Welcome back to yet another resource guide! This time, in collaboration with the Atlantic Loyalist Connections blog, our latest resource guide focuses on the history of the Loyalists, broadly defined as those individuals who chose to leave the US for various reasons following the American Revolution.
Once again, I have stuck to sources that are produced by institutions, museums, archives, and historical societies. This is again to ensure that the sources presented are authentic and their provenance clear. In order to keep this guide to a manageable size, I have excluded websites that are narrative-based, rather than providing primary sources and/or learning tools. However, unlike previous guides, the nature of this area of study is such that my sources as transnational in nature, and come from Canada, the United States, and Great Britain. Also in the interest of keeping this guide manageable, I have focused most of my sources on the experiences of Loyalists after they left the United States. That said, I have included some materials that relate explicitly to the experiences of Loyalists (rather than American colonists in general) during the American Revolution.
There are a couple of issues I would like to address before diving into the guide itself. First, a note on terminology:
The easiest way to think of the term “Loyalist” is to compare it to how we use the term “Kleenex” today. For instance, all Kleenexes are facial tissues, but not all facial tissues are Kleenexes. Further, we often call facial tissues “Kleenxes” as if it were a generic term rather than a brand name. What do I mean by this?
First of all, the term “Loyalist” is a bit of a misnomer. Many of these people would have referred to themselves as Tories or Royalists, especially since the term “Loyalist” only dates to 1775.
Second, the people whom we now refer to as “Loyalists” were a collection of groups of individuals with very different backgrounds, political leanings, and motivations to leave the (newly-formed) United States. Some of these people have been given names, like the Black Loyalists* (Africans and African-Americans who fled behind British lines in exchange for the promise of freedom and land), the United Empire Loyalists” (a sort of honorific that was granted after-the-fact in 1789 by then governor-general of British North America, Lord Dorchester), and the Late Loyalists (Americans who chose to come to Canada after the War of 1812, most often in search of free land and to escape the political climate and racial discrimination of the early Republic). However, when most people say the word “Loyalist” they are referring to the United Empire Loyalists. In my analogy from above, Kleenex is the United Empire Loyalists, while facial tissues are Loyalists – all United Empire Loyalists are Loyalists, but not all Loyalists are United Empire Loyalists.
Third, there were many other groups of people that are included in the category of “Loyalists” that do not fit so easily. First of all, there are the thousands of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and other Indigenous peoples who were expelled from New York after the American Revolution, and were resettled by the British in Canada. Most famous of these are the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk), under the leadership of Thayendenagea (Joseph Brant). Similarly, there roughly 2,000 enslaved Africans and African-Americans who were brought to Canada by their Loyalist owners. Both groups did not really have much of a choice about moving to Canada, nor were they “loyal” to the British Crown.
The second issue I would like to draw your attention to are some of the limits of this resource guide. First of all, many of us commonly assume that the Loyalists all came to Canada. While the majority did, they were free to go anywhere in the British Empire. Many chose to resettle in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and (in the case of name Black Loyalists after they got fed-up with the Canadians) Sierra Leone. However, far less is known about these individuals, simply because their small number has meant that they attracted far less attention. Consequently, I could not find any primary sources relating to their experiences that met the criteria for inclusion in this guide. I hope that in the future, this oversight will be corrected.
Of course, then there is the matter of historical representation and privilege. As I discussed in my previous guide on Black History in Canada, history is always political, and certain aspects will always be highlighted over others. This is particularly the case when it comes to the histories that do and do not reflect how we as a country like to see ourselves. These principles apply equally to Loyalist history. You will notice below that nearly all of the sources relate to two specific topics: the United Empire Loyalists and the Black Loyalists. This is largely due to the influence of the many historical societies and organizations dedicated to preserving their history. In the case of the former, “Loyalist” ancestry is often a marker of status, while the latter reinforces the idea of a progressive Canada. As a result, other “Loyalist” histories are almost entirely invisible.
As I’ve said before, it is important that we remember the experiences of all of the people who are included under the umbrella of “Loyalist,” even when these experiences make us uncomfortable. We need to recognize that part of the reason why some white Loyalists came to Canada was because they were permitted to bring their slaves with them, thereby perpetuating the institution of slavery. We also need to recognize that Indigenous peoples played a hugely significant role on both sides of the American Revolution, as allies to both the Patriots and the British (though many communities tried to remain neutral, they were often forced to take a side). Further, during the treaty negotiations after the end of the war, the British broke their promise to their Haudenosaunee allies by giving away the bulk of their lands to the Americans. As a result, those who allied themselves to the British were forcibly expelled from their homelands and driven into exile. While leaders like Thayendenagea negotiated with the British for land grants, what they received was often far less than they were promised, and their contributions and losses still remain largely unrecognized. As I mentioned in my previous guide, we must continue to reflect on our behaviour and fight against racism and colonialism in its varied forms, including the marginalization of Indigenous peoples and people of colour in the field of history, by ensuring that our history is truly representative of the diverse nature of our past.
As always, this guide is not intended to be a comprehensive list of all of the online sources of information on Loyalist history. Instead, it contains links to primary source collections and databases, online exhibits, media, and other resources that will be most helpful to educators, particularly at the university and college levels. All of these documents come from verified sources and/or official archives and institutions. If there is something you think should be added to this list, please let me know in the comments below.
* Please see Barry Cahill, “The Black Loyalist Myth in Atlantic Canada,” Acadiensis XXIX, no. 1 (Autumn 1999): 76-87 and James G. St. G. Walker, “Myth, History and Revisionism: The Black Loyalists Revisited,” Acadiensis XXIX, no. 1 (Autumn 1999): 88-105 for a fascinating debate on this subject. Thanks to Melissa N. Shaw for this suggestion!