The Revolutionary War hero from Donegal

Gustavus Conyngham.

By C. A. Tremayne

April 27, 1779, County Donegal born Gustavus Conyngham, like a lot of other young Irish men, had decided that immigration was the way forward, and headed for the American colonies in his late teens.

Settling in Philadelphia, he soon found employment in one of the many shipping houses and by 1775, he was the master of the brig Charming Peggy, sailing to France to pick up war supplies for the colonial government.

The British, who had received word of the cargo he carried, enlisted the help of the Dutch, and together they managed to capture the Charming Peggy, leaving Conyngham and his crew stranded in France, until the American commissioner offered to supply him a ship called Surprise.

The only commitment on the part of Conyngham, was that he used the ship against the British. Accepting the offer, he set sail and scored a first victory that would warm the heart of any Irishman; capturing the British merchant ship Prince of Orange on May 3, 1777. His actions so impressed, that he was commissioned a captain in the Continental Navy and given command of the Revenge, and so began a series of highly successful raids into British waters from the port of Dunkirk. So successful was he, that the British gave him the nickname of ‘The Dunkirk Pirate’.

In all, he and his men claimed a total of sixty prize vessels during the war, all the time assuming his actions were within the rules of maritime warfare and that he was covered by his commission papers. But after the war ended, he discovered that this was not the case. He failed in his efforts to continue his navel career or to gain recognition from Congress for his service during the war, as it turned out that he had misplaced the commission papers given to him by colonial representatives in Paris all those years before, and therefore, according to Congress, his actions were, technically that of a pirate. Moreover, legally, he could have been tried and, if convicted, hanged.

Conyngham, the Revolutionary War hero, who had once terrorized the shipping fleets of Great Britain, passed away quietly at home in Philadelphia on November 27, 1819. It is perhaps bitter irony that almost a century after his death, his long lost commission into the US Navy; signed by John Hancock, was discovered along with other paperwork in the collection of a Paris autograph dealer, proving for once and for all, that the ‘Dunkirk Pirate’ had never been a pirate at all, but one of the first heroes of the United States Navy.

April 28th, 1789, the naval ship Bounty, with Lieutenant William Bligh in command, was seized near the Tonga Isles in the South Pacific by mutinous crew members led by Acting First Officer Fletcher Christian. According to accounts, there were two reasons for the mutiny, one was that Fletcher and his fellow sailors were attracted to the ‘idyllic’ life they could live on the Pacific island of Tahiti, and the other was that they were motivated by Bligh’s harsh treatment of them.

On the morning of 28th, April, the unsuspecting captain was overcome in his cabin by Fletcher and some crew, all heavily armed. Bligh and eighteen other crewmen were bundled into the ship’s small launch and set adrift, incredibly, the castaways safely completed a voyage of 3,500 miles across uncharted ocean to the Dutch island of Timor.

Back in England, an outraged government promptly dispatched HMS Pandora, under Captain Edwards, to the South Seas to apprehend and bring back for trial any mutineers he could find and in March 1791, Edwards arrested fourteen crew found living in Tahiti where Fletcher had landed them after the mutiny almost two years ago. But of Fletcher himself and the rest of the crew, there was not a trace. Of the fourteen he had arrested, once back in England; three were sentenced to be hanged, four were acquitted, and the remaining seven were pardoned. Fletcher Christian, and the other eight mutineers were never found.

April 1896, a tall well built mysterious Irishman, with a mop of black appeared in the silver camp in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, looking for work. Aged around twenty, he never talked about his past, but let it slip after having a little drink one evening, that he had studied for the priesthood in his home country of Ireland, why he had stopped, or why he had left Ireland he never said.

When anyone enquired as to his name, the reply was always, ‘Father Mike will do as well as any other.’ With that he headed towards the inhospitable plateau, going further out than the other miners dared, in fact the only people who ventured out so far were the odd cowboy or sheep herder who went looking for lost animals.

The few who came across Father Mike, who had built a rough cabin overlooking Paradox Valley, fully believed that he could not last very long in this place and would die. Years later, a large mysterious man walked into the general store at Dove Creek, some twenty miles from Paradox Valley; not only had Father Mike survived, but he had prospered, mining enough ore to warrant building a bigger house and after this he became known as The Colorado Hermit.

In 1934, Farther Mike died, and a search of his home revealed a saving book with a balance of $6,400 and a diploma from the University of Dublin. Despite this information, there still remains unanswered questions about the mysterious Irishman who decided to live alone in such an isolated place.