Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bill Johnston: 1. A Pirate's Roots

Bill Johnston (February 1, 1782-February 17, 1870)—whose scallywag and scofflaw ways in later years came to the attention of Queen Victoria and several US presidents—spent 30 years as a loyal British subject. Then, all Hell broke loose.

In 1781, Bill’s parents, James (originally from Belfast) and Catherine Pegg (of Dutch descent from New Jersey) joined other United Empire Loyalists in flight from the newly independent United States to colonial Canada. Catherine stayed for two years in Trois Riviere, Lower Canada (Quebec), where Bill was born February 1, 1782. In the spring of 1784, Catherine and her young family arrived in Ernesttown (later named Bath), 12 miles west of Kingston.

In 1785, her British-sergeant husband joined them and began the job of turning a primal forest into a farm. With grandfather William and eventually twelve children to help, the family prospered. (Bill's siblings included James, Daniel, Hannah, Isabell, Andrew, Barbarey, Polley, Jacob, Nathan, Catherine, and one unnamed brother.)

Aside: The odd names come from Bill's scrapbook. He never excelled at grammar or spelling.

Bill Johnston's Early Years

At 16, Bill apprenticed to a blacksmith. It was a formative period for the young farm lad. Men gathered at the village smithy to discuss issues of the day. He stayed for six years, building his muscles and extending his knowledge of business and political intrigues.

At 22, he became a potash manufacturer, making use of the plentiful supply of ashes from burned forests. He shipped it by bateaux to Montreal, thus beginning his long association with the St. Lawrence River.

At five-ten, he was strong from a life of hard work and built like a football linesman: broad at the shoulders, barrel-chested, and thick-necked. He had a baritone voice and penetrating blue-gray eyes. He used his size and demeanor to get his way.

There is one apocryphal tale of Bill dining at a Montreal hotel known for its meager guests' fare. Sitting at the head of the table, Bill sized up the roast beef. Seeing it was barely enough for one, he lifted the roast to his plate, gestured to the empty platter and declared to the other men, "Help yourselves, boys." No one challenged him.

By 24, he plied eastern Lake Ontario as captain of his own schooner. While he often carried legitimate cargo, he just as often shipped contraband, thus beginning his decades as a successful smuggler. The Upper Canada government of the day estimated that 75-90% of tea consumed in the colony came from smugglers like Bill. The British imposed such high tea taxes that cheaper smuggled tea had hordes of eager buyers.

On one trip to America, he met an attractive milliner named Sarah Ann Randolph. They married in 1807 or early 1808. After five years of smuggling, Bill amassed enough profit to buy a Kingston store valued at an estimated $12,000—a small fortune in that era. In 1811, he moved Ann (no one called her Sarah) and his young family from their Bath farm to Kingston, the military and economic hub of Upper Canada.

Bill Johnston Succeeds in Business

By his 30th birthday, he was a prosperous merchant and on his way to becoming a pillar of Upper Canada society. His store was a meeting place for critics of local politics and a rendezvous spot for American travelers. But suspicion, intolerance, and fear at the start the War of 1812, coupled with Bill's independent nature, changed his life and the history of the Thousand Islands.

Map showing location of Bath
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