheumatism, brought on by great exposure to all kinds of weather at sea. Reluctantly, he told Lieutenant Decolely good-bye. Decokely set sail, enthusiastically resolved to renew the fight with the enemy.

The British had determined to rid the seas of the Snap Dragon, so they prepared a special ‘Man of War’, named the Leopard, to fight Burns’ ship to the bitter end. They carried concealed guns, and the ship was disguised to look like a merchantman. Lieutenant Decokely fell into the snare. The Snap Dragon was running close to the Leopard, feeling perfectly safe, when the Leopard opened her broadside upon Lieutenant Decokely. The Snap Dragon fought with old time courage, but when her Commander Decokely and others lay dead on deck, many others wounded, the Snap Dragon flag was lowered to the enemy for the first time in all of her career. She was carried to England, and her crew was sent to Dartmoor prison.

‘Tis told, but not as documented fact, that some of the crew of the Snap Dragon were taken from the Dartmoor prison, and were forced to sail on the ship, Bounty. The crew mutinied and went ashore on a south sea island, which they named Pitcairn’s Island. They burned the ship, built homes on the island, married women from the island, and reared families.

Otway Burns’ grave is in the Beaufort Cemetery, and an imposing tombstone has been erected over the grave by his grandsons.

A small town in Carteret County was named “Otway” in honor of Otway Burns, as well as the town, Burnsville in Yancey County, North Carolina.

Source: Carteret County, NC: Folklore, Facts and Fiction By Mary and Grayden Paul. Sponsored by Beaufort Historical Association; 1996; pp. 23-24.

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