Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lake Ontario Stories

At high summer, when the living is easy, people's thoughts tend to turn to the beach. I am no different, and these days I spend a lot of time pondering the Great Lake that is now in my back yard -- Lake Ontario.

With the Lake Erie book only just beginning to fade behind me, I've only begun to dig beneath Ontario's murky surface, but I've already pulled up some pretty action-packed history. And before you ask, yes, there are pirates.

Lake Ontario's claim to piracy comes in the form of Bill Johnston. Or, as he's more commonly known to residents of the Thousand Islands, "Pirate Bill."

Johnston had a knack for being on the wrong side of the law. Born to poor Quebec parents in 1782, he learned boatbuilding at an early age, and later took to smuggling. The Thousand Islands, with their many hidden caves and channels, were natural territory for this. Bill also had no use for the British, especially after they accused him of spying for the Americans during the War of 1812 and tossed him in jail. He escaped (not for the last time), defected to the United States, and swore that he would try to make as much trouble for the Queen's subjects in Upper Canada as he could. He took part in a number of border raids. But in 1837, he got his real chance.

That year, Upper Canadian rebel leader William Lyon Mackenzie, upset with the colony's undemocratic ruling elite, led an angry, largely drunken mob on Toronto, ostensibly to overthrow the government (you can read more about that in Lake Erie Stories). When the assault inevitably failed, the rebels dispersed, and a number of them regrouped on Navy Island, in the Niagara River, where these self-styled "Patriots" declared themselves a "government in exile."

This weird cause was the perfect bait for a man like Johnston. Perhaps predictably, he showed up at Navy Island and declared himself "commodore" of the Patriot Navy (though the Patriots, with barely enough resources to feed themselves, had nothing that could even loosely be called a navy). Then, probably oblivious to the politics of the cause, Johnston and a small crew proceeded to raise holy hell (and rake in considerable loot) raiding shipping among the Thousand Islands.

Their most notable escapade was an attack on the Sir Robert Peel, a Canadian steamer that ferried passengers through the islands. Employing Native war paint, supposedly to instill additional fear in their quarry, Johnston and his men boarded the Peel and proceeded to put its stunned (and well-heeled) passengers ashore on Wellesley Island. But, to the raiders' dismay, they didn't have nearly enough manpower to sail the Peel themselves, so they set her on fire and escaped to their "secret base," presumably a cave on a small island appropriately named the Devil's Oven. Apparently, for a time afterward, the brazen (and fashion-minded) Johnston even wore the Peel's flag as a sash.

Over the following weeks, nine of his men blundered into captivity. But Johnston remained hard at work (he is rumoured to have netted $175,000 from the Robert Peel raid alone). He kept in touch with the Patriots, and even managed to run his boat aground at the decisive Battle of the Windmill, near Prescott, which finished the rebel movement off for good.

Johnston later turned himself in to the Canadians, then escaped before eventually heading back to the States. For a pirate, he had an idyllic retirement, serving as keeper of the Rock Island lighthouse, a stone's throw from the site of the looting of the Peel. He died in New York at the age of 88, an exceptionally long life, especially for a pirate.

For the Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry on Pirate Bill, click here.

For more on "Bill Johnston's Pirate Days," a just-concluded annual festival at Alexandria Bay, click here. (According to the site, a simulated pirate attack on the village was planned for this year's festival. The fun was to begin after the village fell. Then, according to the site, the mayor was to surrender the key to the village and "everyone becomes a pirate.")


Stacey said...

finally!!! pirates!!!
So maybe brighton is onto something with the new annual pirate festival! Imagine the booth you could have set up on the street to sell the Lake Ontario book, all pirated out, parrots, eye patches, peg legs, wenches and such!
good times!

Chad said...

Yes, after nearly two years of blogging, you have finally gotten your pirates. It is not easy to find real, Caribbean buccaneer-style pirates on the Great Lakes, so we (and the festive people of Brighton), will have to take what we can get.

Shaun McLaughlin said...


This is a comment on your Johnston article. I have been studying Bill Johnston for years, going back to primary sources and 19th century historians. Based on my experience, I want to point out several errors in your account of Johnston (in the order they appear. If you have any research that proves me wrong on the points below, please let me know.

- He wasn’t born to poor parents. They were United Empire Loyalists. His father was a British sergeant.
- I have seen no historical record that he ever learned boat building.
- Johnston did not declare himself commodore. Mackenzie appointed him Admiral. The Hunters Lodge later made him commodore.
- Johnston and his men did not raid shipping with the exception of the Peel. It was his only pirate attack.
- On the Peel, it was not a lack of manpower that foiled them —there were 13 of them — it was the lack of anyone who knew how to start the steamers engines.
- Almost all money that Johnston took, the US authorities recovered as they arrested men Johnston assigned to carry it.The total was less than 10,000 pounds.
- If you ever visit Devil’s Oven Island, you’ll know how unlikely it was as a hiding place. The cave would fit two men at most. It is also in plain site of Alex Bay. Most of Bill’s raiders were arrested within days. Johnston mostly hid out on the big Islands: Grindstone, Wellesley and Hill, and at Fort Wallace Island.
- The statement that Bill captained one of the two schooners at the Battle
of the Windmill is a mistake made by some of the best historians of the last
125 years. The mistake was first made by Dent in 1885 and copied since then.
Only Donald Graves' excellent book on the windmill battle, Guns Across the
River, failed to make the same error. Graves (and I) read all the
eye-witness accounts of the battle (three books and numerous letters) and not
one participant or observer puts Johnston on those schooners. He was in
Ogdensburg and helped get the schooners of the mud bar. Also Bill didn't
exactly sit the battle out. Several first-person accounts say he tried as
late as the third day to get a boat across to rescue some fighters but was
halted by the British and American patrols.
- Bill died in his son’s hotel, the Walton House, in Clayton, NY.

For info on Bill Johnston and his cohorts, see my Raiders and Rebels blog.

Shaun McLaughlin

Shaun McLaughlin said...

One more thing on the Bill Johnston article. It says "Johnston later turned himself in to the Canadians..."

If the Canadians/British had captured Bill, he would have been hung. Except for being arrested once in 1813 while still a Kingston resident, the Canadian authorities never caught him, despite spending a fortune trying to. After the battle of the windmill, he surrendered to US authorities.

Also, to those people who see Johnston as a Caribbean-style buccaneer--sorry. He was a plain dressing teetotaler who only pirated one ship. For most of his life, he was a successful smuggler (mostly of tea).

See for details.