on a three-legged stool high up in the lantern room, the old
salt gazed, sentry-like, over waters as calm as a whisper,
nary a breath of whitecap breaking the solitude. From this
elevated vantage point, on a clear day, he could count upwards
of seventy islands. Some as large as a few miles in breadthothers,
including his own aptly named Rock Island, nothing more than
a small mass of boulder and brush. Landlubbers on both sides
of the St. Lawrence agreed that the vast waterway, with its
havoc-wreaking reefs, was a spectacle best enjoyed from ashore.
But the territory posed no threat for Bill Johnstonau
contrairethis was a nautical maze the old tar knew well,
as well as the labyrinth of battle scars on his forearms and
Aye, he pondered, if only I whar
a younger soul, with a wee crew and me swift little vessel
skulkin in the shallows
why, the beacon might just
happen t wink out a false signal, n steer
one o them booty ships this way
Shrieking gulls circled overhead as he
strode out onto the circular walkway of the observation deck.
Leaning against the iron railing, he scouted the blazing horizon
with a furrowed brow. The setting sun kindled memories of
another fiery night, years past, and a notorious undertaking
that had earned the hard-boiled lightkeeper the infamous title,
Pirate of the Thousand Islands. He tightened his
grip on the Bowie knife in his fist, dark eyes gleaming, lips
curled into a sly snarl. Aye, mateys, he hollered
at the hovering scavengers, them whar the days!
history cant quite seem to categorize
the brazen buccaneer William Johnston. Born in 1782 in Trois-Rivieres,
Lower Canada, Johnston was early on disillusioned by the arrogance
of the British rule. With little use or opportunity for book-learning,
he became a scholar of survival, apprenticing as a blacksmith
and a boat builder, and schooling himself in the practical
art of living by ones wits. In his twenties, he operated
a lake freighting business and came to know the treacherous
nooks and shoals of the St. Lawrence riverscape better than
any sailing man arounda knowledge which would many a
time save his backside.
When the War of 1812 broke out, Bill,
as he was called, was living above Kingston, on the Bay of
Quinte. His marriage two years earlier to an American, Anna
Randolph, (which he later described as the beginning of his
troubles), had done nothing to rein in his adventurous nature.
On the contrary, he became even more of a rabble-rouser. Unhappy
as a private in the Frontenac militia and, having no qualms
about making a buck any way he could, Johnston agreed, for
a price, to row some Americans across the lake to Sacketts
Harbor, N. Y. in a large bark canoe. Once there, he remained
on the American side for the duration of the war in the employ
of the secret service, with a permit to capture all British
public property that might be found afloat in Lake Ontario
and the St. Lawrence River. How said property came to be flotsam
was apparently up to him.
Johnstons preferred means of travel
was a light, swift boat known as a gig, which he named the
Ridgeley. With this fleet vessel, a corporal, and five armed
seamen, he was able to ply the difficult waters with relative
ease, manoeuvring around the Thousand Islands and capturing
many a boat and their stores. Once, he intercepted a Canadian
ship carrying the dispatch mail from the governor at Montreal
to the lieutenant-governor at Toronto. Information contained
in that seizure proved invaluable to the American commander,
Chauncey, who was greatly impressed with the renegades
On another occasion, the dreaded Pirate
Bill was out scouting in Chaunceys boat, when wicked
weather dashed the vessel onto the Canadian shore. The boat
was wrecked and the crew subsequently arrested by a group
of militia from nearby Kingston. An inveterate liar, Johnston
instructed his men to say theyd been cast out as deserters
and got caught in the storm on their return home. The story
took and, within a week, the men were released on parole.
Meanwhile, the elusive scallywag had hidden inside a hollow
tree stump in a neighbouring field, where he remained for
several days. It would be a gruelling three weeks before he
finally made his way back to Sacketts Harbor.
The 20s and 30s saw Johnston
come into his own with a lucrative smuggling operation, running
between French Creek (Clayton), N.Y. and the area around Kingston.
Romantic tales circulated of the fearless privateerlooting
and plundering all manner of ships with rarely a drop of blood
shed. The rare times he was caught, he always managed to escape,
only to disappear like a phantom to one of his island hideaways.
dashing, and full of pluck, there was nothing Bill Johnston
believed in more than personal freedom. So, in January 1838,
when President Van Burens Neutrality Act was passed
by the U. S. Senate, Johnston refused to give it credence.
The law, in a nutshell, made it a criminal act for any American
to aid or abet revolutionary movements outside of the country,
but since Billy Boy wasnt an American citizen, he continued
doing pretty much as he pleased.
Thus, it was no surprise, when the Rebellion
of 1838 came around, that he was courted and easily persuaded
by rebel leader William Lyon Mackenzie, to join the Patriots
in liberating Canada from tyrannical British rule. Johnston
was, by this time, the father of several sons and an eighteen-year-old
daughter, Katethe apple of his shifty eye. As pretty
as she was smart, Kates loyalty to her father during
his notorious escapades would come to earn her the local title
Heroine of the Thousand Islands.
In February of 1838, destiny delivered
another female into Bill Johnstons life. But there was
no pleasure to be had from the experience. Johnston was about
to suffer a sound defeat at the hands of a young woman he
would never meet.
Winter that year was cold and colourless
as a corpse. But it didnt freeze the spirits of Mackenzies
Patriots, many of whom were gathered in Buffalo, awaiting
orders from the sitting war council. At the meeting, Mackenzie
informed his compatriots including General Rensselaer
Van Rensselaer and Bill Johnston the Piratethat there
were traitors in the British garrison at Fort Henry willing
to disable the guns and open the gates at the first sighting
of a Patriot force. Here was an opportunity too good to be
missed. If Fort Henry was taken, then Kingston (the seat of
Upper Canada) would easily follow suit and multitudes of grateful
Canadians would then surely rush to embrace the Patriot flag.
The meeting adjourned with Johnston bent on immediate action,
rising to the occasion with a rousing, On to Kingston!
Recruiting began at once, and in less
than three weeks, upwards of two thousand volunteers had pledged
allegiance. Ammunition was begged, borrowed and outright stolen
from government arsenals in various towns, and transferred
to campaign headquarters in French Creek. Staunch soldiers
for the cause drifted in from around the county, but by the
night of Feb. 21st, they numbered only six hundred strong.
Merely an advance guard, their leaders promised. The strategy
was brilliantBill Johnston saw to that. The troops would
establish a command post on Hickory Island, situated five
miles from Gananoque on the Canadian side and three miles
across the frozen river from French Creekan ideal location
for advance or, heaven forbid, retreat. Gananoque was a prosperous
town, which would offer up needed supplies for the assault
on the primary target of Kingston, only a few miles to the
Fortunately, the mighty St. Lawrence had
frozen to a depth sufficient for safe travel over its surface.
And travelled it was. By noon on Feb. 22nd, an endless entourage
of sleighs filled with armed men, and an enormous cannon,
mounted on runners and drawn by four horses, had traversed
the ice and joined the few hundred fighters already encamped
at Hickory Island. Front and centre stood Van Rensellaer,
garbed in military finery and infused with enough brandy to
keep his body warm til spring. But there was no Yo-ho-ho
and a bottle of rum for Bill Johnston. For all his other faults,
the man was a lifelong tea-totaller. He deplored spirits of
all kind, as well as the evils of tobacco. On this day, he
stood steadfast and sober, dressed in homespun grey, with
his band of fifty hand-picked recruits. Everything seemed
to be going according to schedule. They had even captured
three Canadian spies, who told detailed stories of the lack
of preparedness on their home front. Victory was at hand.
But even the best laid plans are no match
for a feisty female. Enter Elizabeth Barnett, a twenty-two
year old school mistress. Born in N.Y., she had moved to Gananoque
in 1837 to teach, fallen in love with the country and its
people, and became a loyal Canadian citizen. A strange twist
of fate found her back on American soil in early 1838, visiting
relatives near French Creek. The streets there were abuzz
with talk of patriotism and the liberation of Canada. Elizabeth
listened with mixed feelings, until, on Feb. 20th, she overheard
a conversation giving the date and particulars of an impending
invasion of Gananoquejust two short days away. She knew
she had to act. Taking on a heroic role reminiscent of Laura
Secord, Miss Barnett cut short her family visit, feigning
illness, and early the next day took a cutter to French Creek,
where she saw for herself the military preparations underway.
Continuing the trek over ten miles of
frozen river, with icy winds and snow chilling her to the
bone, she arrived home in the dark of night and repeated the
story. One mention of the name Bill Johnston was
enough to bring the whole town to attention. Word was sent
forthwith to Kingston and Fort Henry and, before long, six
companies of the Leeds Militia, the Brockville Rifle Company,
and a band of Indians from the Mohawk reserve had arrived
at Gananoque to fortify the waterfront.
What ensued was the beginning of the end
for the Patriot Army. With the element of surprise gone and
their so-called easy target heavily armed and waiting, the
troops on Hickory Island began a retreat back across the river,
half-frozen, proverbial tails between their legs. Van Rensellaer
sulked, blaming everyone but himself. And Bill Johnston, in
a scene characteristic of the captain going down with his
ship, was the last to leave. Next day, Colonel Bonneycastle,
leading the Leeds Militia, advanced on Hickory Island to face
the enemy. But they were greeted only by silence
that giant specimen of a cannon, the full length of an oak
tree, hollowed out to a five inch diameter and ringed with
most memorable feat of piracy by far, came a few months laterin
direct retaliation for the destruction of an American vessel,
The Caroline, that the Brits had commandeered in the Niagara
River and sent blazing over the falls. When asked by the Patriot
powers to capture the British Mail Steamer, Sir Robert Peel,
Bill jumped at the chance to get even. The intent was to seize
the Peel one day, the steamer Great Britain, the next, and
convert the two to lake cruisers for use by the rebels.
The Sir Robert Peel was a wooden side-wheel
passenger steamer built in Brockville, and only a year oldbarely
broken in. Fortunately for Johnston and his merry men, the
ships commander, Captain John B. Armstrong, was a braggart
who wouldnt listen to the advice of others. So, on the
evening of May 29th, when the Peel docked at the wharf on
Wells Island to take on wood, Armstrong ignored a warning
that suspicious characters were lurking in the woods nearby.
Instead of leaving, the captain let down the steam, said he
was going to bed, and advised the Peels nineteen passengers
to do the same.
The night was eerily silent, when suddenly
cries of Remember the Caroline! came screaming
through the air. Dressed like Indians and decorated with war
paint, Johnston and his men raced from the woods. Waving swords
and muskets, they stormed the Peel and forced all onboard
ashore in their nightclothes. The shivering travellers, some
of them ladies, spent the rest of the night huddled together
inside a woodsheduntil an unsuspecting vessel stopped
to refuel the next day and discovered their plight.
Pirate Bill had been promised two hundred
reinforcements to help man the Sir Robert Peel, but when none
arrived, he and his small corps had to make do. The results
were, in a word, disastrous. The unwieldy steamer was far
too much for them to handle alone, so Johnston struck up a
different plan. After looting the vessel of cash and other
valuables, the boat was taken from the dock at Wells Island,
set afire, and floated down a stream, where it came to rest
at a small piece of landhitherto known as Peel Island.
But Bill Johnston had little time to boast.
The sinking of the Peel had caused serious repercussions.
Both the American and Canadian governments, fearful that an
all-out war was in the offing, had decried the outrage and
offered a heavy bounty for the capture of the culprits. New
York Governor Marcys bid was $500.00 for the pleasure
of Johnstons prosecution, while the Earl of Durham (Governor
of Canada) reportedly upped the ante by five thousand dollars.
Boldly taking responsibility for his actions,
the pirate issued a proclamation on the 10th of June 1838,
I, William Johnston, commanded the
expedition that captured and destroyed the steamer, the Sir
Robert Peel. The men under my command in that expedition were
nearly all natural born English subjects: the exceptions were
volunteers for the expedition. My headquarters were on an
island in the St. Lawrence, without the jurisdiction of the
United States, at a place named by meFort Wallace.
I act under orders. The object of
my movements is the independence of the Canadas. I am not
at war with the commerce or property of the people of the
Fort Wallace, not surprisingly, was a
product of Johnstons imagination. His headquarters were
wherever he happened to lay his head. And for the next several
months, that could be anywhere in the Thousand Islands. He
was living as an outlaw, hiding among trees and boulders,
dependent on food delivered by his daughter Kate, who, like
her father, had mastered the oars, and ably sought him out
in the dark of night.
Bill decided to join the Patriot expedition to Prescottin
his words to keep out of the way of both parties.
The campaign, infamously known as the Battle of the Windmill,
was another fiasco. Relying on information from spies that
thousands of Canadians were ready to unite with the cause
at the first opportunity, a plan was formed to land troops
at the Prescott wharf under cover of darkness. From there
they would rush the town and take Fort Wellington before the
garrison knew what was coming. Only trouble was, the two schooners
they had commissioned to carry the men down the St. Lawrencethe
Charlotte, of Toronto, and the Charlotte, of Oswego (captained
by Barnacle Bill Johnston himself)missed the pier in
the dark. When they attempted a second run, both vessels ran
aground. A bad omen to be sure. When they were finally refloated,
they landed downstream about a mile and a half past Prescott,
near a massive stone windmill. The men who disembarked on
Nov. 11th were a bitter bunchespecially when, the next
day, there was still no sight of additional Canadian support,
or American for that matter.
Bill Johnston rowed across the river and
came back with news that five hundred men would be arriving
the following morning. But it was too late. The enemy had
already ralliedthe battle was at hand. Savvy enough
to know a lost cause when he saw one, Johnston returned to
the American side and sat this one out. Meanwhile, the British
sent steamers to cut off American reinforcements from reaching
Windmill Point and mustered a throng of militia to advance
on the insurgents. The Patriots took refuge in the windmill,
loading their guns with pieces of iron and screws torn from
the doors and fixtures, but the situation was hopeless. The
British kept firing through the night, until all had surrendered.
This was the bloodiest fight of the Rebellion
in Upper Canada. In all, thirteen British and Canadian troops,
and about twenty Patriots died on the battlefield, and close
to a hundred men were wounded. The Kingston Chronicle and
Gazette later gave a breakdown of the fates of approximately
one hundred and forty soldiers who were taken prisoner. Of
these: ten had been executed, four turned Queens evidence,
two died in hospital, and thirteen were still awaiting trial.
Another sixty had been sentenced to certain purgatory in Van
Diemans Land. The remaining onesbeing the youngestwere
pardoned and sent back to the United States. Eleven years
later, the Van Dieman convicts were also granted amnesty and
allowed to return home from Australia.
the Windmill defeat, a weary Johnston, fed up with hiding
out, arranged for his son to turn him in and claim the $500
reward. On November 17th, armed with a rifle, Bowie knife
and two large pistols, Bill was arrested on his boat, charged
with violating the neutrality laws, and acquitted. Again he
was arrested, and escaped. He gave himself up in Albany, and
after three months of incarceration, was tried, found guilty,
and sentenced to one year in prison. Even with his daughter
Kate keeping him company in the brig, six months was enough
for his restless soul, so Bill manufactured a key from a piece
of zinc and escaped again. He went home without incidentthe
authorities ultimately declaring him more trouble than he
A year or so later, when the Patriot fight
had pretty much fizzled out, Johnston passed around a petition
for his pardon, gathering an overwhelming number of signatures.
Gutsy to the end, in March 1841, he went to Washington himself
and presented it to the President. Van Buren, just at the
end of his term in office, was not amused, suggesting he would
rather see him shot or hanged than pardoned.
In Johnstons words, 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.
Life certainly has its ironies, and Pirate
Bill Johnston couldnt help but gloat every time he confronted
his. You see, after receiving the pardon, he was given a commission
on Rock Island. And the very government that had put a price
of $500 on his head, was now paying him $350 a year as keeper
of a lighthousein plain sight of Peel Island
the watery grave of his infamous spoil, the Sir Robert Peel.
Beware! Canadas Premiere Pirate has recently been spotted
hiding out on the following websites:
Raiders and Rebels
Note from the author:
Thanks to Shaun McLaughlin for pointing out that William Johnston’s true motivation for joining the Americans in 1812 was not money, but his anger with the British after they falsely imprisoned him and took away his worldly goods. In true pirate fashion, he escaped—and the rest, as they say, is 1000 Islands history.
Lorie Lee Steiner, Feb. 25, 2010