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This article was found pasted into a scrapbook entitled, “1838 Patriot War.” The scrapbook is located at the Flower Memorial Library Genealogy Department at Watertown, New York. This article, one of a series written by L. N. Fuller, was copyrighted in 1923 by the Brockway Company, Publishers of the Watertown Daily Times. The series appeared in the Watertown Daily Times in March, April, and May of 1923. John B. Johnson, Jr., Editor/Co-Publisher of the Watertown Daily Times has granted me permission to incorporate these pieces on my website. I feel very honored to have been given this permission. (Shirley Farone)

“Bill” Johnson, Admiral
Of Eastern Patriot Navy

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River Character Who Kept Two Governments Stirred -- Fruit-
less Chase After Him Among Channels of the Thousand
Islands -- Was He Patriot or Scoundrel?

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NORTHERN NEW YORK IN THE PATRIOT WAR

By L. N. FULLER

(Copyright, 1923, by the Brockway Company, Publishers of the Watertown Daily Times.)

 

CHAPTER IX

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Much has been written and much more has been said concerning “Bill” Johnston, one of the leading figures of the Patriot War in this section. Much of that which has been written and handed down in the form of legend has been of a more or less apocryphal nature. Some have tried to put a halo over him and make of him a hero; others have painted him out as an unmitigated scoundrel, a cut throat and all around villain. Probably he was between these two extremes. At any rate, the better class of citizens did not consider him a hero during those stirring times in 1837-38.

Johnston was born at Three Rivers, Quebec, Feb. 1, 1782. He was a loyal Canadian until the war of 1812. At that time he was a grocer in Kingston and was a sergeant of the Kingston militia. For some act of insubordination he was stripped of his chevrons and was put in the guard house. He managed to escape and fled with his family to Sackets Harbor, and from then on he had a deadly hatred of all things British. During the war of 1812 he served as spy for General Winfield Scott.

When the Patriot war broke out it did not take Johnston long to cast his fortunes with the Patriots. He had one daughter Kate, reputed to be a handsome girl of 19, and she was sometimes called “Queen of the Thousand Isles.” He also had four sons, Jim, Bonaparte, John and Stephen.

Johnston knew every foot of the labyrinth of the Thousand Islands and while he possessed the title of Admiral of the Patriot Navy of the East, his flotilla consisted mostly of row boats, but with these he was able to keep the British authorities on the move most of the time. He made himself hunted by both nations on account of his constant violation of the neutrality laws. After the Robert Peel episode Johnston found himself an outlaw with a price upon his head. He issued his proclamation which has been published in a previous chapter and fortified himself on an island on the American side of the line.

General Macomb of the United States army and Sir John Colborne, commanding the British at Kingston, planned a joint expedition to capture the raider and his band of eight men. The story goes, it may or may not be true, that Johnston and his crew took refuge in that natural cavern known as the “Devil’s Oven” the existence of which was known only to himself and his immediate followers, and that his daughter Kate took provisions to him nightly. Finally the retreat was discovered and two of the band were captured. Johnston and the remainder took up their hiding place in a large cave near “Fiddler’s Elbow” on the Canadian side, and there Kate kept them supplied with provisions, eluding the vigilance of the guards.

Spurred by the reward offered for Johnston, Captain George Chalmers Boyd, a British officer, undertook to capture him, and by bribing one of the pirate’s companions, he found his hiding place. Johnston was just getting breakfast when Captain Boyd broke in and covered him with his rifle. Johnston coolly asked him inside the cave, seated himself on a barrel and engaged in conversation. Captain Boyd, so the story goes, became impatient and told Johnston that he would have to accompany him to Kingston, but Johnston, who was smoking, held his pipe over the open keg in which was something that looked like gunpowder and threatened to blow up the whole party. Boyd and his companions fled for their lives, and Johnston fled in the other directions. One story is that the barrel contained onion seeds which resembled black powder.

November found him in command of one of the schooners that was to take part in the expedition against Prescott. His part in the Battle of the Windmill, was not a valorous one. While better men than he were risking their lives in a cause which was doomed to be hopeless from the first, Johnston was out of harm’s way in Ogdensburg. He crossed the river in the Paul Pry but refused the entreaty of Von Schoultz to remove the wounded to a place of safety. Thos who participated in that battle were bitter toward Johnston, saying the he was at heart, a rank coward.

After the Windmill had been captured, Johnston and his son Jim were seen entering a small boat at Ogdensburg. The revenue collector started in pursuit. Johnston landed about three miles above Ogdensburg and he and his son were finally surrounded. Johnston surrendered and he was taken to Sackets Harbor and thence to Auburn, from which place he escaped. He was captured near Rome and was turned over to the custody of the United States marshal at Albany. Again he escaped and he returned to his old haunts on the river where he evaded the officers for a year or two. After tranquility was restored, Johnston became more bold, and as no effort was made to capture him he returned to Clayton, and was appointed keeper of the Rock island light not far from the spot where he captured and burned the Peel. There he lived in peace and quiet, passing away in 1860, the end of an adventurous career.

The Albany Argus published a description of Johnston which was republished by the Jeffersonian. “He and those who attend him are well armed,” the description says. “His own appearance with six pistols, a dirk and a bowie knife in his belt is sufficiently belligerent; and he has with him, it is said, invariably the colors of the Sir Robert Peel.” Little idea was had at the time of the extent of Johnston’s band. “ The Argus estimated that he had no less than a hundred boats and a thousand men, all brigands and buccaneers, under his immediate command.

Shortly after the Peel outrage Johnston and his gang plundered three farm houses on the Canadian Island, Tante, stealing over $700 in cash. Another time he overhauled the steamer Oswego and talked with the captain and crew. Johnston and his band were armed to the teeth and the leader boastingly said he was “a mark to be shot at but not to be taken.”

Even the Jeffersonian, friendly though it was to the Patriot cause, roundly denounced Johnston as a pirate, and each week predicted that he would be captured and hanged. But Johnston, with his perfect knowledge of the river, defied all attempts to capture him. The flagship of his fleet consisted of a 16-oared barge manned by his companions and mounting three-pound guns. They were able to make a speed of from 12 to 14 miles an hour, and the size of the craft gave it far greater mobility than a steamboat, making it possible for them to take advantage of all the nooks and crannies that abound in the Thousand Islands.

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