The History of Keokuk County, Iowa


During the winter of 1841-2 there appeared at Iowa City a stranger who gave his name as Col. Wm. Johnson, and who was accompanied by a young woman whom he represented as his daughter, and whom he called Catharine, or, usually, Kit. Both were of more than ordinary strength of character, and well educated. Johnson claimed to have been the hero of the Canadian revolt, which took place in 1838, and was the occasion of considerable diplomatic correspondence, and came so near causing war between Great Britain and the United States. The girl, he stated, was the "queen of a thousand isles," and authentic history so far corroborates his story as to mention the fact that on the St. Lawrence there was a certain young woman who gave aid and assistance to the patriots in this border trouble. Johnson succeeded in cutting quite a figure in Iowa City during the session of the legislature. He was honored by a seat on the floor of the house, and was toasted and banqueted by some of the law-makers of the then State capital. In 1842 Johnson located at the geographical centre of Buchanan county, where he proposed laying out a town, and where he expected by his fame and prowess to draw around him a band of followers, and secure the county-seat. This excited the jealousy of the first settler of that region, Wm. Bennet, a notorious character, who had laid out a village where Quasqueton now stands, and where he hoped to enrich himself by securing the county-seat of the new county. Bennet gathered a few congenial spirits about him, went over to Johnson's, loaded up his effects for him, then tied him to a tree and flogged him, though with what severity is unknown, as accounts differ. Johnson went to Marion, where he lodged complaints against his persecutors, and the sheriff of Linn county rode up to Quasqueton to arrest Bennet. The latter awaited him at his cabin door, armed with his rifle and a pair of pistols. The sheriff modestly retired and went back for a posse. Bennet and his companions became convinced that they had better leave Quasqueton for a while. On their way to a place of escape they suffered terribly from intense cold. Some of the parties perished, and others were frozen so as to be mutilated for life. This, of course, aggravated Bennet still more, and he and Johnson became deadly foes.

Soon after Johnson, loving his popularity, left Buchanan county, got in with a gang of horse-thieves, and fled to Mahaska county to escape the law, bringing with him the girl Kit, and another man and woman. Johnson seemed to have this girl entirely under his control, and in his fits of passion, it is said, threatened to kill her, in consequence of which she was in mortal fear of him. Johnson located on Middle Creek, about eight miles northeast of Oskaloosa, in a grove now owned by James K. Woods. He there built a shanty. In the spring of '43, a family by the name of Peck came to a point on Skunk river, about four miles from Oskaloosa, where Russel Peck, with his son-in-law, Geo. N. Duncan, built a grist-mill. Johnson and his daughter, so-called, lived for some time with the Duncans and Pecks. Several times, it is related, during the time he staid with them, strangers from the north came there and asked to stay over night. They were kindly treated, lodged, and nothing charged them. This made Johnson very angry, the reason for which being, as was afterward learned, that these were of Johnson's enemies in Buchanan county, who, for some reason, did not get an opportunity to accomplish their purposes, i. e., revenge on Johnson. During this time an attachment sprang up between Kit and Job Peck, son of Russel Peck, a young man of about twenty-one years. Johnson was greatly enraged on discovering this, and removed to his own cabin above mentioned, taking the girl with him. Wm. D. Neely was engaged to Peck's sister, Sarah. An elopement was planned. While Johnson was away one evening, about dusk, Kit was stolen away, and the two couples started in an easterly direction. The following day they reached the house of a relative of Peck's, about four miles from Fairfield, where they were married and lodged for the night. Upon his return home, Johnson set out in search for them, came to the house where the fugitives were near one o'clock at night, entered the house, and, with drawn revolver, dragged Kit from the bed, compelled her to dress herself, and mount behind him and ride thus to his home.

The following evening, about seven o'clock, Johnson was shot dead through a crevice in his cabin, while standing in front of the fire. Job Peck was arrested on charge of the murder, taken to Washington county and lodged in jail. His lawyers were J. C. Hall, of Mt. Pleasant, and Colonel Thompson. These gentlemen, learning that a warrant was out from the northern part of the State for the arrest of Kit, as being an accomplice of Johnson, it was arranged that the girl should be secreted until she could be provided for. This was done, and a young law-student of Hall's, named Wamsley, was sent with a buggy to Mahaska county, to the girl's hiding-place. This Wamsley, while fording the Skunk river, a short distance from Oskaloosa, met a man on horseback in the midst of the stream. The stranger stated to Wamsley that he was in search of a girl, giving her description, being the same one that Wamsley was after. The latter, to throw the officer off of the track, told him he had seen such a girl in a certain house in the direction in which he had come. The officer started in pursuit, and Wamsley proceeded about three miles and a-half to Kit's hiding-place. She was taken to Burlington, put on a steamboat, and sent by Hall to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Job Peck was acquitted, having proved an alibi. Some time after the murder, and during Peck's imprisonment, a stranger stopped at Duncan's and informed them that his name was Bennet; that he was one of the men who had stopped with them, and whom they had so kindly treated; that he and Johnson had been deadly foes. He told the Duncan's that they need not be alarmed in regard to Job's acquittal, as he (Bennet) knew Peck was not guilty, and gave the Duncan's to understand that he knew who was.

If we are correctly informed, and we have good authority, the most romantic part of this story is yet to come. During the time that he was imprisoned Peck knew nothing of his wife's whereabouts, nor was he informed by his lawyer until some months after his release. Finally her address was given him and he set out for Pittsburgh. There he found her living with people of the highest respectability, in most elegant style. Peck himself stated to our informant that the house was furnished with a grandeur that he had not dreamed of; that his wife was a fine musician; that she had played for him on a piano in that house, and that he had these evidences of her accomplishments, which he had not before conjectured. She was ready to come away with him, did come, and for several years lived near Oskaloosa with him. Parties now living remember her well; say that she was a woman of fine education, of refinement and unblemished character, wrote a beautiful letter, and gave every evidence of a good "bringing up." No one believes—she herself denies—that Johnson was her father; but who she was, or who Johnson was, possibly her husband, certainly her husband's family never knew. She lived happily with Peck in California, until the latter's death. She has a noble family, and is again married to a devoted husband. Her portrait of late years has nothing of the romantic in it, but every lineament marks her intelligence and happiness. To-day this "Queen of a Thousand Isles" is queen of a happy household in a far western home.

          Since writing the above we have been cited to an article in "Scribner's Monthly" for April, 1878, entitled "Among the Thousand Islands." From this article we make the following extracts:

"Of late years perhaps no event caused such a stir of excitement in this region as the so-called patriot war in 1838, a revolt of certain Canadians dissatisfied with the government of Sir Francis Bond Head then Governor-General of Canada, which was joined by a number of American agitators, ever ripe for any disturbance.

"It was a wild, insane affair altogether, and after some time consumed in petty threats of attack, finally reached a climax in the burning of the Canadian steamer, 'Sir Robert Peel,' one of the finest vessels upon the St. Lawrence. The most prominent actor in this affair was Bill Johnson—a name familiar to every one around this region—whose career forms a series of romantic adventures, deeds and escapes, followed by his final capture, which would fill a novel. Indeed, we understand that a novel has been written by a Canadian Frenchman on this theme, though we have not had the good fortune to find any one who has read it.

"Johnson was originally a British subject, but turned renegade, serving as a spy in the war of 1812, in which capacity he is said to have robbed the mails to gain intelligence. He hated his native country with all the bitterness which a renegade alone is capable of feeling. He was one of the earliest agitators upon the American side of the border, and was the one who instigated the destruction of the 'Peel.' A reward was offered by the governments of each country for his apprehension, so he was compelled to take to the islands for safety. Here he continued for several months, though with numbers of hair-breadth escapes, in which he was assisted by his daughter, who seems to have been a noble girl. Many stories are told of remarkable acts performed by him, of his choking up the inlet of the Lake of the Isle with rocks, so as to prevent vessels of any size entering that sheet of water; of his having a skiff in which he could outspeed any ordinary sailing craft, and which he carried bodily across necks of land when his enemies were in pursuit of him, and of his hiding in all manner of out-of-the-way spots, once especially in the Devil's Oven, previously described, to which his daughter, who alone was in his confidence, disguised as a boy, carried provisions. He was finally captured and sent to Albany, where after suffering a slight penalty for his offense, he was subsequently released, although he was always very careful to keep out of the clutch of the indignant Canadians."

Transcribed by Pat Wahl. Thank you, Pat!

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