This Thursday the Nerds join History Camp Online to discuss our research findings on the loyalist experience during the Saratoga Campaign.
In anticipation of this event, here is an excerpt from Alexander Cain's 2019 book, I See Nothing But the Horrors of The Civil War. This particular segment examines the makeup of those loyalist refugees who fled the American Colonies and settled in Upper Canada.
It is commonly stated that history is written by the victor and the American Revolution is no exception. As a result of the rebel triumph at the conclusion of the War for Independence, those who remained faithful to the crown have often been depicted in a negative light. In countless historical works, legal documents and even in popular culture, loyalists were typically portrayed as corrupt, inept and greedy people whose blind devotion to the British crown led to their downfall. However, such a glaring and erroneous stereotype only trivialized the struggles that the American loyalist endured during the War for Independence.
By the conclusion of the American Revolution, between 80,000 and 100,000 loyalists had fled the American colonies. Almost half of them escaped to Canada. Of those, 45,000 refugees settled in the Canadian Maritime region. An additional 9,500 refugees fled to the Quebec Province. Of those, approximately 7,500 ultimately settled in Upper Canada. These men, women and children left behind more than their homes. They left behind their experiences, communities, friends and relatives, businesses and personal belongings.
Many colonists who ultimately became “Tories” were not distinguishable from their neighbors who embraced independence. Some loyalists were respected members of their towns and communities and included well-educated Harvard graduates who worked as merchants, doctors, lawyers, distillers or ministers. Individuals such as Sir John Johnson, Richard Saltonstall, Jonathan Sewell and Admiralty Judge Samuel Curwen, who would later enlist in the loyalist cause, were seen prior to the American Revolution as leading and influential members of their respective colonies. However, most colonists from New York and New England who remained faithful to the crown hailed from the middle and lower classes of the American colonies.
These loyalists enjoyed neither wealth nor privilege. Of the four hundred eighty-eight loyalists who eventually settled in the Ontario region of Upper Canada following the American Revolution and submitted claims to the British government for losses sustained during the war, only five held public office. Three of those were considered modest political posts. Only one claimant, a physician, would be considered a professional by modern standards. A small number owned shops, ran taverns or were considered artisans. Ninety percent of those loyalists who settled in the Ontario region simply identified themselves as farmers.
In 2016, historian Amber Jolly examined the court records of over eight hundred and fifty loyalist property seizure cases in New York following the passage of the Confiscation Act of 1783. According to her research, the overwhelming majority of loyalists who lost property in New York were from the laboring, agricultural and artisan classes. For example, court records assert that almost four hundred loyalists were listed as yeomen, two hundred were identified as farmers, and an additional sixty-four were simply listed as “laborers”. Nineteen men were listed as blacksmiths, seventeen as tailors, sixteen as carpenters and six as shoemakers.. Other loyalist occupations identified by Jolly included wheelwrights, saddlers, mariners, bakers, coopers, shipwrights and hatters. Four pieces of confiscated property were owned by single loyalist women, while an additional two were seized from widows. Only six percent were considered “professional” by modern standards.
The average loyalist farmer who ultimately took refuge in Upper Canada leased or owned less than two hundred acres of land prior to the American Revolution. Forty-two percent of the Ontario settlers admitted they had cleared less than ten acres of land prior to their flight. Fifty-four percent of the farmers hailed from Tyron County, New York. An additional twenty-five percent had ties to Albany County. Fourteen percent claimed Charlotte County as their prior residence.
Over half of the refugees who settled in Upper Canada were foreign-born. Over fifty percent of Ontario loyalists were Scot Highland Roman Catholics. Second in number were German and Irish immigrants. An additional eight percent claimed England as their place of birth. At the start of the American Revolution, many loyalist Scot immigrants had only resided in the American colonies for four years. English immigrants had resided in America on average for eight years. By comparison, many Irish and German immigrants had lived in the colonies between eleven and eighteen years.
Joining these loyalists were African-American loyalists. Almost ten percent of loyalists who fled to Canada were of African-American descent. Whether slave or freeman, many African-Americans cast their lot with the crown in an attempt to secure a better life for themselves and their families. Likewise, many Native American allies of the crown also retreated to Canada after the war. Over two thousand Iroquois from the Six Nations, Mohicans, Nanticokes and Squakis had settled in the Ontario region by 1785.
Regardless of their economic or social background, native-born whites, immigrants, slaves, freemen and Native Americans banded together in support of King George and the British government. Despite the lack of supplies, political support or financial backing, the campaign to defend the British crown was enthusiastically and admirably waged by loyalists from the print of local newspapers to the siege lines of Yorktown. Granted, their defense of British policy often fell on deaf ears and their military endeavors were often insufficient to turn the tide of war. However, the willingness of American loyalists to undertake such endeavors is noteworthy.