JOHNSTON, JOHN, fur trader and jp; b. 25 Aug. 1762, son of William Johnston of Portrush (Northern Ireland) and Elizabeth McNeil; d. 22 Sept. 1828 at Sault Ste Marie, Mich.
Born into the gentry, John Johnston was left fatherless in his seventh year. Nevertheless, he received a good education in literature and history. In 1778 or 1779 he went to Belfast to oversee the waterworks, which were part of his family’s inheritance. In later years Johnston felt that at this period he had squandered his time and money and that his many hours spent reading “the trash of a circulating library” were wasted. He had to admit, however, that he had improved the waterworks’ value. In 1789 he decided to go to the province of Quebec since it had become clear that the lease to the waterworks would not be renewed. With letters of recommendation to Governor Lord Dorchester [Guy Carleton*] from the president of the Privy Council committee for trade, Baron Hawkesbury, and from the influential merchant Brook Watson*, Johnston sailed in June 1790 on the Clara for New York. He landed on 25 August, took a sloop to Albany, and proceeded to Montreal.
By chance, in a Montreal coffee-house the young Irishman met an old acquaintance, Isaac Todd*’s nephew Andrew. Andrew Todd suggested that Johnston join the firm of Todd, McGill and Company, to which he was attached, in trading with the Indians via Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.). Having greater hopes, Johnston declined and took a calèche to Quebec where he called on Lord Dorchester. The governor, however, had nothing to offer but a letter of introduction to Sir John Johnson, superintendent general of Indian affairs. After returning to Montreal late in the year, Johnston took lodgings at Varennes and spent the winter improving his French. Late in life he remembered the “urbanity and politeness” with which his stumbling phrases had been treated.
By May 1791 a trading trip to Michilimackinac with Andrew Todd looked attractive. Johnston arrived at Mackinac Island on the 16th, “a perfect spectacle of deformity” from mosquito bites. After the brisk summer business season was over, Todd fitted him out with a canoe and five voyageurs to winter among the Indians at La Pointe, on Lake Superior’s southern shore near present-day Ashland, Wis. When he arrived in late September, he met Count Andriani, an Italian nobleman, taking observations to determine whether the earth was flattened at the poles. Johnston and his men built a small house on the Bad River (Wis.) and he began to learn the language and traditions of the Ojibwas. About the middle of November his men deserted him and he was left alone with one boy and two competing traders who resided near by. “It struck me,” he recalled, “that my case, in many particulars, had a resemblance to that of Robinson Crusoe.”
Always a hospitable person, Johnston befriended the elderly father of Wabojeeg (Waub Ojeeg), chief of the La Pointe Ojibwas. Eventually he asked to marry Wabojeeg’s beautiful young daughter, Oshaguscodawaqua. The chief replied that Johnston must promise never to forsake her as most whites forsook their Indian wives and that to show his good intentions he must wait a year. Johnston took his furs to Montreal and when he returned in the summer of 1792 he married Oshaguscodawaqua after the Indian custom. Later, at Fort St Joseph (St Joseph Island, Ont.), he married her again and gave her the name Susan. This union forged for Johnston a firm trading alliance with the Ojibwas. Because he felt that his wife would never be happy in Ireland he abandoned any plans to return home.
Although Andrew Todd wanted him to settle in New Orleans, Johnston decided to establish himself at Sault Ste Marie in 1793 as an independent trader. The previous year he had secured a grant of land on the St Marys River near the place on the south bank where the old trader Jean-Baptiste Cadot* lived. Johnston was well liked by the Indians since he was courageous and helped them freely. He soon dominated the fur trade along the southern shore of Lake Superior and gradually became wealthy.
Johnston was in disposition “at once pious and cheerful.” Cut off from the organized church he led his growing family in morning and evening prayers and read sermons on Sunday. From his small library he read history, divinity, and classics aloud to them. A sensitive man, he recorded his feelings in poetry which he shared occasionally with his friends. He wrote more than 2,000 lines but did not polish them for publication. Though she never spoke English, Susan was an excellent companion and taught their eight children a rich heritage of Indian lore and legends.
In 1804 Johnston’s mother died and he inherited the family estate of Craige, near Coleraine, in Ireland. Initially he did not return to inspect his inheritance since he was so actively engaged in the fur trade, importing goods from London through John Jacob Astor in New York. Occasionally he travelled to Montreal, and he was elected a member of the Beaver Club there on 2 Jan. 1808. In 1809, however, he embarked at Quebec for Ireland accompanied by his nine-year-old daughter Jane (Obah-dahm-wawn-gezzhago-quay). After landing in Cork they visited Dublin and Jane was left with relatives in Wexford while Johnston tended to his affairs. His family and friends urged him to forsake the wilderness and accept a “civilized” marriage and position in Ireland. Refusing the offer, Johnston went to London, perhaps to secure entry of his sons Lewis Saurin and George into the army and navy. While there, he declined an invitation from Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] to head a planned settlement on the Red River. Instead he embarked from Liverpool in the middle of June 1810 and reached home with his daughter late in November. Having savoured the charms of civilization, Johnston made arrangements the following year to purchase an estate near Montreal with a view to becoming a gentleman farmer. He had never reconciled himself to the level of morality at which the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company conducted the fur trade. In the words of his son-in-law Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, he was “free and pointed in remarks against the rapacity with which they swept the spoils of the chace, often wrenched away with violence, and stained with blood.”
Johnston’s plans for moving were knocked awry by the events of the War of 1812. The south bank of the St Marys River had been designated part of the United States by the 1783 treaty; the Americans, however, had never occupied it although they took over Mackinac Island in 1796. Thus Johnston retained his loyalty to the crown and took part in Captain Charles Roberts*’s capture of the island on 17 July 1812. Shortly thereafter he returned to the Sault where he continued his trade. During the winters he would go to Montreal to sell his furs; at this time he usually dealt with merchant David David. On 12 May 1814 he received a commission of the peace for the Indian Territory, which he held until 28 Oct. 1816.
In 1814 the Americans, having secured naval superiority on the Upper Lakes, sent ships to recapture Mackinac Island, and Johnston went to its defence. While he was on his way, an American force ascended the St Marys River, burning Fort St Joseph and the NWC post on the Canadian side at the Sault. Despite orders not to harm private property, on 24 July the American troops destroyed $40,000 worth of Johnston’s goods. Within a few hours the fruits of 23 years of labour were wiped out. Unaware of what had happened, Johnston briefly took command at Michilimackinac while Lieutenant-Colonel Robert McDouall* led the forces that repulsed an American landing on the island. Soon after the beaten Americans sailed, Johnston returned to the Sault and surveyed his losses. Sustained by a deep faith in God’s providence, he began rebuilding his shattered life. Late in the fall he went to Montreal to file his claim for compensation but, despite repeated requests stretching over many years and directed to both the British and the American governments, it was never paid. The British disallowed it because he lived on the American side of the line and the Americans refused to pay a British claim.
Following the war the boundary line was confirmed, and Johnston’s property was indisputably in the United States. He never became a citizen, but he did not harbour resentment and was hospitable to the occupying forces. Although he preferred to operate as an independent trader, to rebuild his finances he associated himself with the American Fur Company and managed the post that took in the Sault and southern Lake Superior. In 1816 Congress passed laws that restricted the American fur trade to citizens of the United States; however, connections with an American firm permitted Johnston to continue operating. In the autumn of 1816 he went to Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.) on behalf of the NWC to present to Lord Selkirk that company’s demand for the return of the fort, which Selkirk had seized. In an effort to broaden his trading base, in 1818 Johnston set up a post on Drummond Island (Mich.), the site of the British garrison after Mackinac Island had to be abandoned at the end of the war.
Because of his financial distress, Johnston in 1819–20 went to Britain to press his claim for compensation and to sell his estate, Craige. While he was away, Governor Lewis Cass of Michigan Territory and a contingent of United States troops arrived at the Sault to treat with the Indians and purchase land for a fort. The Ojibwas were most belligerent, and only the diplomatic efforts of the respected Susan Johnston got them to accept the Stars and Stripes. Accompanying the expedition was Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who returned as Indian agent in 1822 when troops came to build the fort. He boarded at the Johnston home and, being an avid scholar with broad ranging interests, soon became close friends with Johnston. In 1823 he married Jane Johnston.
By the mid 1820s Johnston’s health was failing. He was respected, however, as the patriarch of the Sault and all passing dignitaries enjoyed his expansive hospitality. In 1826 Thomas Loraine McKenney of the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs toured the lakes and commented, “In his person, Mr. J. is neat; in his manners, affable and polite; in conversation intelligent. His language is always that of thought; and often strikingly graphic. He is always cheerful – even when he is afflicted most. “In 1828 Johnston went to New York to confer with fur trader Ramsay Crooks* and John Jacob Astor. On 17 September he arrived back at the Sault in a state of collapse. He died on 22 September and was given a military burial two days later. Perhaps Lewis Cass best summed up Johnston’s life: “He was really no common man. To preserve the manners of a perfect gentleman, and the intelligence of a well educated man, in the dreary wastes around him, and his seclusion from all society, but that of his own family, required a vigour and elasticity of mind rarely to be found.”
The Bayliss Public Library (Sault Ste Marie, Mich.) holds an oil portrait of John Johnston, said to have been painted by James Wilson in 1796.
Bayliss Public Library, George Johnston papers; Port Mackinac, records, April 1805; 19 June 1806; 29–30 June, 17, 25 July 1817. Bentley Hist. Library, Univ. of Mich. (Ann Arbor), Mich. Hist. Coll., U.S. Bureau of Customs, district of Michilimackinac, impost book, 29 Sept. 1802, 4 Oct. 1805, 23 June 1806, 12 Sept. 1808, 1 Oct. 1810, 10 Jan. 1811, 25 July 1816. DPL, Burton Hist. Coll., George Johnston papers. Library of Congress, ms Division (Washington), H. R. Schoolcraft papers, container no.36 (General corr., unbound ser., 1826–29). McCord Museum, Beaver Club minute-book, 1807–27. PAC, RG 8, I (C. ser.), 91: 143–46; RG 10, A2, 26, Charles Gauthier, “Journal of the Indian Department,” 29 June 1792; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 100, 325. Stuart House Museum of Astor Fur Post (Mackinac Island, Mich.), American Fur Company, letter-book, 8 Oct., 5 Dec. 1821; 4 March, 30 April, 5 July, 17 Oct. 1822. Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson), 2: 137–74. [Jacob] Brown, “Gen. Brown’s inspection tour up the lakes in 1819,” Buffalo Hist. Soc., Pub. (Buffalo, N.Y.), 24 (1920): 313–14. Joseph Delafield, The unfortified boundary: a diary of the first survey of the Canadian boundary line from St. Regis to the Lake of the Wood . . . , ed. Robert McElroy and Thomas Riggs (New York, 1943), 370–71. Gabriel Franchère, Adventure at Astoria, 1810–1814, trans. and ed. H. C. Franchère (Norman, Okla., 1967), 166–67. T. L. McKenney, Sketches of a tour to the lakes, of the character and customs of the Chippeway Indians, and of the incidents connected with the treaty of Fond du Lac (Baltimore, Md., 1827; repr. Minneapolis, Minn., 1959), 174, 181–211, 263, 265, 369, 381–82. Mich. Pioneer Coll., 32 (1902): 304–53; 36 (1907): 53–100. H. R. Schoolcraft, Personal memoirs of a residence of thirty years with the Indian tribes on the American frontiers, with brief notices of passing events, facts and opinions, A.D. 1812 to A.D. 1842 (Philadelphia, 1851). U.S., Congress, American state papers . . . in relation to the public lands . . . , ed. Walter Lowrie (5v., Washington, 1834), 4: 698–99, 701, 830, 832–41. Detroit Gazette, 23 Oct. 1828. J. M. Gray, Lord Selkirk of Red River (Toronto, 1963). Janet Lewis, The invasion: a narrative of events concerning the Johnston family of St. Mary’s (New York, 1932). A. C. Osborne, “Old Penetanguishene: sketches of its pioneer, naval and military days,” Simcoe County pioneer papers (6 nos., Barrie, Ont., 1908–17; repr., 6 nos. in 1v., Belleville, Ont., 1974), no.5: 47–48. W. W. Warren, History of the Ojibway nation (Minneapolis, 1957; repr. 1970).
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Cite This Article
David A. Armour, “JOHNSTON, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 24, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/johnston_john_6E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||David A. Armour|
|Title of Article:||JOHNSTON, JOHN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1987|
|Year of revision:||1987|
|Access Date:||March 24, 2023|