Fighting for the Unity of Empire

Fighting for the Unity of Empire

For the past few weeks I have been writing about the digitised sources available for historians and genealogists (family historians) alike for finding out information about Canada’s Loyalist ancestors. I wanted to take a slightly different perspective on the blog today by looking at what it meant to be a Loyalist.

Who were the Loyalists?

United Empire Loyalists were men and women who were in the thirteen colonies in America and who opposed the American revolution. Estimates of their numbers vary, but there were perhaps around 50,000 Loyalists.

These were people who:

  • lived in the American colonies as of 19 April 1775 (the date of the Battles of Lexington and Concord) and either joined the Royal Standard before 1783’s Treaty of Separation (aka the Treaty of Paris) or demonstrated loyalty to the Crown, and settled in British-held territory, OR
  • were soldiers who had served in an American Loyalist Regiment and then relocated to Canada, OR
  • were members of the Six Nations of either the Grand River or the Bay of Quinte Reserve and were descended from those whose migration patterns were similar to the Loyalists’.

There were Loyalist regiments, Loyalist forts and garrisons, and Loyalist settlements. They were from diverse backgrounds and had different motivations for choosing to fight against the revolution. Some of their stories are captured in the records that I’ve been writing about; historians have been utlising these records and other information as they explore their experiences and attempt to explain these motivations. You can find a list of suggested readings at the end of this post.

Former soldiers and their families and descendants were granted land, particularly in Upper and Lower Canada, and thanks to the well-preserved, transcribed, digitised records found in the Haldimand Papers, the Land Petitions of Upper Canada and Lower Canada, and the records of the Heir and Divisee Commission, we can see who was given land, where, and why. This is fundamental to our understanding of how Upper Canada (now Ontario) in particular was settled by Europeans and their American descendants as well as displaced First Nations peoples in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.


James G. Chewett & Thomas Ridout, A Map of the Province of Upper Canada, 1826.

I think it can be tempting to try to whitewash the experiences of the war and the fact that thousands of men and women opposed the throwing off of British rule over the thirteen colonies. I’m a strong supporter of analysing the losing side of the battle or argument, particularly when it comes to arguments based on ideology, as a means of better understanding what the winning side was able to overcome and to challenge assumptions that a win was inevitable (this perspective is also pretty obvious in my book!). Loyalist history is the history of those who defended British rule in America and who believed in the need to maintain direct ties to the mother country; with the Commonwealth, we continue to see the legacies of these ties today.

Suggested Readings:

Jerry Bannister and Liam Riordan (eds), The Loyal Atlantic : Remaking the British Atlantic in the revolutionary era (University of Toronto Press, 2012).

Robert M. Calhoon, Timothy M. Barnes, and George A. Rawlyk (eds.), Loyalists and Community in North America (Greenwood Press, 1994).

Philip Gould, Writing the Rebellion: Loyalists and the Literature of Politics in British America (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Norman James Knowles, Inventing the Loyalists : the Ontario Loyalist tradition and the creation of usable pasts (University of Toronto Press, 1997).

Christopher Moore, The Loyalists : Revolution, exile, settlement (McClelland & Stewart, 1994).

Peter C. Newman, Hostages to Fortune: The United Empire Loyalists and the Making of Canada (Simon & Schuster, 2016).

Gavin K. Watt, The Burning of the Valleys : Daring raids from Canada against the New York frontier in the fall of 1780 (Dundurn Press, 1997).

Gavin K. Watt,  Loyalist refugees : Non-military refugees in Quebec 1776-1784, 2nd edition (Global Heritage Press [Canada], 2016).

A quick shout out and recommendation also goes to the work of Dr Tim Compeau, who’s a former classmate of mine and whose PhD thesis, ‘Dishonoured Americans: Loyalist Manhood and Political Death in Revolutionary America’ is available from Western University here. You can follow him on Twitter @TimCompeau and find a summary of his dissertation on the UELAC’s scholarship page.

7 thoughts on “Fighting for the Unity of Empire

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of November 13, 2016 | Unwritten Histories

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  3. Pingback: Loyalist Records Online: An Overview | Isles Abroad

  4. Pingback: Scots in Canada: The Gilchrist-Shearer Letters | Isles Abroad

  5. Pingback: Anguish in the Loyalist Archives, Part 2 | Borealia

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