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Searching for a Pirate's Lost Lair


In 1838, William "Pirate Bill" Johnston served as admiral in the rebel forces that repeatedly attacked Upper Canada, and he led the raid that destroyed the steamer Sir Robert Peel that May. For his misdeeds, a combined British and American force of 500 men and at least four steamships hunted Johnston throughout the Thousand Islands.

In those days, the lightly inhabited islands were heavily treed and offered Johnston refuge and concealment in numerous groves and grottos. During his decades as a smuggler, he had discovered every trail, portage, cave, and hidden cove.

Many of his cavern hideouts are gone, destroyed by the ravages of nature or the terraforming proclivities of humans. Some survive. Others remain to be rediscovered. As a Johnston historian, I search for references to any of his lairs when I read old documents and accounts of that era.

I found clues to one such stronghold in Canada As it Was, Is, and May Be, the memoirs of Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Richard Bonnycastle, published posthumously in 1852. He led the search for Johnston in Upper Canada in 1838. One of Bonnycastle's adjutants returned from a Johnston-seeking excursion with a discovery he'd made on one island.

"The foe was off," wrote Bonnycastle, "but he found their bivouac on an almost inaccessible islet near the most narrow part of the channels of the Thousand Isles at Fiddler's Elbow, and cleverly constructed inclined planes upon which fast-rowing boats had been drawn up. The result of his expedition, hazardous in the extreme, gave me a knowledge of their whereabouts, and added to the geology of Canada; for without knowing anything about the subject, he brought away from this isolated and seldom visited spot some of the finest specimens of tourmaline I ever saw, which he conceived to be indicative of coal."

Bonnycastle never named the island but that paragraph holds several clues: it is near Fiddler's Elbow; it has a gentle inclining slope where a boat ramp could be constructed and concealed; and, it has a deposit of tourmaline resembling coal. (Tourmaline is a rare crystalline mineral found in many colors but most commonly black.)

One warm September day in 2009, I set out in my kayak from the dock at Ivy Lea, Ontario, to seek what Bonnycastle's adjutant found 171 years earlier. Kayaking through the islands is always a thrill: the scenery viewed from low in the water is vast and majestic, and the boat wake from six directions at once is an exciting challenge.

 

Since Bonnycastle did not say at which end of Fiddler's Elbow the islet lay, I preceded southeast and examined the islands near the downstream end. I circumnavigated Bratt, Wood, Himes and others, but none had the low incline that was my best clue visible from the water. (Those islands also have cottages and I had no intention of snooping around backyards.)

I next steered my trusty craft into the roiling, turbulent waters of Fiddler's Elbow, the narrow channel between Ash and Wallace Islands. Much like paddling upstream in Class 1 rapids, I sought eddies and calm spots as I picked my way through. Once well past the channel's mouth, I coasted briefly to scan the archipelago before me.

Ahead and to my left were Myer's and Bingham Islands. I paddled around both, but saw nothing that suggested an incline. I headed across a wide stretch of open water to Sir William Island. Again, no luck. By this point I was more than one kilometer upstream from Fiddler's Elbow. I had neglected to check a few islets close to Wallace Island when I exited the channel; so, I retraced my route.

I checked out Butts, Needle and Palm Islands and finally headed toward the last island in close proximity, Lyndoe (a.k.a. Lyndoch and designated Island 79 in 1884).  I followed its rugged north shore, past the navigation light and around the west end. On the south side, I found a sheltered bay unruffled by the swift current and steered in for a rest and a snack.

Pulling up on a stony beach, I discovered a wide gently inclining slope, concealed by shore-side shrubs, leading up into a pine stand. Since the island had no dwelling, I took a stroll. Climbing to the island's igneous spine, I had a close and clear view of the western end of Fiddler's Elbow.

 

In the War of 1812, Johnston enlisted with the Americans as a river scout and raider. Fiddler's Elbow was then a principle route for boats supplying Upper Canada. On the spot I stood, a few armed men could command the channel's upstream approach. And, spread before me to the northwest were thousands of acres of open water. Any rebel or smuggler on my perch could see boats approaching long before they presented a danger.

At that moment, I suspected I had found the island I sought. But I needed irrefutable evidence. I began a slow meander along the ridge, examining every knob of exposed rock. I carried no tools in my kayak; so had nothing to dig with and only a stout stick for scrapping away moss and shallow soil.

On the steepest crest of the island's backbone, I espied two small protrusions resembling anthracite, the shiny version of coal. On my knees, I brushed aside pine needles and exposed the hard edges of its crystalline form (like quartz but black).

Eureka! Tourmaline!

I had found one of Bill Johnston's old camps.

By Shaun McLaughlin

 

Shaun J. McLaughlin, a blogger since January 2010, is writing two articles for TI Life this winter.  The first Bonnycastle versus Johnston, appeared the January, 2012 issue.

Shaun 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 this month by The History Press and will be available in bookstores and gift shops in the Thousand Islands area. His Patriot War novel, Counter Currents, is now available in ebook format at Amazon.

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Comments

Bud Ames
Comment by: Bud Ames ( )
Left at: 5:16 PM Thursday, February 16, 2012
Shaun, we enjoy summers on Wellesley Island directly across from Lyndoe Island. One summer our 10 year old daughter and her friend told us that they were going to row over to the island to explore and spend the night! We watched them land in the cove and proceed to enter the woods where we lost tract of them. A couple of hours later, just about dusk they reappeared on our dock and stayed home that night. They have never told us why they did not stay the night but now we know that the ghost of pirate Bill Johnston probably had something to do with it!
This summer I will be exploring the island looking for the Tourmaline. I will not be staying the night! Thanx for another great river piece of history!
Joyce McLaughlin
Comment by: Joyce McLaughlin ( )
Left at: 2:27 PM Sunday, February 26, 2012
Since my maiden name was Johnston I have always had a curiosity about Pirate Bill....Born in Brockville Ontario..the river,its history and amazing stories have always captivated me...Loved this story and your wonderful ability to write..thank you...
John Marshall Vincent
Comment by: John Marshall Vincent ( )
Left at: 10:53 AM Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Shaun, We spend part of our summers in Ivy Lea. I retraced your Kayak outing to Lyndock Island on Aug 2 from Ivy Lea. Always enjoy kayaking around head of Ash/Wallace Islands. Took me some time to figure out which was the "Pirates Lost Lair Isl" but ultimately landed at east end. Walked up the Island's backbone towards the NWest viewpoint. Did not find your tourmaline protrusions but did discover near top of spine, 4 stubby clear bottles that looked very old...left them there. Bill Johnston's or more recent explorers? Also saw at NW viewpoint 4 stakes with faded red bands. A surveyor's stake or a possible archeology dig location?? Thanks for your inspiration to explore the Island-very interesting.
Shaun McLaughlin
Comment by: Shaun McLaughlin ( )
Left at: 7:02 PM Thursday, September 20, 2012
The tourmaline is on the top of the ridge at the upstream end of the island not far from the light. Your comments make me wonder if Parks Canada has every looked for 19th century artifacts. Thanks for the feedback.

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