Divided Loyalties

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

Britannia offers solace and a promise of compensation for her exiled American-born Loyalists
Britannia offers solace and a promise of compensation for her exiled American-born Loyalists Wikimedia Commons

The invitation arrived with a question: “Since we’ll be dining in the 18th century,” it read, “would you mind wearing a British Redcoat? Also, you’ll be expected to swear loyalty to King George. I hope this won’t be a problem.”

A week later, I found myself inside a drafty Gothic church in the center of Saint John, New Brunswick, surrounded by dozens of costumed historical reenactors, each channeling the personality of a long-dead Tory or Hessian. They had come from all over Maritime Canada—the Atlantic Seaboard provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island—to celebrate the 225th anniversary of DeLancey’s Brigade, one of 53 Loyalist regiments that fought alongside the British during America’s Revolutionary War. Up from Shelburne, Nova Scotia, came the Prince of Wales American Regiment. The Royal American Fencibles crossed the Bay of Fundy from Yarmouth. So did officers from the Kings Orange Rangers in Liverpool. Amid the rustle of women’s petticoats and the flash of regimental swords, they greeted a cast of characters straight out of Colonial America: a quietly earnest parson garbed in black, wearing the swallow-tailed collar of an Anglican cleric, and a buckskinned spy with the British Indian Department, who confided he was busy organizing Iroquois raids on the Continental Army.

Seated at a table groaning under the weight of 18th-century-style comestibles—a tureen of turnip soup made from a 1740 recipe; a bowl of heirloom apples not sold commercially in more than a century; and a marzipan dessert shaped to resemble a hedgehog—it was easy to slip into a parallel universe. At this regimental gathering, there was no discussion of the war on terrorism. Instead, we lamented General Burgoyne’s blunder at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 and congratulated ourselves on how well Loyalists were fighting in the Carolinas. “These clothes just feel right,” whispered military historian Terry Hawkins, a red-coated lieutenant colonel, amid a chorus of huzzahs offered to George III. “I belong in this scene.”

Unlike many Civil War aficionados, who even today bear the burden of the Confederacy’s lost cause, Canadian Tories are sanguine about the outcome of their war: the British defeat, to their way of thinking, ensured that they escaped the chaos of American democracy. “After Harold and I participated in a reenactment of the Battle of Bunker Hill, we took the kids out to Cape Cod for a swim,” remembers a smiling Wendy Steele, who wore a voluminous, hoop-skirt gown of the kind popular in the 1780s. “They paraded along the beach shouting, ‘George Washington is rebel scum.’ What a marvelous vacation it was!”

When the minstrels had finished singing “Old Soldiers of the King” and launched into “Roast Beef of Old England,” I returned the borrowed trappings of empire and strolled down Charlotte Street through the late summer twilight. Ahead lay the old Loyalist burial ground; the corner where Benedict Arnold once lived; and King’s Square, whose diagonal crosswalks are arrayed to resemble a Union Jack. To the right loomed TrinityChurch, spiritual successor of the Lower Manhattan structure abandoned by its Anglican congregation following Britain’s defeat in 1781.

Inside the silent church, gray stone walls covered with chiseled plaques commemorate those “who sacrificed at the call of duty their homes in the old colonies.” The plaques told a story of loss and removal. Somewhere inside the sacristy lay a silver communion chalice bestowed upon Saint John’s founders by George III. But high above the nave hung what is surely the church’s most highly valued treasure: a gilded coat of arms—the escutcheon of Britain’s Hanoverian dynasty—that once adorned the Council Chamber of the Old State House in Boston.

“We grew up with the knowledge that our ancestors were refugees who had been robbed and tortured because of their loyalty,” says Elizabeth Lowe, a fifth-generation descendant of Benedict Arnold’s cousin Oliver. “We may have learned to accept the Americans, but we will never forget our history.”

Schools teach American children that our revolutionary struggle was a popular uprising against heavy-handed taxes and self-serving imperialism. But the fight for independence was also a bloody civil war in which perhaps one out of five Americans preferred to remain a British subject. Massachusetts and Virginia undoubtedly were hotbeds of revolt, but New York, Georgia and the Carolinas contained sizable populations loyal to the Crown. “Rebels gained control of New England early in the war,” says historian John Shy, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan. “Americans who mistrusted New England never embraced the Revolution, and neither did Indians on the frontier who thought independence would lead to further encroachment on their land. The bloodiest fighting occurred in the Carolinas where the populations were equally divided.”

Divisions within Colonial society extended into even the founding fathers’ families. Benjamin Franklin’s son William defied his father and remained Royal Governor of New Jersey until his arrest in 1776. (After his release in 1778, William eventually fled to England; he and his father were forever estranged.) George Washington’s mother and several of his cousins, not to mention Virginia’s influential Fairfax family, were Tory. John Adams and John Hancock both had in-laws outspokenly loyal to King George. Several delegates to the Continental Congress were related by marriage to active Tories. “All families are liable to have degenerate members,” declared New Jersey delegate William Livingston upon the arrest of his nephew. “Among the twelve apostles, there was at least one traitor.”

To keep Tories (a derisive 17th-century term first applied by English Puritans to supporters of Charles II that came to define people who disagreed with the Revolution) in line once the Declaration of Independence was signed, most states enacted restrictive “Test Acts” that required their citizens to formally denounce the British Crown and swear allegiance to his or her resident state. Those who failed to take the oath were subject to imprisonment, double and triple taxation, confiscation of property and banishment. Neither could they collect debts, buy land or defend themselves in court. Connecticut made it illegal for these Loyalists to criticize Congress or the Connecticut General Assembly. South Carolina required supporters of the Crown to make reparations to victims of all robberies committed in their counties. Congress quarantined the entire population of Queens County, New York, for its reluctance to join patriot militias.

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.

Newly independent Americans scoffed at the notion that anyone would willingly live in “Nova Scarcity.” One Tory refugee described the colony as a land “covered with a cold, spongy moss, instead of grass,” adding that “the entire country is wrapt in the gloom of perpetual fog.”

But Nova Scotia was not without its virtues. Largely uninhabited, the colony, roughly comprising present-day New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, plus part of what is now Maine, was covered by virgin forest, a considerable resource given that all ships were constructed of timber. Just off the coast, the Grand Banks was the most fertile fishing ground in the world. But the most important advantage accrued from Britain’s Navigation Act, which required trade between its Atlantic dominions to be carried in British or colonial vessels. Let America look west to its new Mississippi frontier. Nova Scotia’s displaced merchants would soon monopolize commerce with the West Indies.

“It is, I think, the roughest land I ever saw,” wrote Stamford, Connecticut’s Sarah Frost upon arriving at the mouth of the St. John River early in the summer of 1783. “We are all ordered to land tomorrow, and not a shelter to go under.” Others viewed their exile in even bleaker terms. Noted one Loyalist: “I watched the sails disappearing in the distance, and such a feeling of loneliness came over me that although I had not shed a tear through all the war, I sat down on the damp moss with my baby on my lap, and cried bitterly.”

Despite the dislocation angst, Nova Scotia grew rapidly over a 12-month span. Within a few months, the port of Shelburne on Nova Scotia’s south coast had 8,000 residents, three newspapers and was well on its way to becoming the fourth-largest city in North America. After observing the diversity of talent in the region’s growing population, Edward Winslow, a Tory colonel from Massachusetts who later became a judge in New Brunswick, predicted, “By Heaven, we will be the envy of the American states.”

Some Loyalist leaders wanted to replicate 18th-century England, in which the rich lived off large estates with tenant farmers. “But most of the new arrivals were infected with America’s democratic ideals,” says Ronald Rees, author of Land of the Loyalists. “Nobody wanted to be a tenant farmer anymore. More than a few Tories condemned ‘this cursed republican town meeting spirit.’ ”

By the mid-19th century, Britain had begun eliminating trade protections for Maritime Canada, thereby putting these colonies at a disadvantage relative to its much more developed American states. “Britain’s embrace of free trade was the killer blow,” says Rees. “By 1870, steam had replaced sail, and all the best lumber had been cut. Once all the timber was gone, the Loyalists had nothing the British wanted.”

Inside new Brunswick’s provincial legislature, enormous portraits of George III, whose erratic behavior eventually gave way to insanity, and his wife, the self-effacing Queen Charlotte, dominate a chamber that replicates Britain’s House of Commons. And the image of a British galleon, similar to those that carried Loyalists from America, adorns the provincial flag. Beneath the ship floats New Brunswick’s resolute motto: Spem Reduxit (Hope Restored).

“There is no place on earth more loyal than here,” says historian Robert Dallison, as he ambles through Fredericton’s Old Public Burial Ground, past tombs whose weathered epitaphs relate a story of unvarying defiance and privation. Leaving the cemetery, Dallison drives down to the St. John River and turns onto Waterloo Row. On the left, a number of stately properties stand on land first developed by Benedict Arnold. On the right, down a gravel road past an overgrown softball field, several stones in a pool of mud mark the anonymous graves of starved Loyalists hastily buried during the harsh winter of 1783-84, a period Maritime history books call “the hungry year.”

Maritime Canada’s living monument to its Loyalist past lies just north of Fredericton at Kings Landing, a 300-acre historical settlement that comes alive each summer when 175 costumed employees work in and about 100 relocated homes, barns, shops and mills that once belonged to Loyalists and their descendants. At Kings Landing, it’s possible to sample a hearth-baked rhubarb tart, observe the making of lye soap and learn how to cure a variety of maladies from Valerie Marr, who in her role as a colonial healer, tends what appears to be a sprawling patch of weeds. “A Loyalist woman needed all these plants if she expected her family to survive,” Marr says. “Butterfly weed cures pleurisy. Tansy reduces arthritic pain if it’s mixed with a bit of vinegar.” Marr, who is 47, has worked at Kings Landing for 26 years. “I tell my friends that I’ve spent half my life in the 19th century,” she says with a laugh.

Kings Landing gardeners grow heirloom fruits, flowers and vegetables in demonstration plots and work with CornellUniversity to preserve a variety of apples no longer sold commercially. Various traditional species of livestock, including Cotswold sheep, are bred here as well. “Kings Landing is a living portrait of a society striving to regain what it lost in the American Revolution,” says chief curator Darrell Butler. “We’re re-creating history.”

No less a luminary than England’s Prince Charles attended the 1983 bicentennial celebration of the Penobscot Loyalists’ mass migration to Canada. “I was wearing my United Empire Loyalist pin when I met Charles,” sighs retired teacher Jeannie Stinson. “I told him that everybody in my family is a Loyalist. He smiled and told me that I didn’t look 200 years old.”

America’s Tories were among the British subjects who transformed Canada, which was largely French territory until 1763, into an English-speaking country. Today some 3.5 million Canadians—more than 10 percent of the country’s population—are direct descendants of Americans on the losing side of the Revolutionary War. But the world moves on. Memories fade, values morph, new people arrive. For more than two centuries, Saint John, New Brunswick, proclaimed itself the LoyalistCity, and schools were dismissed and merchants donned colonial garb when Saint John annually memorialized the arrival of Sarah Frost and her fellow Tories. Today, however, Saint John styles itself as “The Fundy City” and celebrates the ebb and flow of the Bay of Fundy’s tides, to the dismay of some.

“What exactly is a ‘FundyCity?’ ” grumps Eric Teed, an Anglophile barrister who is the former president of the New Brunswick chapter of United Empire Loyalists (UEL). “Saint John is the LoyalistCity, but now there’s all this cultural competition for heritage marketing.”

To keep their ancestors’ accomplishments from being forgotten, in 2001 the UEL published a curriculum aid for history teachers entitled The Loyalists: Pioneers and Settlers of the Maritimes. “We distributed it free of charge to all of the schools, but I don’t think it is being used,” says Frances Morrisey, a UEL descendant of one of New Brunswick’s founding fathers. “Loyalists gave Canada peace, order and good government, but now they’re being forgotten.”

Saint John’s mayor, Shirley McAlary, sees no cause for concern. “There are a lot of new people living here who have no connection to the UEL,” she says. “The Loyalist people are growing older and their children are leaving. Now it’s the Irish who are stronger and more united. It’s hard to keep history alive if it doesn’t change.”

In the nearby town of Liverpool, on Nova Scotia’s rocky Atlantic shore, history needs no re-creation. On the anniversary of George III’s birthday, John Leefe, whose Huguenot ancestors were forced to flee Mount Bethel, Pennsylvania, 220 years ago, bivouacs with the Kings Orange Rangers, a re-created regiment of 50 historical reenactors formally recognized by the British government. And each summer Leefe, who is mayor of the surrounding municipal region, presides over Privateer Days, a community gala celebrating Loyalist pirates who raided U.S. shipping following the Revolutionary War.

“My own family was living in America 100 years before the Revolution even began. Perhaps that is why I use every occasion to toast King George,” Leefe says with a smile. “Canada is a mosaic, not a melting pot, and that allows people to remember their family history,” he adds. “Loyalists still view the United States as a dysfunctional family we just had to leave.”

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