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)

Trial of Those Who
Burned Sir Robert Peel

Governor Marcy Hastens From Albany to Watertown ---
Proclamation Offering Reward For Those Implicated ---
“Bill” Johnston’s Manifesto Published in the Jeffersonian.




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


Chapter VIII

In spite of the fact that the Jeffersonian had exhibited a lively sympathy for the Patriot cause, it roundly denounced the burning of the Sir Robert Peel as piracy. The Jeffersonian had a slightly exaggerated account of the outrage, saying that there were 200 passengers on board when the craft was captured. The actual number was less than 20. George C. Sherman was district attorney of Jefferson county at the time and he at once began an investigation.

“Her destruction, under all circumstances,” said The Jeffersonian in an editorial, “can be regarded in no other light than that of piracy. It is a foul stain upon our national honor, to be effaced only by the condign punishment of the offenders. An express with dispatches to the United States district attorny, N. S. Benton, Esq., and to his excellency, Governor Marcy, was sent off by J. Fairbanks, Esq. Deputy United States marshal, soon after the receipt of the news in this village.

“Since the above was in type we have been put in possession of the following facts: Nine person are under arrest, on suspicion of assisting in the destruction of the Sir Robert Peel, three of whom are in jail in this village. Of those arrested are Nathan Lee of Clayton, Bates, Hugh Scanlan and two brothers, Warner, all Canadians except Lee.”

The next week the editor of the Jeffersonian was in the possession of more facts and he said that the prisoners were William Anderson, James Potts, Nathan Lee, Chester Warner, Seth Warner, William Smith, Marshall W. Forward, William S. Nichols and Henry Hunter, all Canadians with the exception of Lee. These prisoners were lodged in the Jefferson County jail. Several members of the Hunter’s lodges made attempts to (word unclear) the prisoners and it was necessary to guard the jail with the militia.

On June 23, 1838, Anderson was brought to trial before Circuit Judge J. P. Cushman in Watertown, charged with arson, punishable then by death. He was found not guilty and subsequently the others were acquitted. There was an interesting feature of this trial which seems strange to newspapers of today. The Jeffersonian records that Bernard Bagley, attorney for Anderson, applied for a court order prohibiting the publication of any of the testimony while the court was in session and the court granted the order. “A full report of the evidence is in preparation,” said the Jeffersonian, “and will be published as soon as the circumstances permit.” Judge John P. Cushman was the residing judge and the associate judges were C. McKnight, B. Wright, J. Macumber, G. Brown and Z. Allen. George C. Sherman, district attorney appeared for the people, and he had associated with him Bishop Perkins of St. Lawrence county, Attorney General Samuel Beardsley and John Clarke. The defense was represented by Bernard Bagley, T. C. Chittenden, C. Mason and Charles Clarke. A number of witnesses were sworn, including the captain, purser and passengers. The jury was out two hours and returned a verdict of not guilty. “Occasion permitted” and The Jeffersonian published an extended account of the trial of Anderson. It was run in two installments on account of its length. The other prisoners remained at the jail until Dec. 13, when for want of witnesses, they were allowed their liberty, but the indictments against them were not dismissed.

Governor Marcy was informed of the burning of the Peel and he came immediately from Albany to Watertown, making the trip within 50 hours after word was sent from Watertown. This was even before the telegraph or the railroad in this section, and a part of the journey had to be made by stage coach or on horse back. Immediately after arriving in Watertown Governor Marcy issued a proclamation in which he offered a reward of $500 for the arrest of “Bill” Johnston, and $250 each for David McLeod, Samuel Frey and Robert Smith, all alleged to be concerned in the destruction of the Peel, and a reward of $100 for any others who might be convicted.

Governor Marcy also sent a letter to the secretary of war, in which he advised the co-operation of the war department with the Canadian authorities in capturing the pirates. Major General Macomb was dispatched to Sackets Harbor to take charge of the situation. He sent word to the Canadian authorities at Kingston inviting them to co-operate, and a gang of the pirates was surprised, but all except two escaped. Steamers were fitted up by both the United States and Canadian authorities and congress on July 7 appropriated $20,000 for the defense of the St. Lawrence line.

On the morning of June 2, 1838, there was another incident which added to the tension. The American steamer Telegraph, while leaving Brockville, was hailed by two sentries, belonging to the volunteer militia. They fired six rifle shots at the steamer, three of which struck her. At the same time several other shots were fired from another wharf. An examination was held, and it was testified that the rifles were fired to give an alarm and no intention to hit the steamer existed. The sentries were discharged and no further action was taken in the matter.

Sir George Arthur, governor of Upper Canada, offered a reward of a thousand pounds for the apprehension of those concerned in the Peel seizure.

Johnston made no attempt to conceal his part in the affair, relying on his knowledge of the river and his audacity to save him. A few days after the affair he sent notices to the newspapers, in which he publicly acknowledged that he was the leader of the expedition. This proclamation, which was published in The Jeffersonian, follows:

“To all whom it may concern:

“I, William Johnston, a natural born citizen of Upper Canada, certify that I hold a commission in the patriot service of upper Canada, as commander-in-chief of the naval forces and flotilla. I commanded the expedition that attacked and destroyed the steamer Sir Robert Peel. The men under my command in that expedition was nearly all natural born English subjects; the exceptions were volunteers for the expedition.

“My headquarters were an island in the St. Lawrence river 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 do and which do not belong to the United States, and in the selected I wished to be positive and not locate within the jurisdiction of the United States, and had reference to the decision of the commissioners under the sixth article of the treaty of Ghent, done at Utica in the state of New York, 13th of June, 1822, I know the number of islands and by that decision, it was British territory.

“I yet hold possession of that station, and we, also occupy a station some 20 or more miles from the boundary of the United States, in what was his majesty’s dominions until occupied by us. I act under orders. The object of my movements 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.

William Johnston.”

In his message to congress touching on the cases of the Peel and the Telegraph, President Van Buren said that there had been no formal redress demanded by either government, as the acts were considered criminal offenses which should be dealt with as such by the officers within whose jurisdiction they were committed.

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