It’s a Pirate’s Life For Me!

Alex Mosher throws “pirate treasure” into the crowd during the pirate invasion for Bill Johnston’s Pirate Days in Alexandria Bay.

BY: Lenka Walldroff

There are few locals or tourists alike who have not heard of the Thousand Islands’ most famous (or infamous?) adopted citizen- Bill Johnston. While every year, Alexandria Bay set aside the first two weeks of August to fete his memory with a pirate invasion that doubles as a wonderful excuse to dust off the old Halloween costume, engage in a bit of revelry, and a water fight or two on the St. Lawrence River, the celebration is based a bit more on historic enthusiasm than history itself. Understandable when it comes to a Bill Johnston, as fact and fiction have combined over the years to make rather strange bedfellows.  In fact, so much fiction has been promoted as fact over the course of history concerning Commodore Johnston that it has become increasingly difficult to separate the two. Here then, dear readers, is my earnest attempt to do so.

                Bill Johnston was one of a twelve children born to British Loyalist parents sometime around 1780. After this point, historic accounts diverge. Some claim that he was born at Trois Rivières, Canada, (up Montreal way) in 1782; others contend that he was actually born in the American colonies and moved with his family to Ontario in 1781 to escape the Revolution (as Loyalists, his parents wanted to hear none of the “independence from the Crown bit.”) In either case, he was born sometime around the American Revolution and grew up in Ontario, just outside of Kingston, on what became the family farm.

                His early professional life was rather varied, apprenticed to a blacksmith for a number of years, he eventually transitioned to potash manufacturing, and by his mid-twenties, set about a mercantile career, ferrying goods across Lake Ontario on his schooner. By many historic accounts, while much of his cargo was legitimate— that is, declared and taxed — much of it (mostly tea and rum) wasn’t quite on the up-and-up. However, the smuggling trade proved profitable and after a few years, Johnston had put aside enough money to purchase a storefront in Kingston, becoming one of the city’s more “legitimately” prosperous merchants. So legitimate, in fact, that sometime around 1807 he even married and began a family.

                So how does one go from a respected upper-middle class merchant to a swashbuckling pirate? Was it another professional vagary, or perhaps boredom with the staid life of a businessman? Alas, it had more to do with the British and the War of 1812.

TIMES FILE PHOTO Bill Johnston Pirate Days 1963

                Mr. Johnston’s shipping activities attracted the suspicion of a British military commander who, in May of 1813, had Johnston arrested for spying. A bit of a spat ensued, which then led to the British confiscation of Johnston’s property. It might be said that while his parents were British Loyalists, Johnston had inherited a more fiery and independent spirit. By means of historic psychoanalytical conjecture, it is commonly believed that he was so outraged by the unjust confiscation of his property that he vowed revenge on the British. In either case Johnston apparently pledged himself to the American commander of the United States Navy in Lake Ontario, effectively becoming both an ex-Canadian- American patriot as well as a bit of a nuisance to the British Navy. Johnston spent the next two years spying on the British, attacking their supply boats, robbing mail couriers, burning ships, and supposedly participating in the battles of Sackets Harbor and Crysler’s Farm. You know, pirate-y things.

                Eventually the war ended and by the 1830s, Bill had settled in (the American side of) the Thousand Islands. He established a waterfront shop and continued smuggling tea and rum to Canada. By some historic accounts, his income was padded by the U.S. government in exchange for useful information on Canadians smuggling goods into America.

                Life was good- and then that little-known conflict called the Patriots’ War began. The Cliff’s Notes version for the uninitiated: beginning in 1837, a group of Canadians staged a series of rebellions against the colonial authority of Upper and Lower Canada (known today as Quebec and Ontario.) Led by the first mayor of Toronto, William Mackenzie, the rebels declared an independent “Republic of Canada” on Navy Island and “invaded” Canada numerous times over the course of the ensuing year. After losing the American Revolution some fifty years prior, the British were in no mood for colonial temper tantrums and quickly suppressed the uprising.

                Much more befitting to a Hollywood movie (cue Braveheart!), and therefore somewhat suspect in terms of accuracy, one historic account claims that Johnston was apparently drawn into the short-lived conflict as much by the British destruction of Mackenzie’s supply ship The Caroline (during which an American sailor was killed), as by his own temper- fueled by his personal history with the British. In either case, his role in the Patriots’ War was brief and is only mentioned here as it led to his most famous historic exploit- the destruction of the British steamer the Sir Robert Peel.

                It unfolded thusly: in May of 1838, the Canadian rebels hatched a scheme to hijack the Peel as it stopped to refuel on Wellesley Island, planning to use it to shuttle their own troops to Canada. Well, to quote poet Robert Burns: “The best-laid plans of mice and men, go oft awry.” Things did not proceed according to plan and, unable to restart the stalled steamer, Commodore Johnston , who by now was Admiral of the Rebel’s Eastern Navy—although the rebels had no navy at all, much less an Eastern one— ordered the steamboat looted (it was carrying 20,000 pounds sterling in military payroll) and burned. Apparently, and not without a touch of melodrama, the whole scene was accompanied by shouts of “Remember The Caroline!” The burning ship was then pushed out into the St. Lawrence River where it sank. The hull remains a popular destination for scuba divers today.

                The Sir Robert Peel episode not only earned Johnston the “pirate” moniker, but it nearly ignited an international kerfuffle between the Americans and the British. Fearing reprisals from the British for what could arguably be a violation of the neutrality agreement struck in the treaty that ended the War of 1812, the American authorities sought to have Johnston and his men arrested.

                Heavy rewards were offered for the apprehension of the men by both the Canadian and U.S. governments. Johnston supposedly hid in caves along the St. Lawrence River for a time – the source of the famous story where his daughter, Kate Johnston, smuggled supplies to him while he was hiding on Devil’s Oven Island. It may be of interest to note that Kate herself refuted the story in an interview with the Watertown Re-Union newspaper in February of 1873. In either case, Johnston was eventually captured and indicted for arson in the first degree. Defended by no fewer than four lawyers, a jury deliberation of only two hours brought in a verdict of “not guilty.” Twelve of Johnston’s men were ultimately arrested and held in the Watertown jail for nearly six months before they were eventually released on their own recognizance. They were never subjected to a trial.

                Johnston is reported to have spent the remainder of his years in a relatively quiet retirement- at least for a pirate, reverting to his old standby of smuggling, and eventually opening a tavern. On 12 April 1853, Johnston was appointed as keeper of the Rock Island Lighthouse located just north of Clayton. He died in 1870.