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Article Published November 26, 1999

Introduction To Loyalists In Canada
By Brenda Dougall Merriman, CGRS, CGL., author of United Empire Loyalists, A Guide to Tracing Loyalist Ancestors in Upper Canada

Recent monitoring of email lists reveals quite an interest in Loyalists, specifically whether an ancestor was or was not ... ! So many questions, from so many eager Internet surfers, with so little homework done, — most of them swirling around a family tradition or written family history that a Loyalist ancestor awaits in their background. With the huge technology leaps of the 1990s, the newest ancestry addicts may be more comfortable with (or dependent on) the computer as their main research tool rather than on conventional methods of study. The Internet continues to grow as the great "leveller" for genealogists and family historians seeking information from distant places.

In a major sense, this preliminary article is directed at newcomers who deserve credit for reaching out, but need some warnings about the instant gratification that arrives from cyberspace or compiled databases, with uncited or dubious sources. Novices to genealogy, let alone Loyalist ancestry, can acquire solid background skills (without eschewing the Internet) — by reading books on genealogy methods, taking a local course on basic procedures, studying books and journals on Canadian sources, and joining a society in the ancestral area of interest. It's more difficult to do the research work from a distance, which is why the Internet and CD-ROMs are so attractive.

They can be of service — credible websites do exist, databases (online or CDs) can deliver clues, you can locate societies and resource centres, and email lists may sometimes be rewarding, but nothing replaces the investigation of original sources and gathering your own documentation. Many of the Canadian repositories that hold the records you need now have websites that will give you some finding aids or inventories, but don't expect many searchable databases. The networking and news provided by local society membership should never be underestimated.

Experience and monitoring tells us that often the concepts of "Loyalist" and "UE" are not clearly understood. The recognized postnomial (initials attached to a person's name) description of a Loyalist ancestor, or a descendant, is UE, not UEL. The ancestor can be referred to as a UE or a Loyalist. UE stands for Unity of Empire and thus loyalty to the British Crown. On the other hand, UEL is commonly used to denote (a descendant's) membership in the United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada, although — (there are always exceptions to the given, your grade-school teacher must have told you) we do see UEL used informally about an ancestor. Clear as mud?!

Regular Membership in the UEL Association is acquired through a successful, approved submission which cites the applicant's direct-line lineage to a Loyalist, at the same time providing sufficient evidence of the ancestor's said status. The application must be made to join one of the UEL Association Branches, eighteen in number across Canada; your choice could be one near where you live, or where your ancestors resided.

The postnomial usage of the initials UE can be spotted today on stationery letterhead, business cards, with authors of genealogical articles, or in other situations of a somewhat formal, print nature. Alleged descendants can claim Loyalist ancestry and employ the initials UE. The UEL Association has no "power" to "grant" postnomial usage. It does issue a certificate that the applicant has successfully shown evidence of both lineage and the UE ancestor. To anyone with self-respect, the claim demands the research to produce the evidence. Considering the nature of its genesis, usage of the UE initials is traditionally only employed by descendants who themselves recognize Her Majesty Elizabeth II as their sovereign.

Let's have some very general questions to lead off:

What is a Loyalist? To paraphrase the acknowledged criteria of the UEL Association, a Loyalist was:-
  • Someone who was resident in the American Colonies before the outbreak of hostilities on 19 April 1775, who joined the royal standard before the end of the Revolution (aka War of Independence) or evidenced loyalty to the Crown, and who removed from those Colonies during or immediately following the War, to British-held territory;
  • A soldier in a Loyalist provincial Corps/Regiment that disbanded in British territory;
  • A Six Nations Indian who settled in the Grand River or Bay of Quinte/Tyendinaga Reserves, in the same migration pattern as the above.
How did the UE concept originate? Before Québec was separated into two provinces called Lower and Upper Canada, its Governor, Lord Dorchester (formerly Sir Guy Carleton) proclaimed in 1789 that all Loyalists were entitled to affix the initials UE (Unity of Empire) to their names, and henceforth and likewise all their descendants in both male and female lines. You may well ask, where is any reference to Nova Scotia or elsewhere? At the time of the proclamation, Lord Dorchester was Governor-in-Chief of all British North America. To oversimplify for the time being, he was resident in Québec when his proclamation was made. The Lieutenant Governors of other colonies, in what was to become Canada, did not "pick up" on this concept. This is another discussion for another day, perhaps best addressed by historians.

Who is a Loyalist? Here are some caveats up front. It should be understand right from scratch that many Loyalist ancestors may be difficult to define. There is no definitive list from which you can triumphantly "prove" your Loyalist ancestor, although there are a number of lists to consult — compiled by various people, agencies, or offices at different time periods or for different purposes. Most lists can point you to a name and a geographic location. Lists can be supportive, but do not equate to or replace personal research in original records. In fact, lists can often give you two, three, or more names that match your ancestor! Loyalists have at times been confused in bureaucratic records with other settlers of the same period, and even one Loyalist may not have been consistently recognized in contemporary documents. Necessary sources that could provide answers for you may be missing or non-existent.

It's a worthy challenge, not to mention immensely self-satisfying, to work your way around, under, or over the problem area. To quote from the home page of the United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada, " ... the research provides an exceptional opportunity for a family to establish and celebrate its past."

Future columns will address more about Loyalist lists, the UEL Association, reading material, the most useful sources, case examples, online databases, and readers' questions or comments.

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