Rock Island Lighthouse Keepers
< Previous    Menu    Next >
 "Pirate" William Johnston, 1853-1861
    Written by Mark A. Wentling

 

        William "Bill" Johnston, so-called "Admiral of the Patriot Navy" and "Pirate of the Thousand Islands," was born at Trois Rivières, Canada, on February 1st, 1782. His father was an Irishman, and his mother was a Dutch girl from New Jersey. After the war of 1812, he lived at Sackett’s Harbor and Watertown, and kept a tavern for a while in the latter village.
        Johnston
is most famous for his exploits during the Canadian Rebellion of 1838. The British steamer Sir Robert Peel was plundered and burned on the night of May 29, 1838, while taking in wood at Wells Island, by a party of 22 self-styled patriots, led by Johnston.  After driving the passengers ashore and plundering the boat, Johnston's band cast her off from the shore and set her on fire.  Large rewards were offered for their apprehension, and several persons were arrested, but none convicted.

        In March 1841, near the end of President Martin Van Buren's term, Johnston went to Washington with a petition for a pardon.  He was granted a meeting with the president at which Van Buren told Johnston that he would sooner see him "shot or hanged instead of pardoned."  In an interview in 1858, Johnston recounted that, "Mr. Van Buren, scolded me for presuming to come there with such a petition; but I waited ten days, presented it to President Harrison, and he pardoned me." Satisfied, Johnston returned home to the Thousand Islands.
        On 12 April 1853, Johnston was appointed keeper of Rock Island Lighthouse.  In his 1868 publication, The Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812, Benson J. Lossing put it thusly:

        "His offense was finally overlooked, and for several years the government that offered a reward of $500 for him as an outlaw has been paying him $350 a year for taking charge of one of its light-houses, in sight of the spot (Peel Island) where the offense was committed!"

        In the same book, Lossing described two visits he made to see Johnston while he was keeper. During the second visit, in 1858, Lossing made a sketch of the lighthouse as it appeared at that time, which is the only known image of the original lighthouse bult in 1847. Of Rock Island, Lossing says:

"This is an appropriate name. It is a group of bare rocks, with a few trees and shrubs growing in the interstices. Johnston had filled some of the hollows with earth, brought from the main shore in his boat, and we found them covered with vegetables and flowers. The barren island possessed a pleasant little garden."

        Lossing's book contains an account of Johnston's life—including a summary of his War of 1812 service, plus Johnston's own first-hand account of his exploits during the "Patriot War" of 1838 which made him famous—some of which is reproduced below:

        "We lodged at Cape Vincent that night, and at five o’clock the next morning departed in a lake steamer for Clayton (French Creek), sixteen miles below, where we landed, and breakfasted at the "Walton House," kept by a son of William Johnston, known among his British contemporaries in 1838 as "the Pirate of the Thousand Islands." There we were informed that the hero of many a romantic legend of the frontier was still living, in the light-house of which he was keeper, on a solitary island a few rods in circumference, five miles below, where, in company with two young ladies – traveling companions – I had visited him two years before. Hiring a boat, and a good fisherman as oarsman, we set out after breakfast to visit Mr. Johnston, prepared with fishing tackle to indulge in sport on the way. We trolled faithfully, but only a solitary pickerel of moderate size rewarded our watchfulness of the lines. Our dreams of mighty masquelonges, forty pounds in weight, which some young ladies, they say, sometimes "hook," were dispelled; but the kindly oarsman came to the assistance of our humbled pride as sportsmen with the pleasant suggestion that the late storm of wind had so roiled the water that "nobody couldn’t do nothin’ at fishin’ when the creeturs couldn’t see the spoon." And we were no more successful in catching a hero. Silence reigned on Rock Island. Not a living thing was seen. Johnston lived there entirely alone, at the age of seventy-eight years. He was now absent, and the island was deserted. [This is in the midst of the Thousand Islands, five miles below Clayton, on the south side of the steam-boat channel. At the time of my visit there in 1858 I ascended to the lantern, and from that elevation counted no less than seventy islands, varying from rods to miles in circumference.]"
        "
After making a sketch of the light-house and its locality, we left in disappointment, and again trolled unsuccessfully as we floated down the current about two miles to Peel Island, the scene of Johnston’s exploit which caused him to be declared an outlaw by his own government, and gave him the name of "Pirate." This exploit was the destruction of the British mail steamer Sir Robert Peel at this place on the night of the 29th and 30th of May, 1838, by Johnston and some disguised associates, who were engaged with the Canadians in their armed resistance to government. The immediate object of the assailants appears to have been the capture, and not the destruction of the steamer, and with her aid to seize, on the following day, the steamer Great Britain, and convert the two into cruisers on the lake. Johnston had but thirteen men with him, but was promised that two hundred should be within call on the shore of the neighboring main. They were not there. He had not sufficient men to manage the powerful steamer, and, toward morning, he committed her to the flames. She was seized at Ripley’s dock, on Wells’s Island, taken into the stream, set on fire, and floated down and lodged against a small island near (represented in the sketch on the preceding page), which has since been known as Peel Island."
        
"From the lips of Mr. Johnston I received a very minute and particular account of this transaction. He was living at Clayton when the "Patriot" war broke out. Being a bold, adventurous man, and cordially hating the British {original text has "Britsh".} government and its employés, he was easily persuaded by the American sympathizers with the "Patriots" to engage in the strife. His thorough knowledge of the St. Lawrence from Kingston to the Longue Sault pointed the "Patriots" to him as a valuable man for the service on that frontier. He says that the leaders promised him ample assistance in men and means, but disappointed him. They employed him to capture the Peel and seize the Great Britain. The former was a new and stanch vessel, built at Brockville in 1837. She was 30 feet wide and 160 in length, and was commanded by Captain John B. Armstrong. On the evening of the 29th of May, 1838, she was on her way up from Prescott to Toronto, with nineteen passengers, and stopped at M‘Donnell’s Wharf, on Wells’s Island, for wood. Johnston and thirteen men in disguise were lying in wait at Ripley’s wood wharf near by. They were armed with muskets and bayonets, and painted like Indians. They rushed on board, crying out, "Remember the Caroline!" (an American vessel that the British had destroyed at an American wharf a few months before), and compelled the passengers, in terrible alarm, and in their night-clothes, to go on shore. Their baggage was taken on shore likewise, and in this plight they remained, in a woodman’s shanty, until morning, when they were conveyed to Kingston by the Oneida. When the insurgents had taken possession of the Peel, they hauled her out into the stream, expecting, as we have observed in the text, to be joined by a large number of others from the main. They did not appear. Johnston and his men, who, he says, "looked like devils," could not manage her, and she was set on fire. Governor Marcy declared Johnston an outlaw, and offered a reward of $500 for his person, and smaller sums for each of his confederates who might be convicted of the offense. The Earl of Durham, governor of Canada, offered $5000 for the conviction of any person concerned in the "infamous outrage." Johnston boldly avowed himself the leader of that party, in a proclamation which he issued from "Fort Wallace" on the 10th of June, 1838. He declared that the men under his command were nearly all Englishmen, and that his headquarters were on an island in the St. Lawrence, not within the jurisdiction of the United States. "I act under orders," he said. "The object of my movements is the independence of the Canadas. I am not at war with the commerce or property of the United States." "Fort Wallace" was a myth. It was wherever Johnston happened to be."
        "Johnston was now placed in peril between the officers of the two governments, and for several months he was a refugee, hiding among the Thousand Islands, and receiving food at night from his daughter, a beautiful girl eighteen years of age, small in stature and delicate in appearance, who handled oars with skill, and who, in a light boat, sought his hiding-places under cover of darkness. She was often watched and followed by persons in the interest of the United States government, but her thorough knowledge of the islands and skill in rowing allowed her to elude them. Finally Johnston joined in the expedition to Prescott, to "keep out of the way of both parties," he said. After the defeat of the insurgents at Windmill Point [see page 583], he was seen publicly in the streets of Ogdensburg, where he had many sympathizers, and was not arrested. He saw that all was lost, and, weary of hiding, he resolved to give himself up to the authorities of the United States, and cast himself upon the clemency of his country. He made an arrangement with his son John to arrest him and receive the $500 reward. On the 17th of November (1838) he left Ogdensburg in a boat, with his son, when Deputy Marshal M‘Culloch pursued him in a boat over which floated the revenue flag. Johnston was overtaken about two miles above Ogdensburg. He was armed with a Cochran rifle, two large rifle-pistols, and a bowie-knife. He agreed to surrender on condition that he should give up his arms to his son. He was then conducted back to the village, and delivered into the custody of Colonel (late Major General) Worth. He was taken to Syracuse, tried before Judge Conklin on a charge of violating the neutrality laws of the United States, and acquitted. He was again arrested, and escaped, when a reward of $200 was offered for his arrest. He gave himself up at Albany, and, after lying three months in jail, was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, and a fine of $250. His faithful daughter, who had acquired the just title of the "Heroine of the Thousand Islands," hastened to Albany, and shared prison life with her father. After being there six months, with his faithful child at his side, he found means, by making a key of some zinc furnished him by a friend, to escape. The plan was made known to his daughter, who left the prison, and waited for him at Rome. One evening, at eight o’clock, he left the jail, and before daylight had walked forty miles toward Rome. When he arrived there, finally, at the house of a friend, he was dreadfully exhausted. He went home, and was unmolested; but the "Patriots" were determined to drive him into active service, and he received a commission creating him commander-in-chief of all the naval forces in "Patriot service" on the lakes. This position had been accorded to him by common consent the year before. But he had seen enough of that kind of service, and he declined the office. A year or more afterward, when the agitation on the frontier had pretty much ceased, a petition for his pardon was numerously signed. He took it to Washington himself, and, just at the close of Mr. Van Buren’s administration in March, 1841, presented it to the President. "Mr. Van Buren," he said, "scolded me for presuming to come there with such a petition; but I waited ten days, presented it to President Harrison, and he pardoned me."
        
"We returned to Clayton, and there found "Commodore" Johnston, a hale man, full of spirit, but suffering some from recent illness. I spent two hours pleasantly and profitably with him and his courageous daughter, listening to narratives of the stirring scenes in which they had been engaged twenty-two years before, and of which I have given a meagre outline in note 1, page 662. The "Heroine of the Thousand Islands" was now Mrs. Hawes, an intelligent and interesting woman, and mother of several children. Mr. Johnston is a man of medium size, compactly built, and full of pluck. His life-history was a stirring one previous to the "Patriot War." During the War of 1812 he was employed by Chauncey and Wilkinson in active service on the frontier waters; and he gave the British, whom he cordially disliked, a great deal of trouble. He was a native of Canada. On the breaking out of the war he was residing at Bath, above Kingston, and conveyed some Americans across the lake to Sackett’s Harbor in a large bark canoe. Not being satisfied with the militia service, in which he had been engaged, he remained on the American side, and from that time until the close of the war was engaged in the secret service on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence, with a permit to capture all British public property that he might find afloat. His vessel was a gig, or light, swift boat, called the Ridgeley, and his companions were a corporal and five armed seamen. With these he captured bateaux and stores; with these he conveyed Wilkinson down the St. Lawrence, beyond the Longue Sault; and with these he bore the body of the gallant Covington from Barnhart’s to the French Mills. On one occasion he captured the Canadian dispatch mail on its way from Governor Prevost at Montreal to the lieutenant governor at Toronto, which, on delivery to Chauncey, was found to contain information of great value to the American commander. On another occasion he was out in Chauncey’s boat, and was wrecked on the Canada shore in a storm. The boat was a ruin. They were discovered. Johnston was identified, and a body of militia and Indians were sent out from Kingston (where he had been hung in effigy) to arrest him. He directed his men not to avoid capture, but to affirm that they had been sent out for deserters, and were returning home when struck by the storm. Their story was believed, and within a week they were sent home on parole. Johnston meanwhile concealed himself in a huge hollow stump, in a field of oats, for several days, and it was three weeks before he found a way to return to Sackett’s harbor."

        In 1861, Johnston lost his appointment when the administration changed in Washington; he was removed on 8 April 1861 and retired to Clayton. According to Lossing, "When the late Rebellion broke out in 1861, Johnston, then about eighty years of age, went to Washington City, called on General Scott, and offered his services to his government."
        
Johnston died nine years later; the following memorial of his life was printed in the Oswego Advertiser & Times on Friday, 21 October 1870:

        "Who has not heard of Bill Johnston, the 'Pirate of the St. Lawrence,' as he was styled by his countrymen in Canada, but who was better known on this side of the line as a dashing, genial, good fellow, with a genuine love for liberty. Many of our old citizens were personally acquainted with the famous individual.
        He died recently at Clayton, at the age of 90 years, and we find in an exchange the following mention of him: 'This daring adventurer among the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence, and who was famous in the Patriot War of 1838, died at Clayton. Three of his sons reside here, and one daughter; she who carried provisions to her father when the Canadians sought him among the one thousand isles in vain. One son keeps a hotel at Clayton, and one owns and runs a small steamer daily to Cape Vincent and back, and both are men of intelligence and property.
        After the Canadian rebellion was over, about 1838, Bill Johnston (who was born at Three Rivers, in Canada), was appointed lighthouse keeper on the St. Lawrence, a few miles below Clayton, and kept it for eight years. A new administration coming in displeased him. His son remarked that he was the 'smartest man' he ever knew. in the War of 1812 it is said that General Scott regard his services as equal to a thousand men.
        He was a daring man and feared nothing human. At the age of eighty he could jump from a wharf on to the ice, two feet down, and preserve his equilibrium. He was never sick; and but for an accident he would probably have attained the age at which his father died (104). One of his brothers reached the age of 103. Strangest of all we were told that he had an inveterate hatred for tobacco, and never drank spirituous liquors. This man, with a West Point education, would probably have made his mark high up."

        Years later, sometime after 1903, a local resident wrote: "Once we stopped at the light-house with Uncle Harlo, and in it was the skull of a deer shot by Bill Johnston."

        Although the common belief that Johnston was the first keeper at Rock Island is not true, it is probably safe to say that he was the most notorious, and sometimes even today the lighthouse is still referred to as "Johnston's Light."


Kate Johnston
(Photo courtesy of Jim Eagan)


References

Benson, Lossing. The Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812. New York: Harper, 1868. Text and image of Bill Johnston adapted with permission from work by Bill Carr at<wcarr1@nycap.rr.com>, available at http://freepages.history.rootsweb.com/~wcarr1/Lossing2/Chap29.html. Visited on 12 December 2001.

French, J.H. "Town of Orleans." French's Gazetteer of Jefferson County, New York. Syracuse: R. Pearsall Smith, 1860.  [http://www.rootsweb.com/~nyjeffer/frencht.htm]. Visited 2 June 2000.

Correspondence from 1998-2003 with Johnston expert James Eagan <eagan@ntcnet.com>.

Correspondence dated 8 February 2001 fromTracy DuFlo, Producer at WPBS-TV for "Lighthouses of the Seaway Trail" video (2000).

Oswego Advertiser & Times memorial generously contributed by Richard Palmer <richardp@dreamscape.net>.

© 2000-2003, Rock Island Lighthouse Historical & Memorial Association.