I recently wrote about some of the great online resources now available for conducting research into Loyalist history and experiences in early Canada, and alongside this I reflected upon some of the struggles that go along with trying to search through and utilise these great records. As databases that are very much the straight-forward digitisation of microfilm reels made in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, rather than having been created as an online resource, they are not user-friendly. They are simply organised by microfilm reel. Their related search engines have limited scope (usually just name and location) and give detailed information on where to find associated records in the microfilm, but no links to the digitised version of the source. At times it can be difficult to simply find the online database itself!
In my experience, searching for Loyalist records online involves a lot of jumping around from website to website, trying to find the search page and the actual digitised resources, translating the microfilm details from your search into something that’s meaningful for the online, digitised ‘reels’, jumping from image to image within the designated reel to find the correct volume and then the correct page, and then, if the quality of the decades-old microfilmed image was good and the digitised image of the microfilm sufficient, working your way through the text.
It seems to me that a lot of this confusion could be cleared up by a simple reorganisation of the digitised files. Instead of listing them by microfilm reel (each of which could hold several volumes and over a thousand images), they should really be separated out into volumes and listed on their website by volume. This list of the volumes could then be cross-referenced to the ‘original’ microfilm reel number for researchers who already have that information. The actual documents themselves, at least in the case of the Haldimand Papers and the Land Petitions, were clearly organised into separate volumes when they were rewritten by hand for preservation. These volumes have title pages and tables of contents or indexes to help researchers. The microfilm reels ignore these tools because of their format, but there’s no reason to reproduce the format of a microfilm reel online. But I digress.
At least three of my male ancestors were Loyalists who fought for the British in the Revolutionary War and later settled in Canada with their families. I’ve mentioned before that I have found one of my 6x great-grandfathers, Jacob Anguish, in Héritage‘s digitised reels of the formerly microfilmed Haldimand Papers. Jacob and his family had been living in Pennsylvania and joined Butler’s Rangers, a Loyalist Regiment, in 1777. He was captured following the Battle of Oriskany and imprisoned in Hartford, where he suffered irreparable damage to his health. Members of his family can also be found in various Loyalist-related records from Upper Canada, and his son Henry’s descendants are found in the Canadian County Atlases. A number of Loyalists from Butler’s Rangers ultimately settled in the Niagara region, as Earnest Alexander Cruikshank’s The Story of Butler’s Rangers and the Settlement of Niagara (1893) recalls.
I thought that I would reproduce some of his testimony here to demonstrate how valuable these papers can be.
To Lieut. Col. De Peyster Commanding Niagara, etc., etc.,
The Petition of Jacob Anguish, Late a Ranger in Lieut. Col. Butler’s Corps., Most Humbly Sheweth,
That Your Petitioner in the year 1777 quitted his habitation near the Susquehanna, and joined Lieut. Col. Butler, under whose command he went on the Expedition against Fort Stanwix, and was present at the Battle of Orisca.
That when the army retreated, he obtained permission from Lieut. Col. St. Ledger to return home in order to bring off his family; but having the misfortune to be taken Prisoner on his journey, he was put into a Dungeon in Hartford where he was detained nine months.
The letter goes on to detail how, after being released due to ill health, Jacob manages to return home, only to find that his family is missing. He returns to Butler’s Rangers, but the damage done to his foot and leg from lying on the frozen ground of the dungeon ultimately means that he must lose his leg at the Garrison Hospital in Niagara, is still unwell, and can no longer support his found family. Therefore, this letter was created as the result of his request for financial aid, not necessarily for himself (it’s noted that he’s now 59 and may not live long due to his ill health), but for his wife and family:
That your petitioner humbly hopes, that in case he should not recover from the operation, His Excellency will nevertheless extend his Bounty towards his helpless widow now between fifty and sixty years of age.
The letter is signed with Jacob’s mark, an ‘X’. This indicates that Jacob is illiterate and has dictated the story to an agent. Jacob’s statement regarding his health and fitness is corroborated by John Butler in a short statement following the petition, dated 4 August 1784, at Niagara.
As you can see from just one letter, the Haldimand Papers give insight into the experiences of normal soldiers and immigrants who found themselves on the losing side of a war that resulted in them never being able to return ‘home’. They add names to the battles, information about background and details of locations, and even insights into the history of medicine and prison conditions. They have preserved the stories of men and women who could not write their own story, albeit in a formalised style and interpreted by someone else. For example, additional research has shown that Jacob’s last name was probably Enckisch; he has been identified as a German immigrant who arrived in Philadelphia on 9 September 1751 on the ship, The Patience, so his name here has been anglicised.
You can find the full text of Jacob’s petition in the Haldimand Papers amongst Héritage’s digitised collections. Next week, I’ll provide an overview of some of the digitised record collections and search engines to pull all of these resources together.