William Johnston

William (Bill) Johnston, outlaw (born 1 February 1782 in Trois-Rivières, QC; died 17 February 1870 in French Creek [Clayton], New York). The “Pirate of the St. Lawrence,” Bill Johnston was a bandit, smuggler and rebel.

Thousand Islands
The numerous islands, bays and channels of the Thousand Islands area of the upper St. Lawrence River provided the perfect cover for William Johnston's spying and smuggling operations. (courtesy Parks Canada).

William (Bill) Johnston, outlaw (born 1 February 1782 in Trois-Rivières, QC; died 17 February 1870 in French Creek [Clayton], New York). The “Pirate of the St. Lawrence,” Bill Johnston was a bandit, smuggler and rebel who operated in the Thousand Islands area between present-day Ontario and New York State.

Early Life

In 1784, Johnston’s family moved to Bath, near Kingston, Upper Canada, where he grew up. As a young man, Johnston was a farmer, merchant and a freighter, or shipper of goods, on the St. Lawrence River. He became involved in the smuggling that was rampant along the border with the United States, especially after the American government passed the Embargo Act of 1807, which restricted trade with the British. In 1810, Johnston married Ann Randolph, an American.

War of 1812

With the outbreak of war between Great Britain and the US in 1812, Johnston came under suspicion because of his marital ties and close friendship with many Americans. British authorities suspected him of consorting with the enemy. In June 1813, Johnston was arrested and jailed. He was told he would be held for the duration of the war. All of his property, valued at about £1,500 was confiscated.

Johnston escaped from jail and fled to Sackets Harbor, New York. Embittered over his losses and treatment by the British, he offered his services to the Americans. Using small boats worked by armed crews, and with an intricate knowledge of the waterways of the Thousand Islands, Johnston operated as a spy and raider. He terrorized the Canadian shore and attacked British and Canadian traffic on the river. He seems to have been motivated as much by a desire for loot as by vengeance. In Canada, he was considered a traitor.

Pirate and Rebel

After the war, Johnston established himself as a merchant in French Creek (now Clayton), New York, a notorious smuggling centre. Johnston became one of the most successful smugglers on the river, with a fleet of boats and numerous hideouts among the islands on both sides of the international boundary. Islands now named Wellesley, Abel and Fort Wallace are known to have been Johnston gang bases.

Kingston, 1828
The view from Fort Henry, which guarded the Kingston, Ontario, naval base and the entrance to the Rideau River (courtesy John Ross Robertson Coll/Metropolitan Toronto Library).

Early in 1838, Patriots, an organization made up of American adventurers, and Canadian fugitives from the failed Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837. The Patriot's goal was the “liberation” of Canada from Britain. Johnston was made “Commodore of the Navy in the East.” The Patriots subsequent “invasion” of Canada near Kingston was farcical. However, it was soon after this raid that Johnston committed his most brazen act of piracy.

On 30 May 1838, near Wellesley Island, Johnston and his men captured the steamer Sir Robert Peel, which was carrying the payroll for British troops in Upper Canada. They put the passengers and crew ashore and then carried off more than $175,000 in cash, jewellery and silver plate before burning the ship. Lord Durham, the Governor General of Canada, put a reward of $5,000 on Johnston’s head. Johnston issued a proclamation justifying the capture of the ship as a legitimate act of war.

On 12 November 1838, Johnston was a major participant in the Hunter raid on Upper Canada at Prescott. He transported men and arms across the river, but his vessel then ran aground while under fire from a British gunboat. Four days later, the Hunters were defeated by British troops and Canadian militia in the Battle of the Windmill at Prescott, but not before Johnston and a group of his followers had fled the battle and crossed back to the American side.

Prescott, Upper Canada

The colonial government of Upper Canada accused the Americans of aiding piracy, so US federal troops arrested Johnston, among others, and took him to Auburn, New York, to stand trial. He was acquitted of charges relating to the Prescott raid,but arrested again immediately afterwards for previous crimes. Johnston was taken to the New York capital, Albany, where he was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison.

Six months later he escaped and disappeared into the Thousand Islands. He eventually showed up in Washington, DC, with a petition for a pardon signed by a host. US President Martin Van Buren would have nothing to do with it, but newly elected President William Henry Harrison later granted Johnston a full pardon.

Legacy

In 1853, Johnston became the keeper of the Rock Island lighthouse in the Thousand Islands, a position he held until 1861. At the outbreak of the American Civil War that same year, Johnston, now 80, volunteered for the US Army but was turned down.

He ran a tavern in Clayton and allegedly still engaged in smuggling. It was said that on festive occasions, Johnston’s family and guests dined on silver plate stolen from the Sir Robert Peel. Johnston died from natural causes at 88.

Songs and poems celebrated Johnston’s exploits, and he was the subject of a play titled Bill Johnston: The Hero of the Lakes. Two romantic novels, The Empress of the Isles and The Prisoner of the Border were based on his story.


Further Reading

  • Harold Horwood and Ed Butts, Pirates & Outlaws of Canada 1610–1932 (1984); Pierre Berton, My Country: The Remarkable Past (1976).

  • Harold Horwood et Ed Butts, Pirates & Outlaws of Canada 1610–1932 (1984).