November 24, 2010

Where is Bill Johnston's Scrapbook?

Updated April 2013
The Holy Grail for Bill Johnston researchers is locating his lost scrapbook. Bill started the scrapbook while in jail in Albany in 1840 and added notes and clippings for the rest of his life. One of the last entries is said to be a newspaper notice about his eldest brother Andrew's death at 103 in 1870. Andrew died just a few months before Bill.

November 17, 2010

Windmill Battle: 3. Small British Gunboat Stymies Hunter Invasion

While Colonel Nils von Schoultz unloaded raiders and munitions from the Charlotte of Toronto at the windmill mid-morning, November 12, 1838, the other Hunter schooner remained stuck in the mud. It held the bulk of their supplies, including several large cannon. General John Birge, in his only meaningful involvement of the battle, attempted to free the grounded ship.

November 1, 2010

Windmill Battle: 2. Bill Johnston Helps Hunters Raid

After Colonel Nils von Schoultz ordered the two schooners being towed by the steamer United States cut loose, they sailed downstream under a sliver of moon. Guided by just the loom of the shoreline, the helmsmen sought the lamplights of Prescott, Upper Canada, the target of the Hunter invasion.

October 18, 2010

Windmill Battle: 1. The Attack Begins

In early November, Hunter General John Ward Birge put the word out for his army of Hunter to assemble for war at various towns along eastern Lake Ontario and the Thousand Islands. He timed this to coincide with a state election so that crowds of strangers on the move might look less suspicious.

August 9, 2010

Kate Johnston: Heroine of the 1000 Islands

By mid-July 1838, Bill Johnston had separated from most of his followers in an effort to stay hidden. He knew one man or a small group is harder to find than a horde, and easier to feed and supply. While hunting and fishing could sustain a woodsman like Johnston in a pinch, he still needed clothes, provisions, and his wife's home cooking to keep body and soul together. For that he relied on his relatives, especially his daughter Kate, a young woman destined to become almost as legendary as her father.

July 26, 2010

Bill Johnston: 11. Fort Wallace Falls

Within hours of his attempted capture of Bill Johnston on Grindstone Island, Lieutenant George Leary of the Royal Navy sailed his armed steamer, Bull Frog, directly to Johnston's principal hideout, Fort Wallace. Inside were a few broken muskets and the flag proclaiming Sir William Johnston. The unlikely knight abandoned the fort a week earlier after his famous party.

The island most identified with Johnston was no longer a secret. Bill shrugged off the loss. As he was later quoted: "Fort Wallace is wherever I am."

July 19, 2010

Bill Johnston: 10. Party, Run, and Hide

In the face of the massive manhunt for him in the summer of 1838, Bill Johnston remained cocky but retained his soldier's respect for his enemy. He knew the net was drawing tighter. Most vulnerable was his principal hideout, Fort Wallace, because it sat in plain sight. He knew the time had come to abandon the cozy cave with its water-level entrance hidden by drooping trees. But, first he insisted on one more show of bravado and defiance.

July 12, 2010

Bill Johnston: 9. The Fox Bites the Hound

Reacting to Bill Johnston's sacking of the Sir Robert Peel, his proclamation of war, and his near-hero status among Americans, the United States and the British in colonial Canada each dispatched a small armada to find Johnston. More than any other, one man dearly wanted to see him hang.

July 5, 2010

Bill Johnston: 8. Taunts His Pursuers

The day after Bill Johnston issued his proclamation of war, the passenger steamer Oswego was taking on a load of fuel wood not far from where Johnston destroyed the Sir Robert Peel. Several passengers noticed a dark rowboat draw up to a nearby island. Four men landed and skulked through the forest carrying pistols. They watched the Oswego for a few minutes and returned to the boat. A wildfire of speculation swept the ship—could that be Johnston? Is this another attack?

June 28, 2010

Peel Raiders: Their History and Fate

After William Anderson was acquitted for arson in the destruction of the Sir Robert Peel, the American authorities stopped searching for any missing Peel raiders, except Bill Johnston. The uncaptured raiders simply went home or to business as usual. Some of them joined Johnston in the Thousand Islands. A few continued to fight for the Patriots and Hunters against the British in Upper Canada.

June 21, 2010

Bill Johnston's Peel Raiders Go on Trial

Within days of Bill Johnston's raid on the Sir Robert Peel, American constables arrested 13 of his pirate crew, including three men who never set foot on the ship. Most people in Jefferson County, NY, supported Johnston's men and waited expectantly for their trials to start. The show began on June 23, 1838, at the county court house in Watertown. And what a show!

June 14, 2010

Bill Johnston: 7. Proclamation of War

Despite having two countries combing the Thousand Islands searching for him after the burning of the Sir Robert Peel, Bill Johnston did not cower in fear nor flee to safer environs. Instead he issued a declaration of war. Picked up by newspapers, his words swept across Canada and the border states, and landed on the desks of Queen Victoria and President Martin Van Buren.

Where is Bill Johnston's Original Letter to Bernard Bagley

William Johnston wrote the following letter in August 1838 while in hiding in the Thousand Islands. He sent it to Bernard Bagley, a prominent lawyer in Jefferson County, NY. In it Johnston proposes to raise an army with funds Bagley provides, then liberate Canada and appoint Bagley to run the country.

May 10, 2010

Bill Johnston: 6. Sacks and Burns Steamer

Since the failed attempt to attack Canada from Hickory Island in late February 1838, an uneasy peace had settled along the Thousand Islands as the bulk of the Patriot army went back to their farms for spring planting. Into that lull stepped Bill Johnston and Donald McLeod at the head of a bold raid that became Johnston's signature event—the act that earned him his pirate moniker.

March 29, 2010

Patriot Attack on Kingston Falters

On the evening of February 21, 1838, Patriot General Rensselaer Van Rensselaer tried to rally his army and march 6.5 kilometers (4 miles) from Clayton, NY, across the ice-covered St. Lawrence River to Hickory Island. The island, just inside the Canadian border, was to be the first step in the Patriot invasion of Upper Canada.

March 22, 2010

Van Rensselaer Spoils Bill Johnston's Plans

Five weeks after Bill Johnston held a council of war in Buffalo with William Lyon Mackenzie, Donald McLeod, Rensselaer Van Rensselaer, and Daniel Heustis, his preparations for the invasion of Canada at Kingston were ready. He had the weapons, the men, and their provisions. They were unstoppable, or so he and others thought.

March 16, 2010

Bill Johnston Builds an Army

While General Donald McLeod headed off to invade Windsor, the other Patriot leaders traveled by coach to upstate New York to carry out their Eagle Tavern battle plan. William Lyon Mackenzie, Rensselaer Van Rensselaer, and Daniel Heustis stopped in Watertown. Bill Johnston continued on to Clayton. Together, they began to build an army of invasion with stunning ease.

March 1, 2010

Bill Johnston: 5. Planning the Downfall of Canada Over a Few Beers

The first six weeks of the Patriot War hadn't gone very well. William Lyon Mackenzie's troops abandoned Navy Island and General Henry Handy gave up trying to attack western Upper Canada. It appeared to outside observers that the Patriot War and threats to Canada had evaporated. But appearances can be misleading. Bill Johnston was spoiling for a fight.

February 22, 2010

Bill Johnston: Common Historical Mistakes

As with any legendary figure, Bill Johnston's history has been embellished with misfacts. This post aims to correct the commonest errors.

Annual Festival Folly

The most mendacious makeover of the Johnston legend is perpetrated annually by the town of Alexandria Bay, New York. Each August, the local tourism industry stages its "Bill Johnston Pirate Days" festival.

Here is a list of misfacts found in Alex Bay press releases and web sites:
  • The festival re-enacts Bill Johnston's alleged pirate-ship attack on the village. Johnston never attacked Alex Bay or any other American town. Johnston was a loyal American who fought for the US in the War of 1812. His war was always against the British.

  • The festival literature repeats one of the silliest misfacts: that Bill Johnston spent months hiding in a cave on Devil's Oven Island in 1838. The cave entrance is in plain site of Alex Bay, making it a poor hideout. It is also narrow and claustrophobic, an unlikely dwelling for a large, active man. Many sources say Bill's daughter Kate smuggled food to her father while he hid in that narrow cave. While Kate did run supplies to Bill, it was never to Devil's Oven. An article published in the Watertown Re-union in February 13, 1873, quoted Kate Johnston as saying that the cave story "is a fabrication."

  • The pirates in the mock Alex Bay raid dress like the cast of a "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie. That garb was long out of fashion by 1838. Bill's henchmen dressed like the farmers and laborers they were. Bill always wore modest homespun garments in neutral colors. Unlike the grog-drinking overtones of the festival, historic accounts suggest Johnston was a teetotaler or occasional drinker, and a non-smoker.

Repeated Historical Mistake

The first person to chronicle the 1838 Patriot War was Charles Lindsey in Life and Times of Wm. Lyon Mackenzie, 1862. For the most part, the book by Mackenzie’s son-in-law is a wealth of Patriot War information. But, Lindsey incorrectly stated that Bill Johnston captained one of the Hunter schooners during the Battle of theWindmill.

Every historical account I have read from John Charles Dent in 1885 up to the end of the 20th century repeated that mistake. The error is easy to spot since none of the many accounts by battle combatants or observers corroborate Lindsey's error. Donald E. Graves fixed the historical record in 2001 in his superbly researched book Guns Across the River.

February 12, 2010

About this Pirate Bill Johnston Blog

Bill Johnston was the most colorful character alive in the 19th century in the Thousand Islands region. He fought in the War of 1812 for the US, sided with the Canadian rebels in 1838, smuggled successfully for decades, and created newspaper headlines wherever he went. The British government spent millions trying to capture him or to defend against him. In his day, he was as infamous as Osama bin Laden (though not as deadly or ruthless).

I am one of the small fraternity of people who research the life of William "Pirate Bill" Johnston. Over time, this site will post as much biographical and supporting info as I can find on Bill Johnston and his family.

While much is known about Johnston, mysteries remain to be solved. You can find these under the Mysteries topic category. If any readers can solve a mystery or provide clues, please let me know.

Bill Johnston is also the central biographical character of my historical novels, Counter Currents and Islands of Love and War.

Though much is written elsewhere about Bill Johnston, some is incomplete and much is wrong. This site relies on primary and secondary sources for info, and only the best tertiary historical sources, to bring you Bill Johnston's life story free of political slander and fanciful illusions.

This site is a companion site to Raiders and Rebels. That site includes stories on Johnston as well as his contemporaries. The Pirate Bill Johnston site acts as a repository for all Bill Johnston posts from Raiders and Rebels plus information not posted there.

All material Copyright 2010-2012. This site is an online publication of Raiders and Rebels Press, a registered operating name of Businesstek Publishing Inc.

February 4, 2010

Bill Johnston: 4. Battles the British in 1814

In the summer of 1814, the third year of war between the US and colonial Canada, Bill Johnston narrowly avoided capture and probable execution. While spying for America in Canadian waters, a sudden storm smashed his gig on the rocks east of Kingston. Someone alerted the British and soon a detachment of redcoats and Mohawks gave chase. Bill told his men to surrender and claim they were looking for American deserters. Being regulars in the navy, he knew they’d be treated decently as prisoners of war. He had to run though, because he believe he’d be summarily executed if caught.

Bill Johnston: 3. War on the British in 1813

 That old adage "from the frying pan into the fire" sums up Bill Johnston's flight to the US. The War of 1812 seemed to follow him. The British invaded Sackets Harbor on May 28, 1813, just days after Bill settled his family there.

Bill Johnston: 2. Declares Personal War on Britain

The United States declared war on Britain in June of 1812 and attacked her colonies in Canada. Naval and land battles soon raged along the border. With Canada's military significantly outnumbered, the war threw Kingston—Upper Canada's military center—into a patriotic and jingoistic frenzy. That did not fit well with Bill Johnston's independent spirit.

Bill Johnston: 1. A Pirate's Roots

Bill Johnston (February 1, 1782-February 17, 1870)—whose scallywag and scofflaw ways in later years came to the attention of Queen Victoria and several US presidents—spent 30 years as a loyal British subject. Then, all Hell broke loose.