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 believed 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.