Pirate Bill Johnston: A Legend in his Lifetime and Beyond


For much of William "Pirate Bill" Johnston's life (February 1, 1782-February 17, 1870), residents on both sides of the St. Lawrence River either revered or hated him. His uncompromising belief in fighting injustice, combined with his intimate knowledge of the Thousand Islands' secrets, allowed Johnston to change the course of armed conflicts and ignore laws with near impunity.

Bill Johnston's signature event-the one that earned him his pirate moniker-occurred early on the rainy morning of May 30, 1838.

Shortly after midnight, Johnston and 21 other armed men, crudely disguised as Indians, began following the Sir Robert Peel in two rowboats as the steamer made her way up the American Channel beside Wellesley Island. When the Peel stopped to take on a load of firewood (fuel for her boilers), Johnston's men landed downstream and began to skulk through the dark forest towards the Peel.

With Johnston that night was his co-conspirator Donald McLeod. They intended to capture the Peel and use it as troop ship for a series of attacks on Canada by rebels gathering in the border states. Their plan that night was part war and part personal revenge.

Johnston's motives for revenge began 25 years earlier during the War of 1812. At that time, he was a prosperous merchant and farmer in Kingston, Upper Canada (now Ontario). The British falsely accused him of spying, threw him in jail, and confiscated all his property. For that injustice, Johnston pledged a lifetime war against Britain. He escaped and joined the American forces fighting the British. After the war, the fires of revenge continued to smolder, waiting for a new cause.

In December 7, 1837, Canadian rebels attacked Toronto, lead by its former mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie. The colonial militia quickly defeated the ill-prepared rebels. Mackenzie escaped to Buffalo, New York, and recruited an army of American sympathizers and Canadian refugees-the Patriots. One night, the British burned the Patriot's supply ship, the Caroline, and killed an American sailor. Enraged, Johnston traveled to Buffalo to join the Patriots. Mackenzie made him an Admiral.

For most of his life, Scotland-born McLeod (January 1, 1779-July 22, 1879) was a loyal British subject. He fought for the British against Napoleon in Europe and against the United States during the War of 1812. (In a quirk of history, Johnston and McLeod fought on opposite sides at the Battle of Crysler's Farm in 1813.)

McLeod left the army and became a school teacher and newspaper publisher in Prescott (across the river from Ogdensburg, NY). His paper advocated political reform. When Mackenzie's Patriot War began, a loyalist mob trashed McLeod's printing office and threatened his life. He escaped to the US and joined the Patriots. Mackenzie appointed him General. A few months later, his wife and sons escaped to Ogdensburg; destitute, hungry, and without any possessions but what they wore. In a letter to a friend, McLeod promised revenge.

An hour after landing on Wellesley Island, May 30, Johnston, McLeod and 11 other concealed raiders studied the Peel in the glow of her lamps. The 160-foot-long ship was one of the newest passenger steamers on the river and, most importantly to Johnston and McLeod, she was owned by prominent members of Colonial Canada's upper class.

This was personal.

Deciding not to wait for his nine lost men, Johnston ordered the charge. Letting out war whoops, they raced across the clearing and up the gangplank. Within a half hour, they had hustled the 80 sleepy passengers and crew at gunpoint to the wharf. Other than one fistfight, there was no violence and no serious injuries.

Johnston ordered the ship untied and it drifted downstream. Rebel leaders had promised to send men to help run the ship. They failed to show up. Since none of Johnston's men could restart the boilers, he ordered his men to loot the ship and burn it. With cries of "Remember the Caroline," they set it aflame and retreated in their boats.

The destruction of the Peel set off a massive manhunt for Johnston. The British and American forces each had a small armada and army searching for him. Despite three months of effort, and probably millions of dollars in costs, they failed to find him. Johnston hid in a series of secret caves and secluded campsites. His children, especially his daughter Kate, smuggled him supplies throughout that summer.

(American constables arrested eleven of Johnston's pirate crew. A sympathetic jury acquitted the first man put on trial. The remaining prisoners were released for fear of the same result.)

Authorities arrested Johnston in late November. He claims he surrendered. Charged with several offenses, he was in and out of prison several times either because of an acquittal or an escape. Johnston received a full pardon from President William Henry Harrison in 1841.

Johnston spent his later years as a smuggler, tavern owner, and general rogue. He was keeper of Rock Island Lighthouse for eight years (1853-1861). He lived his last years in his son Samuel's hotel, the Walton House in Clayton.

McLeod was pardoned in 1846 along with other Upper Canada rebels. He returned to Canada and took a government job. After retirement, he moved to Cleveland where he remained until his death at 100.

Pirate Bill Johnston is much glamorized in local history. Ten days every August in Alexandria Bay are designated "Bill Johnston's Pirate Days". This is a festival with professional performers as well as locals and visitors dressing in pirate costumes acting out battles or just walking around, and also displays relating to the period.

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[Text written by Shaun McLaughlin, see his blog called Raiders and Rebels]

See also:
Alexandria Bay
Thousand Islands
Notorious Jefferson County Crime