Documenting Loyalists in the Family Tree: Part 1

One of my earliest forays into genealogy research was the quest to find a ancestor who fought for American independence during the Revolutionary War. Was I ever surprised to learn that my first discovery was a Loyalist who left for Canada in the Spring of 1783!

Back in the 1980s, when I found my Loyalist ancestor, the internet wasn’t around and most Canadian records were unreachable in the U.S. The FamilySearch Library had some microfilms, but there were really two choices for broad access. Visit Canada or hire a professional local researcher.

Today, there are literally tons of resources available online and many accessible for free. This short series will provide an overview of those resources. along with some historical background.

Today, let’s look at North America in the 1700s in the years preceding the American Revolution in terms of its geographical and historical context.

Although most today recognize American state borders and Canadian provincial borders on a map, North America displayed very different borders in the mid-18th century.

Public Domain Map

Notice the continental division in the pink and yellow sections. The thirteen colonies and the eastern half of Canada were the areas mostly settled. Unfortunately, the pixel quality of this map isn’t great and it blurs as it is enlarged. However, look at the area where North and South Carolina are today. The borders of those colonies continued west all the way to the bordering pink land. Canada was much more sparsely populated with most of the governmental control held by the King of England, aside from Quebec.

What did this mean for North American colonists in terms of the American Revolution? As with any political situation, there were strong proponents both for independence and in support of the King. There were those who were opposed to war on religious grounds, like the Quakers, and there were a good number of colonists who just wanted to live their lives and be left alone.

Most of the American colonial population lived near the Eastern seaboard in cities or towns. By the 1770s, though, many sought cheaper land and/or more open space. Thousands had already begun the Westward Expansion and were encroaching on Native American territory.

What about Canada? In this time period, all of what is today known as New Brunswick was part of Nova Scotia.

Public Domain Map

Near the center of the map, a vertical brown border line can be seen. That divided New England to the west from Nova Scotia on the east. Quebec, or New France, can be seen in the top left corner.

Public Domain Map

Who lived in Nova Scotia before the American Revolution? In addition to indigenous people, there were settlers who came directly from England, Scotland and even Ireland in this early time period. There were also British subjects heading north from the 13 colonies for a new life in Nova Scotia.

Like American colonists, when the threat of war appeared, there were those in favor of independence, those who supported the King and those who saw it as someone else’s fight. This last group likely had the most believers since the war was not being fought in what is today’s Canada, aside from several forays Americans made, attacking forts and trying to gain a northern foothold against the British soldiers.

This post will close with a look at three groups of people that researchers need to understand while researching Loyalist ancestry:

  • Pre-Loyalists
  • Tories
  • Loyalists

Pre-Loyalists were, for the most part, American colonists who were drawn to life in Nova Scotia by land agents touting the benefits of northern life. They were offered lots of land for little cost, which was very enticing. The British government wanted more of its own people living in Nova Scotia so as to better keep the French settlers at bay.

My own family tree is filled with Hicks, Thornton, Boone and Hill families who left Rhode Island by 1760 to settle in Nova Scotia. Nova Scotians who sympathized with the cause for American independence were often those who had emigrated from the thirteen colonies and who still had friends and family sending them news about British actions. Some of them actively supported the Patriots through smuggling operations and border attacks along the waterways near today’s Maine-New Brunswick, Canada borders.

Tories were colonists who sympathized with and supported the King of England and the British government. All Loyalists, also called Royalists, were Tories, but not all Tories were Loyalists. Why? It’s a fine line, but there were many Tories who chose to “get out of town” by moving westward onto the frontier during the Revolutionary War. Not everyone supporting the King wanted to uproot their families to Nova Scotia – moving westward was more appealing. In fact, my husband’s Hamby ancestors from South Carolina were given a choice by locals – get hung or get out. They chose the Kentucky frontier! Generally speaking, when researching “Loyalists,” the term refers exclusively to those who went to Canada.

Loyalists were colonists who sacrificed their homes, friends and sometimes family members because of their support of the British government. They moved, en masse, out of the colonies.

Some returned to the British Isles. Many of those who left for Nova Scotia in the Spring Fleet of 1783 and later permanently settled in what quickly became New Brunswick. However, large numbers chose to settle in Nova Scotia, soon to set off the new province of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, the Province of Ontario and a few English speakers even settled in Quebec.

What does this geographical and historical view mean for Loyalist researchers? Well, it basically means there are many places where an ancestor’s information might be found.

In Part 2, we’ll take a closer look at the types of Loyalist records to be found in North America.

2 thoughts on “Documenting Loyalists in the Family Tree: Part 1”

  1. Very interesting. My fourth great grandfather, Richards Packard, was one of those American colonists who ended up in Canada — after the Revolution, in which he fought for Massachusetts against the British. Not all former American colonists who went to Canada were loyalists misplaced by the success of the Revolution. Many went up there simply looking for land they liked, as Richards Packard did. And he is one of those who ended up in Quebec. There was an English-speaking enclave around Lake Memphremagog, in Stanstead County and probably adjacent areas called “The English Townships,” because of the concentration of residents of British descent. If you care to read a little more about Richards Packard, here’s a blog entry about him:

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