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Historical Context: The Loyalists

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When the American Revolutionary War ended, the fate of the Loyalists hung in the balance. Branded as "Tories" or "Royalists," they had little hope of recovering their confiscated property and could still be threatened with violence and death by the triumphant Patriots. Those who had fought in Provincial regiments were particularly vulnerable to persecution. Although numerous, Loyalist soldiers were outnumbered by civilian refugees and opportunists hoping to take advantage of compensation offered to Loyalists by the British.

As many as 100,000 Loyalists left the United States to start their lives over again. At least 35,000 - some estimates suggest a higher number of 50,000 - went to Nova Scotia. Numbers are hard to judge because documentary evidence is incomplete and many Loyalists moved to several locations in search of a place they could call home.

A disproportionate number of the Nova Scotia Loyalists came from urban centres, such as Boston, New York, and Charleston, where British armies had been stationed at various times during the war. Unsuited to the hardships of pioneer life, they were tempted to sell their land and ship out. Port Roseway, renamed Shelburne, was perhaps the most extreme example of Loyalist mobility. Its population of nearly 10,000 in 1783 had dwindled to less than 1000 a decade later. In contrast, many of the refugees who flooded into the St. John River Valley decided to stay. So numerous were the Loyalists who settled in Carleton and Parrtown at the mouth of the St. John River that the area was incorporated as the city of Saint John in 1785. Dozens of smaller communities in the region, including Digby, Sussex Vale, Gagetown, St. Andrews, Sydney and Guysborough trace their origins to the Loyalist migration.

Although their suffering during the first years was genuine, the Loyalists were luckier than many refugee peoples. The British government gave them land and did its best to provide food and shelter until they got settled. In July 1783 it established a Loyalist claims commission that conducted hearings in London and in the North American colonies. A few Loyalists eventually received financial compensation for their losses, but most ordinary Loyalists had neither the time nor the skill to make a successful claim before the commission.

Historian Wallace Brown estimates that of the 5072 claims presented to the commission some 4118 were recognized with a payout of over £3,000,000 (Brown 188). In addition, more than 200 Loyalists were compensated for losses of official or professional income and 588 widows, orphans and other deserving people received small pensions. Patronage also helped to soothe the financial pain. Volunteer officers in the Provincial regiments received half-pay and a few well-connected Loyalists were appointed to government positions in Great Britain and the colonies. As the Winslow Papers document, Edward received military half-pay for a time as well as government positions, and his mother and sisters were granted small pensions.

Although historians often discuss the Loyalists as if they were a homogeneous group, they were as socially and culturally diverse as the society they came from. The greatest number of Loyalists were drawn from the lower and middle classes of labourers, farmers, artisans and merchants. Although a few highly placed colonial officials and Harvard-trained professionals such as Edward Winslow moved to Nova Scotia, most of the wealthy Loyalist elite went to England or the West Indies.

The pretensions of a few highly placed Loyalists in the mix were not well received by the mass of refugees. When 55 prominent Loyalists, including Winslow's close friend Ward Chipman, petitioned for estates of 5000 acres rather than the basic allowance of 100 acres for each head of household and 50 for each family member, there was such an outcry that British officials were forced to bow to the wishes of the majority.

Culture as well as class divided the Loyalists. While most of the migrants were colonial-born, 10 percent were recent immigrants from Britain and elsewhere. Ethnic and religious minorities were particularly visible among the refugees. People of German, Dutch and Huguenot ancestry swelled the Loyalist ranks. During the war, pacificist groups, such as the Quakers, were particularly vulnerable to patriot demands that people take sides, with the result that they became Loyalists by default.

Loyalists brought their slaves with them, and over 3000 free black Loyalists chose to settle in Nova Scotia. During the war, the British had encouraged slaves to leave their rebel masters by promising them their freedom. Black Loyalists were offered land, but were given smaller grants in less desirable areas and became the objects of hostility and violence during the tension-ridden early years of settlement. In 1792 nearly 1200 black Loyalists chose to leave the Maritimes when offered passage to the new colony of Sierra Leone in Africa.

Over half of the Loyalists were women and children whose fortunes were dictated by family decisions to support the British cause. A number of widows whose husbands had served in the war were included in the land grants. Like most pioneer women, Loyalist women were forced to adjust to the circumstances thrust upon them and raise their families in conditions not of their choosing.

Getting the Loyalists established in their new homes posed huge administrative challenges. In Nova Scotia, Governor John Parr gave orders to escheat unoccupied land that had been granted in the colony, but the legal process seemed painfully slow for people eager to get to their land. Few of the 10,000 Loyalists who arrived on the St. John River in 1783 were able to take possession of their land that year with the result that tensions quickly escalated. Writing in May 1784 to Ward Chipman, Winslow drew a dark picture of the "corroding - the cancer-like pain" that was creating unrest in the St. John River area. He was particularly critical of what he perceived to be the bureaucratic bungling and political corruption perpetrated by Governor Parr's deputy on the spot, Major Gilfred Studholme.

Winslow's solutions to the problems facing Loyalists camped at the mouth of the St. John River was to create a separate colony north of the Bay of Fundy. In June 1784 his wishes were met. The old province of Nova Scotia was reduced in size and two new colonies were created: New Brunswick and Cape Breton. Few Loyalists chose St. John's Island (renamed Prince Edward Island in 1799) as their destination because most of the land had recently been granted to proprietors in Great Britain.

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Additional Resources

Canada: A People's History Website

Episode 5 ("A Question of Loyalties") of the CBC film series Canada: A People's History is devoted to the period from 1775 to 1815.

The Online Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies

This site provides detailed information on Provincial regiments and other Loyalist military activity.

Black Loyalists: Our History

This site offers an overview of the Black Loyalist experience in British North America.

Remembering the Black Loyalists

This site was developed by the Nova Scotia Museum for use in public schools. It includes a list of the surnames of Black Loyalists who settled in the Maritimes and excerpts from Benjamin Marston's diary relating to the settlement of the Loyalists in Shelburne, Nova Scotia.

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