Be sure to check out Historical Nerdery next week as we review the blogs and websites you absolutely need to visit and discuss the panic that consumed Boston residents in the hours and days after the Battles of Lexington and Concord!
Today we conclude with our discussion on the experience of female Loyalists during the American Revolution and will focus on the flight to Canada. As violence, imprisonment and looting continued to mount, many loyalist women in the new York and New England regions recognized their situation was becoming desperate. In a letter to her husband John, Mary Munro described just how dangerous her situation was. “For heavens sake, my dear Mr. Munro, send me some relief by the first safe hand. Is there no possibility of your sending for us? If there is no method fallen upon we shall perish, for you can have no idea of our sufferings here; Let me once more intreat you to try every method to save your family; my heart is so full it is ready to break; adieu my Dearest John, may God Almighty bless pre serve and protect you, that we may live to see each other is the constant prayer of your affectionate tho' afflicted wife ... P.S. The Childer's kind love to you.”
With the threat of financial and physical ruin, many loyalist women petitioned local patriot authorities regarding their dire situation. Ultimately, many loyalist women concluded they and their families would be safer by withdrawing to British held territory north in Canada or south in New York City. In a second letter, Mary confirmed this conclusion when she declared “My dear John I hope when you receive these few lines they may find you in good health. Your Dear Children are all well. As for myself, I am in a poor state of health and very much distresst. I must leave my house in a very short time and God knows where I shall get a place to put my head in, for my own relations are my greatest enemies, the mills they have had a long time in their possession - likewise all their tenants' houses and lands. They have distresst me beyond expression. I have scarcely a mouthful of bread for myself or children.”
Despite popular misconception, loyalist women and their families generally did not gather their belongings and flee into the night. Instead, many appeared before local Committee of Safety and other similar organizations and requested permission to leave the community to join their husbands. At first, many committees were reluctant to release loyalist families as they served a useful purpose as hostages. From the patriot perspective, the continued presence of loyalist families under their careful guard could deter future attacks, stem the flow of potential young male recruits into Canada and encourage the release of American prisoners held by British authorities. However, following Burgoyne’s invasion of 1777, many local committees recognized that hostages would not prevent British raids and agreed to release women and their families.
Officials carefully scrutinized petitions of loyalist women and set forth the terms of their departure. Often the decision to allow women to leave was prompted by concern about the financial cost involved in permitting them to stay. As the Albany County Commissioners for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies declared in 1778, “it having appeared to us that those Women are become chargeable to the Districts in which they severally reside and that they together with their Families are subsisted at public Expence.” Thus, patriot officials did not want communities to take on the burden of caring for indigent loyalist families and were frequently quite willing to grant permission to such families to leave.
Likewise, as the war progressed, many states passed laws ordering the expulsion of loyalist families from their territories. As Burgoyne advanced south into New York, the Vermont Council of Safety became alarmed at the military roles loyalist women were assuming. In response, it declared “all such persons as have joined or may hereafter join the British Troops (& left or may hereafter leave) their wives and families within this State, Have their wives and families sent to General John Burgoins [sic] Head Quarters, or some other Branch of the Ministerial Army, as soon as may be.” The Albany County Commissioners wrote to the governor of New York in July 1780 asking that “Women whose Husbands are with the Enemy may be sent to the Enemies Lines” and again, in September 1779, requesting the removal of a Mrs Tuttle whose husband, Stephen, "has gone off to the Enemy some time ago.”
Once it was decided that the women were to be expelled or permitted to leave, the terms for their departure were also outlined. In 1780 in New York, all women whose husbands were with the enemy were ordered to leave the colony for British bases within twenty days. Patriot committees drew up lists of the women to be removed and officials were designated to inform the women of their fate and of the consequences of ignoring the order.Women were also subject to severe restrictions on what they were allowed to take when they departed from their community. In Vermont, Mrs Jeremiah French was escorted to the east side of Lake Champlain following her expulsion from the state. The notice ordering her removal specified that she could take with her only “two feather beds and bed ding not exceeding Eight Sheets, six Coverlids or blankets, 5 plates, two platters, two basons, one Quart Cup, & knives & forks if she has such things, her own & her childrens Wearing apparril . . . [the rest of the] . . . moveables belonging to sd. Estate . . . [were to be sold to] Defray the charge of Transportation.” Loyalist Alida Van Alstine was only permitted to take with her when she fled for New York City “bedding, 2 Chests, i Trunk, 2 bbls. flour, wearing apparel and some household furniture.”
When loyalists left their communities and traveled north to Canada, they usually followed one of two routes. Loyalists from New York typically followed an overland route through Native American territory to Lake Ontario. Because much of the travel was along forest trails, Indian guides were essential.34 Unfortunately for many refugees, the route included passage through territory held by American allies the Oneidas. Likewise, refugees had to avoid Continental and militia detachments that actively patrolled the region. Once clear of enemy territory, refugees crossed Lake Ontario at Oswego or followed the southern shore of the lake to the Niagara River. The trip along the Niagara was often difficult, especially in time of spring floods.
Those refugees from the Hampshire Grants usually followed a combined land and water route along Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River to Montreal. The roads followed were often muddy and in poor condition. Refugees could only use pack horses, ponies, or hand and horse carts for their belongings and provisions. Securing water transportation was critical to the flight northWhile travelling on water, refugees were often forced to seek shelter on insect infested or low lying islands in the middle of Lake Champlain. Because of the difficulties of this combined land water passage, loyalists were forced to travel in groups whose members could share the burden of carrying boats and provisions.
Some loyalists might be lucky enough to make the trip in thirteen days, but most took much longer. An expedition of women and children that had to move slowly, was not lucky enough to make good connections with boats, and experienced bad weather could take from two to three months to reach the Quebec Province. The delay in travel, combined with the rugged country took its toll on the clothing of loyalist women and children. Likewise, it was not uncommon for refugees to exhaust their supplies and be forced to survive on nuts, roots and leaves.
The experience of loyalist Mary Munro highlights the hardships loyalist women encountered during the Revolutionary War. Mary Munro had been forced to flee from her home in Shaftsbury to Canada following the defeat of Burgoyne. As they traveled towards Lake George to join others en route to Canada, they lightened their load by discarding food and “most of their wearing Apparel. . . After much difficulty, [they] arrived at Lake George and . . .lay in the woods Six days almost perished with Cold and Hunger . . . until three other families arrived. . . [afterwards they] prevailed on the commanding officer at Fort Edward to give them a boat and a flag, they set off across Lake George.” Unfortunately for Mary, they were “discovered by a party of Indians from Canada - which pursued them. . . as a result of the excessive hardships they underwent,” Mary and her children were “very sickly the whole Winter” after arriving in Canada. The toll the journey took on Mary was sadly announced by her husband when he declared "the children recovered [from their illnesses] but Mrs. Munro never will.”