The Legendary Bill Johnston: The Real Life Pirate of the 1000 Islands

Should the legendary Bill Johnston be considered a pirate or hero? You decide! Read on to learn about the life of this infamous smuggler of the 1000 Islands!

Ahoy matey! Ever wonder about the life of a real pirate? Here in the 1000 Islands, we’ve had our share of smugglers, but not one so legendary as Bill Johnston. From his early smuggling days to his role in the pivotal sinking of the Sir Robert Peel to his final days as a lighthouse keeper, Johnston has earned his place in 1000 Islands history. But what do we really know about the infamous smuggler of the St. Lawrence River?

Bill Johnston

Portrait of Bill Johnston

Early Days

Believe it or not, the Canadian pirate Bill Johnston began his life as a loyal British subject. Born in the American colonies, he fled the American Revolution in 1781 to settle in Ontario. He carried cargo up and down the St. Lawrence River, but along with his legitimate cargo, he also smuggled tea and rum. He acquired enough booty to buy himself and his family a large store in Kingston, becoming a successful merchant and storeowner.

The Moment When Everything Changed

So what turned Johnston into the pirate we know him as today? During the War of 1812, the Americans began to attack British colonies in Canada, and Johnston was arrested on suspicion of spying. With all of his property confiscated by the British, an enraged Johnston vowed that he would get his revenge.

As part of his vengeance, Johnston fought for the US fleet and spied on the British, using his knowledge of the St. Lawrence River to help him navigate the waterway and its many islands. But a rogue spirit at heart, Johnston wrote his own rules as he cavorted about the 1000 Islands. He robbed British mail to give to the Americans and participated in numerous battles along the St. Lawrence River, all while continuing his illicit smuggling operation up and down the waterway, bringing tea and rum from the US into Canada.

William Lyon MacKenzie


Portrait of William Lyon MacKenzie

The Caroline and the Sir Robert Peel

By 1837, the Canadian colonies had begun to fight for their independence. William Lyon Mackenzie, the mayor of Toronto, was a leading figure in the struggle against British rule, but when he attempted to recruit men to join his cause, the British destroyed Mackenzie’s ship, The Caroline, killing one American soldier.

Johnston was infuriated. He immediately enlisted to join Mackenzie’s forces, and was appointed as an admiral. Johnston’s first order of business was creating a strategy to attack Fort Henry in Kingston as a successful attack would cripple the British occupation. However this attack never happened due to the ineptitude of American General van Rensselaer and the rebel’s disbanded before they sailed on Fort Henry.

Undeterred, Johnston came up with a second plan to cause unrest, capture the Sir Robert Peel. In May of 1838, Johnston and a group of men dressed as natives set out to capture the famous passenger steamship, which was travelling from Brockville to Toronto with nearly 20 passengers, and British specie to pay troops stationed in the Upper Province.

Johnston and his crew stormed on board the ship, ordering all passengers off before finally setting the steamer aflame to slowly sink into its watery grave while they chanted, “Remember the Caroline!”

The Sir Robert Peel remains in the St. Lawrence River today as a popular dive destination.

A Pirate’s Life for Me!

But that wasn’t the end of Bill Johnston’s pirate life. He evaded the authorities for nearly a year, hiding in the nooks and crannies of the St. Lawrence River archipelago, which no one knew as well as he did. His daughter Kate smuggled supplies to him until he was finally captured and imprisoned for his role in the sinking of the Sir Robert Peel.

Imprisoning a pirate is easier said than done! Bill Johnston came and left prison as he pleased, once checking himself in for a winter only to avoid the cold before breaking out once again when the weather grew warmer.

Rock Island Lighthouse, Thousand Islands
Rock Island Lighthouse

Later in life, Johnston left the rebellious past behind him and was appointed as the first lighthouse keeper of the Rock Island Lighthouse on the St. Lawrence River, the waterway he had called his home for nearly his entire life. He spent several years watching over the 1000 Islands from his lighthouse until finally retiring at his son’s New York hotel.

Folk Hero or Swashbuckling Pirate?

Many people think of sacking towns and buried treasure when they hear the pirate moniker. What can be forgotten is that Bill Johnston was a man fighting for a cause. His actions, rebelliousness, and ability to elude the authorities have turned him into a cult figure. Whether he’s a folk hero or a pirate is for you to decide.

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