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Bonnycastle versus Johnston

This year marks the 175th anniversary of the start of the Patriot War. Following unsuccessful rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada in 1837, Canadian rebels and their American sympathizers attacked Canada 10 times from bases in the United States between December 1837 and December 1838.

The St. Lawrence River had its share of rebel activity in that period: an aborted raid on Gananoque and Kingston in February; the looting and burning of the steamer Sir Robert Peel in May; and, a four-day siege at a windmill near Prescott in November.

The only rebel leader to participate in all three incidents was the legendary Bill Johnston, a long-time smuggler and former Canadian who fought as a river raider for the Americans during the War of 1812.

After Johnston and a small band of men destroyed the Peel, the Thousand Islands became ground zero for a costly bi-national manhunt. Throughout the summer and into the fall of 1838, a combined force from two countries of 500 men and at least four armed steamships, plus smaller boats, concerned themselves entirely with nabbing Johnston. It would be easier to capture morning mist.

No man in Upper Canada wanted Johnston more than Richard Henry Bonnycastle, 45. A brevet major in the Royal Engineers, he arrived in Kingston in 1837 to complete construction of Fort Henry. As a militia lieutenant-colonel, he found himself the de facto fort commandant when the Upper Canada rebellion began. He had succeeded at every task and challenge in his career. The crafty river pirate stood in the way of a perfect record. He focused the full depth of his intellect on netting Johnston.

Bonnycastle and his naval ally, Captain Williams Sandom, had spies in New York State and Upper Canada watching for Johnston. They ordered armed crews into the islands in rowboats to shadow Johnston's daughter and sons as they shipped him supplies. The Johnston siblings proved too clever to inadvertently lead authorities to the pirate patriarch.

The closest they came to netting Johnston that summer occurred July 11, 1838. Johnston and several crew were visiting the farm of a henchman on the south side of Grindstone Island. Someone passed his location to authorities. At dawn, 50 British marines swarmed the farm from the north side while 50 US infantry marched in from the south. Johnston led his men at a full run into the forest and slipped out of the trap.

Bonnycastle acknowledged his quarry's freedom of movement and ability to evade capture in his posthumous 1852 book, Canada, As it Was, Is and May Be.

"Bill Johnson laughed at the efforts of the Governor and all the authorities. The Thousand Islands afforded him a secure retreat, and amongst their intricacies he hid his boats and his men. In vain, parties of sailors from Kingston examined them [the islands]; they were occasionally fired at by an unseen and vanishing enemy. The American Militia and Civil officers were equally unsuccessful, capturing about 250 pikes, but no pikemen."

While the effort to find Bill Johnston usually resembled a 19th century equivalent of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, on one occasion it more accurately presaged an episode of Road Runner versus Wile. E Coyote. That incident occurred in mid-summer of 1838 when a trap set by Bonnycastle backfired.

At night, Bonnycastle loaded a company of militia onto a steamer in Kingston and ordered them to hide below decks. The next day, he set sail on the pretext of visiting all military posts between Kingston and Prescott. His officers sauntered on the deck as a military band played. At night, lamps blazed. Bonnycastle was using his ship as a pirate lure.

Johnston took the bait, though not in the manner Bonnycastle expected.

On a moonlit night, Bonnycastle's sidewheeler churned upstream into Fiddler's Elbow on the return voyage. In advance, Johnston had anchored two crude naval mines—watertight black powder kegs with flintlock detonators suspended from floats—in the channel's narrowest part. With the ship's bow nearing one mine, an officer spied a floating object and shouted a warning. The helmsman swerved the ship in the narrow channel and avoided both mines and the channel's deadly granite palisades. By daylight, the mines had vanished.

Fiddler’s Elbow is a narrow channel between two cliff-lined islands at the end of a wide St. Lawrence bay. The river sluices through it like water in the narrow end of a funnel. Eddies peel off from its precipitous shores, and currents boil off the bottom. The helmsman showed tremendous skill that night.

Bonnycastle's plot failed because Johnston had his own spies. A well-placed informant in Kingston had warned him of the men hidden below decks.

Bonnycastle never did capture Johnston. A US deputy marshal named McCulloch was the first to claim that honor on November 17, 1838.

Authorities did not indict Johnston for burning the Peel. After an American jury acquitted one of Johnston's clearly guilty cohorts, William Anderson, on June 26, 1838, New York State prosecutors knew they'd never convict any Peel raider. Instead, authorities charged Johnston for breaking the US neutrality law. First, they accused of him participating in the Battle of the Windmill near Prescott.

On November 28, 1838, a jury acquitted Johnston of that charge. A marshal promptly laid a new charge for Johnston's part in the plot to raid Gananoque the previous February. Johnston, his patience exhausted, tiptoed from captivity that night.

Over the next 18 months, Johnston was recaptured or voluntarily gave himself up three times, and each time he escaped when it suited him. In March of 1841, he received a presidential pardon and never saw the inside of jail again.

In 1843, Bonnycastle, by then Sir Richard, met his old foe on the streets of Clayton, while on a trip to New York State in pursuit of deserters. Accounts state the two old warriors showed grudging respect for the other.


Sir Richard Bonnycastle died in Kingston on November 2, 1847. Bill Johnston remained a fixture in the Thousand Islands until shortly before his death February 17, 1870.

By Shaun J. McLaughlin

Shaun J. McLaughlin, a blogger since January 2010, is writing two articles for TI Life this winter.    Shaun writes an excellent history blog about the Patriot War available at His first book, "The Patriot War Along the New York–Canada Border: Raiders and Rebels," will be released by The History Press in February 2012.

Posted in: History, People
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