Johnston, John (1762–1828), fur trader, was born 25 August 1762 near Portrush, Co. Antrim, son of William Johnston and Elizabeth Johnston (née McNeil). The family, which had come from Scotland two generations earlier, owned Craige, an estate near the Giant's Causeway. Johnston's father served in the Royal Navy during the Seven Years War and afterwards was appointed surveyor in Portrush and the barony of Dunluce. He also designed and built the waterworks for Belfast, but died about 1769, when Johnston was seven, leaving the family in difficult circumstances. Although he did not have a conventional education, Johnston developed a fondness for books and literature. At age 17 he went to Belfast to manage the waterworks. However, the lease for the waterworks was not renewed and in 1789 he made plans to seek his fortune in British North America, sailing for Quebec in June 1790 with letters of introduction to the governor, Gen. Lord Dorchester (Guy Carleton (qv)), from Lord Hawkesbury, president of the Board of Trade, and several others.
Dorchester was unable to offer Johnston an appointment, but in Montreal Johnston met a friend from Ireland, Andrew Todd, nephew of Isaac Todd (b. c.1742, in Ireland), of the fur traders Todd, McGill & Company, who gave him a position. Johnston spent the winter learning French outside Montreal, and in May 1791 joined Todd travelling to Michilimackinac, on Mackinaw Island, Michigan. Learning the trade during the summer, Johnston was sent with several French-Canadians to winter at the Native settlement of La Pointe, on the south shore of Lake Superior. Abandoned by his assistants, Johnston survived the winter, traded furs, and helped the elderly father of the chief of the La Pointe Ojibway band, Wabojeeg (White Fisher). He also fell in love with Oshaguscodawaqua (whom he later called Susan), Wabojeeg's young daughter. Because Europeans tended to abandon their Native wives, Johnston was told that in order to marry her he must wait a year and then promise not to leave her. He sold his furs in Montreal and returned the following spring to marry her, first at La Pointe and then in a Christian ceremony at Fort St Joseph. The marriage was a happy one, also giving Johnston excellent access to the Native people in the region; but returning to Ireland became difficult.
Johnston dominated the trade in furs along the south shore of Lake Superior for many years. In 1793 he moved to Sault Sainte Marie, sometimes operating as an independent, sometimes working for the North West Company or the American Fur Company. At the Sault he built a fine house, well furnished with books. He visited Ireland in 1809 to inspect Craige, the estate he had inherited from his mother in 1803. He arrived in Cork with his nine-year-old daughter Obah-dahm-wawn-gezzhago-quay (Woman of the Green Prairie), or Jane, whom he left with a great-aunt in Wexford while he made his way to Dublin and Co. Antrim. He also travelled to London, perhaps hoping for appointments for his sons, and was asked by Lord Selkirk to lead a planned settlement at Red River in western Canada. Despite the urging of his family that he should remain in Ireland, Johnston and his daughter sailed from Liverpool in June 1810.
Johnston's thoughts of possibly settling in Montreal were interrupted by the war of 1812. While he was assisting British forces in the defence of Mackinaw Island, American troops burned his property at Sault Sainte Marie. Nevertheless, he rebuilt his fur business, working largely for the American Fur Company. In 1819–20 Johnston returned to Ireland and England to sell his estate in Co. Antrim and to seek damages in London for his losses during the war. During his absence, Mrs Johnston intervened in a dispute between the local Native people and the governor of the Michigan Territory, enabling the United States to acquire land on which Fort Brady was built. By the 1820s Johnston's house was again a centre of culture and hospitality on the frontier. Johnston died 22 September 1828.
John and Susan Johnston had eight children: Lewis Saurin served the British Indian department; George became a fur trader and Indian agent for the United States bureau of Indian affairs; William served as an interpreter for the US government; John McDougal worked as an interpreter first for Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and then the US government; Jane married Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, explorer, ethnologist, and Indian agent at Sault Sainte Marie; Eliza did not marry; Charlotte married the Rev. William McMurray, an anglican missionary at the Sault; and Anne Maria married James L. Schoolcraft. Material relating to John Johnston can be found in the George Johnston papers, Bayliss Public Library, Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan; George Johnston papers, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library; and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft papers, Library of Congress.