Some History in the 1000 Islands
It was dark and rainy in Alexandria Bay, NY, on the night of May 30, 1838. The Canadian steamer SIR ROBERT PEEL, under the command of John B. Armstrong, was taking on wood at McDonnell’s Wharf, in the southern channel of the St. Lawrence River just above Alexandria Bay. The SIR ROBERT PEEL was on her way from Brockville to Toronto with nineteen passengers and 20,000 Pound Sterling, payroll for the troops in the Upper Province.
A company of men, allegedly led by the infamous pirate “Captain Bill Johnston, ” rushed on board, shouting “Remember the Caroline.” They were disguised as savages and armed with muskets and bayonets. The passengers and crew were ordered ashore as the ship was set afire and pushed out into the river. The sunken hull remains there today, a popular attraction of scuba diving tourists and history buffs.
Heavy rewards were offered for the apprehension of the culprits by both the Canadian and US governments. Johnston supposedly hid in a cave on the small island called “Devil’s Oven,” but was eventually captured. On the 2nd day of June, Johnston was indicted and held for arson in the first degree. He was tried before Circuit Court Judge John P. Cushman, and defended by Calvin McKnight, Benjamin Wright, John Clark and Bernard Bagley. After a deliberation of two hours the jury brought in a verdict of “not guilty.” Twelve others were ultimately arrested and held in the Watertown jail for nearly six months before they were released on their own recognizance. They were never subjected to a trial.
The ship SIR ROBERT PEEL was named after British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), founder of the modern Conservative party. He entered the House of Commons in 1809, and in 1811 became a cabinet member as Undersecretary For War and For The Colonies, serving also as Chief Secretary for Ireland and later as Home Secretary. He distinguished himself through a series of penal reforms and, in 1829 created the ‘Bobbies’, London’s first efficient metropolitan police force, taking the popular name after Sir Peel’s first name. There is a little irony in the fact that a ship named after this hero of law enforcement should meet such a fate at the hands of thieving pirates.