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)

British Steamer Is
Burned By the Patriots


Party Led By "Bill" Johnston -- Violate Neutrality -- Steamer
Burned at Wells Island -- After Being Attacked By Gang of
Men Dressed As Indians -- Outrage Is Deplored By the Bet-
ter Element.




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


One of the outstanding events of the Patriot war as it related to Jefferson county was the burning of the British steamer Sir Robert Peel by "Bill" Johnston, notorious river pirate, and a band of his friends. This act, in retaliation of the burning of the Caroline caused a tense feeling between the Canadian and the United States governments and for a time it looked as though trouble would result. It reached the ears of President Van Buren and a special message was sent to congress dealing with this matter.

The Peel was under Canadian registry and owned by David E. O. Ford of Brockville, Jonas Jones of Toronto, William Bacon of Ogdensburg, each of whom owned a fourth interest. The other fourth interest was held by George Sherwood and Henry Jones, trustees of the creditors of Horace Billings & Company of Brockville. She was built at Brockville in 1837 and was valued at $44,000 (? - could be $14,000). She was 160 feet long with a 30-foot beam, was commanded by John B. Armstrong and plied between Prescott and Toronto.

The Peel left Prescott on the morning of May 29, 1838, with 19 passengers on board. She left Brockville in the evening, which was dark and rainy and about midnight pulled up to McDonnel's wharf on Wells Island for the purpose of taking on wood.

John Fine, B. Perkins and Samuel Stillwell of Ogdensburg gave an excellent account of the outrage having gone to Wells Island to make an investigation of the affair. Their report of the occurrence follows:

"On the night of the 30th of May the undersigned were informed that the steamer, Sir Robert Peel, a British boat, had been boarded by a band of armed men, plundered and burned, at a place known as Wells Island, Jefferson county. We immediately started in the steam boat Oswego, for the neighborhood of the outrage, and at Brockville took with us the purser and several of the hands of the Sir Robert Peel, with a view to obtain their testimony in aid of bringing the offenders to justice. On our arrival at French Creek, (Clayton) we learned that six men were then under arrest charged with the offence (sic) of burning and plundering the boat, and that three had been committed.

"From the evidence taken we think that we cannot err in saying the following is the substance of the facts relative to the destruction of the Sir Robert Peel: On the night of the 29th of May, the steamer on her passage from Prescott up to the head of the lake, touched at a wharf on Wells (a United States) island. The wharf was built entirely for the selling of wood to steamboats. There was no building except one log shanty belonging to the woodmen, within half a mile or more of the wharf, and there is not more than an acre of cleared land in sight of the wharf on the island. When the boat first touched at the wharf, the man furnishing wood informed the captain of the boat that he had seen armed men on the island, and he was afraid they might be there with hostile intentions against the boat. The captain made light of the woodman's warning, let down steam and proceeded to take on wood. The captain, mate and all the cabin passengers retired from the deck of the boat, and most of them were in bed.

"The boat touched the wharf about 1 o'clock in the night, and had lain there about an hour, when a band of men armed with guns and bayonets and dressed in Indian costumes, suddenly rushed upon the boat and by hideous yells and violent threats drove all the officers, hands and passengers on shore. There were about ten passengers in the ladies' cabin, who were driven on shore without their baggage and in their night clothes; and the passengers lost a considerable portion of their baggage.

"Immediately after the pirates got possession of the boat they proceeded to sack and plunder it. Very soon after they had driven the officers, hands and passengers of the boat on shore, they cut her from the wharf. She floated out some thirty rods and stopped at a small island or rock. About an hour after the armed band got possession of the boat they set fire to her in several places and then took to their boats, which they had in preparation. Most of the witnesses estimate the number of armed men from thirty to forty who took possession of the boat.

"On our arrival at French Creek, we found nine persons had been arrested on suspicion of being concerned in the burning of the boat. At French Creek we found one Thomas Scott, a surgeon, who had been a passenger on board the Sir Robert Peel, having come on board at Brockville. Dr. Scott is a citizen of Brockville, U. C., and his character as a most reputable man has been vouched for by several respectable inhabitants of Brockville.

"Upon the examination of the prisoners Dr. Scott was sworn as a witness, and testified that he was a passenger on board the Sir Robert Peel; that after the band of armed men had got possession of the boat, and he had been upon the wharf, he returned to the boat for his baggage, invited by one Robinson, another passenger, assuring him of safety, and was taken to the ladies' cabin to dress the wound of Hugh Scanian, who was said to have received a blow from a stick of wood. Scanian was one of the prisoners and was identified by Dr. Scott. Dr. Scott states that while he was dressing the wound, the boat was cut from the wharf and floated so that he could not get ashore, and after the boat was set fire to, to save his life, he went into the boat with the armed band, and they took him away to an island (we have since learned, called Abel's island). The band of men there had a kind of a shanty or an encampment. He remained with them until after the sunrise the next morning. The pirates enjoined, and he promised not to make any disclosures to injure them. They allowed him to depart and he got a farmer to take him ashore. He saw and counted all the persons who boarded the boat, and who went to the encampment, and he knows there were no more than 22 armed men who boarded the boat. He saw them all washed and in their natural dresses after sunrise on the morning of May 30.

It was talked and understood at the pirates' encampment that all the persons except two, who were engaged in the capture of the boat were Canadian refugees or Canadians who claimed to act in revenge for the injuries. Dr. Scott states that if he could see, he could identify nearly every person engaged in the outrage. Nine of the persons concerned were fully committed for trial, and two or three, yet unarrested, are known, who were concerned in the outrage. Vigorous means have been taken to secure their arrest. The boat is wholly destroyed.

"John Fine, B. Perkins, Smith Stilwell."

The pirates took assumed names during the outrage and they called each other such names as Tecumseh, Sir William Wallace, Judge Lynch, Captain Crocket, Nelson, Captain Crocker, Bolivar and Admiral Benbo. Several thousand dollars, in one package and smaller sums of money, as well as a quantity of clothing was stolen. The only house in the vicinity was the woodmen's shanty where the unfortunate passengers found refuge until morning when the steamer Oneida, bound on her regular trip took the little party to Kingston, where they were supplied with clothing and money.

It was said to have been the intention of those who captured the Peel to have captured the steamer Great Britain the next day and fit the two craft up as privateers in prey on lake and river commerce, and to transport troops of the Patriot army.