Celebrating the Loyalists

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 13 1984

Celebrating the Loyalists

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 13 1984

Celebrating the Loyalists


Anthony Wilson-Smith

Historians call them "Canada's first Boat People." In one of the largest movements of refugees of

their era, some 50,000 colonists who had fought for—or at least supported—the losing side in the American Revolution decided that they could not live under the victors. Abandoning most of their possessions and under conditions of brutal hardship, they moved to a new and forbidding land. They were the Loyalists, and 200 years ago they left the newly independent United States and headed north to a sparsely populated British territory. It would never be the same again. Said historian Sydney Wise, dean of graduate studies at Ottawa’s Carleton University and an expert on the Loyalists: “We cannot overestimate their importance in Canadian history. They are not only what makes us different from Americans but they are also what makes us what we are today.” Pride: Throughout Eastern Canada this summer Canadians are celebrating the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the Loyalists. In Ontario the provincial government has spent more than $10 million sponsoring 2,000 separate events that range from re-enactments of Revolutionary War battles at Fort Wellington, near Prescott, Ont., to a marathon on the Loyalist Parkway between Trenton and Picton. In the Atlantic provinces celebrations began last year and continue with observances from Shelburne, N.S., to Saint John, N.B. In one typical ceremony 2,000 local anglophones in the Bay of Chaleur area of Quebec’s Gaspé region, many of whom trace their roots to the several hundred Loyalists from New England who landed there, made 18th-centurystyle costumes and re-enacted the landing of their forebears using a double-masted sailing ship. Nancy Doddridge, a 19-year-old New Richmond, Que., resident whose Loyalist ancestor landed in 1784, researched her family tree for the first time this year. Said Doddridge: “I never used to give that kind of thing a second thought. Now I have a new sense of pride in where my family comes from.”

The renewed interest has carried into literature. Three books on the Canadian Loyalists have recently appeared or are being prepared. The Toronto-based, 4,000-member United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada assembled one of

them, a lavishly bound history of Ontario called Loyal She Remains which has already sold more than 20,000 copies. The celebrations symbolize a happy reappraisal of a controversial group. Many Canadian colonists scorned the Loyalists when they arrived, and their former countrymen vilified them as a traitorous group “whose head is in England, whose body is in America, and whose neck should be stretched.” Fighting: Certainly the Loyalists represented a major force in the history of their time. When the American Revolution began with the outbreak of fighting in Lexington, Mass., in April, 1775, even the rebels estimated that as many as a third of the 2.5 million people who lived in the combined colonies maintained their allegiance to the Crown. Supporters of the two sides often lived side by side and represented all levels of society. When fighting broke out, colonists who were loyal to the Crown joined Loyalist militia and fought beside the British troops; their families fled from rebel to British-held areas to avoid reprisals. One contemporary wrote, in the argot of the times, that the revolution pitted “Nabor . . . against Nabor, Father against the Son and the Son against the Father, and he that would not thrust his one blaid through his brothers heart was cald an Infimous fillon.” John Adams, a lawyer and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, believed that most Loyálists chose the

British side because of threats and the promise of “advancement, honor, glory, wealth and power.”

Many, however, had more idealistic motives. Joshua Loring, a retired naval captain who fought on the British side, wrote to a friend, “I have always eaten the King’s bread, and always intend to.” Still, according to Walter Stewart, di-

rector of the school of journalism at King’s College in Halifax, whose social history of the Loyalists will appear in the fall of 1985, “The Loyalists were the same odd mix of human beings you find in all wars on all sides. There were some who were noble and patriotic and a healthy percentage of rogues and wretches in there who cared only about their own interests.”

Persecution: Whatever their motives for supporting the Crown, there were tens of thousands of colonials who remained loyal as the bitter American Revolution drew to a close. Some were land-owning aristocrats, most were tradesmen, laborers and shopkeepers, many of whom had been born in the colonies. After the two sides formally ended fighting by signing the Treaty of Paris in 1783, many Loyalists found that they could not safely return to the homes they had left seven years earlier. The victorious citizens of the new nation were not prepared to forgive them. The persecution that the Loyalists faced as the losers of a bitter civil war meant confiscation of their wealth and properties, physical beatings and sometimes death.

The treaty signed between Britain and the United States was supposed to protect them. But every state except Georgia and South Carolina had passed laws declaring the Loyalists to be traitors. Authorities seized and sold their properties; they lost their right to vote

and to hold public office as well as access to the courts. Along with officially sanctioned indignities, there were also cruel private attacks. Many Loyalists were socially ostracized at the orders of local Patriot committees, including one in Connecticut that punished a local Loyalist by forbidding “all Persons whatever viz. Merchants Mechanicks Millers and Butchers and Co. from supplying John Sayre or Family with any manner of Thing whatever.”

Even after the Treaty of Paris, reports of beatings, floggings and murders of Loyalists who tried to return home were commonplace. John Segee, a one-armed soldier’s son from Long Island, later wrote that when he returned with his father after fighting for the British, he was “flogged the whole way from North Castle to the White Plains,” had his hair cut and was then told to “let his [Loyalist] Friends on Long Island know that every Rascal of them that attempted to come among them would meet with the like treatment.” Appalling: Faced with constant harassment and danger, Loyalists had no choice but to flee. A small number went to England, and roughly 18,000 settled in the underdeveloped British West Indies, Bahamas and Bermuda. But for most the only option was to go north. The British government, with the co-

operation of the new U.S. administration, arranged for ships to transport the Loyalists to Nova Scotia. They were to embark at New York City, which became the temporary home for the newly displaced Loyalists. About 30,000 refugees went to New York after most of the fighting ended in 1781. Many of them had to live in tent cities, owning little more than the clothes they wore. From there they were jammed onto overcrowded British ships for an arduous three-week voyage marked by rough seas and appalling food. In one of the worst disasters, the transport ship Martha struck a rock off the coast of Saint John and sank. At least 99 refugees drowned.

The arrival of the displaced colonists in Nova Scotia almost tripled the province’s previous population of 17,000. The settlers had mixed impressions about their new home. The first fleet arrived in Saint John on May 17,1783, where the dismayed settlers found little more than rocks, swamps and burned-out forest. One woman said she felt such terrible loneliness that “. . . although I had not shed a tear through all the war, I sat down in the damp moss with my baby and cried aloud.” Some Loyalists settled in the already established city of Halifax, where their repeated demands for special treatment so annoyed British

Gov. John Parr that he labelled them “New York office grabbers.”

So many Loyalists settled on the north shore of the Bay of Fundy that within a year the British government established the area as the separate province of New Brunswick. During their first years many lived in crude huts, clearing and farming wilderness land. Others were better prepared. Fifteen hundred settlers in St. Andrew’s brought dismantled buildings in the holds of their vessels and reassembled them. Several of them are still standing today. Another 10,000 to 12,000 people, including southern plantation owners, New York merchants and Boston tradesmen, settled in Shelburne, N.S., where they built 1,100 buildings in less than a year.

Critical: The estimated 8,000 to 10,000 Loyalists who came to what is now Ontario faced an equally perilous land journey. They travelled by foot from upper New York state, Vermont and New Hampshire, dragging sleighs through deep snowdrifts as they came north along frozen Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River. Many families settled temporarily in refugee camps about 60 km southeast of Montreal, in Sorel and Machiche, where smallpox and measles epidemics broke out. Quebec’s Swiss-born British governor, Gen. Fred-

erick Haldimand, had to choose between settling the Loyalists permanently on land occupied by French-speaking settlers or encroaching on land that had been granted to the Mississauga Indians in 1763. He made a critical decision and arranged to buy land from the Mississauga tribes around the upper St. Lawrence River, near the site of what later became Kingston. Within seven years some 10,000 Loyalists, travelling in groups of four and five families in open boats, paddled upriver and laid the foundations of modern Ontario by settling in three wilderness areas: the Niagara peninsula, around the Bay of Quinte on Lake Ontario and along the upper St. Lawrence between Lake Ontario and Montreal. Another 1,500 Loyalists, largely from Vermont and New Hampshire, settled in what are now the Eastern Townships of Quebec.

By 1791, seven years after they had arrived, the Loyalists had completely changed the face of Canada. Although there are no precise figures, historians estimate that there were 65,000 Frenchspeaking Canadiens in North America during the 1770s. They represented about three-quarters of the population of what is now Canada. The arrival of 65,000 refugees from the United States in those years permanently shifted the country’s linguistic balance in favor of English and encouraged tens of thousands of other English-speaking settlers to move to the colony in later years.

Split: And Haldimand’s decision to settle the Loyalists away from the Canadiens meant that the part of Upper Canada that is now Quebec would remain, for the most part, French-speaking. The decision also maintained the traditions of French civil law and protection for the Roman Catholic religion that the Quebec Act had established in 1774. At the same time, the new western settlements of the Loyalists resulted in eventual demands for self-rule and British laws, institutions and land tenure. By 1791 the Loyalist-inspired divisions were entrenched in the Constitutional Act which split the Upper Canada territory, creating what are now Ontario and Quebec.

Yet for all their evident importance in the nation’s past, most historians agree that the Loyalists’ arrival has been oddly underplayed and accounts of their role curiously ambivalent. Many historians blame the influence of the U.S. media. As early as 1880 Canadian historian Egerton Ryerson complained that “the history of the Loyalists of America has never been written except by their enemies and spoilers.” Ryerson added that most records of the period had been written by “American historians, who have never tired in eulogizing Americans and everything American, and deprecating everything English, and all

who have loyally adhered to the unity of the British Empire.” David Bell, Loyalist scholar and dean of graduate studies at York University, agreed: “The Loyalists epitomized the classic Canadian identity crisis,” he said. “We do not talk about ourselves, so we let others tell us what our forefathers were like.” Even today the Loyalists receive little more than a chapter in most history books, and few, if any, Canadian universities offer full courses dealing specifically with the subject.

Exodus: One of the reasons for the lack of information is the Loyalists themselves. Most were illiterate, and few written records of their experiences survive. Accounts of their exodus were passed—sometimes inaccurately—to subsequent generations only by word of mouth. The few first handwritten ac-

The Loyalist Odyssey

counts that remain are largely those of upper-class diarists. That has furthered the image that most Loyalists came from blue-blooded British stock. In fact, the Loyalist population of the Thirteen Colonies included Dutch, German and Scottish immigrants. Still, many Loyalists and their status-seeking descendants chose to anglicize themselves by altering their names to obscure their ethnic backgrounds. Mueller became Miller, Lorentze became Lawrence and Imberger became Embury. The myth creation increased because of the proBritish views of the 4,000-member United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, founded in 1897 and widely regarded, until recently, as quaintly oldfashioned. And as links with Britain weakened in the 20th century and Canada became increasingly multicultural, many younger Canadians came to view the Loyalist legacy as a stuffy anachronism.

But after a period of neglect there is a

burst of new interest in the Loyalist tradition and increasing recognition that the newcomers profoundly shaped the political structures and attitudes of Canada. Most academics agree that the new arrivals brought to Canada, along with British parliamentary customs and traditions, a “Tory tradition” of order and greater obedience to government that is distinct from the more liberal republican tradition of the United States.

Many Canadians applaud the Loyalist values, but U.S. sociologist Edgar Z. Friedenberg, at Dalhousie University in Halifax, demurred. He argued that the Loyalists were people who “rejected revolution as a means of improving things and were willing to find happiness [in Canada] despite the fact they settled for a lesser standard of life, economy and

freedoms. They chose to stay in a restrictive system instead of fighting to build a new, better one.”

As an example of what he viewed as the Loyalist legacy of passivity, Friedenberg singled out the 1970 imposition of the War Measures Act as “the kind of abuse that Americans, because of their heritage and beliefs, would never tolerate.” For his part, Carleton’s Sydney Wise cites medicare as a positive example of Canadians’ belief that government can and should respond to the needs of the citizen.

For many Canadians, however, the Loyalist heritage has a simpler and more visceral significance. In The Range, N.B., 90 km west of Moncton, 150 descendants of Loyalist Roger Barton, a New York farmer who landed in the community in 1784, have been holding annual family reunions for four decades. In July they met again on the property of Roger Barton’s descendant Opal Barton, 67, on the site of the origi-

nal 200-acre Loyalist land grant that the Bartons received. Proud members of the clan spend hours poring over the family history, reminiscing, revising the “Barton Book” and tending the family burial plot.

In New Richmond in the Gaspé, 61-year-old retired shopkeeper Ivan Robertson, a direct descendant of a soldier in a regiment of Loyalist militia called Jessup’s Rangers, headed a committee of Loyalist descendants who worked for six months preparing this year’s 200th anniversary celebrations held last month. Local historians estimate that more than three-quarters of the tightly knit English community in that area have Loyalist roots. Said Robertson: “By celebrating our past, we get a better idea of who and what we are today. That is why it is so important.”

And in Saint John, N.B., tourists arrive by the busload each July for the town’s annual Loyalist Days festival. Said Peter Gillies, a seventh-generation Loyalist descendant and local resident: “The Loyalists were desperate people in desperate straits. They spent seven years fighting a war they lost, sometimes a very brutal war. Then they carved communities out of the woods. That is where my pride comes in: it is that they managed to do it.”

“Scum”: That sense of pride, some historians warn, should not overcome some essential truths about the Loyalist experience. Noted York University’s Bell: “There is an overwhelming temptation to make them all, because of their flight, into heroes. What we must also remember is that they were losers, and many of them had no choice.” And there is nothing to indicate that the Loyalists would have been any more compassionate in victory than the rebels. Stewart argues that the scorn and bitterness that the Loyalists felt for their conquerors was intense and characterized by a Loyalist correspondent of New York’s Rivington Gazette, who called the 60 new members of the first American Congress “the very scum of the people.” Stewart added that the depth of such angry feelings on both sides undoubtedly led to the later War of 1812 between the two countries.

It is impossible to speculate on how different Canada and the United States would be if there had not been a revolution, or if the Loyalists had been allowed to stay in the Thirteen Colonies. The only certainty is that the revolution ultimately decided the shape and character of both countries. Historian W.S. MacNutt declared, “Because they were Loyalists, we are Canadians.” For many Canadians, that is reason enough to look back and celebrate their roots._

Ken Cuthbertson

Stephen Kimber

Chris Wood

Saint John

Jane Mingay