A Forgotten Hero of ’Sixty-six

B. A. McKELVIE May 1 1927

A Forgotten Hero of ’Sixty-six

B. A. McKELVIE May 1 1927

A Forgotten Hero of ’Sixty-six

Sam Johnston raced with death to foil the Fenians, and now his grateful country allows him to live in a dugout by a British Columbia river!


WHO is there who has not heard of the story of Paul Revere, hero of the American revolution, and of his midnight ride from Boston to alarm the countryside of the march of the British regulars from that city towards Concord? His exploit has stirred poets and fired the imagination of artists; towns, schools, public buildings and patriotic associations have gratefully adopted his name, paying tribute to his endeavor.

So it is that citizens of United States remember and reward their heroes! But how many in Canada know the story of Sam Johnston—the Paul Revere of the Dominion?

No towns or cities have been honored with his name; his exploits have not aroused the poet to strike his lyre, nor provided inspiration for the painter. No, Canada treats her heroes differently, and Sam Johnston, the hero of the battle of Ridgeway, is passing his last days in a hole in the ground on the banks of Rock Creek, British Columbia, lacking more suitable shelter.

His hut is not nearly as large, nor as comfortable, as the underground habitations that the priests induced the Indians to discard years ago. The walls are composed of bits of discarded sluice boxes, broken mine timbers and pieces of packing cases, while the roof is constructed from twisted and rusted pieces of corrugated sheet iron, wind-blown from the ruins of abandoned sheds of the neighborhood.

A poverty stricken farmer might be driven by circumstances to use such a place as a root house, but he would not think of utilizing it as a shelter for his stock—and yet it is the best that the great Dominion of Canada has to offer her Paul Revere.

‘Balmoral Castle’ Sam Johnston calls this hole in the ground where he resides, for he is not one to complain.

A picturesque figure is this rugged old hero of eightytwo years, who walks with a firm step, and makes light of the misfortunes that have befallen him, and laughs with a full-throated and infectious mirth at the memories of his youth.

His Reward From the Politicians

V'EARS and scores of years have passed since Sam I Johnston left the Niagara district, and wandered West. Old men and women recounting the stories of the days of sixty years ago recall Sam Johnston. They remember him for his heroic exploit at Ridgeway on June 1, 1866, for his daring acts of smuggling, and for the rigor with which he enforced the customs laws when he was appointed as a preventive officer, and they also tell stories of his tremendous strength and the terrible fistic encounters he engaged in when a young man. In the Niagara country Sam Johnston is a legend—in British Columbia he is a gallant old gladiator who refuses to surrender to the assaults of either Time or 111 Fortune. He maintains a wholesome outlook on life and has an abhorrence for Bolshevists ‘and other kinds of rebels’. His rule of conduct is borrowed from the code of William Penn: ‘Let your yea be yea, and your nay be nay.’—and his reputation denotes that he hates a liar.

Unable to obtain employment, he is forced to accept the dole of fifteen dollars a month given :grudgingly by a government that discharged him from his position on

the road gang because he refused to betray his political faith at an election.

Men come in the evenings to sit with him in the shade of the willows outside ‘Balmoral Castle’ and ask his advice on different matters of public interest. Little children wave to him as they go by on the high-road, for he is the friend of all.

Such then is Sam Johnston who sixty years ago played his part in defending Canada from the Fenian invaders from across the border.

As he tells the story there is no boasting, just a plain,

unvarnished narrative, simply told, in unaffected manner.

“I was stopping at the hotel in Fort Erie,” he explained, recently, “when George Nettle and Henry Stephens told me they had heard that the Fenians were loading arms on a vessel at the blast furnace dock at Buffalo. There were many such stories going around, for the country was expecting the attack to come at any time, and so I didn’t pay much attention to this report, but still I didn’t feel just right about it.

“I went to my room and turned in, but I did not go to sleep. Some hours later, it would be about one in the morning, I heard the beat of horses, hoofs on the road. I jumped to the window and saw a man riding past the hotel. I knew everyone in the neighborhood and was able to recognize that the rider was a stranger. Then I realized that there was probably something in the story that I had been told and that the mounted man was a scout. I knew it was time for me to do something.

“I hurried downstairs and out of the hotel as fast as I could, and after alarming the landlord, I started up the hill to warn a family living there. Then I turned and ran back across the common to tell another family to flee. As I turned to retrace my steps I saw the Fenians coming. They were a couple of hundred yards from me. They saw me running and opened fire. Three bullets cut through my coat, one breaking the skin on my right arm.

“That they were in force I could see, and as I ran, dodging and twisting and turning, I figured out that it would be important for our soldiers to know the strength of the invaders. I had the advantage of knowing the locality, and I was soon out of gunshot range.

“As soon as I knew I was out of immediate danger, I turned and started to work my way back to where there was a trestle which I knew they must pass. I managed to get there just before the head of the Fenian column arrived, and managed to hide myself under the bridge, and was able to count them as they went by only a few feet from me. There were 138 ranks of eight men each, or more than 1,100 all told. I was surprised that there were so many, and knew that I must get the information to the militia officers who would be coming from Toronto and other centres. At the same time I was thinking of the women and children and wanted to give the people along the highways warning.

“A man named Benner lived about three miles away.

He owned the fastest horse in the country, a fine Kentucky thoroughbred. As soon as I could do so I came out from under the trestle and started off at a run for Benner’s place, stopping a second or two at every farm house to call that the Fenians were coming and to take the women and children out of danger.

“When I got to Benner’s I told him that I wanted a horse, and outlined the information I had gained.

“ ‘Take Tib,’ he said, and so I was soon on the back of the thoroughbred.

“I was joined a few minutes later by my brother, William Bone and Dr. Goforth, who were also mounted. We galloped along the road as fast as we could, alarming everyone. When we got to the point where the Niagara road crossed the one we were on we came upon a Fenian picket of four men—two mounted and two on foot. We saw them as soon as they saw Continued on page 89

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us, and stopped about 200 yards from them.

“I called out, ‘Who are you? What do you want?’

“ ‘We’re Fenians,’ one of them answered, ‘and we’ve come to take Canada.’

“The unmounted men with muskets started to load, so we wheeled our horses and dashed back to take another route. My three companions had no firearms, and I only had an old United States army revolver that was so rusted it would not work very well.

“We worked round the flank of the main body of the invaders which we easily located and scouted about them until the morning was pretty well along. We wanted to know which way they were going. They marched down to the county line where the Willoughby and Bertie roads crossed. Then they went on to the cedar swamps and on to Limestone ridge, routing a number of farmers who took to the woods.

“We had separated—my companions and I—in order to keep better watch on them, and I was getting my revolver oiled at a crossroads blacksmith shop when I looked up and saw ten mounted Fenian scouts behind me and three coming down the road in front of me. I thought it was my finish, but I sprang to the back of Tib and gave him the heel. I was almost too late for they made a dash at me and were within a few feet of me, but my horse was better than theirs and gained on them at every stride.

“I made for a rise. Up it we went at breakneck speed, my mount running away from the slower animals they were riding.

“It was a miracle that I wasn’t killed. Why they didn’t fire when I was close to them I don’t know, unless it was that they were not used to riding and were not trained to shoot from horseback. But before I got entirely out of range they did start firing, and the bullets whistled about me, but not a single one hit me or the horse.

“They soon gave up the chase, but I continued to gallop on, shouting to everyone I saw, ‘The Fenians are coming.’ I kept along towards Ridgeway.

“When I reached the railroad station the pilot engine which was running ahead of the troop train was steaming in. The second locomotive was only a little way behind. I was on the wrong side of the track, and I knew that every minute was valuable, so I took a chance and rode straight at the tracks, pressed my knees to Tib’s sides and gave him a pull and a

shout, and he cleared the track at a single bound.

“ ‘Where’s the officer in charge?’ I asked.

“Col. Booker was pointed out to me. He was in command of the Queen’s Own and the Thirteenth regiment forces. I went up to him, saluted and asked if he was the commander.

“‘Yes,’ he replied.

“ ‘The Fenians are within two miles of here now,’ I said.

“ ‘How many?’

“ ‘About 1,500,’ I told him, knowing that there had been 1,100 that I had counted.

“ ‘Any artillery?’ he asked.

“ ‘No.’

“ ‘Any cavalry?’

“ ‘Not regular cavalry. They have some mounted men, but they have no side-arms, saddles or rifles; only revolvers.

“I said I would go along and show where the Fenians were. I did something foolish then. I volunteered advice, and Colonel Booker did something equally foolish. He refused to accept it from one who knew the country, which he did not. You see, I knew something about war, for I had served for several years in the Northern army in the American Civil War.

“The colonel just looked at me when I told him that he should divide his forces putting those with the red coats on the top of the ridge and the green coated rifles in a pine grove, and in that way he could ambush the enemy.

“Instead of taking the advantage and cover that the ground offered, he told me to lead him straight on to the place where the invaders could be found. I did so. He made another mistake, for although I told him that the enemy was only two miles away, he ordered the bugle to be sounded to get the men to fall in. The sound of the bugle easily carried to the Fenians, and they were able to prepare for the fight.

“They chose to make a stand at the crossing of the Ridgeway and Bertie roads, and this was the best position they could have selected. There was a brick house and a big log barn there, while a walnut tree grew right at the cross roads. Then there was a stone fence offering an excellent defence.

“Colonel Booker marched his men out in regular parade formation until the first shot was fired. It came from a hotel called the Smugglers’ Home. Then he sent his force out in extended order and drove in the Fenian pickets to the main body on

the Bertie Road, and pressing forward they forced the invaders back to the line fence between the Hoffman and Stoneman farms and advanced on the Fenians on the brow of the hill.

“On the top of this hill the Fenians had about twenty horses, and their men started to break and run for these. The colonel saw this movement and noting the horses thought that they formed part of a body of cavalry, and ordered the ‘retire’ to be sounded. If he had only used better judgment he would have had the Fenians licked right then. Having called back his forces, he formed them into two hollow squares, offering the Fenians fine targets, of which they took advantage. Several of our fellows were hit, and as a result of the casualties the colonel ordered a retirement on Ridgeway.

“The Fenians proceeded in two bodies along the Garrison road and the railway track with the intention of capturing the Grand Trunk ferry boat, but Captain May spotted them coming and drew out into the stream and steamed for the United States side.

“They then passed down to Fort Erie and engaged a small body of soldiers—I think there were forty-seven men, drawn from the naval brigade and the Welland Field Battery—under command of Captain King and Captain McCallum. Captain King and five or six of his men were wounded in the fighting, and some of the Fenians were killed and some were wounded, according to what I heard later.

“The invaders captured about twenty prisoners, and these they locked in the old fort, which had not been used since the days of the War of 1812, or thereabouts. But you would have thought that it was Gibraltar they had captured by the way they sent reports back to United States from where the news went all over the world that they had invaded Canada and captured Fort Erie. They didn’t say what kind of a fort they had taken, or anything about its condition.

“It was due to a newspaper reporter from a New York paper that they were finally induced to leave. He managed to get through to ‘General’ O’Neill, who was at the head of the Fenians, and told him that 5,000 Canadian soldiers with artillery and cavalry were coming. That decided the day. The Fenians went out and captured a barge and tug, packed them with their men and sailed away after releasing their prisoners.

“O’Neill was arrested by a United States marshal when his army^got back to United States. So that’s the story of the Fenian raid about the Ridgeway district anyway.”

TT WAS not the end of the story as far as 1 Sam Johnston was concerned, for the Fenians soon learned of the part he had played and put a price on his head. He was informed that if he ever visited Buffalo it would be at his peril. This did not deter him, however, and several years later he went to work in that city. Two attempts were made on his life, but on each occasion he managed to escape serious injury, although he had to fight desperately to do so.

“So you see they didn’t get me after all,” he laughed.

Had Sam Johnston played such a role in the history of United States he might be remembered by having communities, libraries, colleges and clubs named after him, but Sam Johnston did his bit for Canada, and all Canada has for him is a hole in the gravel bank of Rock Creek, and fifteen dollars a month, grudgingly given, with which to feed and clothe himself.