May 21, 2019

Thanks to the Custodians of History

My new book on “Pirate” Bill Johnston (due out this year) would not exist without the dedication and generosity of the custodians of our history—those people who work in libraries, archives and regional museums.

In 1973, the curator of the Thousand Islands Museum in Clayton, New York, responded to my written request for information on Johnston by mailing me 120 photocopies—the complete serialized biography of Johnston published in the Watertown Daily Times in 1938-39.

In the last 10 years, I have found bits and pieces of the Johnston puzzle at museums and historical societies in Kingston, Brockville, Prescott, Oswego, Watertown, Cape Vincent, Clayton, Alexandria Bay, Ogdensburg and probably others I’ve forgotten.

As I chased down leads in the months leading up to writing the biography, the custodians of history came through again with crucial documents.

The Charles B. Sears Law Library at the Buffalo Law School sent me copies of hard-to-locate pardons of Johnston by President James Monroe.

The Chicago History Museum has a collection of documents from US General James Wilkinson, one of Johnston’s commanders in the War of 1812. In their online document list, I spotted an item stating to be an invoice from Bill Johnston. I emailed the museum asking if I could purchase a copy. They sent a copy, no charge.

In addition, I must thank the helpful people at the Queens University Archives in Kingston, Ontario, for access to the Burleigh fonds and the Cartwright papers. Thanks also to Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa for providing rare documents related to the War of 1812 and the Patriot War.

Thanks to all the custodians of our history, you guard our past.


  1. Shaun,
    It is apparent that you have expertise in an area that I need help with. I don't want to take much of your time. I have an interest in John S. McLaughlin (b. 1795 Ireland) who was in Kingston with his family possibly as early as 1820s, who eventually moved to Ohio and then Wisconsin. I don't at all expect you to identify this specific individual, just asking what resources you would first suggest for tracking this story (maybe with a little rebellion sprinkled in). Please and thank you, Dave H. St. Paul MN

  2. Dave,there were many McLaughlins in Ontario (a.k.a. Upper Canada, Canada West). John seems to be the most common given name. My father, GrF and GGGrF had that name. Also, the patriarch of the branch that started General Motors Canada was a John McLaughlin. You can try the Canada census provided at Library and Archives Canada, but don't expect much from the early 19th century. If you have paid access to, use that. Or try the very good and free service at Those are the steps I take. Best wishes.