COVID 19 status: We continue to ship all orders within one business day. Please allow for potentially longer than usual postal and courier transit times.
Formerly published by GlobalGazette.ca
Article Published March 24, 2000
The Fighting Loyalists
By Brenda Dougall Merriman, CGRS, CGL., author of United Empire Loyalists, A Guide to Tracing Loyalist Ancestors in Upper Canada
After dealing with some introductory concepts, we have narrowed our field to some lists where Loyalist names can be found, and now zoom closer to lists of actual fighting men. But this involves a tough part! As a genealogist, this writer does not pretend to be a historian, especially a war historian. On the other hand, it is definitely good practice for a genealogist to learn something of the historical background that affected your Loyalist ancestor's life during the conflict. You won't find an outline of battles or strategy in this article. You can find expert history writings in a vast amount of print material relating to the American Revolution (War of Independence). Some books have already been mentioned in these articles.
Electronic information is also available, on Internet websites and databases, or by purchasing computer disks and CD-ROMs. Some of the Internet sites have general descriptions of the course of the war, others are specific to one battle engagement or regiment, and some have lists of names of men in a regiment or company. As we are all learning, Internet sites can disseminate exciting amounts of ancestral-type information without citing any sources (original or copyrighted). Consider this a general caveat emptor. Even experienced researchers cannot tell if information is erroneous or biased, when original records are not cited. Website lists, databases, or CD-ROMs without source references will obviously not lead you to check appropriately for yourself, and make your own conclusions. Some CDs have been issued with broad-sounding titles or date ranges (all marriages in a certain place 1800-1850) without precise or proper content description, only to reveal much less than expected. Assuming that everyone who sees this column has Internet access, these Loyalist articles will continue to offer websites for the reader's consideration. However, we still recommend solid, old-fashioned reading of books for background knowledge — books that have footnotes or endnotes and archival/bibliographic references.
Now, who were the fighting men — the Loyalist fighting men? Remember we said previously that British soldiers were not entitled to the Loyalist privileges that developed in Canada? British army soldiers — the Regular Establishment — including their Germanic/Hanoverian allies (often referred to collectively as Hessians although their regiments had differing backgrounds) were in the pay of the Crown, and their regiments were raised overseas, with a few exceptions. These regiments were trained soldiers, whether they had already been posted at various British forts in America, or whether they arrived during the conflict. It was the regular troops and their officers who initially bore the responsibility of halting the insurrection that arose in 1776. At that time, Britain had forts strung across the continent with at least some regulars on duty at each. Of course it was not expected that a full-scale revolution, and the fierce spirit of American independence, would take seven years to resolve. By 1778, war was not just an American rebellion for the British. They found themselves locked in a much wider conflict with France and Spain threatening them on other fronts.
In America, the British War Office established four military Departments (aka Command Areas) as their bases for operations:
The ancestors who eventually qualified for that "UE" after their names were not soldiers who came from overseas in the employ of King George III. They were colonists who lived in North America and they were labourers, farmers, craftsmen, tradesmen, merchants, trappers, pensioned soldiers, and others; they lived in the bush or they lived in the cities; they may have been dirt poor or wealthy landowners with slaves, or somewhere in-between. Militia duty in the more populated areas was not unknown to them — usually only requiring a muster once a year — but did not qualify them as trained soldiers. Veterans of the earlier Seven Years' War were natural candidates to lead those local militia companies. Eventually, loyal men of importance and/or experience in their communities were given "beating warrants" to raise substantial-enough troops to form provincial companies and corps, patterned much like the traditional army system. Provincial corps became attached to each Department.
By now you understand the importance of distinguishing Loyalist fighting men from regular army soldiers, genealogically speaking. It may be helpful to outline some terminology that is commonly used. Regular Establishment refers to regiments of British origin; American Establishment refers to a new "category" created to encompass selected colonial regiments that were elevated to a more permanent position. The word troops is used to indicate a group of organized fighting men. Fighters recruited in the colonies were called provincial troops, or sometimes just referred to as colonials. Their units were variously called Loyalist corps or Loyalist regiments. While 31 of these regiments had been created by the end of the War, there were also a few unattached units of Associated Loyalists. The Board of Associated Loyalists had been created in 1778 as an "unofficial" or civilian force of loyal militia units in the New York area, when the city was in a period of civil government, to carry out military-type engagements against neighbouring rebels.
British military policy was not clear in the beginning as to the "status" of provincial troops, but it changed and firmed as the conflict went on. What is clear is that they were certainly considered inferior, or auxiliary to the regular troops. They were often treated and put to work as support units, because the regular army was expected to do the serious fighting. The professional soldiers, even from the eminent General Haldimand down through the ranks, regarded the provincials with condescension and sometimes suspicion. The initial terms for rank and remuneration in Loyalist service were not exactly enticing to potential recruits.
Adding to this mix, the British Army was supplemented with the German-speaking troops from Europe (George III of Britain called on them in his position as Elector of Hanover); similarly, from 1778 General Washington's Continental Army was aided by soldiers from France. Moreover, the Indian Department was a separate entity which had gradually assumed some military power, especially in the Northern District with its base at Fort Niagara. Their activities were of particular significance in the frontier areas.
By the war's end, there were four categories of fighting men:
At the onset of armed hostilities, committed Loyal colonists went to safety among British forts or lines. Others did not make the decision to join the Royal Standard until they were hounded at home, in the process of leaving, or captured en route to British lines. These unhappy factors resulted in convincing many fence-sitters to "sign up". Those who joined a provincial corps may have been accompanying their families to a safer place, or may have been on the run, thus opting for the closest provincial corps, perhaps not even in their normal area of residence. Displaced refugees swelled the ranks. Any of these elements could have a bearing on finding an ancestor, or someone from the ancestor's family, in the service and later in his place of settlement.
Original Sources for Lists
Muster rolls of all units were taken at a specific place and time. Many rolls did not survive the devastation of war or bureaucratic shuffles. As some provincial corps suffered attrition, remaining men would join another (so one ancestor could possibly be found on more than one muster roll). Occasionally pay lists are available. Sources that were created by the British War Office are an obvious research target. Officers' papers are another prime source, any of which can also include refugee and provisioning lists. These records have finding aids with inventories or calendars, some with nominal indexes:
The suggestions below only touch the surface of resources. Undoubtedly there are more, and for a future column we would appreciate additions (or corrections!). Rather than try to determine where each list or muster roll can be found on Internet sites, suffice to list some of the major websites, most of them with links to other, more specific, web pages.
Browse the resources at GlobalGenealogy.com:
Printed & Digital Books
Genealogy, Vital Records & History
Listed By Country or Topic