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Painting: Bedford Basin Near Halifax - National Archives of Canada / C-115428
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Loyalists, the First Refugees (1775 - 1812)

Following the French settlements in Acadia and New France in the 1600s and early 1700s, there was a second major wave of immigration starting in the 1770s. These were British subjects who had originally settled in the Thirteen Colonies, but were more loyal to the British Crown following the start of the American Revolution than the Patriots who would go on to win the war. These new settlers were called the Loyalists, and are considered Canada's first political refugees.

While the majority of these were white, English-speaking settlers who tended to settle in Nova Scotia and the soon-to-be created Upper Canada, there was some black immigration to the Maritimes as well. That's not to speak of Aboriginals given land in Upper Canada for being loyal to the British during the American Revolution.

Topics in this section:

Loyalists Overview
Maritime Loyalists
Absentee Landlords
Black Loyalists
Aboriginal Loyalists
"First Loyalists" or United Empire Loyalists
"Late Loyalists" or "Simcoe's Loyalists"
The Diaries of Elizabeth Simcoe
Other Important or Interesting Documents

Loyalists Overview

With the start of the American Revolution in 1775 within the Thirteen Colonies, many of those loyal to the British cause south of the Québec border faced a dilemma. If they stayed in the Thirteen Colonies and remained loyal to the British, they faced persecution and possible harm from Patriots, who wanted to see the creation of an independent state free of British influence.

As it became more and more apparent that these rebel Patriots would win the Revolution - which they did in 1781 - these Loyalists began to escape to:

  • Britain;

  • British territory in the Caribbean Sea;

  • Québec and Nova Scotia, which were still loyal to Britain.

Maritime Loyalists

Map: New Brunswick, 1784
New Brunswick, 1784

Immediately following the American Revolution, Nova Scotia faced the initial brunt of Loyalist immigration. While the colony only had about 20,000 settlers entering 1783, it suddenly saw its population more than double that year with Loyalist immigration.

These Loyalists were more likely to be highly aristocratic or upper class. They probably settled in the region in order to be closer to their contemporaries and families in Britain. Some 14,000 settled along the Bay of Fundy into the St. John River region in 1783 alone.

The sheer volume of settlers here led the British government to create the colony of New Brunswick in 1784. Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island were splintered into two separate colonies that same year, too. Cape Breton Island rejoined Nova Scotia in 1820.

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Regulations to be observed for the orderly and expeditious settlement of New Brunswick, 14th January 1785

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An Act for the better ascertaining and confirming the boundaries with this province (New Brunswick), 18th May 1785

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An Act for the registering of ... grants made under the seal of Nova Scotia, of Lands now situated within New Brunswick, 18th May 1785

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An Act for the registering of all deeds, conveyances and wills, which shall be made of or will affect any lands within New Brunswick, 18th May 1785

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An Act to authorize the proprietors of certain islands in the River St. John to make rules and regulations for better improvement and cultivation, 3 January 1786

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For more information on this topic, please visit the Constitutional History section.


For more information on this topic, please visit the Immigrant Voices Web site.

 

Absentee Landlords

British authorities in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia had a particular problem with the sudden influx of Loyalists to the Maritimes.

During the 1760s, the British government had given land in both colonies to soldiers, couriers, politicians and other friends. In turn, these new landlords had to promise to settle the land with farmers in a manner similar to the seigneurial system in New France.

However, most landlords were slow to put this system into place and a great deal of this land still sat vacant by the 1770s. What's more, once a land title had been granted, the British government couldn't easily enforce what that land was to be used for.

This was a particularly thorny issue in Prince Edward Island (PEI), where these landlords were able to trick several hundred Loyalists into settling there. These settlers were usually either Scottish or Irish.

Island landlords promised settlers plots of land for settlement, provided they cleared the land and then build roads and buildings. However, these landlords never intended to keep their promise. They just wanted settlers to do all the hard work for them for free.

This problem wouldn't be solved until 1873, the year when Prince Edward Island joined Confederation.

At that point, the new province followed the recommendation of the Land Commission of 1860 and enacted the Tenants' Compensation Act, 1872. This allowed compensation to be made available to anyone who could prove their Loyalists ancestors had been tricked by absentee landlords.

Did you know?

Thomas Selkirk, the Earl of Selkirk, is perhaps most famous for setting up the Red River Settlement in what's now Manitoba in 1811. However, he also established an earlier Scottish settlement on Prince Edward Island in 1802. It had about 800 settlers.

Absentee landlords in Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island, on the other hand, simply didn't bother to populate their land with new settlers at all. This led to a land shortage crisis in the early 1780s, considering the massive influx of Loyalists coming into the region. Unlike the situation in Prince Edward Island, however, the British government was able to immediately take some of this land back: about 2.5 million acres out of about 5.5 million acres in total.

In 1783, Britain promised to give:

  • one hundred acres of free land to every Loyalist household head;

  • an additional 50 acres of free land for each extra family member;

  • even more land to those who held a military rank.

The British government also provided free food rations for many years to these Nova Scotia settlers. That's not to mention free tools and building materials to help clear and settle their land.

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Excerpt from the Tenants' Compensation Act, 1872 (in Enclosure 1 of No. 6)

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Black Loyalists

A Black Wood Cutter at Shelburne, Nova Scotia - National Archives of Canada / C-115001
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During the 1870s, there was also a significant Loyalist immigration of some 3,000 Blacks into British North America. Most went to Nova Scotia.

The British Crown had promised to give any freed black slave in America who fought against the Patriots during the American Revolution freedom, equality and land to settle on in the British colonies.

When these black people arrived from the newly created United States, however, they were given either:

  • land of a smaller or poorer quality than land set aside for white Loyalists;

  • no land at all.

Thomas Peters, a black Loyalist settler, was allowed to go to Britain to plead on behalf of black immigrants to Nova Scotia. While Britain was slow to react on his complaints, he was able to meet up with the Sierra Leone Company, a land firm willing to provide Blacks with free land in Africa.

Ultimately, many black settlers would leave Nova Scotia in the 1790s to start a new life overseas in the new colony of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Some stayed behind to continue their lives in Nova Scotia, though.

Between the 1790s and 1830s, Britain very slowly took steps to outlaw slavery in its colonies. (Slavery was finally abolished in all British colonies by 1833.)

This didn't mean that prejudice and racism disappeared in British North America. It did mean, however, that British North America generally became a more tolerant and free place for black people to settle and live in than the United States, as America didn't outlaw slavery until 1865.

This freedom would later attract more fugitive slaves in the early to mid-1800s in Upper Canada during the period of the Underground Railroad.

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An Act for encouraging new settlers in his Majesty's Colonies and Plantations in America (1790)

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An Act to prevent the importation of Slaves to the Colonies (1805)

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An Act for the abolition of the African Slave Trade (1807)

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For more information on black Loyalists, please visit Black Loyalists: Our History, Our People online.

 

Aboriginal Loyalists

Some Iroquois who were loyal to the British army, and helped them fight in the American Revolution, got free land in what would soon become Upper Canada in 1784. However, these Aboriginals were shut out of the Treaty of Paris, 1783, which ignored earlier promises involving Aboriginal land.

For more information on this topic, please visit the Aboriginals: Treaties & Relations section.


"First Loyalists" or United Empire Loyalists
By 1784, some 10,000 Loyalists had arrived from the United States in Québec seeking refuge. They had expected to find familiar institutions: British laws, Protestant churches, and freehold land tenure. Instead, they found Catholic churches and unfamiliar French-language political institutions.

British authorities dealt with this problem in two ways:

  • sending most of these Loyalists into the more westerly rural part of the province that would eventually become known in 1791 as Upper Canada;

  • creating new law and governmental institutions alongside the French ones to benefit the remaining Loyalists.

On November 9, 1789, Québec governor Lord Dorchester issued an order in council that gave particular recognition to Loyalists by formally differentiating them from other settlers who had immigrated to the colony after 1783. He allowed them to affix the initials "U.E." after their names so they could be recognized as those who adhered to "the Unity of the Empire".

These settlers are among those referred to as the United Empire Loyalists, though it has since come to include those who settled in the Maritimes prior to the creation of America in 1783 as well.

As a result of Lord Dorchester's order, the sons and daughters of adult Loyalist settlers were also to be given 200 acres of free land when they became 21 years old. (Daughters could claim this land even earlier in life if they married before turning 21).

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Summary of Lord Dorchester's Order In Council regarding United Empire Loyalists, November 9, 1789 (No. 6)

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For more information on this topic, please visit the Constitutional History section.


For more information on the Loyalists, please visit The Canadian Encyclopedia online.

 

"Late Loyalists" or "Simcoe's Loyalists"
In 1791, John Graves Simcoe became the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada. After obtaining land from the Aboriginals, he began an aggressive campaign to attract:

  • former military officers living in the Maritimes who were loyal to Britain.

  • Americans living in what was now called the United States, particularly from New York and Pennsylvania.

He attracted American settlers by offering cheap land and other kinds of assistance, like food, clothing, building materials and seeds.

Simcoe extended his invitation to those who were neutral and hadn't taken up arms against the British during the American Revolution. He was particularly targeting those who:

  • were unhappy with life in the newly-created United States;

  • wanted to obtain fairly inexpensive land in Canada.

Many historians now feel, though, that most of these U.S. immigrants remained somewhat sympathetic to the ideals of American republicanism well after their arrival, and came not out of loyalty to Britain, but out of forwarding their own self-interests. It is now felt that this does not necessarily make them true "Loyalists".

For instance, members of several pacifist religious sects, like Quakers and Mennonites, came to Upper Canada from America during this period when Simcoe offered them an exemption from having to take part in future military service. While one can admire the moral or religious convictions of these settlers in opposing war, it can be argued that they came to Upper Canada for the sole purpose of avoiding compulsory military service, not out of a sense of loyalty to British interests.

Nevertheless, Americans of various ethnic decent continued to arrive until the War of 1812 began. This is not to speak of the fact that Americans immigrants, who had been designated as being United Empire Loyalists by Lord Dorchester in 1789 (see "First Loyalists" above), had already migrated to the region. Some United Empire Loyalists were living in "Upper Canada" as early as 1781 (a full decade before the province was created) around the Niagara Peninsula.

All of these American settlers generally lived on the north shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario or in the uppermost reaches of the St. Lawrence River valley system well to the southwest of the Montréal region.

By 1800, Upper Canada's population had grown to 50,000 from about 12,000 in 1791. By 1815, the population grew to 95,000. About 80 per cent of those living in the colony around this time had been born in America.

Did you know?

While a great deal of attention is given to United Empire Loyalists in Upper Canada, a small but significant amount of immigrants to the region - about 10 per cent - were actually German.

 

The Diaries of Elizabeth Simcoe

 

Painting: Elizabeth Simcoe - National Archives of Canada / C-081931
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Elizabeth Simcoe - the wife of John Graves Simcoe, Upper Canada's first lieutenant-governor - kept diaries and sketches of her life in Upper Canada during the late 1700s. They remain some of the earliest examples of recorded pioneer history in what's now called Ontario.

For more information on Upper Canada treaties with the Aboriginals, please visit the Aboriginals: Treaties & Relations section.


For more information about Upper Canada Loyalists, please visit the Immigrant Voices Web site.

Other Important or Interesting Documents

 

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