|North Carolina General Assembly|
|Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from 's Carteret County district
1821 – (served 7 terms)
|North Carolina Senate|
4 terms – [date?]
Queen's Creek, near Swansboro, North Carolina
|Died||August 25, 1850|
|Spouse(s)||Joanna Grant, m. 1809, d. 1814; Jane Hall, m. 1814|
|Relations||Grandson, Walter Francis Burns|
|Occupation||Privateer, shipbuilder, politician, businessman|
|Commands||Captain of schooner Snap Dragon|
Burns was born at Queen's Creek, near Swansboro, North Carolina. He became a seaman after learning the trade at the ports in Swansboro and Beaufort, a nearby town situated in Carteret County. After acquiring the skills needed to become a merchant captain, Burns sailed along the East Coast of the United States, all the way north up to Maine. After his voyage, he married his cousin, Joanna Grant, on July 6, 1809. The next year, the couple moved to Swansboro. There, Joanna gave birth to Owen, the couple's only child.
Burns received financial support for his trading activities from Edward Pasteur, a physician and local political leader from New Bern. In the summer of 1812, just a month after the War of 1812 had commenced, Burns and Pasteur purchased a vessel in New York City for eight thousand US dollars, which Burns intended to use for privateering along the coast of The Carolinas. The 147-ton vessel, named the Zephyr, had been constructed four years earlier on the West River in Maryland. The Zephyr measured 85.5 feet (26.1 m) from bow (ship) to stern, had a beam of 22.5 feet (6.9 m) and a depth of almost nine feet (2.7 m). The vessel was armed with one pivot gun and between five and seven gun carriages. Also on board were a number of small arms: cutlasses, pistols, muskets, boarding pikes, pickaxes and blunderbusses. After rechristening the vessel as the Snap Dragon, Burns and Pasteur obtained official letters of marque for the vessel in New York on August 27, 1812. After sailing back to New Bern, the men sold their 50 shares in the ship at a price of US$260 per share to eight other investors from New Bern, Tarboro and Edenton.
Pasteur and Burns, on the Snap Dragon, headed to New Bern to recruit men to join the vessel's crew. To their surprise, some of New Bern's political leaders treated privateering like piracy, and they tried to complicate matters for the two privateers. The leaders convinced new recruits to borrow money, upon which, they would be arrested for their debt. Burns twice retaliated against the politicians. In one incident, the crew of the Snap Dragon sank a boat with constables who were planning on boarding the ship. Subsequently, a local attorney labeled the vessel as a "licensed robber". Burns responded by rowing to land and throwing the lawyer into a river.
The Snap Dragon encountered success early in the cruise. In one situation, she outran a British frigate and sloop. A few days later, Snap Dragon captured its first prize, a British merchant ship armed with 14 guns. Soon after, Burns and Pasteur led the vessel to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. To fool enemy British ships, they disguised the Snap Dragon as a merchant ship by putting up old, ragged sails and moving the guns out of view. The Snap Dragon ran into five British men of war. One of the ships, the frigate HMS Garland, fired a warning shot and signaled the other ships to chase down the Snap Dragon. For over two hours, Burns led the Snap Dragon away from danger, toward Ship Rock passage, which unknowingly, was blocked by two British brigs. The HMS Sophie immediately launched an attack on the Snap Dragon. Burns told his crew to lie down on the deck while the vessel was being fired upon. Fortunately, Burns was able to command the vessel away from the British ships, unscathed. The next morning, Burns and his crew encountered HMS Dominica, another British man of war, but again they successfully escaped. The crew of the Snap Dragon made their way to St. Croix, where they made "several small captures" of coastal traders.
Burns commanded Snap Dragon on her next two cruises, during which he had several encounters with British men-of-war and took numerous prizes.
Life after privateering
Months before he completed his third cruise in 1814, Burns' wife Joanna and son Owen left him to live with relatives in Jones County. In September, Joanna died, leaving her son in the custody of her family for five years before Burns obtained legal guardianship over Owen.
Three months later, Burns married Jane Hall, a 20-year-old from Beaufort, North Carolina. In April 1815, Burns purchased a property in Beaufort, on which he built a house, that would be his family's residence for the next 20 years.
From the wealth he gained from privateering, Burns became a shipbuilder at Swansboro, North Carolina and made investments in local businesses. In 1818, he built the Prometheus at his shipyard in Swansboro near the mouth of the White Oak River (NC Historical Marker #54), the first steamboat in North Carolina, which operated on the Cape Fear River. In 1823, he built the Warrior in Beaufort, followed by the brig Henry, eight years later.
During much of the 1820s, he managed a store and taproom on his Beaufort property, and also had a partnership in a Taylor's Creek salt distribution company. Burns possessed a number of vessels, such as a schooner, seiner, sailboat and a mullet boat. Among other things, he also co-owned brick kilns used by the federal government to build Fort Macon, in the largest public works project in the history of the area, and 11 slaves, who helped him run his businesses and his 340-acre (1.4 km2) plantation in Carteret County.
Burns' political career started with his 1821 election to represent Carteret County in the North Carolina House of Commons and his appointment to serve as the commissioner of a local canal connecting Neuse and Newport Rivers. He served 11 terms in the legislature — seven in the House of Representatives and four in the Senate — over a course of 14 years.
Two destroyers have been named in his honor: the USS Burns (DD-171) and the USS Burns (DD-588), in service during World War I and II, respectively. In 1834, Burnsville, North Carolina was founded and named in his honor. A statue of him was placed in the town square in 1909. The town of Otway, in Carteret County, North Carolina, is also named for him. He has descendants living today in the areas of Beaufort NC, Swansboro NC and Atlantic Beach NC, and in the immediate area of his birth near Queens Creek, NC.
Captain Burns' life is the basis of a historical novel by Ruth P. Barbour, The Cruise of the Snap Dragon.
- Butler, Lindley S. (2000). Pirates, Privateers, and Rebel Raiders of the Carolina Coast. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press. p. 75. ISBN 0-8078-4863-8.
- Littleton, Tucker R.; Sarah M. Lemmon (1979). William S. Powell, ed. Dictionary of North Carolina Biography. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press. vol. 1, p283.
- Hunter, p. 76.
- Nicholson, Lee H. (December 1981). "Snap Dragon: An American Privateer". Nautical Research Journal 27: 206.
- Holdcamper, Forrest R. (1968). List of American-Flag Merchant Vessels that Received Certificates of Enrollment or Registry at the Port of New York, 1789-1867. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration. Vol. 2, p748.
- Barbour, Ruth P. (1976). Cruise of the Snap Dragon. Winston-Salem, North Carolina: John F. Blair, Publisher. p. 203.
- Hunter, p. 77.
- In the retelling of the incident, the name of the river is not specified. It can be assumed from New Bern's geographic location that Burns threw the attorney in either the Trent or Neuse River.
- Bryan, John H., Jr. Otway Burns and the Snap Dragon. pp. p410.
- Hunter, p. 78.
- Bryan, p411.
- Niles' Weekly Register (Baltimore, Maryland), September 4, 1813.
- Rebecca W. Sanders (ed.). Early Carteret County Court Minutes, 1810-1820. Morehead City, North Carolina. p. 1456.
- Ethel T. Elliot (ed.). Marriage Bonds of Carteret County, North Carolina. Beaufort, North Carolina. p. 13.
- Littleton, Tucker R. (November 1977). "North Carolina's First Steamboat". The State 45: 8–10.
- Hunter, p. 90.
- Still, William N., Jr. (October 1995). "Shipbuilding and Boatbuilders in Swansborough, 1800-1950". Tributaries 5: 7–13.
- Hunter, p. 91.
- Survey and Planning Unit Staff (February 1972). "Old Burying Ground" (pdf). National Register of Historic Places - Nomination and Inventory. North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office. Retrieved 2014-08-01.
- Barbour, Ruth P. (1976). Cruise of the Snap Dragon. Winston-Salem, N.C: J. F. Blair. ISBN 091024488X.
- Burns, Walter Francis (1905). Captain Otway Burns : patriot, privateer, and legislator. New York. Retrieved 2013-10-31.,
- Biographical Page
- "Holograph petition (1813 July 1) of Burns to James Monroe, U.S. Secretary of State, to obtain a letter of marque and reprisal for the schooner, Snap Dragon, New Bern, N.C.". Library of Congress Manuscript Division, Washington, D.C.