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Pirates! In the 1000 Islands

Ahoy maties, there be pirates in this water! The last sighting? About a hundred years ago, but their lively legacy lives on. From rum runners and pirates to majestic castles – the 1000 Islands is home to some of the best little known historical characters and stories. So batten down the hatches, you’re in for a pirate tale that’s as impressive as the Islands themselves. 

One of the most notorious individuals in 1000 Islands lore is William (Bill) Johnston, a Canadian born farmer turned corrupt outlaw who had hideouts scattered throughout the Islands. Today, when you visit this area, you can follow in his footsteps, see the routes he weaved and the locations of some of his greatest exploits.

The sails of a sailboat.

Revered as the “Pirate of the St. Lawrence”, Bill Johnston made his legacy as a smuggler, taking advantage of the close proximity of Canada and the United States along the river as well as the mounting tensions between the US and Britain before the War of 1812. His close ties with the Americans ultimately resulted in suspicion from the British and his subsequent arrest and confiscation of his property in 1813 for “consorting with the enemy”. But, the crafty pirate Johnston couldn’t be contained that easily – he made a quick escape and offered his unsavory services to the Americans.  Using his intimate knowledge of the region he became a spy and began a reign of terror as a raider of British ships along the St. Lawrence River – and in true pirate form, it’s believed he was motivated equally by the prospect of looting as well as vengeance. 

Bill Johnston’s most notorious looting incident occurred on May 30th, 1838 when he and his men captured a British passenger steamer known as the Sir Robert Peel, making off with $175,000 worth of loot – quite literally a jackpot in this era. After dumping the passengers and plundering the boat, Bill Johnston and his crew lit the boat on fire and set her adrift. This incident of piracy prompted the Governor General of Canada to put a price of $5,000 (which would be over $130,000 in today’s currency) on Bill Johnston’s head. Almost 200 years later, the Sir Robert Peel still sits under the surface of the river in 120-135 feet of water, just off the shores of Wellesley Island – a popular location for advanced scuba divers to explore the wreckage. For those who don’t dive, Gananoque Boat Line offers a 2.5 hour long “Lost Ships of the 1000 Islands” cruise that touches on the history of the ship and sonar imaging of its resting place beneath the waves.

By November of 1838 Bill Johnston was back in full-form, aiding the Americans in the infamous Battle of the Windmill in Prescott, Ontario. Johnston had smuggled men and weapons across the river prior to the battle, but had managed to retreat back across the river before the Americans were defeated at the windmill. The six-story, stone windmill still stands on the shores of the St. Lawrence River in Prescott today, and is open to visitors to walk through and see the history of the area. 

Bill Johnston’s involvement in the raid at the Battle of the Windmill resulted in the government of Upper Canada accusing the Americans of aiding in piracy, which ultimately led to him being arrested in the United States. Surprisingly, he was acquitted of all charges relating to his involvement in the Prescott raid, but was arrested again for his previous crimes of piracy and was found guilty. Six months into his year long sentence, Bill Johnston escaped once again. He went into hiding until surfacing  some time later in Washington DC and was eventually given a full pardon by President William Henry Harrison. This allowed him to return to the area he loved and become keeper of the Rock Island Lighthouse back in the 1000 Islands region from 1853-1861; which still stands on Rock Island located just off the Southwest point of Wellesley Island. The lighthouse can be seen these days from on board a cruise with the Gananoque Boat Line or  Rockport Boat Line, and can be seen from the air with 1000 Islands Helicopter Tours

The sunset over the St. Lawrence River.

Today, when you take a scenic cruise along the St. Lawrence River or flying above the area onboard a 1000 Islands helicopter tour, you’ll unknowingly pass among the Islands that made up the stomping grounds of Bill Johnston. There is a list of islands that have been known to be hideout locations for him during both his smuggling years and while working for the Americans. Islands of interest include Calumet Island, Whiskey Island, Grindstone Island – all on the American side of the river – and Fort Wallace Island, located in Ontario. Seeing them today, one would never guess that these islands were once secret holders for pirates; offering cover for spying and a hiding place for claimed loot.

Though the age of pirates in the 1000 Islands region has passed, there are still many reminders of their time in the area that can be seen from the air, land and water. Seeing structures that have stood the test of time for over 150 years will transport you back to when Captain Bill Johnston terrorized the peaceful waters of the St. Lawrence River and made the 1000 Islands his playground. Or find yourself in the middle of a modern day celebration, when the village of Alexandria Bay, New York, is swarmed with scallywags as they host their annual Bill Johnston’s Pirate Days Festival; 10 whole days packed with family friendly activities and events! The village comes alive with performances in full pirate costume, parades, games and even a pirate invasion from the St. Lawrence River. Whichever way you choose to experience the history is sure to be a treat as you enjoy a peek into the lives of freshwater pirates – secret figures that few people outside of the region knew existed until they came to visit the 1000 Islands.

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