The Loyalists

The Thirteen Colonies' power struggle with Britain created division among the colonists. By 1775 most Americans had given up on the possibility of any compromise being reached with England. The only option was independence; however, a sizable minority of American colonists still wanted to remain loyal to Great Britain. Those loyal to King George III came to be known as "Loyalists." Loyalists, not surprisingly, were persecuted for their beliefs by "Republicans." Republicans were those Americans wanting independence.

Republicans refused to tolerate the Loyalists. Too much was riding on the revolution to do otherwise. If the revolution failed, the Republicans were sure to be persecuted themselves. Moreover, England held all of the cards in the approaching conflict—England had a stronger economy and industrial base; it had a larger population to draw from and a more experienced army; and, perhaps most important of all, they possessed the world's strongest navy capable of striking the coast of any one of the Thirteen Colonies unopposed at any time. Yet, for all their short-comings, the Thirteen Colonies had the home court advantage; but to make proper use of this small advantage Loyalists could not, would not, be tolerated.

Thus, Loyalists were subjected to all sorts of violent and degrading treatments. One of the more inhumane methods of persecution was called "tar and feathering." For example, a mob of Republicans would catch someone suspected of being loyal to King George III, strip them naked, apply hot tar to their skin, and then mash feathers into the black hot sticky substance. Once the tar cooled, the person would be left scarred and feathers would remain embedded in the victim's skin essentially for the remainder of their life.

(The man depicted in the picture below was tarred and feathered for refusing to support a war drive bond for America during World War I.)

In addition to being turned into human chickens, United Empire Loyalists could also expect to receive beatings or to be lynched upon "Liberty Trees." With mobs running about the countryside looking for Loyalists to punish, the rule of law completely broke down. In the wake of the violence, 100,000 Loyalists left the Thirteen Colonies for the relative safety of England, Quebec, or Nova Scotia. This was the largest mass migration of people in the history of North America (ten times greater than the Acadian Expulsion of 1755).

Loyalists eventually exacted revenge through the actions of paramilitary units like "Butler's Rangers." John Butler was a wealthy landowner before the revolution. He did not share the republicanism of his more independence-minded countrymen. Therefore, during the revolution he formed a guerilla force to disrupt the Continental (American) Army's supply lines, demoralize settlers, and attack Republican paramilitary groups not unlike his own.23

Click here to view a map of the routes taken by the Loyalists to escape the Thirteen Colonies.

The Revolution & the Iroquois Confederation

Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant) was a chief among the Mohawk people. Brant felt equally at home among both the English and the Mohawk. Thayendanegea was not a fan of either the British or the Americans. Yet, if a side had to be taken in the approaching conflict (and it did), he believed the British the lesser of two evils. For if the English won the war, they could be counted upon to keep their word and prevent American encroachment upon Mohawk lands. If the Americans were victorious, Brant believed his beloved ancestral homelands would be in jeopardy.

In addition to providing Butler's Rangers with much needed aid, Thayendanegea also offered his services to Quebec's Governor Carleton. Carleton, not unlike Montcalm 20 years before, disliked the terror tactics so characteristic of the First Nations of North America. Thus, he politely declined Brant's offer of assistance. Brant, however, was not to be discouraged. Instead, filled with a sense of mission he sailed to Great Britain to speak directly to King George III.

I read about Brant's various experiences while in Britain in the book Canada: A People's History (Vol. I). Brant struck me as an honest man who appreciated this quality in others. He spoke openly and candidly, valued wisdom, and had a genuine zest for life and a sense of mission. He also had a decent sense of humor. For example, he is reputed to have made the following observation after watching a performance of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet: "If my people were to make love in that way our race would be extinct in two generations."

George III favored an alliance with the Mohawk. For what could it hurt? Besides the reputation of the Mohawk warriors for fearlessness was well known even in the courts of Europe; moreover, their inclusion in an anti-American coalition provided certain strategic benefits: with the support of the Iroquois the British could strike anywhere along the shared British-American frontier.


The Five Nations became the "Six Nations" following the adoption of the Tuscarora in 1728. The addition of the Tuscarora boosted the Confederacy's population and military power; it also had the unintended effect of weakening the famed unity of the organization by the inclusion of an outsider (albeit an "Iroquoian" outsider). Further still, thousands of non-Iroquoian peoples, i.e. Tutelo, Saponi, Nanticoke, etc. had been forcibly adopted by the Iroquois over the previous eight decades. This further weakened the strength, cohesiveness and unity of Iroquoian society. What Dekanawidah had helped established centuries ago warfare with the French, disease, and circumstance tore asunder.

Iroquois Unity Shattered

Brant returned to North America to speak with the sachems of the Six Nations about making common cause with Britain. Despite a passionate plea for unity, he only convinced four out of the six—Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca—to make war against the Americans. The remaining two nations—Oneida and Tuscarora—remained neutral. The once proud and united confederacy was now officially broken.

In 1777, Brant led an attack against the Americans at a place called Oriskany. The Battle of Oriskany was particularly brutal, in that, while only a handful of Iroquois died hundreds of Americans were slaughtered without mercy. General George Washington, Commander of the Continental Army, viewed events at Oriskany and the Iroquoian-British alliance with disfavor. In retaliation, Washington ordered that a direct attack upon Iroquois be undertaken.

The Continental Army invaded Iroquoia laying waste to towns, village, crops, people, and livestock. Once the genocide was over, Washington boasted that every single crop and house of the Six Nations had been burned to the ground. The Oneida and Tuscarora were not rewarded for their neutrality—their farms and people were destroyed, as well.

The Revolution: 1778-1781

In 1778, a British army under the command by Lord Cornwallis landed on the coast of South Carolina. The Battle of Savanah followed shortly thereafter ending with an English victory. During the battle Cornwallis captured South Carolina's capital city of Charleston. He expected to be greeted as a liberator there by the large number of Loyalists suspected of being in the region; however, the Loyalists were nowhere to be found. They had already left the Thirteen Colonies for the safety of either Quebec or Nova Scotia. Hence, Cornwallis could not count upon them for either moral or material support. Instead, he found himself surrounded by an angry and unfriendly population.

In 1780, the Americans led by General Horatio Gates attacked Cornwallis' army at South Carolina. During the Battle of Camden that followed the British decisively defeated the Continental Army. Because of this defeat at Camden General Gate lost his command. He was replaced by General Nathanael Greene. Greene believed rightly that the British had a decisive advantage over the Americans when it came to conventional fighting tactics, i.e. Thin Red Line, etc. Instead, Greene chose to play to the strength of the North American soldier thereby using a more "North American" style of fighting, e.g. Hit and run approach.

Greene's use of hit and run tactics both bled the English occupying force slowly and prevented the British from inflicting any significant damage upon the Americans. Cornwallis could do nothing to stop the ambushes or the disruptions to his supply lines. Moreover, not unlike James Wolfe three decades before who complained bitterly of Montcalm's unwillingness to leave the safety of Quebec's walls, Cornwallis was upset that the Americans would not meet him on an open field of battle. In fact, he believed they were being dishonorable by not doing so. Cornwallis therefore decided to retreat to north to Yorktown, Virginia.

With the Continental Army in front of him and the Atlantic behind, Cornwallis and his army were effectively trapped. Their only hope was to be rescued by sea. Cornwallis anxiously watched the horizon for signs of the Royal Navy. In October of 1781, ship masts appeared on the horizon. Unfortunately for the British the ships turned out to belong to France (ally of the United States since 1778). The French Navy supported the Americans by bombarding the British troops. With no hope of victory or rescue, the British commander surrendered to the armies of General George Washington.

Although a state of war continued to exist between the United States and Great Britain for two more years, the Revolution War had been decided: America had won her independence.

The Treaty of Paris (1783)

In 1783, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris (1783), the Revolutionary War was officially brought to a close. Despite the treaty Britain refused to acknowledge America's independence. For his part King George III wanted to continue the war. The only thing stopping him was the very principle that had provoked the revolution in the first place—democratic accountability. Westminster, England's Parliament, used its constitutional power to block the King from pursuing an unwinnable war just to bandage his wounded sense of pride.

Thayendanegea felt betrayed by Britain because the Treaty of Paris made absolutely no mention of the Six Nations. Insofar as the balance of power in North America was concerned, the Iroquois were no longer a significant political or military force. In recognition of their service to Britain, though, the Iroquois were given a large tract of land north of Lake Erie where their descendants continue to dwell.

John Butler and his followers established Butlersburg on the west bank of the Niagara River. This settlement became a haven for United Empire Loyalists who continued to trickle out of the United States well into the 1790s. The name of the settlement was later changed to Niagara and eventually became the capital city of Upper Canada (Ontario). Butler died in 1796. Joseph Brant spoke the following words at Butler's funeral: "Our loss is the greater, as there are none remaining who understand our manners and customs as well as he did."

Brant died at his home in 1807. His last words were, "Have pity on the poor Indians; if you can get any influence with the great, endeavor to do them all the good you can."24

The Great Exodus

After Yorktown the British were left in control of only one significant stronghold, New York City. In New York Guy Carleton, commander of British Forces, was confronted with two problems: firstly, the Continental Army was fast approaching; and secondly, he had to find some way to evacuate thousands of British troops and Loyalists before the Americans arrived. To buy time the British fought a series of rear-guard actions to slow the Republican advance while the Royal Navy hurriedly evacuated New York.25

The majority of United Empire Loyalists from New York settled in Nova Scotia. Thanks to the Expulsion of 1755 Nova Scotia contained far fewer French Catholics compared to Quebec. Consequently, Nova Scotia was the preferred site for settlement. Unfortunately for the English settlers, they were not discriminating enough when it came to things that actually mattered: instead of worrying about who or who did not live in Nova Scotia they should have been asking the question whether anyone could make a living there at all, i.e. Of 10,000 Loyalists that settled Shelburne in 1783 only 600 remained three years later.26

Slavery, Black Loyalists & Freetown

When you take the economic and political systems of the Thirteen Colonies as a whole it becomes obvious that the United States was founded upon a fundamental contradiction of principles—there was a genuine desire to build and expand democracy but there also was a determined effort to maintain the age old institution of slavery.

In 1776 all Thirteen Colonies practiced slavery. During the Second Continental Congress while the American Constitution was being written, slave holders like Thomas Jefferson argued for the end of both slavery and England's tyranny. Jefferson argued that it was impossible to establish a truly free society when a significant proportion of that society lived in bondage. So in a gesture of sincerity, Jefferson freed the slaves from his Virginian plantation arguing passionately that the "inalienable" rights of all Americans need to be respected; however, the issue of abolishing slavery proved to be too divisive at the time (a time when colonial unity was so essential to successfully winning the revolution).

Colonies like Georgia and South Carolina had no desire to end slavery. Plantation owners significantly benefitted by having access to free labor. Southern colonies had grown fat indeed on the exploitation of slaves and therefore did not develop the economic diversity of their northern neighbors. Northern colonies like Massachusetts and New York had healthy ship building, metal working, and publishing industries, etc. that did not depend upon the existence of slaves. Thus northern states could "afford" to put an end to slavery whereas its removal from the South would have had dire economic consequences (or so it was believed).

In terms of the political will to end slavery, it existed in virtually only the North. Politicians in the South argued that if their right to own slaves was challenged, they would remain outside of the new nation being proposed (United States). Thus, the issue of ending slavery proved to be too divisive and controversial for the Founding Fathers. They needed colonial unity to create the new nation; it would be up to future generations to address the obvious problem of the co-existence of slavery and democratic freedom.

Britain understood full well how controversial slavery was for United States. Therefore, the English offered slaves their freedom (and free land) if they fought for England. The English promise was motivated less by moral opposition to slavery (for they practiced slavery themselves) and more by a desire to weaken their enemy. In total, approximately the same number of blacks fought for both the British or the American side. Both sides of the conflict offered freedom and both sides ultimately failed in delivering on promises.

When the Royal Navy evacuated the British Army and White Loyalists from New York, Black Loyalists were left behind to fend for themselves. If Black Loyalists attempted to board ships they were turned away by the point of a sword or musket. More than one Black Loyalist lost fingers when they refused to let go of the boats escaping to the safety of the Atlantic. Many of these people escaped north only by traveling overland through the wilderness. They did not have much of a choice for the alternative was nothing less than a return to slavery (or worse). In fact, half of the African-Americans that actually reached Shelburne, Nova Scotia, only did so because they came as slaves of their Loyalist masters; and they remained slaves in Nova Scotia. (Slavery was not officially abolished in the British Empire until 1834.)

Faced with the renewed prospect of raising their children in an environment of intolerance, bigotry and discrimination, many Black Loyalist families left Shelburne in 1792 for a new settlement called Freetown in Sierra Leone, Africa. 27

New Colonies 28

Fourteen-thousand Loyalists established a new settlement along the Saint John River. Not long after establishing St. John these Loyalists asked for their own colony. In 1784, Great Britain divided Nova Scotia into two—New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Colonel Thomas Carleton, younger brother of Guy Carleton, was named New Brunswick's first lieutenant-governor—a position he held for the next 30 years.29

Quebec (1784)

In 1778, Frederick Haldimand took over for Carleton as governor of Quebec. Haldimand was much like the previous governors: he appreciated the hard-working Canadiens and worked to keep the English merchants in line.

The arrival of 10,000 Loyalists to Quebec in 1784 destroyed the political balance that Haldimand (and Carleton before him) had worked so hard to achieve. The swelling numbers of English encouraged them to make greater demands for recognition with the colonial government. To restore stability to his largest remaining North American colony, King George III sent Carleton back to Quebec to remedy the situation.

In ten years, Quebec had undergone a dramatic change. What worked for Carleton in 1774 was not likely to succeed in 1784. Specifically, there was no possibility of restoring the previous political balance—there were simply too many English people unwilling to reach a compromise with either the French or its colonial governor. The situation called for a more creative approach to problem solving.

The fact was that the two peoples simply could not co-exist. Therefore, Governor Haldimand (at the suggestion of Carleton) drew Loyalists away from Quebec City and Montreal by offering free land on the northern shore of Lake Ontario to anyone willing to swear allegiance to George III. Basically, this approach was designed with the intent of keeping French and English as far apart as possible.

Loyalist Impact on the Canadian Character

The impact of the Loyalists on the future development of Canadian society cannot be overstated. They established traditions and attitudes that continue to persist right up to the present. For instance, the placing of mayonnaise on sandwiches (and by extension hamburgers) is something they have passed on down to us.

More seriously, though, they also brought with them bagpipes and a wide variety of songs such as The Brown Maiden, Castle Dangerous, The Clumsy Lover, and my personal favorite Itchy Fingers. I always get chills when pipers play their tunes at special events like Canada Day, etc. Every song is so distinctively different from one another it's impossible to tell them apart. (To quote Metallica singer James Hettfield's Scottish cousin Angus, "Aye, it's sad but true, lad.")

Aside from the pipes and mayonnaise, the Loyalists brought with them a conservative world-view, a dislike for violent revolution, and a preference for political evolution. To quote Professor Will Ferguson, the Loyalists brought with them values that were at their very core "anti-American."30

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