Indian Pirates of the North Atlantic

By: Thomas "Tank" Baird, President of NCC8

Originally published: Milton Standard Weekender

The first cannonball splintered the main mast. The officers and crew were stunned at being out-maneuvered and then fired on. Rigging was still raining down on the deck when the second shot came flying in, killing the captain, first mate and two crew members. Now in the scant few seconds of silence between cannon fire and the cries of the dying, they could hear it faintly: war whoops. Looking through a spyglass there were painted faces looking back at them.  A British man-o-war had just been bested by a schooner with deck-mounted six-pounders a.k.a. loose cannons and manned by American Indians.  

This was in 1724 off the coast of New Hampshire. There were two British warships traveling together, part of the mightiest naval force on earth and on a mission to sink the very schooner now disappearing over the horizon. This incident would stop that mission. Having never fired a shot, one ship was completely disabled with their captain dead. There would be embarrassing inquiries in London. 

"Storm of the Sea: Indians & Empires in the Atlantic's Age of Sail"
This was not an isolated incident. There was over a century of coastal New England Native Americans and First Nations (Canadian) Maritime thievery and raiding, much of it originating with periods of almost constant war in New England. 

The action centers around the Wabanaki Indians, the Dawn People.  Along the coast of Maine, they had been a seafaring culture centuries before the Europeans’ arrival. Their canoes plied the open ocean, bays and inlets with heavy loads of trade goods and accordingly, they were familiar with ocean wind and weather and the bounty of the sea. These Indians were already sailors without the sail. 

Champlain and other early explorers reported their interest not just in standard trade goods like brass kettles, and knives but also in how everything worked aboard their ships.  

The first recorded episodes of ship hijacking by Indians began late in the sixteenth century. Native people were learning the art of the sail by trial and error and with those new skills, the commandeering of vessels became a “storm of the sea” as described by frustrated colonials. 

Not only were the boarding and pilfering of ships increasing but Wabanaki pirates were on the verge of dominating and controlling whole areas of ocean and with it a very lucrative fishing industry that New Englanders depended upon.  

Not always antagonists, in 1606 a lost ship of French explorers floundering twelve miles offshore near Acadia was helped by a ship manned by Mi’kmag with a painting of a moose on their sail. The moose was revered by their culture and like Europeans these Indians sailed under a sacred symbol.

One of the bloodiest conflicts in New England history began in 1675 with King Phillip's War. This was a war of rebellion against heavy-handed Puritan rule. In just over 50 years since the Mayflower landed, fifty thousand English had settled in Massachusetts and Rhode Island virtually surrounding the Wampanoag Indians and creating a powder keg. There was horrific killing on both sides. 

King Philip
Mugg Heigon or as the English called him “Rogue Mugg” was a successful military commander on the battlefield but his real talent was as a naval strategist. According to the Maine Historical Society, he raided and burned the fishing town of Black Point and then waited on shore for the anticipated rescue ships to arrive. It came in the shape of a thirty-ton ketch filled with colonial militia. After landing men and supplies, the militia were pinned down on shore while Mugg and his warriors paddled out to the ship, cut its anchor line and sailed away. The ketch would join a thirty-vessel flotilla under Mugg’s command.  His plan was to burn Boston but he was killed before that plan could be carried out.

In my opinion, this is lost or maybe ignored history. Given the scope of the story and two centuries to play out, it seems improbable that I had never seen a mention of Indian pirates anywhere until I read the couple of pages dedicated to it in “The Indian Wars” by Robert Utley & Wilcomb Washburn. I could then trace the story back through local New England historical societies and finally to the 2019 historical epic “Storm of the Sea” by Matthew Bahar. 

When you study the history of Native Americans and their contact with Europeans it can get dark. You know the treaty will be broken, the great Indian resistance leaders will be killed or captured (mostly killed) and everyone loses their sacred lands. Not so much in this incredible tale. There is at least a long period of time on the high seas that evolves into a level playing field and which side is the underdog is at times not exactly clear.