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Pirate of the St. Lawrence


by Lorie Lee Steiner


Photo: Remnants of a massive stone windmill near Prescott, at which the campaign known as The Battle of the Windmill was fought. This was the bloodiest fight of the Rebellion of Upper Canada in 1838, although Pirate Bill Johnston sat this battle out, he later turned himself in and was charged with violating neutrality laws, and acquitted.
Photo by Gus Zylstra

Perched 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 breadth—others, 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 Johnston—au contraire—this was a nautical maze the old tar knew well, as well as the labyrinth of battle scars on his forearms and weathered hands.

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!”

Hero or hell-raiser…history can’t 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 one’s 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 around—a 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 Sackett’s 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.

Johnston’s 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 renegade’s haul.

On another occasion, the dreaded Pirate Bill was out scouting in Chauncey’s 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 they’d 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 Sackett’s 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 privateer—looting 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.

Daring, dashing, and full of pluck, there was nothing Bill Johnston believed in more than personal freedom. So, in January 1838, when President Van Buren’s 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 wasn’t 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, Kate—the apple of his shifty eye. As pretty as she was smart, Kate’s 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 Johnston’s 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 didn’t freeze the spirits of Mackenzie’s 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 Pirate—that 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 brilliant—Bill 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 Creek—an 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 west.

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 Gananoque—just 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…and that giant specimen of a cannon, the full length of an oak tree, hollowed out to a five inch diameter and ringed with iron.

Johnston’s most memorable feat of piracy by far, came a few months later—in 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 old—barely broken in. Fortunately for Johnston and his merry men, the ship’s commander, Captain John B. Armstrong, was a braggart who wouldn’t 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 Peel’s 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 woodshed—until 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 land—hitherto 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 Marcy’s bid was $500.00 for the pleasure of Johnston’s 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, stating:

“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 me—Fort 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 United States.”

Fort Wallace, not surprisingly, was a product of Johnston’s 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.

Eventually, Bill decided to join the Patriot expedition to Prescott—in 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. Lawrence—the 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 bunch—especially 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 rallied––the 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 Queen’s evidence, two died in hospital, and thirteen were still awaiting trial. Another sixty had been sentenced to certain purgatory in Van Dieman’s Land. The remaining ones—being the youngest—were 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.

Following 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 incident—the authorities ultimately declaring him more trouble than he was worth.

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 Johnston’s 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 couldn’t 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 lighthouse—in plain sight of Peel Island…and the watery grave of his infamous spoil, the Sir Robert Peel.

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

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 54, Summer/Autumn 2007. Copyright Lorie Lee Steiner.



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