This gem of a book, entitled "John Johnston of New York, Merchant," written by his grand-daughter and published in 1909, tells the story of  this successful New York businessman, from his humble beginnings at Boatcroft and Barnboard Mill, Balmaghie. 

John Johnston of New York, Merchant. By Emily Johnston De Forest. Published privately in New York, 1909.


To tell the story of John Johnston of New York it is necessary to begin with some account of his parents and of his Scotch home. His father, for whom he was named, was born in the rugged and picturesque County of Galloway, at a farm situated in Balmaghie Parish, on the banks of the River Dee, then as now called "Boatcroft," - "croft" meaning a farm. Nearby was a ferry operated by my grandfather's father when he was a boy; this was superseded in time by the Glenlochar bridge, whose stone arches now span the river near the little group of farm buildings which still nestle among the trees.

Sympathetic accounts of this country are given in "The Men of the Moss Hags" and " Raiderland - All about Gray Galloway" by S. R. Crockett, the author, who was born at the “Little Duchrae Farm," not far from Boatcroft. Still another book, "The Black Douglas," describes the great Douglas tournaments of the olden times as taking place at Glenlochar, and the "Lists" as being "set up on the level meadow that is now called the Boat Croft."

It was probably while living at Boatcroft, in 1780, that John Johnston married Dorothea Proudfoot, one of three sisters, from the neighboring town of Moffat.

After his marriage the young man rented Barnboard Mill and farm, in Balmaghie Parish, two miles from his old home, and took his young wife there to live. This farm, part of the estate of Balmaghie, consisted of about ninety acres, through which ran a little rippling "burn," which furnished power for the Mills - a tiny "lint" mill and a larger grist mill. To the latter all the neighbors brought their grain to be ground, while in the little lint mill flax was so treated that it could be spun into linen thread.

The farm is picturesquely situated on rolling ground, the mill and farm buildings standing in a little dell shadowed by many fine trees; these trees were all planted by John Johnston the elder, who beautified in a simple way any place in which he lived. At Barnboard Mill, on June 22, 1781, his son John, the subject of this sketch, was born, and there he spent his childhood.

Dorothea Proudfoot was a woman of beautiful character and her son felt that he owed a great deal to his "good mother." In his journals and letters he always spoke of her with deep tenderness and in later years wrote of her:

"My mother was a pious woman who was at great pains early to impress upon my mind a knowledge of divine truth - at her earnest solicitation, I read the Bible & because I saw it gave her pleasure I actually became attached to it; and I recollect that I was much delighted to hear her talk of heavenly things & frequently slipt to her room door & listened whilst she was at prayer (and in these prayers I always heard myself warmly remembered). I was very rigid too in the performance of what I called prayer & used regularly to repeat, morning & evening, certain forms which she taught me - so zealous was I in this duty that if I had omitted it in going to Bed I used to get up in the course of the night, kneel before my Bedside naked as I was, & repeat them. I was likewise very fond of learning & repeating Psalms & Hymns & used generally to say them over until I fell asleep. In this manner I acted until my mother's death, which happened when I was about 13 years of age, when being in a good measure left to my own government, my goodness soon appeared to be like the morning Cloud or early Dew - I soon forgot all her good advices."

As long as Dorothea was able, she rode to Balmaghie Church on Sundays on the same horse with her husband, but when this was no longer possible on account of ill-health, she remained at home and devoted herself to teaching her son his catechism. An old woman named Tibbie Geddes, who used to live near Barnboard Mill, in later years loved to tell of having found my grandfather, during one of his visits to his old home, probably in 1814, sitting on a stone at the burn side, "greeting;" and of his saying, "You will think me childish, but this is where my mother used to sit, and wash my face and comb my hair and teach me my Psalm and questions on the Sabbath day when they were all at church, whither she was too delicate to go."

"On June 1, 1794," as we read in her epitaph, "Dorothea Proudfoot, Spouse to John Johnston, miller, Barnboard, departed this life after nine months severe affliction, which she bore with exemplary fortitude and Christian resignation - in the 36th year of her age."

Her thirteen-year-old son, her only child, was sent on horseback to the eight-miles distant town of Kirkcudbright to buy white stockings and gloves “in which to dress her body." She was buried in Balmaghie Churchyard, where her husband's father (William Johnston) and his wife (Janet McCreedy), who had been living with them at Barnboard, were interred shortly afterwards.

Crockett, many of whose ancestors are buried here, writes of this lovely spot, "Over the hill yonder in the Balmaghie Kirkyard, the sweetest and the sunniest God's Acre in Scotland," and quotes the supposed words of the great "Cameronian Apostle," John Macmillan, describing the churchyard of this, his new parish: "To me it was like the calm of the New Jerusalem. And, indeed, no place that ever I have seen can be so blessedly quiet as the bonny kirk-knowe of Balmaghie, mirrored on a windless day in the encircling stillness of the Water of Dee."

The first money saved by the son after he had gone to America, was sent back to Scotland for the purpose of putting up a tombstone to the memory of his mother, and he never visited Scotland without going to see her grave or without being "very much affected thereby." The first headstone was a modest one, for which he sent exact measurements and an inscription. It was to be in brown stone, "plain & neat, as carving I dislike," painted white with black lettering, and was to be repainted at his expense whenever defaced. This was replaced after his half-brother Alexander's death by the present more elaborate monument.

During John's boyhood, one of his greatest pleasures was to visit his Aunt Jane Proudfoot, his mother's sister. Her cottage was on the banks of the "bonny Moffat water" and constituted part of " Dumcrief," the estate of Dr. Currie, the well-known editor of Burns's works. Here John spent many happy days, fishing in the river or picking gooseberries in his aunt's lovely garden. Fishing was one of his great delights, and even during subsequent visits to Dumcrief he always found a few spare moments to indulge in his favorite pastime. On one of these occasions he wrote, "This is almost the only place that appears as lovely in reality as my imagination had painted it. I consider the time that I spent in my visits to Dumcrief as the most happy of my youthful days."

My grandfather attended school in the neighboring village of Laurieston, and also at Boreland. The education thought necessary to fit a boy for life was very meagre in that simple region, and he complained later of this deficiency and took every opportunity to supplement it. The course of study consisted chiefly of arithmetic and book-keeping, and the kind of instruction received may be gathered from a letter he wrote many years later:

"Of the three masters that I attended not one taught English Grammar, or considered it necessary. The last one indeed I importuned to teach me and was accordingly allowed to learn to repeat it by rote like a Parrot, my judgment was never exercised and I left off just as wise as I began. Latin was universally given up as good for nothing; French was not understood neither was good penmanship. Book-keeping and mensuration, no matter how written, were considered as all that was necessary to complete a good education and on these I lost some of the most precious of my time. I say lost not because I consider them altogether useless, but because things of equal importance ought to have been attended to at the same time; a man with such an education may be a Scholar among Clowns, but he is only a Clown among Scholars!

"I have long ago felt the errors of my education in their full force. Many a blush has my miserable penmanship and gross ignorance cost me, and many an hour hard study when I had more need of relaxation. By this means I have recovered a part of what I had lost, but much is irrecoverably gone."

At Boreland he formed a lasting friendship for one of his schoolmates, Samuel Haining, who later became a clergyman with a parish on the Isle of Man.

The elder John was a kind and genial man, dependent upon a wife and family for his happiness, and in 1795, a year after Dorothea's death, married Margaret Rae, a capable and affectionate woman. She made him a good wife and bore him ten children - Jessie (Janet), 1796; Agnes (Nanny), 1797; William, 1800; Samuel, 1802; Robert, 1804; James, 1806; Jeanie, 1808; Alexander, 1810; Margaret, 1813; and Dorothea (Dolly), 1816.

As has been said, John's education consisted chiefly in preparing him to fill an accountant's position, and no assistance of this kind being needed in his father's simple affairs, and it being necessary that lie should now begin to support himself, he was sent in 1798, a lad of seventeen, to the seaport town of Kirkcudbright, where for five or six years he "served his time" learning practical book-keeping, etc., in the counting-house of William Johnston, who was, however, no relation, or, at most, a very distant one.

His employer was thirteen years his senior, but the friendship begun at this time was the most important of his early days and was destined to be of life-long duration, with only one break, which will be alluded to later. A touching change took place in the relationship between these two; as a boy John looked up to and depended greatly on his older friend, but with larger opportunity developed more fully, so that as time passed, William, who had always loved him and had been so great a help to him in his youth, came to have a deep admiration for him as well. We notice in one of his letters that William liked "a plain open hearted good lad, not one stuff'd fue o' pride like a Goose with Scallions & Pepper at Christmas." He apparently found that this lad answered the description, while John, on the other hand, once wrote to a friend then occupying a position similar to his own earlier one:

"With regard to Mr. J. I think I know him well - he is a man of a very hasty temper, but his passion is but of a moment's continuance - his heart under a rough surface contains a great quantity of the milk of human kindness & his friendships when formed are lasting. . . . Obey his orders with cheerfulness, always showing a disposition to anticipate his wishes, which, independent of its being your duty, will save you many an hours bitterness & enable you to finish your two remaining years with both pleasure & profit to yourself."

The young man became an inmate of William's household, where he was made to feel entirely at home and where he always stayed when, in later years, he revisited Kirkcudbright. According to William's daughters, he was kind and considerate, and, although working diligently, early and late, in the counting-house, devoted every spare moment to study, poring over his books in the evening by the light of a candle. "I had an insatiable thirst for reading," he wrote later, "but having no person to direct my choice of Books I unfortunately chose those that were least calculated for improvement; - namely, Romances, Novels, Plays & sometimes History. - In fact I read promiscuously all that came to hand."

Here began his great love of books and of reading, a taste that ever increased during his life and that was inherited by his sons. Every penny he could spare was always spent on books. What would not he and William, also fond of reading, have given for the privilege of using the beautiful library since built in the town of Kirkcudbright. The value William Johnston placed upon education, was shown by the fact that he bequeathed money to build and endow the Johnston Free School, still in existence there.

Another interest which William and John had in common was a desire to discover something about their ancestors. William suggested that they "together overhaul the graves in Galloway," and in 1814, on John's first return to Scotland, he was for two entire days "occupied with Mr. Johnston in examining & cleaning old grave stones in Moffat Churchyard," as well as at Kirkpatrick Juxta. It was evident that they both had relatives named Proudfoot.

John's father and William also had many discussions on this interesting subject, the former asserting that William was an Annandale (or "thief") Johnston, while William retorted that John was nothing but a Galloway (or "gypsy ") Johnston, proof of which was his well shaped feet and legs, they being a distinguishing characteristic of the " Gypsy-Johnstons." After such controversies they would often, to quote William Johnston's own words, have "a bottle of Peter Black's ale, a snuff and a laugh to hand down our brose" (oatmeal porridge). In fact, William's daughters said that it was always a "red letter day" when the Miller of Barnboard came to see them.

During the years John spent in William's counting-house, they had long conferences with regard to the young man's great desire to go to America. A brother of the older man was already settled there, to whom he could give John an introduction, and when in 1804 the latter undertook the journey, it was William who lent him part of the necessary money. Later, in a letter from America, John referred to these conversations, saying, "I have got to the very summit of my then desires, not only by being safely landed in America, but likewise by obtaining a situation in a counting-house that in respectability yields to none in Newyork." Eighteen months after leaving home he repaid William's loan, adding, "Permit me again my dear Sir to assure you that although I have thus paid what may be called my legal debt, I by no means consider the debt of Gratitude which I owe to you & to your family cancelled, nor do I wish it; it is a debt which I deem it an honour to owe."

On William's advice and following in his footsteps, one of John's last acts before he set sail was, on March 4, 1804, to qualify and be admitted to the Masonic "Lodge of St. Cuthbert, held in Kirkcudbright." This enabled him to have a feeling of kinship with the brothers of the organization wherever he found them on the "face of the Terragious Globe." The diploma issued to him declares in the solemn language of such documents that "our very Worthy Brother John Johnston was by us Entered, Passed & Raised to the Sublime degree of a Master Mason." Many years later his Masonic medallion was still treasured among his "trinkets."

While the happenings in the Scotch household subsequent to John's departure for America, will be touched upon in their proper chronological place, it seems best, in order to give as vivid a picture as possible of the family and home that he left, to relate here the most important of these events.

After John left Scotland, William wrote to him frequently, giving him news of the old home. This was not always of an encouraging character, and one of the first things the son set himself to do after his establishment in New York and the payment of his debt to William, was to make better provision for his father, who was increasingly unable to manage his money matters. In 1810 John wrote to his friend:

"It has always been my intention to make my father and his family more comfortable as soon as my circumstances would permit, and although money is perhaps of more consequence to me now, on the eve of commencing business, than it may be hereafter, yet I would not defer doing good until it may be perfectly convenient, lest I be deprived of the power of doing it altogether. I shall therefore write him to confer freely with you respecting his affairs, and I beg that you will arrange them in such a manner that what I send may be applied to the support of his family."

In 1808 the lease of Barnboard Mill and farm had run out and "the Miller," as William Johnston always called the elder John, had moved with his family to Millbank Mill and farm, ten miles distant, at the little village of Haugh on the River Urr (Haugh of Urr), in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright.

When in 1818 the younger John, then travelling in Scotland, visited his father's new home, he considered the Mill Cottage inadequate and leasing an adjacent plot of ground built a house on it, over what had previously been a large grain cellar. This house was afterwards called Millbank Cottage, and he gave it to his father for a home. The plot of ground was held "In Feu" - a species of land tenure common throughout Scotland, meaning that the land was owned in large estates by the Lairds and was leased, often in perpetuity, while the buildings were owned by the tenants. The lease of this land was to run for ninety-nine years and to expire in 1917 unless the occupants of the cottage then wished to renew it. It is still owned and occupied by Samuel's daughter, Agnes N. Johnston.

Millbank Cottage was small - in fact, it is difficult to understand how John's father and his large family crowded into it. Besides the ordinary living rooms, there was a large basement room where the grain had previously been stored, and here parties and family gatherings were held amidst much merriment. The parents had a bedroom on the ground floor, one end of which was partitioned off to form a built-in bed with curtains in front of it. A kind of loft above the kitchen was unused for a long time, and here the rats which had been dispossessed from the cellar congregated. This loft was called the "rat room" by the children, and when the noise of the rats frightened the little ones, the father used to reassure them by saying that great preparations were being made for a rat wedding. As time went on, many additions were made to the place - a dairy was built, fruit trees planted, and a garden laid out with a pretty bower at the end of it.

The life at Millbank Cottage was exceedingly simple. Alexander, the youngest son, gives a vivid account of it worth quoting:

"I can recollect . . . Father & Mother sitting on one side the fire, father with the tongs in his hand and now & then giving the fire a poke, & mother sitting sewing & mending for us all by the old little round stand; on the other side of the fire sat poor old William Duncan, with the Dog (Little Hero) on his knee, both also have since gone to their long home; in the middle or somewhere about were Margt. Dolly & myself beside the servant girl and never without some of the neighbours dropping in to spend an hour or so, & I can remember Nanny now Mrs. Maxwell & Jannet, now Dead, & William & Robert, who were at Dumfries School, but were home every now & then to spend a day or two with us. Then there were Saml. attending the mill, & James, and the servant man Rob Halliday - all in addition to the before mentioned."

The father was a strictly religious man, attending church every Sunday even when it meant that he, his wife and their little "Nanny" had to ride on the same horse. Every evening punctually at nine o'clock the father and mother would "tak the Buik"- that is, the big Bible - to the bower (pronounced "boor ") at the end of the garden and, laying it across their knees, the father would read it aloud. From this ceremony none of the children ever dared to be absent, or even to be late.

It is either about this Bible or the Bible of Samuel Johnston that a picturesque story is told. The book was of great interest to the children, as it contained numerous pictures, the meaning of which the father explained to them. Wherever there was a representation of a "bad" man, the children used to scratch his face - and the devil was so very bad that the page on which his picture appeared was almost scratched through. After the children had thus wreaked their vengeance on the bad men and the volume had become very shabby, it was determined to get a new one, and the old "Buik" was given to a poor man and thus lost!

Once, however, the Bible failed the father in time of need - when his son Samuel wrote that he was to marry a Quakeress. The old gentleman was much troubled, for he had never heard of a Quaker. Getting down his never-failing guide, he studied it from beginning to end to see if he could find any mention of the name. Not finding it, he went to the minister, who reassured him, saying that the Quakers also took the Bible as their guide.

Old John Johnston always wore knee breeches, which, for full dress, were of black velvet with buckles at the knees; this was undoubtedly what enabled William Johnston to comment on his "well shaped feet and legs." He was called the "Jolly Miller," was full of wit and song, and a favorite with everyone, young and old, rich and poor. While he was on congenial and even intimate terms with the Laird of Balmaghie, he was on an equally friendly footing with his poorer associates, and would frequently take care of a neighbor's baby for her while she read the newspaper to him - a welcome change of occupation for both.

Every year he sent a barrel of oatmeal to his son John in America, and in return the son sent barrels of apples and sometimes fruit trees. After the death of both father and son, the family in Scotland still sent to the grandson, John Taylor Johnston, the annual barrel of oatmeal, which usually contained also a tin box of Scotch "short bread" and some bottles of mushroom "ketchup."

An unfortunate habit of getting into "scrapes" through signing notes for other people was one of the weaknesses of the father, but this did not trouble him much, and if he got out of his difficulty somehow, he was quite ready to do the same thing again.

The Laird's "Factor" and he had many disputes over the rental account, and at one time he was so obstinate and so sure of the justice of his claims that he allowed himself to be put in jail rather than yield. This was the occasion of his son John's quarrel with William Johnston, who had in charge a fund for the father's use. As Robert, John's half-brother, wrote in one of his letters, "Mr. Johnston stated that our Father was willing to go to jail, but that was no plea for his allowing him to go." John promptly took his father's funds out of William Johnston's hands. The latter was in a great rage about it, and Robert remarked, "I suppose that is the breaking up of their long standing friendship." This, however, was not the case. The tie was strong enough to stand even this strain. The breach was healed, and it was from William that John, in 1841, had tidings of the death of his father and step-mother.

Three of John's half-brothers - William, Robert, and Alexander - through his assistance followed him in later years to America and did well there. They, like John, felt the deficiency of their Scotch education, but in addition reproached themselves with the fact that they had not always made the most of such opportunities as had been offered them. Their home letters were full of urgent entreaty that their younger sisters be given the best teaching available, and they often sent money to this end. Robert, in particular, was very solicitous regarding the character of the school to which Margaret and Dolly should be sent, urging that they not only have "the advantage of a polite education," but that they be so placed as to enjoy "good
genteel society" as well.

Robert also asked that Samuel send a Dumfries paper over to him that he might read the Galloway news, but with Scotch thrift suggested that Samuel pay half the subscription and read the paper before forwarding it.

All the daughters except Margaret married during the lifetime of their parents, and on each occasion there was a large gathering of family and neighbors, with dancing in the big underground room. The sons and daughters who had left home revisited it from time to time, and always expressed the tenderest feeling for their parents. "The recollections of my mother are still as fresh in my mind and she is as dear to me now as in the days of my infancy," wrote William after he had been ten years in America. And of his father he said, "He is an old man now and cannot be able to work much and it grieves me to think of my old father working so hard while I am working easy." After Alexander had been in America only two years and could ill afford it, he sent a small sum of money to Margaret, saying, "Out of the £5 you must give my good old Mother the first chance of having whatever she likes, then you can keep the Balance and fill my father's Box fu' o' Snuff or buy him a something to make a Night Cap to take before he goes to Bed."

John, in the course of business trips between America and Europe, made frequent visits to his parents. Robert was unable to do so until 1841, twenty years after he had left the Haugh, at which time he presented excellent miniatures of himself to various members of the family. Alick, on his return home, left only a silhouette of himself, but gave money to the family that "likenesses" might be made of both his father and mother. Only his father's portrait was painted, at which Alick was vastly indignant, saying, "Is not the likeness of my mother as desirable to me as my father's?" In this picture the father holds in his hand a letter from his "son in America," presumably Alexander.

On April 26, 1841, John Johnston's wife, Margaret Rae, who had been in failing health for some time, died in Millbank Cottage, and her loving husband, then in his ninety-second year, survived her only three days.

"An hour before her dissolution," Dorothea wrote to her brother Samuel, "she was asked if she had any assurance to cheer her through the dark valley. 'I think I have,' she said; she hoped she had seen Jesus in all his Glory waiting to receive [her] - 'I have, O yes'; and a Number more such satisfactory and cheering answers.

"My Father could not think it was death as it came nearer, but thought she was getting better, and would give her tea, gruell, tody, just almost constantly, thinking if she would get them swallowed she would soon be better and would say, 'I'll be in beside ye the Morn's Night yet my dear'; and she said; 'poor bodey,' several times; he says, 'ye look bonnier now than ever, and I think you will no leave Me yet.' We got him advised to go Bed as we saw the change appearing."

In February of that year Alick, then living in New York, had written in his journal, "The poor good folks are still stepping about but very frail, poor old Bodies." On June 1st, a month after the death of his parents, the word having just reached New York, John said to him: "Ah Alick there is melancholy news this morning. Father and Mother are both dead!" Alick describes these events with so tender a hand that the account is copied here verbatim:

"They were dead, died within 3 days 3 short days of one another, and buried in one Grave. Mother died first on the 26 April Monday and Father poor man could not stand the awful shock but took to his bed the following day, and died on Thursday the 29th April - and [they] were both buried on Tuesday in Balmaghie Church yard on 4th May . . .

"Poor Mother bade an everlasting adieu to all terrestrial things about ½ past 4 o'clock; and on Nanny & Dolly going up to tell him that she was at rest he was sitting up in bed, seemingly expecting them and what they had come to tell him, and clasping his hands together, and looking up to Heaven - Exclaimed - 'The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be his most Holy name,' and on leaving him to give vent to their feelings in Nanny's room, they heard him getting out of his Bed & praying to the Almighty, that he would prepare him for his last end, as it was near at hand . . .

"The next day he got up thro' the course of the day, and walked about & gave some orders concerning Mother's Funeral, and after she had been laid out - Nanny asked him if he wd not like to see Mother once more, he said he wd - and went towards the door, but when the white sheets met his view, he held out his hands & exclaimed, Oh I can gang nae farther! He went to his Bed that night never to rise more. On going into his room on Thursday morning and speaking to him he did not answer, and in attempting to move him, he cried, oh - and they then saw his latter end was approaching fast, and allowed him to remain in the same position, and in a few hours his Spirit took its flight to the Realms of Light, and the voice that had cheered and delighted us all, so oft, and so long - was silent for ever.

"It had been intended and invitations issued accordingly for Mother's Funeral to take place on the Saturday but was then postponed until the Tuesday following . . .

"Samuel had started off for Scotland immediately on rect. of the news of Mother's Death but with the fond hope of finding Father there, and staying a few days with him, and hearing some of his old stories told over again, but alas, alas! when he arrived there, there was no hand stretched out to welcome him, no sweet sounds to cheer him, no eye sparkling with delight, as he entered. Ah no, everything was as still and quiet as the grave, there he beheld them stretched out, in their last attire, lying side by side - cold & stiff as the clod of the valley . . . Father, Saml. says, was nothing changed - his countenance pleasant, & face full.

"Oh what a sight, melancholy k solemn, yet pleasant. Like Saul & Jonathan, 'They were lovely in their lives & in their deaths they were not divided.' . . . " They were buried on Tuesday 4th May in Balmaghie Churchyard. Saml. says there must have been over (100) a hundred people at the Funeral & notwithstanding the day being wet & uncomfortable over the half that number followed them to their Graves - a distance I think of over 6 miles, & had they been Lord & Lady of the Land, they could not have died more respected or more generally regretted round the whole Parish where they lived." . . .

So they were taken to the "Kirk above Dee Water," the homely name by which the Galloway folk know it, and there some kindly friends undoubtedly said of John Johnston the Miller, as they had said of many another, "Sae he's won awa."

On his tombstone was written: