The United Empire Loyalists were one of Canada’s founding people, but who were they?
In the late 18th Century, the American Revolution was an attempt to gain independence from Britain by the 13 Colonies but not all Colonists favored it. It was not really a battle against British Armies and Hessian Mercenaries, but was really the first American Civil War, often pitting neighbour against neighbour, and even splitting families. It is now estimated that 1/3 of the population wanted independence, 1/3 wanted to remain loyal to the Crown, and 1/3 were indifferent to the whole event.
The Loyalists were not, as is often thought, upper class individuals with a strong British connection, but were ordinary folk: farmers, businessmen, laborers, and so on, coming from not only British backgrounds, but German, Dutch, French, Native, and even former black slaves, all wishing to keep their rights and freedoms they had under British rule and fearing the unknown under Colonial independence. As hostilities opened, many of these Loyalists joined various Loyalist Brigades to fight alongside the British Forces against the Colonial Rebel Patriot Militias.
After the surrender of Lord Cornwallis to George Washington at Yorktown October 19, 1781, officially ending the American Revolution, the problem was how to deal with the Loyalists. Over 80,000 Loyalists fled from the country, some overland, but the majority by ship, with over half going to British possessions in Canada; Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec. This was the largest group of immigrants to Canada at any one time. Many families ended up at refugee camps near Sorel Quebec for the winter of 1783. There were three main areas planned for their settlement: the Royal Townships near Cornwall, the Cataraqui Townships, near Kingston, and the Niagara Frontier. Areas were also to be laid out in the Bay of Quinte and Grand River area for the Mohawks who had fought with the British and lost their lands in New York State. The first group of Loyalists under the command of Major Peter Vanalstine landed on June 16th 1783 at Adolphustown, Ontario.
On November 9, 1789, Sir Guy Carleton, also known as Lord Dorchester, announced
Those who had adhered to the unity of the Empire and joined the Royal Standard in North America before the Treaty of Separation in the year 1783 and all their Children and Descendants by either sex, are to be distinguished by the following Capitals affixed to their names: U.E. alluding to the great principle, “The Unity of the Empire.”
Not only were the Loyalists granted lands for their Loyalty, but their sons and daughters were each entitled to grants of 200 acres as well.
As this area grew, so did the need for self-government of this region, being so far away from Quebec. In 1792 John Graves Simcoe, a former Loyalist Officer with the Queens Rangers, was sworn in as the Lieutenant Governor of the newly created province of Upper Canada, which would later become Ontario.
Today the title UE is Canada’s only hereditary honour, and literally thousands of Canadians can claim it as descendants of the United Empire Loyalists, one of Canada’s great founding peoples.