Loyalists in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Loyalists in Canada

Loyalists were American colonists, of different ethnic backgrounds, who supported the British cause during the American Revolutionary War (1775–83). Tens of thousands of Loyalists migrated to British North America during and after the war. This boosted the population, led to the creation of Upper Canada and New Brunswick, and heavily influenced the politics and culture of what would become Canada.

(This is the full-length entry about Loyalists in Canada. For a plain-language summary, please see Loyalists in Canada (Plain-Language Summary).)

Loyalists at the Site of Kingston
One wave of Loyalists came up the St Lawrence River in 1783 to Lake Ontario, where their encampment grew into the town of Kingston. Drawing by James Peachey.

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 they 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 a 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 the offer of free land and provisions in British North America.

Sympathy for the Crown was a dangerous sentiment. Those who defied the revolutionary forces could find themselves without civil rights. They were often subjected to mob violence or put in prison. Loyalist property was vandalized and often confiscated.

During the Revolution, more than 19,000 Loyalists served Britain in specially created provincial militia corps, such as the King’s Royal Regiment of New York and Butler’s Rangers. They were accompanied by several thousand Indigenous allies. (See also: Indigenous-British Relations Pre-Confederation.) Others spent the war in such strongholds as New York City and Boston, or in refugee camps such as those in Sorel and Machiche, Quebec. Between 80,000 and 100,000 eventually fled, about half of them to Canada.

Loyalist Women

Whether or not women personally supported the British Crown, they were persecuted for family connections to Loyalists. Women had few legal or political rights during this period. Under the system of coverture, a woman did not have a separate legal existence after marriage. Her rights were subsumed by (or incorporated into) her husband’s. Married women could not vote or own property on their own. If a man supported the British, his wife and children were tainted by association.

Yet women often played an important role in a family’s decision to become Loyalist. Some actively supported the Crown, collecting information for the British, helping Loyalist soldiers, and hiding money and important papers from local authorities. When husbands left to join Loyalist military units or to escape capture by American “Patriots,” their wives often remained to run family farms and businesses.

However, Loyalist women were vulnerable. As a political minority, they had little support or protection. Property could be confiscated because Loyalists were considered traitors. Many women left their communities and property and travelled to refugee camps and military forts to join their husbands. Others fled to New York and other cities controlled by the British or to Canada.

Did you know?
Loyalist poet and educator Deborah How Cottnam lived through the War of the Austrian Succession (known as King George’s War in North America), the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution. Following the Revolution, she established schools for young women in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Saint John, New Brunswick.

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 Thirteen American Colonies at the outbreak of the Revolution. They rendered substantial service to the royal cause during the war and 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. Many were recent immigrants. White Loyalists also brought large numbers of people they enslaved with them. Until 1834, enslavement was legal in all British North American colonies but Upper Canada, where the institution was being phased out. (See also: Black Enslavement in Canada; Chloe Cooley and the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada.)

To encourage White Loyalists to immigrate to British North America, the British government passed the Imperial Statute of 1790. This allowed United Empire Loyalists to bring in “negros [sic], household furniture, utensils of husbandry, or cloathing [sic]” duty-free. By law, they could not be sold for one year after entering the colonies.

Free Blacks and escaped slaves who had fought in the Loyalist corps, as well as about 2,000 Indigenous allies (mainly Haudenosaunee from New York State) also settled in Canada. In 1789, Lord Dorchester, 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. The term was not officially recognized in the Maritimes until the 20th century. (See also: United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Canada.)

Black Loyalists

About 3,500 Black Loyalists, both free and enslaved men, women and children, arrived in the Maritimes. (See also: Arrival of Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia.) 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. They were 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.

Lawrence Hill’s third novel, The Book of Negroes, is a work of historical fiction. It was inspired by the document called the “Book of Negroes." It was a list of Black Loyalists who fled New York for Canada in 1783, following 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 Loyalists. 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. In 1784, the colonies of New Brunswick and Cape Breton were created to deal with the influx.

About 2,000 Loyalists moved to Lower Canada (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 the territory that is now part of present-day Ontario. Most settled 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 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. This was in recognition of their loyalty to Britain. The town of Brantford stands near the river crossing named after their famous leader, Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea).

Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea)
Painting by William Berczy, circa 1807, oil on canvas.

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.

The English spoken today by most Canadians is similar to General American English. Many linguists attribute this to the influence of the Loyalists. They helped establish Canada’s English-speaking population and thereby created a common origin with American English. (See also: Canadian English.)

Though greatly outnumbered by later immigrants, Loyalists (e.g., Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), Sir John Johnson, Edward Jessup) and their descendants (e.g., Egerton Ryerson) exerted a strong and lasting influence. Modern Canada 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.

See also: United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Canada.

Further Reading

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