Divided Loyalties- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
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Divided Loyalties

Descended from American Colonists who fled north rather than join the revolution, Canada's Tories still raise their tankards to King George

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Many in the Continental Congress defended the Test Acts, arguing that money from the sale of confiscated property could be used to buy Continental loan certificates—war bonds of the day. George Washington described fleeing Tories as “unhappy wretches” who “ought to have . . . long ago committed suicide.” When one of his generals tried to put a stop to physical violence directed against Loyalists, Washington wrote that “to discourage such proceedings was to injure the cause of Liberty in which they were engaged, and that nobody would attempt it but an enemy to his country.”  Anti-Tory sentiment was especially intense in Massachusetts. When 1,000 Loyalists fled Boston along with British general William Howe in March 1776, Colonists sang:

The Tories with their brats and wives
Should fly to save their wretched lives.

Though neither side was blameless when it came to gratuitous cruelty, probably no combatants suffered more than those in Loyalist regiments. British, Hessian and American officers all loosely adhered to an accepted code of conduct that held that soldiers were prisoners of war who could be exchanged or released on parole if they promised to refrain from further fighting. But Tories were viewed as traitors who, if caught, could be banished to the frontier, imprisoned indefinitely or executed. “In this war,” one Tory sympathizer would write, “only those who are loyal are treated as rebels.”

After the October 1780 battle at Kings Mountain, South Carolina, in which nearly 200 Tory militiamen died, victorious patriots lynched 18 Loyalists on the battlefield, then marched the remaining prisoners north. After a week on the road, the starving, ragtag procession had traveled only 40 miles. To speed up the pace, patriot officers summarily convicted 36 Tories of general mayhem and began stringing them up three at a time. After nine Tories were hanged from the limb of an oak tree, the killing was halted, to the distress of one colonial who remarked, “Would to God every tree in the wilderness bore such fruit as that.”

Curiously, Tories suffered even at the hands of British officers who, for the most part, dismissed them as ignorant provincials. The British especially distrusted Loyalist militia regiments, claiming that they were slow to follow orders and often went off on their own to seek revenge against those who had destroyed their property.

This contemptuous attitude may explain why Lord Cornwallis, when he surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, yielded to Washington’s demand that Tories be turned over to victorious Continental soldiers as prisoners of state, not war, thus allowing them to be executed as traitors. As the British sloop Bonetta set sail from Yorktown, hundreds of Tories frantically rowed after the departing ship. All but 14 were overtaken and brought back to shore.

Nearly two more years would pass before the Treaty of Paris was signed and the British departed from the United States. Much of the delay resulted from disagreements about what to do with the Tories. During treaty negotiations in France, British officials wanted all property and full legal rights returned to those who had been dispossessed. American negotiators adamantly refused. In the end, the treaty stipulated that Congress would “earnestly recommend” that “the legislatures of the respective states” curtail persecution and that Loyalists be given 12 months to reclaim their property. But Congress had no power to enforce the provisions, and Britain lacked the will to ensure compliance. As one cynical Loyalist wrote:

Tis an honor to serve the bravest of nations
And be left to be hanged in their capitulations.


By the spring of 1783, a massive refugee exodus was under way. At a time when the total population of America was about 2.5 million, an estimated 100,000 Tories, up to 2,000 Indians, most of them Iroquois, and perhaps 6,000 former slaves were forced to leave the country. The Iroquois crossed into Canada. Many slaves who had agreed to fight for Britain, in return for a promise of freedom, went to Nova Scotia; many of them later immigrated to Sierra Leone. Several thousand Tories moved to the Bahamas. Another 10,000 settled in Jamaica and the rest of the British West Indies. Florida, then a British possession, was swamped with new  arrivals, as was Ontario, then known as Upper Canada. But the largest number, perhaps as many as 40,000 in all, headed for the British colony of Nova Scotia.

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