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Pirate Bill Johnston (February 1, 1782 – February 17, 1870) was a Thousand Islands smuggler, river pirate, and War of 1812 American privateer.

Early years

Bill Johnston c. 1840

Bill Johnston spent his first 30 years as a loyal British subject. He was one of a dozen children born to British Loyalist parents [1] who fled the American Revolution in 1781 to settle in Upper Canada (now Ontario).

As a boy, he helped carve a farm out of the primeval forest west of present day Kingston. Starting when he was 16, he apprenticed to a local blacksmith for six years. At 22, he became a potash manufacturer, making use of the plentiful supply of ashes from burned forests. By 24, he captained his own schooner on eastern Lake Ontario. While he often carried legitimate cargo, he just as often smuggled tea and rum.

He married an American, Ann Randolph, in 1807 or early 1808 and began raising a family on his farm west of Kingston, Ontario. After five years of smuggling, Bill amassed enough profit to buy a Kingston store valued at an estimated $12,000, a small fortune in that era. By 1812, at 30, he was a rather prosperous merchant.

Johnston in the War of 1812

The War of 1812 began with American attacks on Britain's colonies in Canada. In May 1813, the Kingston military commander ordered Bill Johnston arrested,[2] allegedly for spying. Johnston escaped and paddled to Sackets Harbor, NY, in a canoe. The British then confiscated his property. He vowed undying revenge on the British and pledged himself to the American commander of the US fleet in Lake Ontario.

For two years, Bill Johnston made war [3] in the Thousand Islands in a gig—a fast, light rowboat. Propelled by six oarsmen, this small craft gave him a distinct advantage in the shallow and tight waterways around the Thousand Islands. If trapped, Johnston's men could easily carry the boat across an island to escape.

Through the warm months of 1813 and 1814, he spied on the British. He may have had a very minor role in 1814, when he is reported (Lossing) to have been under the orders of Midshipman M'Gowan, who led an attempted torpedo attack on the St Lawrence, 102; the attack was supposed to find the ship still on the ways, but arrived too late. On one occasion he robbed the British mail of important official dispatches, which he delivered to the American commanding officer at Sacketts Harbor. He participated in the battles of Sackets Harbor and Crysler's Farm.

After the war, Bill and his family lived briefly in several upstate New York towns. They settled in Clayton in 1834. He established a waterfront shop and continued smuggling tea and rum to Canada. Ironically, the US revenue service paid him to spy on Canadian smugglers coming into the US.

Destruction of the Sir Robert Peel

Bill Johnston's most famous undertaking, the one that earned him his pirate moniker, occurred early on the morning of May 30, 1838. Following a plan Johnston hatched with McLeod, they and twenty others, mostly Canadians, set out to capture the passenger steamer, the Sir Robert Peel. They intended to use the Peel to transport rebel troops to Canada.

Shortly after midnight, the Peel docked at Wellesley Island to load firewood for its boilers. Johnston's men landed 500 yards downstream and set out through the woods towards the Peel. Nine men got lost in the dark. Undeterred, Johnston, McLeod and 11 others attacked the ship. They had hustled the 80 passengers and crew at gunpoint to the wharf. Johnston ordered the ship untied and it drifted downstream. Rebel leaders had promised to send men to help run the ship, but they failed to arrive. Since none of Johnston's men could restart the boilers, he ordered them to loot the ship and burn it. With cries of "Remember the Caroline," they set it aflame and retreated in their boats.

American authorities soon arrested 11 of Johnston's pirate crew. A sympathetic jury acquitted the first man put on trial. The remaining prisoners were released for fear of the same result. Johnston remained at large and even issued a proclamation of war against Britain in which he admitted destroying the Peel. The British and American forces each sent a small naval force and army into the Thousand Islands searching for Johnston. For a brief time, the US allowed British vessels to search for Johnston in American waters, much to the chagrin of many New York citizens.[citation needed] Johnston knew every cave and secret glen in the archipelago. His children, especially his daughter Kate, smuggled him supplies throughout that summer. Despite months of effort, the searchers failed to find him and the forces involved were reduced.

Johnston faced numerous charges for his rebel activities and the Peel raid. In many cases, juries refused to convict him. When he was jailed, he escaped when the mood struck him.

Events leading up to Burning of Sir Robert Peel: Johnston joins the Upper Canadian Rebels

In early December, 1837, a small band of men, led by former Toronto mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie rebelled against British rule. His small force was quickly defeated at Montgomery's Tavern, and Mackenzie fled to Navy Island, near the American border. While there, he proclaimed the Republic of Canada and attempted to recruit an army of Canadian republicans and American sympathizers. On 29 December, a band of British soldiers crossed the icy river and destroyed Mackenzie's supply ship, the Caroline, killing an American sailor.

The Caroline raid enraged Johnston. He left his home and joined Mackenzie's forces. Mackenzie then appointed him admiral of the eastern navy, even though the rebels possessed no navy.

Patriots War and Later Years

In 1838, The Patriot movement inducted between 40,000 and 160,000 men into a multinational, mainly American and Canadian, secret association, the “Hunter’s Lodge” also known as Patriots. The rebels attacked Canada 10 times from the USA. Among the raiders was the legendary Bill Johnston. Johnston helped plan an attack on Upper Canada near Detroit led by Donald McLeod in February 1838. The same month, On the 27th of February, General van Rensselaer led 1,500 men, Johnson among them from Watertown in Jefferson County, New York to seize Hickory Island a short distance from Kingston. However, rivalry between William Lyon Mackenzie and Van Rensselaer resulted in the troops disbanding before an attack on Kingston could be waged.

In November 1838, a force of 250 American hunter patriots crossed the St. Lawrence River at Ogdensburg, NY for an abortive attack on Prescott. After the attack failed on Prescott, the hunter patriots occupied the hamlet of Newport. Later known as the Battle of the Windmill, the invaders were forced to surrender after having been surrounded by British forces for five days. On the first day of the battle, Johnston ferried supplies to the Canadian shore and helped to refloat two rebel schooners that ran aground on the mud flats.

Bill Johnston spent two days and nights on roof tops in Ogdensburg observing the Battle of the Windmill. He hardly ate. Twice he scoured the town in a vain effort to encourage men to cross in boats to take men off. It tore at him cruelly to be safe while his friends faced peril. And worse, some people called him a coward for not being in the battle. Some wind went out of his mighty sails that week.

Bill was tired. The battle and months of hiding from the law had worn him out. He hatched a scheme with his son John to give himself up but an eager deputy marshal ruined his plans.

Historical accounts vary about the actual circumstances of Bill Johnston’s arrest. The best source, is Benson Lossing. Chapter 29 of his 1869 book, Pictorial Field-Book of the War Of 1812, includes information based on actual interviews with elderly Bill. Here’s what Lossing wrote.

“He saw that all was lost, and, weary of hiding, he resolved to give himself up to the authorities of the United States, and cast himself upon the clemency of his country. He made an arrangement with his son John to arrest him and receive the $500 reward. On the 17th of November, he left for Ogdensburg in a boat with his son, when Deputy Marshal McCulloch pursued him in a boat over which floated the revenue flag. Johnston was overtaken about two miles above Ogdensburg. He was armed with a Cochran rifle [an early multi-round rifle], two large rifle-pistols, and a bowie-knife.”

According to historian John Northman, when men in McCulloch’s posse grabbed Bill, he shook them off and then leveled his pistols at them ready for a fight. But Bill hesitated, not wanting to kill fellow Americans. Instead, he and John negotiated surrender where Bill gave up his arms to his son.

McCulloch delivered Johnston to US Colonel William Jenkins Worth, the local military commander, at Ogdensburg. Worth imprisoned Johnston on the steamer Telegraph, where he joined other captured men including: the Hunter General, John Ward Birge; William Sprague, captain of the Hunter ship Charlotte of Oswego; and, Isaac Tiffany, the man who fired a cannon blast from that ship at the Experiment on the first day of the battle. Johnston acquitted US Marshal Nathaniel Garrow took the prisoners by steamer and train to Cayuga, New York, where they were cheered by the townsfolk, and then on to nearby Auburn for trial. Rather than placing his prisoners in jail, Garrow lodged them in a rooms near his in the American Hotel with guards at the doors.

On Friday, November 23, the prisoners and their guards assembled before Judge Conklin for a preliminary hearing on charges that they contravened the US Neutrality Act. Conklin held them over for trial on November 28. Isaac Tiffany had no stomach for a trial and escaped on the 26th.

At trial, Bill Johnston was acquitted because there was no evidence to prove he was involved in the Battle of the Windmill. The marshal promptly arrested him on an outstanding warrant related to the Hickory Island affair in February of that year. Late that night, Johnston and Birge (who had not been acquitted) slipped from their shared hotel room past three guards and vanished into the night. Garrow posted a $200 reward for Admiral Johnston and a mere $50 for General Birge.

Bill Johnston: Re-captured, Imprisoned

After Bill Johnston escaped custody late on November 28, 1838, one man made it his mission to track down the fugitive and apprehend him by whatever means possible. Few men had the skills and daring to find, corner and confront Johnston but this pursuer was Johnston's equal.

As a steamship skipper, Captain William Vaughan knew the Thousand Islands as well as Johnston. As a young naval Lieutenant during the War of 1812, Vaughan had been Johnston's ally and friend. Together, they had raided British supply ships. But, when the British captured Vaughan's son, Hunter, after the Battle of the Windmill, Vaughan held Johnston at least partly responsible. To find Bill Johnston, Vaughan enlisted the help of Bill's son John. John agreed because he believed his father would be granted bail and get little jail time if convicted. John wanted his father to abandon his life on the lam and come home.

On December 8, an informant told Vaughan that Bill was at Salina (now Syracuse). Vaughan, John and a deputy-marshal set out. During travel conversation, John learned there was no chance his father would be granted bail; so he abandoned the pursuit.

Vaughan arrived in Salina but Johnston was gone. Based on a tip, Vaughan set out alone in a sleigh December 10 for a 46-mile journey through the early winter countryside. His destination was a farm near the small town of Rome, where Vaughan heard Johnston was staying with family. (These may have been relatives of Johnston's wife Ann, several who lived near Rome.)

Vaughan walked unannounced into the farm house at nine that night and demanded Johnston return to Salina with him. Though armed with pistols and a dirk, Bill gave no resistance. Vaughan and his prisoner arrived at Salina at 6 the next morning, where Vaughan handed Johnston to the deputy-marshal.

From there, the three men journeyed to Syracuse, and Johnston again found himself in the custody of US Marshal Nathaniel Garrow. Two days later, Garrow locked Johnston in an Albany prison cell.

Following Bill Johnston's arrest at the hands of Captain William Vaughan in December 1838, Johnston awaited trial in an Albany, New York, jail cell. His faithful daughter Catherine (Kate), 19, moved into his cell to provide company, carry messages (she freely came and went) and attend to his needs. Theirs is an early example of celebrity incarceration.

Thanks to newspaper accounts of Kate's heroic efforts to avoid the British patrols as she took supplies to her fugitive father the summer before, Kate was as famous as her Bill. Together, they entertained an unending list of journalists, dignitaries and well-wishers. Kate reportedly turned down several marriage proposals from well-to-do admirers.

One newspaper account from January 26, 1839 reads in part: "He holds a sort of involuntary levee in his prison every day. People flock to see him, especially strangers. He is certainly a very respectable person in appearance; but there is a restlessness in his manner with a tremulousness in his eyes and an indisposition to look you honestly in the face, which gives a very unfavorable impression.

"His daughter, the adventurous girl of the Thousand Islands, is here also—the lioness of the hour. She was in the Senate Chamber the day, the object of course of much curiosity. I am also informed she attended a ball the other evening and was well received."

Bill's jailers provided privileges usually reserved for the rich and famous. Visitors came and went. In his scrapbook, he recorded the names of 84 people who donated money to help sustain him in prison.

In mid-April 1839, the court granted Bill bail. While he visited friends in New York City, Kate went home to Clayton. At the end of the month, Bill returned home and ordered new boats to be built in Cape Vincent. With winter over, spring on the river proved too strong a lure: he declined to return for his court appearance.

After Bill Johnston skipped bail in mid-April 1839 the Canadian and US military launched joint patrols to find him.

A US force, which included military observers from Upper Canada, raided Grindstone Island on July 11, 1839, to arrest Johnston. Bill escaped capture because his observant daughter Kate Johnston warned him the soldiers were coming.

Captain Williams Sandom, the British commander on the Great Lakes, believed gangs of Hunters and various brigands that inhabited the islands had rallied around Johnston. Sandom had good cause. Several times, unknown men in small boats or on secluded American islands had fired rifles at British seaman and ships. At least one cache of arms was discovered in an isolated bay on Lake Ontario.

In August, Johnston visited New York City. A sharp-eyed deputy-sheriff recognized and arrested him on August 19. Three days later, Bill and the deputy attended a bail hearing in Adams, New York, south of Watertown. The judge suggested bail of $10,000. Bill haggled him down to $5000. The judge, deputy and Bill travelled to Watertown so Bill could contact his bail bondsman.

Bill's relaxed and cooperative manner through the whole arrest caused the deputy to drop his guard. In a moment of slack security, Johnston slipped away and headed for the islands.

Early in October 1839, at John Johnston's insistence, Bill returned to the Albany jail voluntarily, with Kate at his side. With cold weather coming, a cell promised far more comfort to the aging troublemaker than a fugitive winter in the Thousand Islands.

Bill Johnston with Kate by his side, passed the wintry months of 1839 and 1840 in the relative comfort of an Albany jail. As usual, the warm weather and wafting scents of spring stirred his vagabond soul. Bill fashioned a cell key made of zinc smuggled in by friends.

One day in late May 1840, Kate went to visit family in Rome, New York. The next evening, Bill unlocked his cell, slipped past guards and walked 40 miles before daybreak. After resting, he continued to Rome. From there, he and Kate returned to the Thousand Islands. He never saw the inside of a prison again.

Following his final escape, Johnston strove to leave his pirate and fugitive past behind. He and Kate gathered names of prominent men on a petition for a pardon. Bill joined the Masons and used his new connections to advantage.

Johnston presented a petition for pardon to the outgoing president, Martin Van Buren, on March 2, 1841. He was granted a meeting with the president at which Van Buren told Johnston that he would sooner see him "shot or hanged instead of pardoned." In an interview in 1858, Johnston recounted that, "Mr. Van Buren, scolded me for presuming to come there with such a petition; but I waited ten days, presented it to President Harrison, and he pardoned me." Satisfied, Johnston returned home to the Thousand Islands.

The government appointed Johnston as keeper of the Rock Island lighthouse in the Thousand Islands, not far from the wreck of the Sir Robert Peel. He held that patronage job from April 1853 to April 1861.

He lived out his later years with his son Decatur who was proprietor of the Hotel Walton at Clayton, New York (previously French Creek). The pirate's brother John was a member of the New York Assembly and president of the First National Bank in Clayton. Johnson's daughter, Kate, who was variously described as "his handsome daughter, the queen of the Thousand Isles" married Charles H. Haws of Clayton N.Y. and had no descendants.


Further reading

  1. Pirates of the Thousand Islands, a biography of Bill Johnston by John Northman. Published in 120 installments in the Watertown Daily Times, 1938 and 1939
  2. Canada As It Was, Is and Will Be by Sir Richard Bonnycastle, Colburn and Co., London, 1852

External links

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