If you are a friend, family member, or co-worker of mine there is a really good chance you’ve heard me blurt something out about the Loyalist Claims Commission. You were also probably very nice about it and kindly nodded your head when you had no idea what in the world I was talking about. Bless you.
However, I find it interesting that when I bring up the Loyalist Claims in my Early Americanist circles that the majority of people scratch their heads when I ask if they’ve checked for evidence in this vast document collection. Why would someone who studies anything outside of loyalism care to look through the thousands of documents dedicated to a mass reimbursement program? Well, I’ve got about 2000 words to go, so let me convince you.
**Apologies for the lack of pictures. LCC documents are copyright protected. They are technically considered public information by this point, but publishing images without consent is a no-no. I love British National Archives too much to be yelled at them***
What are the Loyalist Claims?
In 1783, the Loyalist Claims Commission was created by parliament with the purpose of compensating those who’d lost their livelihoods and/or been exiled for supporting the Crown during the Revolutionary War. Loyalists either submitted a claim with supporting documents or they were interviewed in person to prove their losses and loyalty for themselves and as witnesses for other loyalists who were in similar circumstances. While the commission was only supposed to last a few years, it lasted nearly a decade as loyalists from across the empire poured in asking for compensation. Some people even submitted claims as late as the 1800s. Loyalists were asked to submit an affidavit of their loyalty and attach any type of evidence that proved their loyalty and their property losses. Many of these claims included witness testimonies from other loyalists who knew each other before the war or served in military regiments together. These testimonies were used in instances where evidence was destroyed or left behind. So neighbors and friends could personally vouch for loyalty and property losses. The original commission included at least one loyalist representative from every ex-colony and weighed whether the loyalist’s claim and losses were worth a monetary compensation. Loyalists could be completely denied for their losses due to insufficient evidence, or if proven a true loyalist paid one lump sum, or receive an allowance per annum. Full compensation requests were rarely granted. Instead, limited or partial compensation was the norm. If the loyalist was denied or believed they did not receive sufficient compensation they could submit additional claims.
Why Would I Use the Claims?
Since evidence was key to receiving anything from the claims commission some of these claims can range anywhere from 1 to 80+ pages worth of any documentation loyalists could possibly lay their hands on. These include deeds, wills, indentures, contracts, plantation/business ledgers, letter collections, newspaper articles naming them as loyalists, maps, etc. You name it, someone submitted it. Any loyalist could submit a claim–anyone from a humble yeoman farmer, to a merchant, to a vast plantation owner, to a royal governor. Heads of households represent the majority of these claims, which means almost all are submissions from white men. However, if a male loyalist died or abandoned his family, a handful of women found themselves submitting claims too. A small number of enslaved and free blacks, and Native Americans also submitted claims.
The loyalist claims also contain a lot of missing or destroyed information. For genealogists, community and social historians, the information in the claims can be game changing. Not only do they include detailed personal information, they can include lost wills or deed records that list names of individuals important for family histories. These claims are bursting at the seams with precious documents that no longer exist in the United States.
Take my Virginia loyalists for example. Before the Civil War most Virginia counties submitted originals or copies of their colonial documents to the capital at Richmond to be preserved. Well. Then the Civil War happened. What happened to Richmond? It burned. Thousands of irreplaceable colonial documents burned with the city leaving some of the earliest records lost to time. Well guess what…
Government and Vital Records:
Deeds, wills, probates, indentures, court documents, baptism, and death records. What more could you want? While running for your life, the last thing on your mind would probably be grabbing that indenture record from three decades ago. However, a large population of loyalists managed to hold on to copies of their records regardless of whether they headed to Britain, Canada, or elsewhere. Some loyalists who stayed in the United States also had ample access to their records.
Producing these documents to the LCC was definitive proof of how much you owned and then lost because of the war and multiple property confiscation acts against loyalists–therefore if a loyalist had these documents they were definitely submitting them. Looking for some lost government records? Look up loyalists by state and county. Some of their documents can go as far back as the 17th century.
Perhaps you are interested in network analyses of colonial communities. Why do you just want to use surviving patriot records? That’s an incomplete and biased network. Loyalist claims also include plantation and business ledgers–meaning the names of every person these loyalists ever interacted with in a business/economic setting are in these ledgers. By the way, Patrick Henry owed a lot of loyalists in Virginia a lot of money. But that’s another story.
Loyalists were slaveholders too. From one or two enslaved people working in merchant shops to those enslaved by loyalist farmers and plantation owners, many loyalists include how many slaves they owned before the war, listing their names, ages, and occupations. What’s the most fascinating about these lists–especially in Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas–are the enslaved people who then became loyalists too. After Lord Dunmore’s 1775 proclamation freeing all slaves who joined him loyalists were not thrilled, to say the least, when their enslaved people joined the royal governor. Loyalists list which slaves fled to Dunmore in their claims. There are some interesting networks in these documents just dying for a home in some academic’s work.
Parole and Exile Records:
How mobile were colonial Americans in times of war? Many loyalists were handed official exile documents from their state governments telling them to giddy-up. Most loyalists wrote in their claims how many different times they were displaced and where they were forced to go before finding a new home to settle. Being relocated multiple times constitutes as suffering, therefore loyalists are sure to mention each location they were displaced to. Additionally, loyalists who were imprisoned during the war as “enemies of liberty” were given parole papers. With these papers you could easily reconstruct colonial “gaols” during the war as claims mention who they were imprisoned with. Many prison records have not survived and these claims give us a better idea of where jails were located and who was in them.
What items existed within a Rev era home? If you are interested in colonial consumption, the loyalist claims are incredible. Along with plantation and business ledgers, loyalists had to prove what all they had lost. This means more than just animals and farms, it also includes books, furniture, clothing, heirlooms etc. I have one loyalist who even gives an exact number of pins she had to leave behind once she was forced to leave her home. Of course, there’s the age-old “exaggeration for more compensation” argument, but it doesn’t take away from some of these neat cultural glimpses.
Newspapers, Maps, and Cultural Sources:
Once I was going through a microfilm reel of Virginia loyalists and I noticed one of my Tories included an entire Virginia Gazette newspaper from 1776 that listed him as being an “enemy of liberty” in bold font on the front page. I have no idea why this loyalist decided to keep the entire issue, but he also managed to hold on to it until he submitted his claim in 1783. What made this paper fascinating is that the only surviving issue of this newspaper is in shambles and barely legible. But here in the loyalists claims was the entire newspaper in perfect condition. While the entire issue might not be of use to me, it might be to someone else! Does this happen often? Not so much, but it’s interesting what random things you can find. (I’m also embargoing who that was until my article is out 😉 )
As you’ve seen in my previous posts, I’m kind of obsessed with John Agnew’s hand-drawn map of Portsmouth, VA. So much so that this is the third time I’ve put it on my blog. This map perfectly matches a modern map of Portsmouth minus modern construction and also notes who all–besides himself–owned this different stores and warehouses. Agnew is not the only loyalist who produces such a map.
Where Can I Find these Claims?
The loyalist claims records exist in multiple repositories. First, most state archives house microfilm collections of their state’s loyalist claims. For Virginia, these can be found in the Virginia Colonial Records Project at the Library of Virginia. Additionally, Library of Congress has microfilm copies. All of these can be Inter-Library Loaned (ILL-ed). And of course, you can find microfilm across Canada and England–including the originals at the British National Archives.
One of the most accessible, yet expensive options is Ancestry.com. Ancestry has digitized copies of the loyalist claims from all states. However, you can only search by loyalist name and not document type–yet. And let’s not forget, this is an expensive subscription site. Some local or regional libraries offer library versions of Ancestry that you can access for free.
Peter Wilson Coldham has published multiple abstracts of loyalist claims but does not list all documents included in the claims or transcribed documents.
Can you tell there is a bit of a search problem here?
A Plea for a Database and a Crowdsourced Transcription Project:
All of this information might sound like I’m asking you to look for a needle in a multitude of haystacks. And in a way that’s true. However, the most important takeaway of this is that the loyalist claims could and should be a massive benefit to Early Americanists if access to these records were better. We live in the era where digital humanities projects are becoming more and more popular so we are able to rediscover document collections that are useful, yet not easily accessible. Since starting my research many moons ago my dream is to see the claims digitized, transcribed, and organized so people who don’t study loyalists have better opportunity to utilize these important documents without having to swim through a sea of unnecessary information for their projects. Cut out the middleman and go straight to the source. Since this collection is so large, it could be done in a multitude of ways via sponsored projects. What I envision being the easiest project would be a state-by-state project. Right now, I’m attempting to get a crowdsourced transcription database started for the Virginia claims. But obviously, not all loyalists were from Virginia. The quicker my loyalist friends jump on this project, the sooner all historians of British North America and the Atlantic World will benefit from one of the most fascinating collections from the time period.