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Bill Johnston: Correcting the Historical Record


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.

Creative Journalism

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.

Propaganda

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.  

  • A 1908 postcard, one of several editions.  Sagastaweka Island collection

    A 1908 postcard, one of several editions. Sagastaweka Island collection

  • Devil's Oven today.  Photo by S. McLaughlin

    Devil's Oven today. Photo by S. McLaughlin

  • One of several popular Devil's Oven illustrations.  R. Matthews collection

    One of several popular Devil's Oven illustrations. R. Matthews collection

  • Illustration by Henry Wolf. See article

    Illustration by Henry Wolf. See article "Four More Thousand Islands Illustrators" by Robert Matthews

  • Devil's Oven illustration provided by Robert Matthews

    Devil's Oven illustration provided by Robert Matthews

 

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Comments

Dennis Honeywell
Comment by: Dennis Honeywell ( )
Left at: 12:09 PM Sunday, September 16, 2012
I appreciate and accept McLaughlin's interpretation and clarification of the facts surrounding Bill Johnston's activities in the Thousand Islands. However he has got to lighten up a little on the trashing of "folk lore" and the imagination of those of us that made/make our living in the tourism industry. Having grown up in Alexandria Bay, and thus having spent many year as a tour guide on the Uncle Sam Tour Boats, our mentors were particular in describing to us both historical and entertaining facts about St. Lawrence River heros...both real and imagined. I don't ever remember saying to my customers that this story that I am about to tell you is absolutely historically correct...the story would be related as just that...one of several stories. The tour boat audience was always amused and faciniated by the stories and to take "poetic license" we as the sometimes bored announcers woule alter the story to include more incredible inclusions. Did I ever feel that I was violating thier trust...of course not. We were in the entertainment business. So for McLaughlin to trash Alexandria Bay for developing what is one of the most financially and visually successful events held on the river...is unfortunate. Historians have got to realize that storytellers and historians are not the same. Shawn; get out and have some fun, dress up for the parade, watch the faces of the children and then tell me that this is a "travesty". So thanks for your insight...but I prefer some fun in my facts. See you next year at "Pirate Days".
Steve Glazer
Comment by: Steve Glazer ( )
Left at: 3:12 PM Sunday, September 16, 2012
A tip of the hat to Shaun McLaughlin for his historical notes regarding Bill Johnston and Devil's Oven. In his defense, it is important that someone relates the true facts regarding our heritage. I am not a member of the "don't let the facts get in the way of a good story" school of history. In any event, historical fact is often more interesting than mere folklore.

Furthermore, I believe historical literacy in the States is at a deplorable level. The media are fond of frequently running stories showing our level of ignorance (e.g., most American teenagers don't know the Civil War was fought in the latter half of the 19th century or the origins of the Cold War, etc.). Certainly the entertainment industry -- in all its forms -- must share some responsibility for this state of affairs. Many folks, especially children, simply don't have the sophistication to distinguish storytelling from history. And the schools are apparently doing an inadequate job of repairing any harm being done outside the classroom.

I also fail to understand the popular appeal of pirates, who were usually ruthless and violent criminals deserving of no sympathy whatsoever. Indeed, they still roam the waters off eastern Africa, resulting in frequent kidnappings and occasional homicides. It was only three years ago when U.S. Navy SEALS -- the same service that killed Osama Bin Laden -- were put in harm's way to take out three Somali pirates at sea.

On the other hand, I realize the romanticized view of long-dead pirates (and other such stuff) serves the salutary purpose of creating jobs and income for many; I don't begrudge those who benefit. Nor should they be heard to complain, however, when they are called out for any distortions, especially those that are not clearly marked as myth.

Finally, Devil's Oven was owned during the latter part of the 19th century -- the time period of many of the pictures accompanying the article -- by Thousand Islands pioneer Henry Heath of Nobby Island, about whom I wrote in the March 2011 issue of TI Life. I have not found any statements regarding Bill Johnston by Heath (although I would guess he enjoyed a good story).
Shaun McLaughlin
Comment by: Shaun McLaughlin ( )
Left at: 8:43 AM Monday, September 17, 2012
Dennis,
There is little chance that my “adjustment” of the historical record will dampen Alex Bay’s popular pirate party. And I wouldn’t want it to: I am a small town Councillor and understand the commercial importance of local festivals. I wish the town continued success.

Storytelling and historical accuracy are not mutually exclusive. My Raiders and Rebels blog has over 70 entertaining stories, all of them as accurate as I can make them. The Internet has reams of information on Bill Johnston that is inaccurate, and that needs to be balanced with facts. Bill Johnston’s legacy does not need embellishments. The truth of his life and accomplishments eclipse any fictions created about him.
christine DeVoy
Comment by: christine DeVoy ( )
Left at: 8:09 AM Tuesday, January 8, 2013
in actuality shaun during the actual invasion in Alex bay on Saturdays they DO tell the ACTUAL HISTORICAL version of events. The festival is not a reenactment of his life its a pirate festival named after him with the telling of the story on saturdays they are not aiming for historical accuracy nor do they claim to. the people who put it on work very hard so that everyone can have a good time i think you are taking this way to seriously . My grandfather was a history teacher and would still have known how to appreciate and enjoy such an event.
Phyllis Putnam
Comment by: Phyllis Putnam ( )
Left at: 4:54 PM Thursday, April 18, 2013
I don't know if this is an appropiate use of this space, but maybe you folks would like to know that Shaun will speak to the Jefferson County Genealogical Society on Monday evening, May 13th at 6:00 at the LDS Church on Ives Street in Watertown, NY The program is open to the public, free of charge. For information call Phyllis at 315 - 778 - 5180

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