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.

On July 4, 1838, Bill Johnston threw a big party at Fort Wallace. Boatloads of prominent men and supporters from New York State rowed out to Johnston's hideout to celebrate Independence Day. As the toasting and feasting progressed, Johnston unfurled the Peel's flag and retold the story of the ship's sinking.

The guests dubbed him Admiral Sir William Johnston and presented him with a flag bearing that name. They stated, if the British could knight Colonel Allan Napier MacNab for burning the Caroline, they could knight Johnston for burning the Peel.

The party was the talk of the river afterward as Johnston surely knew it would be. Days later, he loaded his boats and abandoned the island knowing the British would soon find it.

Aside. Fort Wallace Island sits just inside the Canadian border a short row from Grindstone Island in the US. The island is about 300 feet long, about 100 wide, with its highest end about 20 feet above the water. In 1838, a cave-like cleft penetrated deep into the island on its north side. Enlarged by generations of smugglers, it boasted bunks and storage space. The cave has long since collapsed. Nothing remains but a rubble-filled divot in the cliff.

Johnston Betrayed and Nearly Captured

On July 2, 1838, at Sackets Harbor, NY, US General Alexander Macomb (April 3, 1782–June 25, 1841) met British officers Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Dundas (1801-1876), a regiment commander, and Captain Williams Sandom (1785-August 15, 1858), commander of the British naval forces in Upper Canada. Together they forged a gentlemen's agreement whereby the forces of either country could hunt for Johnston in the territory of the other. On July 11, Johnston and a band of men barely escaped capture or death by this new alliance.

Johnston and his crew arrived by boat on the south side of Grindstone Island on July 10 to visit the small farm of one of the Peel pirates, John Farrow. According to historian John Northman (who interviewed many of Bill's descendants in the 1930s), Bill also visited a cousin, Samuel Johnston, living nearby. Samuel disapproved of Bill's lawless ways. After a brief chat, Bill returned to Farrow's.

The next morning at dawn, Farrow's barking dogs awoke Johnston. He spied 50 British navy men under Lieutenant George Leary of the Royal Navy advancing from the north. A minute later, Captain Gwynne and 50 US infantry arrived from the south.

Johnston led his men at a full run into the forest amidst a hail of musket balls. Most of his men escaped. Gwynne's men captured one lad, a new recruit, and a neighboring farmer who'd dropped by for a chat. The US confiscated Johnston's gig. Leary's men shot Farrow's watchdogs.

Aside. A description of the captured gig appeared in local newspapers that illustrates how well Johnston's boats were adapted to the Thousand Islands. "The boat is 28 feet long and 4 1/2 feet wide...She has one set of sweeps, and one set of short oars, so as to row either single or double-handed. This boat is so light that 2 men can carry her with ease, and she is capable of transporting 20 men, with their arms."

It was clear the authorities knew where Johnston slept that night. Someone told them. Northman says all the evidence he uncovered points to cousin Samuel being Judas to his kin.

Despite Bill Johnston's traitorous cousin, he slipped the noose and disappeared into the primal forest of Grindstone Island and the labyrinthine splendor of the Thousand Islands.

Further Reading

Read a fictionalized version of Bill Johnston's Fourth of July party, an excerpt from my pending novel.
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