‘ve studied loyalism in Virginia during the American Revolution for almost five years now. I’m “that loyalist girl” that people at conferences and history conventions have sort of, kind of, maybe heard of. But why loyalists? Better yet, how in the world did a woman from South Mississippi decide to dedicate her early academic life to a bunch of Tories who technically lost a war in a state 16 hours away from her home? I get this question a lot. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever given a conference paper or a presentation where someone hasn’t walked up to me completely dumbfounded as to how a short, 16 year old-looking woman with a squeaky southern accent managed to get into this gig. So what better way to kick off this blog site than to explain how and why I let a life of academia and loyalism consume me.
When I was a freshman in college, I decided to give up my lifelong dream of becoming a journalist. I’d recently returned from a scholarship program with USAToday (The Al Neuharth Free Spirit Program) and decided that while the life of a journalist was fascinating, it just simply wasn’t for me. Terrified, confused, and desperate to figure out my life so I wouldn’t have a line next to my name that said “undeclared major,” I jumped at the one thing that remained a constant passion in my life–history.
Growing up both of my parents were K-12 teachers. Neither of them taught history, but my mom always loved a good Tudor novel and my dad read Greek/Roman mythology to me. While their love of history never really rubbed off on my older sister, I on the other hand took all of these stories and ran with them. Every Halloween I was an Egyptian. Every TV show I watched was about archaeology. Every romance novel as a teen had something to do with an English monarch. Every award I ever won in school had something to do with history. I loved it! But it wasn’t until I was a freshman that I ever thought about making history a career.
Once I finally wrote “history” on the line next to my name it was pretty obvious that I was going to be a European historian. In the words of my people, I “loved me” a good monarch, with a great castle, and loads of drama. So naturally all of the classes I signed up for had something to do with medieval or early modern European history. My parents were always supportive of my studies and were even impressed when I won $700 on a paper about the Empress Matilda and the 12th century Renaissance. However, it really bugged my father that every time he mentioned I should study American history that I would make over-dramatic gagging noises. I was convinced that American history was boring. There were no castles, no kings, no queens, and –holy cow–no knights. To a young romantic who had little to no grasp of actual academic history, this was a death knell to interest.
One Christmas as an undergraduate my dad put the HBO mini-series John Adams in my stocking. I quickly put it aside on our living room floor and desperately searched for candy in the stocking. Later that night, my dad picked up the DVD box, took out the first DVD, sat me on the couch, and forced me to watch the first episode. The first 20 minutes I wanted to die. The next 40 minutes I was basically drooling in a trance and probably blinked about five times. By day two we completely finished the series. So long castles and queens–I was hooked.
For the next year and a half I begged my parents to bring me to Virginia. Why Virginia? I honestly have no idea. I’d only ever been to DC, but after some research I realized that Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, Yorktown, Mount Vernon, and Monticello were all in a reasonable vacation-amount of time next to each other. So if I wanted to see a lot of Early American history in a short amount of time, Virginia was the place to be. My parents eventually acquiesced and the summer before my senior year I got to see the Old Dominion. Well–if John Adams the miniseries hadn’t hooked me enough, one stroll down the Duke of Gloucester Street did the trick.
When I entered the Master’s program at the University of Southern Mississippi I only had a vague idea of what I wanted my thesis to be. In a meeting with my advisor, Dr. Kyle Zelner, I told him that I wanted to write about Virginia during the American Revolution. Instead of humiliating me for this classic novice comment, Dr. Z just simply stated that “Virginia’s been done” and that I needed to “look for a more concise topic.” After about an hour of throwing out ideas, he finally looked at me and said the one thing no one had ever really examined in Virginia during the Revolution was loyalism.
So that evening I went home and thought about the topic a little more. I pulled up some JStor articles and read reasons why some colonists didn’t want to break from Great Britain. I still wasn’t completely convinced, but if it meant I got to study the Revolution and make archival trips to Virginia, I was sold.
The first time I went to the Rockefeller Library in Colonial Williamsburg, I had the opportunity to go through the Virginia loyalist claims and other personal documents pertaining to loyalism. As I went through each name… Agnews, Hubards, Grymes… I became absolutely mesmerized. The loyalist claims are intricately detailed because each loyalist wanted to make sure they received enough money from the Claims Commission to survive their new lives. It was in those documents that I read of loss, struggle, imprisonment, exile, abuse, hope, and survival. There are no novels or movies on the face of this earth that could ever compare to the words written in these thousands of documents. But, that’s for another blog post.
While most people want to cry at the thought of finishing their thesis, I gladly charged through mine. I was so fascinated by the documents and the incredible amount of information in them that I jumped into the process like a teenage girl writing Twilight fanfiction. Even though my thesis only examined the loyalists in Williamsburg during the war, I knew I wanted to take it a step further. So here I am. It’s PhD dissertation time and believe it or not, I still love my topic as much as I did the first time I walked into the Rockefeller Library–but for a whole different reason.
This journey has been an interesting one. Remember those conferences I’ve mentioned at the beginning of this post? Throughout all of this research and all of those engagements I’ve come to realize that not only were Virginia loyalists much larger in population and active than historians once believed, I’ve also discovered that the topic fascinates and yet terrifies most people. I’ve been welcomed with open arms by most, but there is still this strange resistance out there to admit that some people just didn’t want to declare independence–especially in Virginia, which John E. Selby once wrote was the most patriotic state in the nation at the time of the Revolutionary War.
This research and dissertation journey will be documented on this blog. I also hope these posts will open up a dialogue between Whig and Neo-Whig history with my own Neo-Progressive swing. There were loyalists in Virginia during the Revolutionary War. They were not just silent spectators. They did not exist in small numbers. And their lives, their struggles, and their dedication mattered. In fact it mattered so much that I hope by the end of this dissertation blog I will have convinced you through my research, sources, and in-eloquent writing that the grand narrative needs to be altered to accommodate this important “other” in American history.
My name is Steph Walters.
I study the American Revolution.
Here we go.