efore I ever started the prospectus for my dissertation I struggled with one of the most basic questions anyone in the business of loyalism has ever faced. Out of the thousands of people who claimed to be Tories during the American Revolution, how do we determine who gets to be labeled a loyalist? The question is simple enough but has an extraordinarily complex answer. My conclusions are far from perfect–especially in the beginning stages of the dissertation–and I’m already preparing myself to defend my choices in elevator speils every conference season until the end of time.
This dissertation is a social history, meaning I am interested in lots of numbers on lots of people and communities. I want to know how Virginia loyalists acted as individuals and as a community before, during, and after the war. This means I have a massive dataset of every loyalist I’ve been able to identify and any kind of social data I could scrape from the documents they left behind. This includes where they were born, where they lived during the war, number of children they had, where they lived after the war, if they served in the military, which regiment, what rank, race, gender, etc. If you can ask a question about it, I have a column for it. Almost 100 to be exact. However, with that much emphasis on individuals and their communities, I had to create guidelines for “who gets called a loyalist” vs “who was neutral” vs “who was ideologically confused” vs “faux-loyalists” Believe it or not… that’s difficult. Since one of my major argument suggests a large population of loyalists lived in Virginia during the war, a handful of what I call “faux-loyalists” could easily derail my credibility. So in short, I have to be very careful as to who makes my loyalist list vs. who gets left behind so I don’t look like I’m trying to pad my numbers. To me, Faux-loyalists are those who we all have a hunch were loyalists, but either didn’t help the cause enough to be seriously considered or falsely claimed the title loyalist in search of compensation. Right now, they are causing me all sorts of problems
Here’s the list I have so far of which Virginia loyalist gets to be included in my dissertation datasets:
- Person offered service to a British regiment or Loyalist militia
- Person refused to sign the American Oath of Allegiance and such refusal is documented by the Virginia Gazette newspapers or government source
- Person was tarred and feathered, abused, and/or imprisoned for loyalty
- Person filed a Loyalist Claim during/after the war
- Person lost property in Jefferson’s 1779 Tory land confiscation acts
- Person must be a resident of Virginia by 1770 (for the Virginia status aspect)
- Person was involved in any form of loyalty that exiled them during and after the war or faced harsh consequences at the community or local government level if they were able to stay in Virginia
These guidelines are vague and allow me to make a case by case decision per loyalist I find. While these seem reasonable, quite a few have their problems. I’m going to break these down one by one.
1) Person offered service to a British regiment or Loyalist militia:
This one seems easy enough. Did this loyalist join the Queen’s Own Loyal Virginia Regiment in 1775? Yes? Well, there you go! Easy loyalist! But that’s about as simple as an identification gets. A few years ago I presented a paper at the Virginia Forum on the loyalists who join Cornwallis in 1781. Towards the end of his Southern campaign and as soon as he made his way into Virginia, Cornwallis found quite a few loyalists from all over the Old Dominion joining in his ranks as he marched towards Yorktown. A regiment known as the Virginia Volunteers was even formed during this time period (even though we have no idea whether 2, 20, or 200 loyalists were in the Volunteers) to aid Cornwallis. After I was all excited about my maps, visualizations, and presentation, I smugly sat down awaiting my questions. First question: can you call these 1781 volunteers loyalists? Are they just “Johnny Come Latelies” or are they “opportunists” who think the British are about to win the war and want to be on the winning side? Well, crap. There went all of those shiny visualizations.
To a young historian, I had in my head that these loyalists felt trapped in Virginia. In fact, I had lots of evidence across multiple source bases that suggested many of these 1781 followers were loyalists for the entire war but kept quiet in order to preserve their safety and financial stability. When Cornwallis came through the region, they felt safe enough to finally engage in their ideologies. I even had a chapter of my thesis dedicated to what I called the “silent loyalists.” However, this theory didn’t account for everyone. Can we consider the person from Yorktown who filed a loyalist claim at the end of the war, stating they supplied the British Army with 100lbs of bacon a loyalist? By all means, anyone who supplied an army with that much bacon is the true hero of the American Revolution (bacon is great!), but were they forced to hand over all of that pork? Or did they walk up to the army with their donation because they wanted to help the cause? Of course, the only documentation I can find on these sorts of claims are extraordinarily limited and make it almost impossible to come to an absolute or even satisfactory conclusion. As of today, I’m still not sure how whether or not they belong in my statistical analysis. Only time will tell.
2) Person refused to sign the American Oath of Allegiance and such refusal is documented by the Virginia Gazette newspapers or government source:
This means of identification is also pretty simple. A refusal to sing the Oath of Allegiance usually came with relatively harsh consequences. Do you want to be tarred and feathered? Do you want to hang out in an 18th-century jail for a couple of years? Of course not. Refusal to sign this oath meant your life wasn’t about to be “a good time.” Therefore, if I have documentation on a loyalist who refused to sign up as a patriot then I automatically sign them up as a Stephanie-Approved Loyalist. No one can make that type of a decision without being pretty sure of their loyalty. But what about the people WHO DO sign the Oath of Allegiance?
As noted above, I have a lot of evidence for a lot of people who just want to preserve their existence in Virginia no matter what their ideologies were. Coming out as a loyalist after 1776 in Virginia was asking for abuse, imprisonment, and exile. so a lot of people “go with the flow” and stay out of the way. Should my oath signers be disregarded? In a lot of cases, I don’t think so. One of my “big name” loyalists was an oath signer in 1776. William Hunter, Jr. was a suspected loyalist on pretty much day one. He was one of the editors of Virginia Gazette I and was known to be a British sympathizer in Williamsburg. In 1776 he was told to sign the oath or go to jail. Hunter picked the oath. He even joined a patriot militia at the end of the 1770s. However, in 1781 Hunter heard that Cornwallis was in Virginia. In the middle of the night, Hunter abandoned his militia unit to join Cornwallis. From the pre-Independence and post-war documents I have on Hunter, I very comfortably identify him as someone who was just trying to keep his family safe against his own ideological wishes. He was definitely a loyalist. I have quite a few “Hunters” in my datasets and I have to evaluate each one to determine whether or not signing the oath is a death knell to loyalty.
3) Person was tarred and feathered, abused, and/or imprisoned for loyalty:
This is one of the identifiers I use as a “freebie.” Of course there are going to be cases of false imprisonment or harassment, but these people suffered under the banner of loyalism whether they were actual Tories or not. As much as I am interested in self-identifying loyalists, I’m also interested in how they were viewed by their societies. If you were imprisoned for 4 years in Williamsburg for loyalty, regardless of whether or not you were a Tory, you suffered as one. I’m more comfortable with the margin of error in this one.
4) Person filed a Loyalist Claim during/after the war
Oh yikes. Here we go back to the “bacon supplier” conundrum of example #1. After the war, legitimate loyalists from across the U.S. and exiles across Britain filed pensions with the British government to receive compensation. The easiest way to add loyalists to my data would be to just take every name who filed a claim and call them a loyalist. However, anyone who studies claims commissions from any war knows how many people “pad” or “falsify” claims. Or the claims were used by some patriots who were furious they’d lost slaves, cattle, etc. to the British Army as they marched towards Yorktown. With over 700 claims filed by a Virginian head of household, a lot of claims can be difficult to evaluate. For instance, quite a few claimants are denied by the British government for lack of evidence. However, I have a hard time not counting a Virginia-born citizen relocated to New Brunswick who was denied by the British Government for some unknown reason. Well, why else would he be in New Brunswick in 1780 and make a claim? The Audit Office was only given so much money to distribute among loyalists. Lack of suitable evidence was an easy way for the commission to deny a claimant and make the money go further.
But then I have occasions where a claimant makes zero attempt to prove loyalty and only claims property loss or damage. Do they count? The honest answer: I don’t know. With that many claims it’s difficult to make a case-by-case decision and I may have to make a sweeping decision for these types of situations. To Be Continued…
5) Person lost property in Jefferson’s 1779 Tory land confiscation acts
And here we go again. This one has the exact same problem as #4. A lot of claimants from Virginia argue they deserve compensation as loyalists after they lost property. However, many of these “Virginians” never stepped foot in the colony or moved back to England as children and never returned.
These claims are based more on whether or not they lost family lands during the war because they never took up residence or had been gone for so long they were no longer really considered Virginians. I toss most of these. This is because I am more interested in Virginia loyalists and what makes a Virginia loyalist is someone who actually identifies as a Virginian. Living there makes a difference.
6) Person must be a resident of Virginia by 1770 (for the Virginia status aspect)
This is worth an entire blog post, so I will leave it for later.
7) Person was involved in any form of loyalty that exiled them during and after the war or faced harsh consequences at the community or local government level if they were able to stay in Virginia
This is my criteria for anyone who falls into the gray area of loyalism. Virginians had a large neutral population and determining who was a patriot vs a neutral vs a loyalist can sometimes be difficult to determine. Some forms of loyalism can be different than the other examples above. For instance, I have Anglican ministers who lose their jobs over loyalism but never file a claim or move. I have loyalists who are pushed out of their towns and forced to move to other counties… but never file a claim. I have Virginians living in Canada with members of their community who were definitely loyalists who never file a claim. I have people who write witness testimonies for multiple loyalists and show their own forms of loyalism, but also never file a claim or are imprisoned. This last criteria is for my loyalists I can easily identify, but don’t quite fit into my other lists.
While I know I will never be able to find every Virginian who identified as a loyalist and possibly let some “faux” loyalists make onto my datasets, these criteria at least help me widdle down my numbers. It will never be perfect, and quite a few Revolutionary era Virginians give me migraines. But I guess this is what the dissertation is all about–figuring out my methods and coming up with the best statistical analysis that I can.