The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Marjorie Cahn Brazer
June 1977 marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the original incorporation of Put-In-Bay on South Bass Island, as a village. It therefore seems like an opportune time to publish the following biographical commentary and letter, considering that Put-In-Bay harbor served as an important base of operations for Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, both before and following the Battle of Lake Erie.
One of the most vivid accounts of Perry’s victory at Put-In-Bay in 1813 was written by his young fleet surgeon, Usher Parsons. Although Parsons didn’t get around to putting his recollections into narrative form until 1852, almost three decades after the event, so deep was the impression it had made that the years deprived his memory of little detail. By that time he was a distinguished physician of Providence, Rhode Island, and professor at Brown University. His considerable talent for recall was invoked again, a few years later in 1857, to write a postscript to the battle. This time it took the form of a letter, a letter elicited by the poignant inquiry of a man devoted to the memory of his long dead brother.
On the other side of the battle line that September day that Usher Parsons would never forget, another young officer was performing his duty in the service of the Crown. Lewis Saurin Johnston had, in fact, been born and raised in the United States of America. But he was fighting on “the wrong side” because of a peculiar set of circumstances. His home lay on a remote frontier, unique in that it had yet (in 1813) to be effectively governed by the United States, and its few citizens were mostly loyal to Great Britain. Lieutenant Johnston came from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan Territory. Moreover, his personal origins were as unusual as the political sentiments of his neighbors. His father, John Johnston, had emigrated from northern Ireland to Canada in 1791. An improverished gentleman of excellent family and refined tastes, he almost immediately found his way to the Montreal-based fur trade, which was making millionaires of some of his contemporaries. John Johnston never found millions, but he did find comfort and an extraordinary way of life in the western wilderness. In his very first year of trading on Lake Superior he met and married the daughter of the region’s most respected war chief. Susan, as his wife became known, was remarkable for her capacity to adapt to a European lifestyle, while retaining her own cultural integrity. The couple settled at Sault St. Marie, on the south side of the boundary river, where they established a home that became widely known for its graceful hospitality, fine furnishings and extensive library. They had, during the first two decades of their residency, only a few neighbor families— also of mixed marriages, also conducting the fur trade through Montreal agents, also people who, if they thought of national allegiance, thought of the King. Into this setting Lewis Saurin was born in 1793.
Lewis, the first of eight children, was named for John Johnston’s illustrious relative, the Archdeacon of Derry. But somehow Lewis never lived up to his namesake. Although he inherited his father’s charm, he did not acquire the sober good sense he might have derived from either of his parents. After he completed his education in Montreal, his father was glad to arrange a military commission for him through London connections. Thus when his native country went to war once more with the former mother country Lewis found himself an enemy in his own land. (His father would pay dearly for misplaced loyalty.) He served satisfactorily at Put-In-Bay, and was wounded there, but he was no more of a success in a military career than he was at fur trading or storekeeping on the Upper Lakes. Lewis died in 1825, at the age of 31, mourned for his lovable qualities and forgiven the disappointment he caused his parents.
It was George, the second son, who became his father’s business aide and confidante. And it was George who retained loving memories of the brother, older by two and a-half years, who had been the companion of his childhood. Although he traveled occasionally as far as Montreal and New York, George spent his entire life in the Mackinac-Sault Ste. Marie-Lake Superior region. By midcentury this area was visited with increasing frequency by travelers from the east coast. It was, apparently, in the course of such a visit to Sault Ste. Marie that Dr. Usher Parsons and George Johnston met. How remarkable for George, after all these years, to encounter a man who had known his long dead brother during the one moment of glory in his short life! Perhaps it was only after Parsons’ departure from the Sault that George regretted not inquiring for more details of his acquaintance with Lewis. At any rate, George, an indefatigable correspondent, wrote to Parsons some time after the visit to ask for the reminiscence. Parsons’ reply, with its flattering and cherished detail, was carefully put away, and resides to this day among George’s numerous letters and papers in the Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library. It is offered here with the courtesy of that Library.
George Johnston Esquire
Providence, April 15, 1857 My dear sir:
Your favor dated some weeks before its arrival came since to hand. It affords me great pleasure to communicate any facts that I can call to mind respecting your deceased brother. My acquaintance commenced with him on the 26th of October, when the British wounded arrived at Erie, and it continued until the following winter (of 1813 & 14). The wounded officers of both squadrons were brought to Erie and remained there, the British leaving for Pittsburgh on the 21st of January. They boarded at a hotel kept by Judge Bell. I had daily interviews with them and enjoyed their society very much, particular Midshipman Johnsons, [sic] who I learned was from the Saute Ste Maries [sic] and was able to give me particular accounts of that region and of the Indian customs, character and condition (though I did not once suspect at the time, that he belonged to that race) and I therefore sought interviews with him more than with the other officers. His slowness of speech I referred to his education in french, [sic] which I supposed to be his vernacular tongue. I met these officers often at Dr. Wallace’s and Mr. Murry’s, to both of whom they brought letters from some friend in Canada, who probably served as a volunteer in the British squadron, and was allowed to return to Malden immediately after the fight.
The Battle you know was on the 10th of September. The British vessels as well as ours suffered severely, especially the Queen Charlotte, which had lost her brave commander Captain Finnis very early in the action, her first lieutenant had been soon after mortally wounded, and the loss of life on board her was very severe. The other vessels suffered in like proportion, the Lady Prevost had her commander, Capt. Buchan, and her first lieutenant, wounded and also her midshipman, Johnston, and she became unmanageable. Lieutenants Bignal commanding the Hunter and Campbell of the Chippewa, were also wounded; thus leaving only the Little Belt fit for duty at the close of the action. Capt. Buchan was wounded in the head, Lt. Bignal in the arm, Midshipman Johnston in the arm, and a purser in the leg, requiring amputation, and Barclay in the shoulder blade. The British officers were mostly under the care of Dr. Kennady of the Queen— the surgeon of the Detroit went with Com. Barclay to Buffalo.
I remember to have heard the officers speak very highly of Mr. Johnston, and particularly Captain Buchan, as a brave and faithful officer.
On the 21st of January, the British wounded were ordered to Pittsburg, and I was sorry to learn afterwards that they were there incarcerated as hostages, but I know not how long, as I was ordered in another direction, to Mackinac as Surgeon of the Lawrence, having a part of Col. Croghans troops on board. We returned to Erie in the autumn, and from there sailed for Cleveland, where we took in a large number of British soldiers to land at Long point, having been exchanged. Soon after I was ordered to Baltimore, as surgeon of the frigate Jane, and after serving in her two years, and two years as surgeon of the Guerriere in the same sea, I returned and settled in this city as professor in Brown College, and have practiced medicine here thirty-five years.
It was highly gratifying to me to meet the brother of my early friend Mr. Johnston, who had in our frequent interviews made me well acquainted with the place in which you reside, and his correct behaviour candor, plain good sense and unpretending manners, had in a high degree won my friendship and esteem.
Please to present my respects to your sister and to the Revd chaplain, if he still resides at your place. It will afford me great pleasure to hear from you again. Yours very respectfully,
(Signed) Usher Parsons
About the Author: Marjorie C. Brazer, a member of the Great Lakes Historical Society, is the author of two books: Wind Off the Dock, published in 1968, and Well Favoured Passage, 1975, both of which relate to cruising on the Great Lakes.
Her professional time is divided between the Rackham School of Graduate Studies, where she is a research assistant; and freelance writing in the fields of history and travel, including boating. Married to Harvey E. Brazer, Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan, Mr. and Mrs. Brazer are the parents of three children, adding another dimension to what may rightly be termed “a varied career!”