Watertown Daily Times
May 1, 1923 - Page 10
OF PATRIOT WAR
PRAISES TIMES FOR COLLECT-
ING VALUED MATERIAL
BILL JOHNSTON'S CHARACTER
Held by Some As a Pirate, While
Others Portray Him As Hero--
Anchor of Sir Robert Peel Re-
To The Times:
Mr. Fuller's History of the patriot War is certainly a notable contribution to the
chronicles of this northern border. Collecting from scattered sources, most
of which would soon be lost, a mass of fragmentary material concerning a series of
events as remarkable as many a celebrated tale of old world border warfare, events
which had taken on a legendary character within the life-time of most of their
participants, Mr. Fuller has woven them into a coherent and absorbing narration
of the causes, sequence and after effects of this mistaken enterprise which de-
serves a place in the permanent history of this state.
Although born less than a score of years after the burning of the "Peel" and
only a few miles from the scene of that ruffianly act, and although acquainted
with many who had been in close touch with leaders and followers in the Patriot
War, only a few allusions to it other than patently immaginative tales ever
reached my ears, and until reading Mr. Fuller's history my sole knowledge of the
whole affair was derived from the incomplete accounts in Hough's History of
Jefferson county, A Gazetteer of New York State, published in 1850 and the resume
in Haddock's History of the St. Lawrence River.
The outstanding names in all the heresay tales of course were Bill Johnston and
his daughter, Kate. Mr. Fuler terms Johnston a pirate. As all the person are
dead who would know first hand information regarding this picturesque personage
his real character, trust (?) remain a matter of inference from records and reports
colored by passion of romantic glamour. That many of his acts were illegal and
inspired by private vengeance is unquestioned How much he was inspsired by
patriotic devotion in the cause of liberating Canadians from real or fancied
oppression probably he himself would have been unable to tell. He seems to have
been a survivor of a type who figured in earlier times as heroes or swashbuckling
adventurers, according to the narrator's point of view. His acts of piracy he
doubtless justified as war measures. Lawlessness was quite common along the
frontier. The echoes of the war of 1812 had not wholly died away but heads (?)
were plenty. Apparently, Johnston took advantage of existing conditions to make
himself a leader. He seems to have loved the lime light on his activities, and
when safe on his person. That he was pardoned after a few years of outlawry by
both governments and made
the first keeper of Rock Island Lighthouse argues against his being a thorough
villain, or else evidences a complete and convincing change of heart.
The filial devotion and bravery, as well as the striking beauty of Kate Johnston,
the Queen of the Thousand Isles," are well known. Regarding the popular belief
that the "Deveil's Oven" was Johnston's hiding place, known only to, and heroic-
ally visited by his intrepid daughter, this seems highly improbable. The Devil's
Oven is a very small island in full view of Alexandria Bay and having a very
shallow open cavern. Jore probably he flitted from cover to cover among the
larger, heavily wooded islands.
That he had strick, if somewhat peculiar notions of propriety, is illustrated
by the testimony of Kate on one occasion. After Johnston had settled in Clayton
my mother became acquainted with his family. One summer many were flocking to a
camp meeting in the vicinity. My mother asked Kate if she was going. "No," she
replied. "Father allows us to attend all other places of amusement, but not
William Johnston's son, Decatur, better known as "Dec," was for many years the
popular proprietor of the Walton House at Clayton, which was managed after his
death by his efficient wife. Their daughter, Mrs. William Esselstyn, who died
a few months ago in Flint, Mich., was a woman whose charming personality made
her a great favorite with both resident and tourist society at Clayton.
One of the committeemen on resolutions appointed at the indignation meeting
at Brownville after the burning of the steamer "Caroline" by the British
commander on the Niagara River, was Benjamin F. Rood, my maternal grandfather.
He was at that time a tenant of one of Gen. Brown's farms, having removed
not long before from Vermont. He took no further activity in the border dis-
turbances. Although a man of great physical and moral courage and a militia
captain in Vermont, he was opposed to war and appeals to force where not
absolutely necessary for safety or liberty.
Some years ago the anchor of the "Sir Robert Peel," which had been grappled up
after nearly a half century at the river's bottom was ornamenting a lawn near
Moore's dock, Wells Island, where the Peel was raided and fired. This relic
should be acquired and preserved by the Jefferson County Historical Society.
A. G. Marshall.