Loyalists were American colonists, of different ethnic backgrounds, who supported the British cause during the American Revolution (1775–83). Tens of thousands of Loyalists migrated to British North America during and after the revolutionary war — boosting the population and heavily influencing the politics and culture of what would become Canada.
What did the Loyalists Believe?
As American rebels fought for independence from Britain, Loyalists supported the “mother country” for different reasons. Many felt a personal loyalty to the Crown, or were afraid that revolution would bring chaos to America. Many agreed with the rebels’ view that America had suffered wrongs at the hands of Britain but believed the solution could be worked out within the British Empire.
Others saw themselves as weak or threatened within American society and in need of an outside defender. These included linguistic and religious minorities, recent immigrants not fully integrated into American society, as well as Black and Indigenous people. Others were simply attracted by free land and provisions.
Sympathy for the Crown was a dangerous sentiment; those who defied the revolutionary forces could find themselves without civil rights, subject to mob violence, or put to prison. Loyalist property was vandalized and often confiscated.
During the Revolution more than 19,000 Loyalists served Britain in specially created provincial militia corps, accompanied by several thousand Indigenous allies. Others spent the war in such strongholds as New York City and Boston, or in refugee camps such as those at Sorel and Machiche, Quebec. Between 80,000 and 100,000 eventually fled, about half of them to Canada.
Who Were the Loyalists in Canada?
Britain used a fairly precise definition to determine who was a Loyalist and eligible for compensation for war losses. Loyalists were those born or living in the American colonies at the outbreak of the Revolution who rendered substantial service to the royal cause during the war, and who left the United States by the end of the war or soon after.
Those who left substantially later — mainly to gain land or to escape growing racial intolerance — are often called “late” Loyalists.
Most Loyalists were neither rich nor particularly high in social rank; most were farmers, labourers, tradespeople and their families. They were of varied cultural backgrounds, and many were recent immigrants. White Loyalists brought large numbers of people they enslaved with them. Until 1834, enslavement was legal in all British North American colonies but Upper Canada (Ontario), where the institution was being phased out (see Chloe Cooley and the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada).
DID YOU KNOW?
To encourage White Loyalists to immigrate north, the government passed the Imperial Statute of 1790, which allowed United Empire Loyalists to bring in “negros [sic], household furniture, utensils of husbandry, or cloathing [sic]” duty-free. By law, such chattel could not be sold for one year after entering the colonies (see Black Enslavement in Canada).
In 1789, Lord Dorchester (see Guy Carleton), governor-in-chief of British North America, proclaimed that the Loyalists and their children should be allowed to add the letters “UE” to their names, “alluding to their great principle, the Unity of Empire.” As a result, the phrase “United Empire Loyalist,” or UEL, was applied to Loyalists who migrated to Upper and Lower Canada (Quebec). The term was not officially recognized in the Maritimes until the 20th century ( see also United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Canada).
About 3,500 Black Loyalists, both free and enslaved men, women and children, arrived in the Maritimes. Many were drawn by the promise of 100 acres for each head of household and an additional 50 acres for each family member, plus provisions. Black Loyalists moved to settlements near Shelburne, Digby, Chedabucto (Guysborough) and Halifax. Some such as Richard Pierpoint — a formerly enslaved man — had gained their freedom by fighting under the British Crown during the American Revolution. However, most were enslaved and therefore brought to the British territories as spoils of war or as the property of Loyalists. By the 1790s, the number of enslaved Black people in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island ranged from 1,200 to 2,000 (seeArrival of Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia).
DID YOU KNOW?
Lawrence Hill’s third novel, The Book of Negroes, is a work of historical fiction that is inspired by the document called the “Book of Negroes,” a list of Black Loyalists who fled New York for Canada in 1783, during the American Revolutionary War.
Settlement of Loyalists in Canada
The main waves of Loyalists came to what is now Canada in 1783 and 1784. The territory that became the Maritime provinces became home to more than 30,000. Most of coastal Nova Scotia received Loyalist settlers, as did Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island (then called St. John’s Island). The two principal settlements were in the Saint John River valley in what is now New Brunswick, and temporarily at Shelburne, Nova Scotia. The Loyalists swamped the existing population in the Maritimes, and in 1784 the colonies of New Brunswick and Cape Breton were created to deal with the influx.
Of about 2,000 Loyalists moved to present-day Quebec, some settled in the Gaspé, on Chaleur Bay, and others in Sorel, at the mouth of the Richelieu River. About 7,500 moved into what would become Ontario, most settling along the St. Lawrence River to the Bay of Quinte. There were also substantial settlements in the Niagara Peninsula and on the Detroit River, with subsidiary and later settlements along the Thames River and at Long Point. The Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy from Upper New York State received a land grant along the Grand River in recognition of their loyalty to Britain. The town of Brantford stands near the river crossing named after their famous leader Joseph Brant (Ahyonwaeghs).
The Loyalist influx gave the region its first substantial population and led to the creation of a separate province, Upper Canada, in 1791. Loyalists were instrumental in establishing educational, religious, social and governmental institutions.
DID YOU KNOW?
The English spoken today by most Canadians is similar to General American English. Many linguists attribute this to the influence of the Loyalists, who helped establish Canada’s English-speaking population and thereby created a common origin with American English (see Canadian English).
Though greatly outnumbered by later immigrants, Loyalists and their descendants, such as Egerton Ryerson, exerted a strong and lasting influence. Modern Canada has inherited much from the Loyalists, including a certain conservatism, a preference for “evolution” rather than “revolution” in matters of government, and tendencies towards a pluralistic and multicultural society.