23 October 2011

Loyalists: "O Give Me Land, Lotsa Land ..."

Recently I was appalled to see a statement that a Loyalist had to prove British birth for entitlement to free land in Canada.
... a sentence of mine made last time about an online website. I hasten to add the correction has been acknowledged. What I did not address was two additional elements of that statement: “free land” and “in Canada.”

Getting a handle on geography and political administration is always a first challenge for family historians who encounter unfamiliar territory. A bit nitpicky perhaps, but to say in the above context, free land in Canada, ignores contemporary reality. One might say “Canada” did not exist when Loyalists were arriving in the 1780s. Britain had several colonies north of the newly minted American republic.

Canada was not a country, a political entity per se as we now know it, until 1867. So one might have referred to free land in Quebec, or Nova Scotia, or St. John’s Island, or merely used the term British North American colonies.

After the American Revolution, free land was widely available for a long time in most British North American colonies. Admittedly, I am most familiar with developments in one specific colony: Upper Canada. The new colony, or province (“up” the St Lawrence River and Great Lakes system from its French origins) was created in 1791 from the vast post-Conquest Quebec colony . Upper Canada was re-named Canada West in 1840/41 and again, the province of Ontario in 1867. Similar name changes applied at the same time to Lower Canada > Canada East > province of Quebec.

You can find references to “western Quebec” before 1791 which refer to the wilderness area (“waste lands of the Crown”) west of the Ottawa River. Gratuitous aside: That river was once called the “Grand”—a name apparently applied at one time or another to all impressive rivers by officials singularly bereft of imagination.

Free land was dispensed about as fast as surveyors could work. You did not have to be a Loyalist to obtain a free grant of land in Upper Canada. Every petitioner who presented himself as respectable and willing to make a home was eligible. In fact, with the advent of Governor John Graves Simcoe in 1792, Upper Canada welcomed, and indeed sought, Americans to come—populating the wilderness was a priority. The dispensing of free land continued until 1827.

Now, there’s a little twist to this free land policy. Someone had to pay the surveyors for their work, and the officials for processing the applications, and all the other paperwork. So free land actually came with administrative fees, to be paid before title was finalized. Loyalists were given a “break” in this regard. In the next post on this subject I will discuss Loyalist privilege

© Brenda Dougall Merriman, 2011
author of United Empire Loyalists: A Guide to Tracing Loyalist Ancestors in Upper Canada (see

18 October 2011

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday

Photograph BDM October 2011
Eye-catching neon bicycles appeared throughout downtown Toronto this summer, fastened to various fixtures. It seems every city has its cache of broken and abandoned bikes. Spontaneous street art became the city-approved “The Good Bike Project” ... not without a few bureaucratic tussles. It's a mystery why the occasional vandal damages something that brings a smile to most people.

10 October 2011

Loyalists: Call the Cops

I have a beef, soon to become clear. As this post developed, I thought how much can I condense here and be lucid without tying myself in knots? Thankfully for all of us, I found my way to posing my concern du jour without writing another book on the topic.[1]

The word Loyalist, in Canada’s historical context, refers to United Empire Loyalists. Is there any other such group about which the general public is more confused, if not outright apathetic? Not only that, some of the membership, or would-be membership, in the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Canada (UELAC) are also guilty of misperceptions. The UELAC does its share of educational outreach but clearly there’s room for more.   

United Empire Loyalists were the founders of the provinces of Upper Canada (Ontario) and New Brunswick. Beyond that, their courage and diligence in great adversity were the strong fibre of a renewed British North America. Remember? ... They were the “losers” in the American Revolution (1776-1783), the defeated American colonists, the “migrants” some would call them, the evacuees, who started their lives again from scratch and succeeded.

Enough waving the flag.

So what’s my beef? Well, the UELAC is a hereditary society and so it involves genealogy. Just like the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) and the Mayflower Society, if those names are more familiar to you. Genealogists both within and without the society who assist applicants and/or offer services to the public are behoved to understand the contemporary circumstances AND the society’s requirements for (full) membership.
Recently I was appalled to see a statement that a Loyalist had to prove British birth for entitlement to free land in Canada. What is wrong with that egregious statement?

It’s long been known to historians and family historians and others who care (i.e. who read on the topic) that Loyalists came from very diversified backgrounds. All of them had spent time in an American colony before 1776. Some were born in Great Britain. Some were born in Ireland (not deemed as "British"). Many were born in America: generations-old families of New Englanders and colonies further south, descendants of Palatine origin, and old Dutch stock. Some were Québecois. Some were Iroquois Confederacy Indians and even some were slaves of African descent. British birth? Dickswigger me. 

The well-intentioned individual was not familiar with very basic Loyalist research. The concern—of course—is that internet surfers with a new interest in family history will swallow such tripe. And probably pass it on to other naïfs. Credit where credit is due: the gaffe is being corrected.

This is but one example of misleading information and statements of dubious worth—an endemic genealogical hazard on the internet. Offering oneself as a family history guru on many resources and countries is a risky business without earned peer recognition. I don’t like to see the efforts of professional educators being undermined but Genealogy Policeman is not a job to which I aspire ... do we need some??   

Some readers will be astute enough to notice I addressed merely one element of the offending statement.  The bits about “free land” and “in Canada” would have generated much more blogging than you want to read at one go. If this post raises questions about Loyalists among enquiring minds, I could be persuaded to add more commentary. I’m willing to share because I do know a fair amount about this particular subject and earned some recognition for it. I am also on record that I always have more to learn. 

[1] Brenda Dougall Merriman, United Empire Loyalists: Tracing Loyalist Ancestors in Upper Canada (Campbellville, ON: Global Heritage Press, 2006).
Winner of the National Genealogical Society’s 2008 Award for Excellence: Genealogical Methods and Sources.

© Brenda Dougall Merriman, 2011