24 November 2011

Loyalists: A Mark of Honour

The biggest migration in North American history took place in 1783-1784 at the end of the War usually called the American Revolution by Canadians and the War of Independence by Americans. Historians will confound you with the variation in numbers of Loyalists (really, who could count them?!) who left the new republic. Some estimates have been up to 50,000. Let’s say dozens of thousands. Reimbursement by the states for confiscated properties was never considered.

The British government was financially constrained due to the war effort and could offer only limited compensation to the Loyalists who lost their homes, their assets, and too often the family breadwinner. Giving them land in the wilderness areas (“waste lands of the crown”) was the most adequate and useful resource at their disposal—along with token subsistence items. Useful, because it was also the answer to populating its colonial borders for future defence against the reconstituted, potentially aggressive neighbour.

In Quebec, where the French seigniorial land system continued, placement had to be found for 25,000? 35,000? Loyalist refugees camped near border forts—and they wanted freehold land tenure. Westward along the Great Lakes system was an obvious choice (although not the only one). Settlements were already in evidence at Detroit, Niagara, and Cataraqui (Kingston). The refugees were given some rations and tickets for land allotment. Some disbanded soldiers from the regular army units joined them. Before long, their numbers were swelling with “ordinary” arrivals, drawn by the sweet lure of free land.

A comprehensive land granting system for all comers did not miraculously spring into being, fully formed. It took time for rules, regulations, and procedure to develop. By 1789 the overburdened land committee of the Executive Council of Quebec had seen to establishing district land boards in what would become Upper Canada; they were to function as local gateways for all newcomers looking to acquire land.

Baron Dorchester, Commander-in-Chief of British North America and the King’s representative, in 1789 proposed privilege for the Loyalists, to distinguish them from other incomers to his territory. “ ... it was his wish to put a Mark of Honour upon the families who had adhered to the Unity of the Empire, and joined the Royal Standard in America before the Treaty of Separation in 1783.”[1]

The man who made that declaration was none other than Sir Guy Carleton, newly elevated to the peerage, among former duties the administrator of Loyalist New York City and manager of its heroic evacuation. The Executive Council agreed, and a resolution was ordered:
“That the several Land Boards take Course for preserving a Registry of the Names of all Persons falling under the description aforementioned to the End that their Posterity may be discriminated from future settlers, in the Parish Registers and Rolls of the Militia of their respective Districts, and other Public Remembrances of the Province, as proper Objects, by their persevering in the Fidelity and Conduct so honourable to their ancestors, for distinguished benefits and privileges.”[2]
 Distinguish and discriminate. Dorchester was furthermore quite specific about privilege on the forms to be printed for the militia rolls:
“N.B. Those Loyalists who have adhered to the unity of the empire, and joined the Royal Standard (in America) before the Treaty of Separation in the year 1783, and all their children and their descendants by either sex, are to be distinguished by the following Capitals affixed to their names: U.E., alluding to their great principle, the Unity of the Empire.”[3]
Technically, Dorchester’s territory included all the northern colonies but Upper Canada more than others would embrace the U.E. appellation as an expedient element in its land granting system. In the genealogical sense, the system was not perfect at recording those deserving of privilege. Official process was fraught at times with ambiguities and antinomy, as we shall see.

It would be a few more years before attempts to compile “a Registry” were evident. Dorchester left the country permanently in 1796 but his resolution was honoured.

In Upper Canada, Loyalists were allotted their land free of all surveying and administrative fees. Initially, refugee families were awarded a predetermined amount of land; service in a Loyalist (militia) corps raised the amount, depending on rank. Plus: children of Loyalists, both male and female, would receive 200 acres of crown land on coming of age.

Loyalist privilege in Upper Canada was so attractive that some land-hungry latecomers and ordinary settlers would claim the qualifications (and more on that to come). All the more reason for government officials to distinguish the type of grant they were allowing.

Discrimination is not necessarily a bad word.

© Brenda Dougall Merriman, 2011

Please note: In my text I am not quoting the entire passages of these citations; additional bits will get attention in future posts.
[1] Library and Archives Canada (LAC), RG1, E1, State Minute Book, Vol. 18, p. 110, 9 November 1789; LAC microfilm C-100. 
[2] Ibid.
[3] British Colonial Office 42, Vol. 67, pp. 367-373, Dispatch no. 25, 27 May 1790; LAC microfilm B-47.

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