LOYALISTS IN CANADA
By Guest Author Vicki Delany
History, they say, is written by the winner.
It’s also written differently depending on what side you happen to be on.
My newest book, More than Sorrow, is set in Prince Edward County, Ontario, where I live. I moved here four years ago and one of the first things I noticed was the sign as you approach the main town, Picton (pop 4,000) proclaiming “A Proud Loyalist Town”. Highway 33, which runs through the County along the north shore of Lake Ontario to Kingston, is named The Loyalist Highway, and signs depict a couple in period dress. What, thought I, is all this about? Then I began seeing flags – Union Jacks? Not quite. One of the stripes was missing.
In Canada we have a reputation of ignoring our history. I can’t really be counted among those, as I’ve always had a keen interest in history. I majored in Modern History at University. (Although my major was Modern European History.) I knew something, vaguely, about the Loyalists who settled Ontario, but obviously not enough.
So I set about learning.
As Americans you might have been brought up to think that all but a few scoundrels and traitors were keen on independence. Not so fast. Apparently something like 30% of the residents of the colony thought it a bad idea. Only a few years prior to 1776 almost no one in the colony, including those who became the leading “patriots”, was arguing for independence, but for a slightly fairer tax system. It can be argued, and often has, that the revolution could easily have been prevented if the British had merely bent a little rather than remaining stubbornly intransigent. See The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman. (Highly recommended - one of the books that has had the most influence on my political thought.)
Many Loyalists simply thought there was no reason to go to war over a tax dispute. Many agreed with aims of eventually achieving some degree of independence, but thought that Treason was not a good way to begin a county. Many were appalled at the actions of the mob – outright ‘confiscation of property’ aka theft, beating and killing supposed opponents – and thought no good could come of it. (In the famous quote attributed to Mather Byles, Boston Clergyman, “which is better – to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away, or by three thousand tyrants not a mile away?”) Many simply didn’t want to take sides, and found themselves being forced to when their homes were torched and their property taken.
When all the smoke had cleared, there were in excess of 60,000 people who chose to leave the new United States. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loyalist_(American_Revolution)#Emigration_from_the_U.S.)
They were refugees in every sense of the word. The British army and government remained loyal to those who’d been loyal to them, and provided transportation away from the States for anyone who wanted to leave. Many went back to England or Scotland, many to parts of North America that were not yet American, such as Florida, and many to the West Indies. When I was in Turks and Caicos in the winter, we visited the remains of a loyalist plantation. Slaves who had supported the British side were given their freedom and a spot on a ship out. Many of them settled in Nova Scotia, where their descendants live today, and some went back to Africa. (If you are interested in the Black Loyalist story, try the superb Book Of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. That’s the book’s Canadian name; it has something different in the U.S. [Someone Knows My Name -- BK] The Book of Negroes was the list the British kept in New York of blacks wanting to flee.)
People you might think had no love for the British remained loyal. I was surprised to learn what firm Loyalists many Scots were. One would assume that having fought so hard against the English in 1745 they would be on the anti-British side. Nope. A lot of Scots who’d come to America after the Battle of Culloden were Loyalists. One of Scotland’s greatest heroines, Flora McDonald, savior of Bonnie Prince Charlie after Culloden, moved to America, and became a staunch Loyalist. After the American Revolution she returned via Canada to Skye, where she remained until she died. According to a source I read, the Jacobites did not consider themselves to be ‘rebels’ in any way. They supported what they considered to be the true King of Scotland. Thus were not inclined to support rebellion in America.
A great many of these refugees came to Canada, over a thousand to what is now Prince Edward County.
What I hadn’t fully realized is that Ontario was almost totally unsettled at that time. Canada consisted of French Quebec and some settlements in Nova Scotia. A small township had been established in the Niagara area. And that was it. So when the new settlers came to this area there was nothing but wilderness. No roads, no towns. Nothing but dark, impenetrable forest.
|Molly Brant led Mohawk Loyalists|
Not even Native Canadians. There’s a big Mohawk Reserve near the County called Tyendenaga. It was settled by Loyalists also. The Indians fought on the side of the British in the Revolution (as they did in the War of 1812) and when their side lost, they lost their land and became refugees.
Many of these refugees were not farmers: they might be townspeople, shopkeepers, newspapermen, tradesmen, maybe soldiers. As is the case with refugees down through time, most of them lost everything except the clothes they stood in when they fled their homes. The British government gave them transportation, and some supplies with which to begin. Imagine facing the true North American Wilderness, with a handful of seeds, a hand-made axe, maybe an ox to share with your neighbours, and no farming experience. The first order of business would have been to chop down a patch of ancient forest, to clear land and get wood to start building. They lived in tents or rough shacks the first years. In Ontario – in winter!
When I decided I wanted to write another stand-alone suspense novel, I knew I wanted it to be a modern gothic, a book with strands of the past and hidden secrets affecting people today. I am interested in how war affects lives, particularly the non-combatants, and quickly came up with the idea of a war correspondent injured in Afghanistan and a young female Afghan refugee. Refugee? Where had I heard that before?
Thus, in telling the story of Maggie Macgregor, a Loyalist refugee, I hoped to draw parallels between the refugee experience of Canada’s original settlers with those arriving today. And hopefully I have also had something to say about universal truths, particularly of women caught up in a fight that is not their own.