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

In 1862, Charles Lindsey published Life and Times of Wm. Lyon Mackenzie. For the most part, the book by Mackenzie’s son-in-law is a wealth of info on the Upper Canada Rebellion and the Patriot War. 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. Earlier authors did not make the same mistake but numerous authors since have copied Lindsey's error.

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.

Anti-Johnston Propaganda

On June 7, a week after Bill Johnston and his henchmen looted and burned the Sir Robert Peel, two boatloads of river pirates landed late at night. They assaulted and robbed the occupants of three homes. In one, they pistol whipped a person who resisted and shot one finger off the finger of his son.

Newspapers exaggerated the story, saying that one son lost three fingers and part of a hand. Some said he later died. The victims provided a clear deposition a day after the raid. Despite that truth, generations of writers--including John Charles Dent, Edwin Gullet again--have propagated the misinformation and blamed Bill Johnston.

Pierre Berton included a chapter on Bill Johnston in his book My Country (1976), where he wrote, “A renegade Canadian, he pillaged farms, burned ships, chopped off men’s fingers and terrorized the border…”

Maritime historian Harold Horwood, in writing about Johnston in Plunder and Pillage (2011), stated, “In two separate raids on Amherst Island he shot and cut fingers from the hands of farmers who tried to defend their homes, and in one of his attacks a farm boy was killed.”

John Northman, in installment 52 of his 1938 newspaper series on Johnston found him blameless. “There was not a tittle of evidence that he was near the scene of the crime that night, or had anything to do with it directly.”
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.

Annual Festival Folly

The most amusing 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.
  • 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 story 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.
I appreciate the people of Alex Bay keeping Johnston's legend alive. 

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.