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 mistaken fact.
Annual Festival Folly
The most mendacious makeover of the Johnston legend is perpetrated annually by the town of Alexandria Bay, New York. Each August, the local tourism industry stages its "Bill Johnston Pirate Days" festival. It is a commercial success and great fun, but an historical travesty.
The festival re-enacts Bill Johnston's alleged pirate-ship attack on the village. Johnston never attacked Alex Bay or any American town. Johnston was a loyal American who fought for the USA in the War of 1812. His fight was always with the British.
The pirates in the mock Alex Bay raid dress like the cast of a "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie. Bill Johnston 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.
Johnston spent the summer of 1838 hiding from a combined British and American manhunt. Journalists of that century speculated that Johnston stayed inside the small cave on Devil’s Oven Island that summer, sustained by supplies smuggled in by his daughter Kate.
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. 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."
However, that romantic journalistic fiction lives on 175 years later. Media articles, Internet accounts and the Alex Bay festival continue to repeat the story. So many old historical accounts state this miss-fact that it is now taken as truth.
Repeated Historical Mistake
The first person to chronicle the 1838 Patriot War was Charles Lindsey in Life and Times of Wm. Lyon Mackenzie, 1862. The book by Mackenzie’s son-in-law is a wealth of Patriot War information and a partial source for most books written on war. But, Lindsey incorrectly stated that Bill Johnston captained one of the rebel schooners during the Battle of the Windmill in November 1838.
Every historical account I have read from John Charles Dent in 1885 up to the end of the 20th century, many written by eminent historians, repeated that mistake. The error is easy to catch, since none of the many accounts by battle combatants or observers corroborate Lindsey's error. Donald E. Graves fixed the historical record in 2001 in his superbly researched book Guns Across the River.
A week after Bill Johnston and twelve henchmen looted and burned the steamer Sir Robert Peel in late May 1838, two boatloads of river pirates invaded two homes on Amherst Island near Kingston. The colonial Canadian press and public blamed Bill Johnston. Some historians also implicate him. Canada, still reeling from Johnston’s attack on the steamer, used the Amherst Island raid to blacken Johnston’s folk hero image and to further criticize the USA’s inability to apprehend bandits based in the American islands.
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.
Bill Johnston lived large. His history needs no fictional adornment.
By Shaun J. McLaughlin
Shaun J. McLaughlin, writes an excellent history blog about the Patriot War available at www.raidersandrebels.com. His first history book, "The Patriot War Along the New York–Canada Border: Raiders and Rebels," was released in 2012 by The History Press and his Patriot War novel, Counter Currents, is now available in eBook format at Amazon. Shaun has written two articles about the Patriot War for TI Life in 2012. (links) http://www.raidersandrebelspress.com.