United Empire Loyalists

Supporters of Britain and founders of English Canada 



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Even today there are many misconceptions about the Loyalists; that they were British-born upper-class snobs who spoke with a hoity-toity accent, and they wanted to force British ways upon down-trodden Americans.

Bruce Wilson states that most Loyalists, 54 per cent of those claiming loses in the Revolutionary War, were not born in Britain. Nor were they of the upper class. Only 42 per cent of claimants had more than 10 acres of land cleared. Most were, in fact from the lower and middle classes. John Burch is an example; when he arrived in New York City, he was a tinsmith, selling tin cups, saucers, and plates that he made himself. Some were from families that had prospered in America. John Butler's father was a lieutenant in the Army and on half pay but managed to create a large estate in the Mohawk Valley. Many Loyalists such as the Young and Nelles families were descended from people who had fled to America to avoid religious persecution. The immigrant Young (Jung) and Nelles families were Palatinate Germans who were grateful to the British for accepting them into New York Province. They were afraid that the Dutch, who had always hated the British, would steal their land if they won the war.

The reasons why people chose the British side in the war are not simple. This was, after all, America's first civil war. Some people had prospered and liked things the way they were. Others made their choices based on personalities, just as today people vote for candidates based not on policies but simply on whether they like the candidate. Others had suffered at the hands of zealots and people who were just after their money or land. Some tenants followed their landlords, others went in the opposite direction to their landlords.

Most Loyalists had democratic views; some Loyalists even had political views not too different from the Whig or Patriot view. Many Loyalists raised in America were opposed to the concept that superiority and quality were inherited by birth rather than earned by deeds. The British hated democracy, believing it to be disloyal, even traitorous. So people like Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie wrote about some Loyalists as "insolent Yankees" who would not knuckle their heads to their "superiors". Aristocrats like Thomas Talbot could never really accept Loyalists as being his equal; even his closest ally, Mahlon Burwell.

The main entry point for Loyalists into Southwest Ontario was Fort Niagara. Although some families, notably those of former Butler's Rangers, had settled on the west side of the Niagara River, it was not until 1781 that land was bought from the Mississaugas for settlement. The early Loyalist settlers were non-paying tenants and received one year's provisions and all tools from the government. In return, settlers were to sell all surplus produce to the garrison of Fort Niagara. This guaranteed an income for the settlers and a local, cheap supply of food for the garrison. In 1782, the government hired Butler's Ranger Lieutenant David Brass to build a gristmill and a sawmill on Four Mile Creek, near the junction of Four Mile Creek Road and Lake Shore Road to the west of Niagara-on-the-Lake. The remains of the gristmill still survive in the basement of a house in St David's.

Old Secord Mill in St David's

Most of the early settlers were former Butler's Rangers, especially after 1784, when the Rangers were disbanded. Other Loyalist settlers were from other military units and the Indian Department. Eventually, after the area was surveyed, settlers were granted the lots on which they had settled.

So what exactly is a Loyalist? When, in 1783, the British government decided to compensate Loyalists for their losses, it defined a Loyalist as a person: American by birth or living in the colony in 1775, who had rendered substantial service to the Crown during the war, and who had left the colony during or shortly after the war. This definition was different from that used to grant land claims. For this, the definition of a Loyalist was stretched to almost anyone who would swear an oath of allegiance. Since this would rule out all Quakers, Tunkers, and Mennonites, who did not believe in swearing oaths, even this definition was stretched by 1794 to allow them to qualify. A third definition was used by Lord Dorchester to define those who were entitled to affix U.E. to their names to recognize their contribution to the Unity of the Empire. This defined a Loyalist as a person who had adhered to the Unity of the Empire and joined the Royal Standard before the Treaty of Peace in 1793, and all their descendants of either sex. It assumed residence in Canada but gave no cutoff date. A cutoff date was eventually added; all Loyalists must have been residing in Canada before July 28, 1798.