On the night of Tuesday, May 29, 1838 between 12 and 1 o’clock one of the inmates of the ladies cabin on the Sir Robert Peel upon awakening, was alarmed at the death-like stillness which seemed to pervade the boat…
Kingston Chronicle and Gazette, June 12, 1838
Every morning, just south of Clayton, New York, the gentle rays of a rising sun when not partially obscured by scattered clouds, shine through the bottom branches of a clustered group of evergreens by the roadside at the edge of a manicured cemetery. For more than a hundred years, the name ‘William Johnston 1782-1870’ appears on a small headstone, quiet and unobtrusive. Someone told me that he was buried somewhere near Clayton, on the south side of the river.
It was a hot afternoon in June when I found his name among a number of these smaller stones in the Johnston family plot. For a moment, in my mind’s eye, the curtain of time parted. Instead of passing cars hurrying by, I could hear the clip clop of horse hooves on a gravel road. Instead of motorboats out on the river, all was quiet, except for the pop of gunfire among the hidden channels of the islands. Then, the noise of a lawnmower snaps me back to the present time. Several questions immediately come to mind. Can this be the grave of the admiral of the Patriot Navy? A man wanted on both sides of the river with a price on his head? Is this name etched on a simple stone the final resting place of the infamous St. Lawrence River Pirate Bill Johnston?
“It certainly is,” said Linda L. Schleher, executive director of the Thousand Islands Museum which is located just down the road in Clayton, New York. “Oh, and I have something I’d like to show you,” she added. Schleher leaves the room for a minute. Returning, she removes the cover from the framed treasure she carried in.
“This is from the British passenger steamer Sir Robert Peel, the night they were attacked.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said.
“No,” said Linda, “I’m not.”
. . . . . . . . . . .
The year was 1838. It was the time of the Canadian Rebellion; an uprising by a small group of British subjects fed up with the British government, and already a year old.
Led by William Lyon Mackenzie, an ex-member of the Provincial Parliament, these rebels hid out on Navy Island on the Niagara River collecting sympathy from their American counterparts. Many Americans in fact, joined the cause. As a result, a call for 2,500 troops was issued by the Canadian Government.
A small American steamer, the Caroline supplied these ‘new patriots’ as they called themselves, on Navy Island. On a dark December night, the empty Caroline was captured, set on fire and then sent over Niagara Falls. The Patriots were outraged.
The British steamer Sir Robert Peel, like many of the passenger steamers of her day, carried passengers and freight, usually on a fixed route and timetable. Built in Brockville in 1837, she was a twin stacked paddle wheeler, one hundred and sixty feet long with a beam of thirty feet. Commanded by Captain John B. Armstrong, the Peel had departed Prescott in the early evening with 19 passengers aboard upbound on the St. Lawrence River headed for Toronto.
Needing wood for her boilers, a common steamboat stop was at McDonell’s wharf on the south shore of Well’s (Wellesley) Island. Later in the evening, the crew and passengers retired for the night.
A passenger arose and lifting one of the curtains at the side window, beheld a number of armed and disguised men as they rushed onto the boat followed by the screams of some who were sleeping on the lower deck…
One person who appeared as possessing authority entered…seizing him by the arm a woman asked what he wanted. “Come with me and I shall save you; the nations are at war.” She then said, “But surely you will let us dress ourselves and save our luggage,” to which he replied, “Yes” and left us.
Chronicle and Gazette, June 12, 1838
The ‘new Patriots’ now extended their activities all the way from the Niagara peninsula to the hidden passages and channels of the Thousand Islands. Commanding them here was a former British subject – turned American – then ‘Patriot’ and now, Pirate!
William Johnston, born in Three Rivers, Quebec, grew up in Bath, Ontario and later, in Kingston. Disillusioned with the British military during the War of 1812, he was jailed in Kingston but escaped to Sackets Harbour N.Y. He then took the oath of allegiance to the U.S.A. Living quietly with his wife Anna, they had seven children.
In time, the family moved to French Creek (now Clayton) and operated a store there. When the Canadian Rebellion broke out in 1837, Johnston, who had no love for the British, became restless and joined with a local ‘soldier of fortune’ named Van Rensselaer who appointed himself leader of the Patriots south of the border. Once accepted, Johnston, armed with local knowledge of the islands and channels, took his authority one step further and proclaimed himself an Admiral of the ‘New Patriot Navy’. Now, all he needed was a ship.
When the steamer Sir Robert Peel fell into their trap, Johnston had already set up headquarters on Fort Wallace Island and nearby Ables (now Picton) Island. Already known throughout the area, the small ‘navy’ were watched by the American authorities and warned mariners steaming through the area to be on watch. When the pirates failed to light the boilers on the Peel, the careless marauders set her on fire instead. Now they were wanted outlaws. On both sides of the river. And still, they had no ship.
I’m looking at the object in question. To me it resembles a skirt or some sort of wearing apparel for women back in another century. “This was handed down from the Johnston family”, said Schleher, “and apparently ‘Pirate Bill’ took it from one of the women passengers on that night.” Remembering the story, I could only imagine a young woman screaming as she threw her apron at the painted pirate coming through her cabin door. His story, of course, didn’t end there.
‘Pirate Bill’ Johnston, now a wanted fugitive, had several hiding places among the islands. According to local lore, handed down over the years, his most famous ‘roost’ was in a cave on an island called ‘Devil’s Oven’. His daughter Kate would steal away at night and row down river with food and supplies for her father on the pretense she was gathering driftwood to use as firewood. Many times Pirate Bill’s meals were probably carefully wrapped with a tan coloured silk apron embroidered with a floral pattern. Kate was very careful to return it to her mother for sentimental reasons. In time, old Anna Johnston gave the colourful cloth to Juliana Hawes, a sister of Charles Hawes who eventually married Kate Johnston. Later, it was owned by Miss Marie Marshall.
“And this is it?” I asked. “This is an apron from the Sir Robert Peel?”
“Yes it is,” confirmed Linda Schleher. “Here is a yellowed newspaper article about its origin.”
The apron, now encased for display in the museum, is truly a product from a bygone era. More fascinating though, is that it still exists, and in my mind, I can picture Pirate Bill stuffing it into a satchel after it was thrown at him. It shows that he probably had a sentimental side, even for a pirate.
And just what happened to him? Well, after the battle at Windmill Point near Prescott later that year, he was captured, escaped and captured again. And eventually, he escaped again. The most colourful character of the Thousand Islands ended his days as a lighthouse keeper for the Rock Island Light just below Clayton and near the area where he ‘and his band of ruffians, robbed the passengers, drove them ashore and set the Peel on fire’.
And to the best of my knowledge, no, we’re not related.
By Brian Johnson, Captain, Wolfe Islander III
Brian Johnson is one of five captains of the Wolfe Island car ferry Wolfe Islander III. He has worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for 28 years, recently celebrating 20 years as captain. Today, Brian combines his marine career with writing. Brian co-edited Growing up on Wolfe Island, a compilation of interviews and stories with Sarah Sorensen. He is also the founding and immediate past president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society.
A similar version of this story appeared in the Kingston Whig Standard titled ‘The pirate of the St. Lawrence’ on May 31, 2008, remembering the 170th anniversary of the burning of the Sir Robert Peel on May 30, 1838
Rock Island Lighthouse: A Story of Discovery, written by Mark A. Wentling, TI Life, January 2009.
Mark A. Wentling, The Rock Island Lighthouse Historical & Memorial Association, This website provides the most comprehensive history of the Rock Island Lighthouse.
Patriot Chronicles: Four Who Didn't Come Home, written by John Carter, TI Life, June 2010
Excellent Web site maintained by Shaun McLaughlin: http://www.piratebilljohnston.com/ This site chronicles the life of Bill Johnston.
Reference Material in Thousand Islands life Magazine, from the Patriot War 1837-38 Pages within this series: