August 12, 2012

Bill Johnston: Common Historical Mistakes

The history of every legendary figure includes tall tales, deliberate embellishments, and apocrypha. Bill Johnston, the nineteenth-century, Thousand Islands folk hero is no exception. Commercial interests, journalistic excess, historical mistakes, and political propaganda have all contributed to myth and mis-fact. This post aims to correct the commonest errors. There are others.

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 the Windmill and that he ran it aground.

Every account by a Canadian historian I have read  up to the end of the 20th century repeated that mistake. The list of author's who copied this error is long and includes such greats as John Charles Dent, Pierre Berton, George F. G. Stanley, Edwin Gullet, and John Northman. The mistake persists in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography online (even though I have sent them evidence of the mistake).

Of note, a series of articles on the Patriot War by US writer L. N. Fuller published in the Watertown Daily Times in March through May of 1923 did not repeat the mistake. It seems that Canadian authors wanted to paint Johnston as an incompetent rebel--an admiral who could not steer a ship.

The error is easy to refute since none of the many accounts by battle combatants or observers corroborate Lindsey's error. The first Canadian author to correct the historical record was Donald E. Graves in 2001 in his superbly researched book Guns Across the River.

Annual Festival Folly

The most mendacious makeover of the Johnston legend is perpetrated annually in 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 oft repeated and silliest misfacts: that Bill Johnston spent months hiding in a cave on Devil's Oven Island in 1838. The cave entrance is in plain sight 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.


A week after Bill Johnston and 12 henchmen looted and burned the steamer Sir Robert Peel in late May 1838, two boatloads of river pirates invaded two homes on Amherst Island near Kingston. The colonial Canadian press and public blamed Bill Johnston. Canada, still reeling from Johnston’s attack on the steamer, used the Amherst Island raid to blacken Johnston’s folk hero image and to further criticize the USA’s inability to apprehend bandits based in the American islands.

The only evidence presented was that the two boats looked like Johnston’s long, oar-powered watercraft. None of the victims identified Johnston, though he was well known on both sides of the river. He certainly would not have hidden in the shadows. That was not his style. (During the Peel raid, he was in prominent view.)  Johnston had no history of home invasion--his war was with Britain and its symbols of power, not its citizens.

Some of Johnston’s henchmen were bandits and smugglers. For example, in April 1839, two of Johnston’s fellow Peel raiders, John Farrow and Robert Smith, robbed a mail rider near Gananoque. The Amherst Island bandits may have been acquaintances of Johnston and may have borrowed his boats, but I doubt he sanctioned the attack.


Many sources state that President William Henry Harrison granted Johnston a pardon. Johnston told that to historian Ben Lossing during an interview in 1859. It may be true, but there is no record of Harrison granting pardons in his brief presidency.

1 comment:

  1. thank you for clearing up the myths surrounding Bill Johnston's name. For too long I have cringed at the celebration of "Pirate Days". It's high time that the name of the thousand islands hero be treated right.