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William Johnson - pirate of the Thousand Islands

William Johnson (or Johnston), referred to as the Pirate of the St. Lawrence by the British partisans during the Patriot War, was born at Three Rivers (Trois Rivières, Qubébec), Canada, on 1 February 1782, and lived at Kingston from 1784 to 1812. At the outbreak of war in 1812, he, while a member of a militia company, was jailed for some military insubordination. He escaped and fled to the American side, and was an American spy during the war. He may have had a very minor role in 1814, when he is reported (Lossing) to have been under the orders of Midshipman M'Gowan, who led an attempted torpedo attack on the St Lawrence, 102; the attack was supposed to find the ship still on the ways, but arrived too late. On one occasion he robbed the British mail of important official dispatches, which he delivered to the American commanding officer at Sacketts Harbor. He was thoroughly familiar with the St. Lawrence border country. John Decater [sic], James and Napoleon assisted him in his enterprises. His beautiful daughter Kate, the 'Naiad of the St. Lawrence,' 'the Queen of the Thousand Isles,' was his intelligence section. Johnson did not look like a pirate at all, being a mild, intelligent-looking gentleman.

He was active in the "Patriot War"; on 29 May 1838, he led 22 men dressed as Indians to board the Sir Robert Peel, on McDonnel's wharf at Wells Island.

The Earl of Durham, just appointed Governor-general, issued a £1,000 reward for Johnson's conviction [and/or for any other participants in the burning of the Sir Robert Peel]. Governor Marcy of New York also posted a $500.00 reward for Johnson, $250.00 for lesser leaders and $100.00 for any of the others. Johnson was roundly condemned and abused by the Canadian and American presses. To set them straight as to what had been done and why it had been done he issued his own proclamation [see Niles' National Register, LIV (28 July 1838), p349]

To all whom it may concern.

I, William Johnson, a natural born citizen of Upper Canada, certify that I hold a commission as commander-in-chief of the naval forces and flotilla. I commanded the expedition that captured the steamer Sir Robert Peel. The men under my command in that expedition were nearly all natural born English subjects-the exceptions were volunteers for the expedition. My headquarters was on an island in the St. Lawrence, without the jurisdiction of the United States, at a place named by me, Fort Wallace. I am well acquainted with the boundary line, and know which of the islands belong to the United States; and in the selection of the island I wish to be positive and not locate within the jurisdiction of the United States, and had reference to the decision of the commissioners under the 6th article of the Treaty of Ghent, done at Utica, in the state of New York, 13th June, 1822. 1 know the number of the island, and by that decision it was British territory. I yet hold possession of that station, and we also occupy a station some twenty or more miles from the boundary line of the United States, in what was his majesty's dominions until it was occupied by us. I act under orders. The object of my movement is the independence of the Canadas. I am not at war with the commerce or property of the citizens of the United States.

Signed this tenth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and thirty eight. [signed] WILLIAM JOHNSON.

Several arrests were made all charged with having taken part in the affair. One, a William Anderson, was indicted for arson on six counts and tried in the circuit court and acquitted. With the people feeling as they did it was impossible to convict a Patriot of any such offense. Bill Johnson continued to raid, burn and loot on the Canadian side of the river for some weeks. The Thousand Islands were searched by both American and British military authorities. His retreat on Abel's Island was discovered on 4 July. In the attempt to arrest the gang, all but two of the eight men found in it escaped, he among them. The two captives were taken to Sacketts Harbor in Telegraph, along with Johnson's twelve oared boat. It was clinker-built, with a black bottom, and painted red and yellow both inside and out.

One of Johnson's four sons, Decatur was proprietor of the Hotel Walton at Clayton, New York (previously French Creek). The pirate's brother John was a member of the New York Assembly and president of the First National Bank in Clayton. Johnson's daughter, Kate, who was variously described as "his handsome daughter, the queen of the Thousand Isles" married Charles H. Haws of Clayton N.Y. and had no descendants.


Refs:
Niles register
Benson Lossing

 

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