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.

Bill Johnston's Proclamation

    To all whom it may concern,
    I, William Johnston, a natural born citizen of Upper Canada, certify that I hold a commission in the Patriot service of Upper Canada, as commander-in-chief of the naval forces and flotilla. I commanded the expedition that captured and destroyed the steamer Sir Robert Peel. The men under my command in that expedition were nearly all natural-born English subjects; the exceptions were volunteers. My headquarters is on an island in the St. Lawrence River without the jurisdiction of the United States, at a place named by me Fort Wallace. I am well acquainted with the boundary line, and know which of the islands do and do not belong to the United States. In the selection of the island, I wished to be positive and not locate within the jurisdiction of the United States, and had reference to the decision of the Commissioners under the sixth article of the Treaty of Ghent, done at Utica in the State of New York, 13th June, 1822. I know the number of the island, and by that decision, it is British territory. I act under orders. The object of my movement is the independence of the Canadas. I am not at war with the commerce or property of the people of the United States.
    Signed this tenth day of June in the year of Our Lord, one thousand, eight hundred and thirty eight. William Johnston

Mystery: Who Was the Real Author?

Who actually wrote this letter for Johnston is a mystery. Only one authentic letter survives today with Johnston's signature--a letter to Bernard Bagley. It is full of spelling errors and poor grammar. The person who wrote his proclamation was far more literate.

Some Bill Johnston historians speculate that William Lyon Mackenzie wrote the proclamation. It could well have been. Mackenzie knew and supported Johnston, and he certainly had the writing skills, but I find the wording lacks Mackenzie's flamboyant style. To me, it sounds like a lawyer wrote it.

Bill Johnston was well acquainted with Bernard Bagley (November 5, 1791-June 26, 1878), a Jefferson County lawyer. Bagley defended William Anderson, one of Johnston's Peel raiders. Bagley was also a Patriot sympathizer, a frequent correspondent to Mackenzie's newspaper, the Mackenzie Gazette, and a vocal supporter of the US Whig party. William Johnston also occasionally contributed letters to the Gazette. One, printed in September 15, 1838, used language and syntax similar to the proclamation, and in it Johnston supported the Whigs.

In his serialized biography of Bill Johnston, historian John Northman stated that Bagley journeyed to Johnston's hideout in the Thousand Islands that summer in 1838 and helped write Bill's letter to the Gazette. I'm betting that Bagley also helped write the proclamation for Johnston earlier in 1838.

Further Reading

  • Read a transcribed version of Johnston's letter to Bernard Bagley.
  • Pirates of the Thousand Islands, by John Northman (pseudonym of W. J. Wraith), published in 120 installments in the Watertown Daily Times in 1938 and 1939. Installments 71 and 72 discuss Bagley. (This series is not online.)
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