Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Revolutionary Philadelphia's Loyalists
History is written by the victors, so the Tory Loyalists of Revolutionary Philadelphia have mostly fallen from view.

Northern Overland Escape Path of the Philadelphia Tories 1 of 1 (16)
Grievances provoking the American Revolutionary War left many Philadelphians unprovoked. Loyalists often fled to Canada, especially Kingston, Ontario. Decades later the flow of dissidents reversed, Canadian anti-royalists taking refuge south of the border.

Thousand Islands: U.S. Side

{Thousand Islands International  Bridge}
Thousand Islands International Bridge

Not counting summer tourists, the New York State lake towns of Sackets Harbor, Clayton, and Alexandria Bay have each about a thousand permanent residents, and all got started by the events surrounding the War of 1812. But Sackets Harbor attracts tourists interested in Upper New York State, Alexandria Bay attracts tourists to the Thousand Islands and soldiers on leave from Fort Drum, while Clayton is mostly content to be the commercial center of this little region. Yes, Clayton has a small obscure sign saying a battle of the War of 1812 was fought there, but mostly it tends to the town needs of the permanent residents of the region. It seems to have a fair number of summer homes of non-residents, but comparatively few tourists. Sackets Harbor we have described elsewhere, mostly servicing a group of people who drive there repeatedly for a sailing vacation. Alexandria Bay, on the other hand, is crowded with throngs of day-trippers and souvenir buyers, serviced by merchants who look as though they spend their own winters in Florida. As an almost inevitable consequence, Alexandria Bay alone has a section of dilapidation next to the center of town, which somewhat resembles Atlantic City in 1940. Just what caused these two originally identical towns to veer in such different directions, must be left to sociologists. The International Bridge certainly changed things, but it is equidistant between Clayton and Alexandria Bay. Things certainly could have taken a different direction; a ferry ride to Boldt Castle of 120 rooms is one of the main tourist attractions. Boldt Castle was built by a Philadelphian for his wife but never finished after her premature death. George C. Boldt was a Prussian who achieved early fame as the manager of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, inventing the Thousand Island dressing for the Waldorf salad. He then built the Bellevue Hotel on Broad Street. Other castles in the Islands were planned, smaller castles were even built on the Thousand Islands (actually, about 1,700 islands by some style of counting). The grave robbers of Skull and Bones are rumored to have a summer place in the region. The St. Lawrence Seaway is open, but mostly benefits Toronto and points West. It snows a lot in the winter.

{The War 1812}
The War 1812

One turns to history to explain anomalies in this border region and gets the idea that both countries would rather you didn't go too deeply into that. A strong tip come comes from the yearly celebration in early August, of the exploits of "Pirate Bill" Johnston. Now, everyone understands that there is a very fluid distinction between a pirate, a smuggler, and a privateer. Behind that is the history that Loyalists from Philadelphia flocked here during the Revolutionary War, and mostly their families continue to live in Kingston. The War of 1812 started out being neglected by England because of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe but contained a very real element of American exceptionalism which was emboldened to aspire to annex Canada. In 1838 an uprising in Canada led by the former mayor of Toronto Mackenzie attempted to revolt against the Crown, American-style, waving the flag of republicanism as contrasted with Church of England feudalism. Mackenzie lost, but not without significant help and sanctuary from the American side of the border, in the universal style of all guerilla uprisings. The American government came to its senses and joined with its Canadian neighbor government in suppressing the revolt, and the Canadians came to their senses and formed a new republic under MacDonald, starting in 1848 and finally achieving it in 1867. Essentially, some Tories from Philadelphia wanted to live in a monarchy in Canada, while some Whigs or republicans in Ontario wanted to live in a republic like the U.S., Yes, there had been the talk of secession or annexation, but mostly the argument was over the style of government rather than its headquarters. Since that time, anyone who brings up the subject is treated as though he had burped at the dinner table.

{Thousand Island Park}
Thousand Island Park

In this context, facts are probably somewhat suppressed. Pirate Bill Johnston was descended from Loyalists who had fled to Kingston during our Revolution, but apparently developed republican leanings in the War of 1812 and moved to the U.S. side of the border, either after or as part of a smuggling career among the islands. When M.H. Mackenzie began a Canadian revolt in 1837 against what he saw as the feudal English rule, Pirate Bill came out of retirement and fought with him, mainly employing a skiff rowed by six oarsmen that could slip between islands, and in a pinch could be carried across the land to another river channel. In his most notorious exploit, Pirate Bill attempted to capture a riverboat called the John Peel but was forced to sink it. As part of a broader effort by the American government to quiet this whole uproar down, Johnston was fully pardoned by President William Henry Harrison. The August celebration in Alexandria Bay is apparently run by non-historians, who add a number of anecdotes to the story, of dubious authenticity. The aphorism which the Pirate Bill story brings to mind is that "Where you stand, has a lot to do with where you sit."

Originally published: Thursday, August 05, 2010; most-recently modified: Monday, June 03, 2019