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 May 12, 2000
By Brenda Dougall Merriman, CGRS, CGL., author of United Empire Loyalists, A Guide to Tracing Loyalist Ancestors in Upper Canada
We are now on our way to a discussion of sources for Loyalist ancestors. Of all the documentation that lies awaiting for the determined descendant of a Loyalist, the claims made with a special Commission are the only series of records created specifically for this group of people. The Commission was first created in Britain in 1783, and renewed in 1785:-
When peace treaty negotiations were taking place in 1782-1783, the property and possessions that had belonged to loyal supporters were uppermost in their own minds, naturally, and to the British government, to a perhaps lesser degree. It became clear that there was little spirit of reconciliation in America for the Loyalists. At British insistence, the final agreement held that the American Congress would recommend to each state "... that they restore seized property, redress grievances, and permit loyalists to return home to live under the new jurisdiction."(2) Christopher Moore reminds us that the newly triumphant Americans would interpret that word "recommend" quite differently from British tradition. Tradition in an America with proud new states had abandoned the old parliamentary system where recommendations or advice to a sovereign were a matter of obligation.
In fact, despite signing the treaty, the new American Congress did not publish this "recommendation" and the individual thirteen states ignored it anyway. By ordering tax laws to pay its own war debt, the Congress did not endear itself immediately even to its own colonies. The relatively few Loyalists who returned to their homes in the attempt to make salvage, or to resume their former lives were disappointed, to put it mildly. Generally, their lot was to face continual recrimination, unrescinded property confiscations, or even arrests. The Iroquois Confederacy and other native alliances fared as badly.
With the final treaty signing, it takes some imagination for us who have never known the circumstances of war to envisage the desperation among the vast numbers of Loyalist people finding themselves on "foreign" shores — the sense of dislocation, loss, and (quite often) family sundering; the bewildering questions of property settlement or disposition in America; in most cases, the dependence on "handouts" for shelter, food, and medical care.
Significant numbers of these Loyalists had been "displaced" more than once after fleeing to erstwhile British territory which turned out to be temporary haven. People who had once been solid citizens or sturdy pioneers became dependent on their King for support — ie, a British government financially damaged by a war on more than one front. A sorry situation on all sides, and which the British could only address for the most part by actively encouraging all Loyalists to pioneer in wilderness situations again, with subsidies and land grants to begin subsistence farming.
Thus, the onus of welfare of these thousands fell completely on Britain. Bear in mind, we are only dwelling on Commission events in this article. As already mentioned, commissioners were appointed to receive written claims from Loyalists and make personal examination. The appointment was in effect until March of 1784. The limits of the time period were very shortsighted in that the news did not reach the main city of Québec until October of 1783, and did not allow for the difficulties of relaying the information to outlying and backwoods areas where Loyalists were in the process of moving or gathering. Add to this, only a few weeks remained before written claims could be sent to London on the last ship of the winter Atlantic crossing. The time frame effectively accommodated many Loyalists who were at the time sheltering in London and other places within Britain. This period is sometimes referred to as the "Old Claims".
In belated recognition of these factors, the commissioners were reappointed to continue their business and receive claims until May of 1786. Loyalists who applied after March of 1784 ("New Claims") were additionally required to state that or why they could not meet the earlier deadline. For some who were uneducated or labouring in arduous resettlement conditions, the requirements were almost overwhelming in terms of time and effort. The "good news" was that two commissioners were directed to travel within British North America to receive claims and hold personal hearings, an effort to accommodate more of the Loyalist claimants. The commissioners' names were Jeremy Pemberton and Thomas Dundas. They held hearings in Halifax, Shelburne, Saint John, Québec, Trois Rivières, and Montreal. Separate trips were made to Niagara, Cataraqui (Kingston), New Oswegatchie (townships around present Prescott), and New Johnstown (Cornwall). The commissioners collected the documentary evidence (including the original written claims, called memorials), kept minutes of their hearings in books, sometimes added marginal notes in the books, and made decisions on the validity and amount of the claims. In this way, Dundas and Pemberton acquired 44 large volumes. The official record of these hearings is in British Audit Office material, series 12 and 13, at the Public Record Office in England.
Requirements to apply for claims included some proof of the loyalty or service, a detailed inventory of lost possessions, proof of former property title or ownership, an independent evaluation of goods and property, evidence from credible witnesses, and so on. Interestingly, statements and affidavits supporting the claims often come from former neighbours or family still within an American state. Some of the supporting submissions for evidence may be official documents of seizure, forfeiture, or banishment. In nearly all successful cases, the decision for amount compensated was considerably less than the amount claimed.
There is a bit of tangled history to these records. The evidence books in British Audit Office 12 are written copies of the commissioners' books, made and filed probably just before the commission and they are arranged by American states. It has been determined that most of the original books in the handwriting of Dundas and Pemberton were given to the founder of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, fairly soon after the Commission ceased its work. Ten of the books were missing at that time (but their transcription is in Audit Office 12), and one for New York State. They were later transferred to the Library of Congress where they were forgotten for over a hundred years (MSS 18,662).
The rediscovery of those original (by now crumbling and moldering) books set off a flurry of restoration. Canniff Haight from Toronto was sent to inspect them in Washington, and was eventually given provincial government approval to transcribe them. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Ontario all wanted copies of these historic records. After Mr Haight accomplished this herculean task, it was published as 2nd Report, Bureau of Archives, Province of Ontario in 1904. Meanwhile, his own transcript disappeared!
Now let's be clear about what is contained (or missing) in which sets of records. British Audit Office records have the most complete set of information, lacking only the still-missing one New York volume. The 2nd Report, Bureau of Archives is a published copy of Mr Haight's copy, which is missing 11 volumes. In addition, it is known that Mr Haight did not include claims that were rejected, or that had strikeouts across them.
Bruce Antliff has redressed this situation by publishing Loyalist Settlements, 1783-1789 where he has "reconstructed" the ten volumes of evidence missing from the 2nd Report, using the Audit Office records. His book also contains Haight's omissions from the 2nd Report. What remains missing is the one book of New York State evidence (which Antliff expects to reconstruct). Antliff shows us where the commissioners were on certain dates, on their tour of British North America. His excellent comparative index of Canadian claims gives references to Audit Office 12, to the 2nd Report, and to his own work. In fact, Antliff's book can be purchased with or without a microfiche copy of the 2nd Report and an accompanying set of maps, plans and documents. Mr Antliff states that he hopes to continue with a reconstruction of the missing New York State volume.
So far we have only been discussing British Audit Office 12. Their content of Loyalist material has been microfilmed and copies went to the National Archives of Canada (their reference: MG 14, AO 12, vols 1-146). The microfilm reels are B-1154 to B-1183 (same film numbers at the Archives of Ontario). If you don't use Antliff's improved index, an alphabetical nominal index is on microfilm reel C-9821, or in the NA finding aid. Volume 120 contains all the original names, in the chronological order of their appearance. Volumes 1 to 56 are the evidence books; volumes 57 to 70 are the commissioners' decisions; volumes 71-93 deal with claims against the British army or navy for commandeering civilian property; the remaining volumes are a mixed bag. Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management (NSARM) has the NA finding aid for AO 12 and 13, and related aids in their MG 100, but does not have the microfilms for AO 12. For New Brunswick, the Harriet Irving Library of the University of New Brunswick is putting online an inventory of the Programme in Loyalist Studies and Publications, — relating to 3200 reels of microfilm and 700 microfiche. As of this writing, the Audit Office claims do not appear to be included in the inventory.
British Audit Office 13 material is at the NA in MG 14, AO 13, vols 1-140. Material concerning a claimant often appears in both AO 12 and 13. The microfilm reels for AO 13 (also at Archives of Ontario) are in a broken sequence on B-2176 to B-2216; B-2284 to B-2297; B-2331 to B-2346; B-2416 to B-2445; B-2551 to B-2580. The claims material in this series was originally intended as an arrangement under the name of the American state, and then alphabetically by the first letter of the surname. This system was not complete, in that later documentation was added. Again, the original NA finding aid tells you how to access the microfilms. AO 13 microfilm can be viewed as well at Archives of Ontario and the Nova Scotia Archives (NSARM). Microfilm copies of both AO 12 and AO 13 are available also at the Library of Congress in Washington DC.
Less publishing has been done regarding Audit Office 13. Peter Wilson Coldham, the compiler of American Loyalist Claims, necessarily limited his sources to only part of the collection. Since it was subtitled "Volume 1" we hope that Peter will find the time and energy to devote to more publishing in this series. His previous articles in the National Genealogical Society's (NGS) quarterly NGSQ have dwelt on Georgia land grantees (NGSQ 66:43) and specific individual claims (NGSQ 66:121, 67:59, 67:210). Good news just arriving via Genealogists' Magazine (March 2000) says Mr Coldham "has just completed a comprehensive study of American Loyalist Claims under the title American Migrations 1765-1799."
It should also be mentioned that the British Treasury Office contains additional reports in Treasury Office Records (T79 and T77 ), the latter dealing mainly with property loss in the Floridas from the Spanish takeover. A nominal index and description of these two series are in Vol 46 of Lists and Indexes (Kraus Reprint Corporation). There were some cases in British North America where an intermediary or agent was used to present a claim. The private papers of John Porteous and Alexander Ellice in the National Archives' manuscript collections contain some of these.
A few extracts follow to illustrate the variety of claimants and their origins. When you are searching indexes and inventories — as with any other genealogical sources — all conceivable (especially phonetic!) spelling variations should be considered. It is also possible that one man was recorded in more than one claim. As well, a widow may have submitted the claim, even if her first name has been unknown to you. Scanning female claims with the "right" surname might produce interesting results, whether they are direct-line or of collateral interest.
Browse the resources at GlobalGenealogy.com:
Printed & Digital Books
Genealogy, Vital Records & History
Listed By Country or Topic