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."

Johnston on the Run

Johnston's main hideouts fell one by one after he burned the Sir Robert Peel: first his hideout near Fiddler's Elbow and now Fort Wallace.
Fort Wallace Island
A combined force from two countries of five hundred men and at least four steamships, plus smaller boats, concerned themselves entirely with Johnston's capture. Bill Johnston remained free but his freedom to move about unchallenged was gone. Johnston and his remaining men watched the manhunt in hiding by day and moved about by night.

Mohawks Asked to Join the Hunt

The Johnston manhunt almost included hunters from a third nation. British commanders invited their trusty Mohawk allies to Kingston to help in pirate manhunt. The Mohawk nation had a long history of helping the British in the defense of Upper Canada. When the Mohawk chiefs learned they were expected to attack one of Bill Johnston's strongholds, they packed up and went home. No sane man follows a bear into its cave.

Anglo-British Alliance Unravels

The gentlemen's agreement between US and British officers on July 2, 1838, to allow either country to hunt for Johnston in the territory of the other, was a tenuous at best. While in Canada it enjoyed high-level support, including from Governor General Lord Durham, it inflamed the citizens of Jefferson County, NY, many who still vividly remembered the War of 1812.

The day after the Anglo-American force raided Fort Wallace, the alliance began to fall apart. The catalyst for its downfall was John Johnston, one of Bill's sons.

On July 12, Lieutenant Leary anchored the Bull Frog at the mouth of French Creek at Clayton, NY. That evening, John Johnston set out in a rowboat with a lawyer bound for Grindstone Island to serve papers in connection with a civil suit.

As John rowed past the Bull Frog, the ship's cannon boomed a warning and it steamed over to intercept them. Leary ordered John and his passenger onboard. After a half hour of harsh questioning, Leary released them. The next day, the American shore buzzed with news of the British affront against two respected citizens. Leary's action took on the status of an international incident. Angry letters and petitioners besieged the state governor. Within days, US General Alexander Macomb, commander of US forces, asked the British to keep ships out of US waters.

The end of the alliance meant Bill Johnston was less likely to be hanged. Had the British captured him anywhere, his activities as a pirate and his "traitorous" switching of sides in the War of 1812 meant a death penalty. Capture by US forces would net him just a prison term, probably a short one.

The separate armies and navies continued their hunt for Bill. The number of eye-witness sightings of Bill and his men dwindled that summer as Johnston adapted to the siege of his 1700-island archipelago and stayed out of sight.
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