"Pirate" Bill Johnson
N 44° 19.455 W 076° 09.886
18T E 407125 N 4908547
Quick Description: A Historical Plaque telling the story of a "Real Life" St Lawrence River Pirate, Bill Johnson.
Location: Ontario, Canada
Date Posted: 8/20/2011 11:25:42 AM
Waymark Code: WMCC1A
Pirate Bill Johnston (February 1, 1782-February 17, 1870) was a Thousand Islands smuggler, river pirate, and War of 1812 American privateer. He so annoyed the British in the 19th-century Canadian colonies that they called out the army every time his name made the newspapers. He was the man the British most wanted to hang. They spent a fortune hunting him and preparing defenses against him.
Bill Johnston spent his first 30 years as a loyal British subject. He was one of a dozen children born to British Loyalists parents  who fled the American Revolution in 1781 to become pioneers in Upper Canada (now Ontario).
As a boy, he helped carve a farm out of the primal forest west of present day Kingston. At 16, he apprenticed to a local blacksmith and stayed 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 America, 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 prosperous merchant and on his way to becoming a pillar of Upper Canada society.
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, allegedly for spying. Johnston escaped and paddled to Sackets Harbor, NY, in a canoe. The British confiscated all 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  in the Thousand Islands in a gig—a fast, light rowboat—powered by six oarsmen that gave them a distinct advantage. It was faster and more able to slip through narrow channels than larger boats. 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, attacked their supply boats, robbed mail couriers, burned ships, and participated in battles at Sackets Harbor, New York, and Crysler's Farm, Upper Canada.
After the war, Bill and his growing 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.
In early December, 1837, a small band of rebels in Upper Canada attacked Toronto, led by its former mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie. His force defeated, Mackenzie fled to Buffalo, New York, and recruited an army of American sympathizers and Canadian refugees known as the Patriots. They fortified Navy Island in the Niagara River. One night, a band of British soldiers crossed the icy river and destroyed Mackenzie's supply ship, the Caroline, and killed an American sailor.
The Caroline raid enraged Johnston. He left his peaceful life and joined the Patriot War. Mackenzie appointed him admiral of the eastern navy (there was no navy).
In 1838, rebel armies based in the US, calling themselves either Patriots or Hunters, attacked Canada at least seven times. Johnston helped plan an attack on Upper Canada near Detroit led by Patriot General Donald McLeod[disambiguation needed] in February 1838. The same month, he organized an attack on Kingston and temporarily occupied a Canadian island. (He aborted the invasion because the British learned of his plans.)
In November 1838, a force of 186 American freedom fighters occupied a small village in Canada across from Ogdensburg, NY. Later known as the Battle of the Windmill, they held off a superior British force for five days before surrendering. Johnston ferried supplies to the Canadian shore and helped refloat two rebel schooners that ran aground on mud flats the first day of the battle.
Note: Some historians say Johnston was the skipper on one of the rebel schooners. None of the written accounts by participants support that notion.
Bill Johnston's signature event—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.
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. They failed to show up.
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 armada and army into the 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.
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 and probably millions of dollars in costs, both sides failed to find him and reduced their forces.
Johnston surrendered to US authorities shortly after the Battle of the Windmill. He claims he was tired of running. 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.
Johnston spent his later years as a smuggler, tavern owner, and lighthouse keeper. He spent his last years in Clayton living in his son Samuel's hotel, the Walton House.
Nineteenth-century parents living near the Thousand Islands raised children on apocryphal tales of Pirate Bill Johnston, a pistol-packing bogeyman who stalked into people's rooms while they slept. Mothers warned naughty boys he would come for them unless they behaved. In contrast to his reputation, Bill was never the accused cutthroat that people though he was. There is no evidence he killed anyone outside of the War of 1812.
He must've been quite a guy!!!
*Information Sourced from Wikipedia
Site Description: Historic Marker
Date of Pirate Activity (Estimated): 1812
Reference Web-link or Book Title: http://rockislandlighthouse.org/johnston.html
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