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Article Published December 23, 1999

What It Means To Be "UE" Today
By Brenda Dougall Merriman, CGRS, CGL., author of United Empire Loyalists, A Guide to Tracing Loyalist Ancestors in Upper Canada

More information seems to be wanted on what it means to be "UE" today, and how the United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada fits into this context. Confession the perceived need comes not only from response to the first column under this title, but also from monitoring several email lists. Whether we live in Canada or the United States, Loyalists give us common ground in that our ancestors started out in the same colony. Our mutual respect for ancestry and the study of it leaves little room for re-fighting an old war (those wonderful reenactments aside!) or trying to re-colonize each other. Let's remember that we can't change the facts of our forebears' lives and the history they made. Nor can we allow ourselves to be revisionists of history, judging past times and troubles from our own late 20th century perspective.

Some recent comments have addressed the mandate or function of the United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada (UELAC). My position in this column is as a deeply interested observer since the 1960s, not as a UE, and certainly not as a vested spokesperson for the Association itself. Any argumentative statement, or error of fact, should be taken up with me and not the Association. As with any question about an important organization, background information is essential to understanding. The UELAC is a lineage society. A lineage society has every right to limit its membership to direct-line descent from a given premise. There are a fair number of lineage societies around the world, not to mention other types of exclusionary organizations (how about the illegitimate descendants of British kings, or the Black Sheep Society?). There are countries where heraldry and nobility have existed since time memorial, as a heritable right based on evidence of lineage. A new renaissance of this phenomenon is emerging in many European countries.

The UELAC has a unique position among North American societies in that an 18th century vice-regal proclamation, and subsequent proclamations, defined the terms for the usage of the initials UE. To repeat from the first column in this series, the United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada does not have the "power" to confer, designate, or award the initials UE. That right came from an unopposed proclamation by the King's representative in British North America. But the Association does express the eligibility and qualifications for its membership. They include the restriction of regular membership to approved applicants who "bear allegiance to the Crown". In practical terms, this means a citizen of Canada or a country which recognizes Elizabeth II as its monarch. It does not extend, as one wag would have it, to a citizen of another country who privately "swears" personal allegiance to and everlasting admiration for the Queen!

The history of the UELAC began with the Loyalist Centennial in 1883-1884, when Loyalist organizations were formed in several of the "old" provinces. We must remember that at the time of the Centennial, those most interested in developing and promoting Loyalist studies, writings, traditions, and memorials were often grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Loyalists themselves. In other words, they were much closer in living memory to family traditions than we are today. Family documents, mementos, and stories seem to disperse further with each generation. At any rate, the first associations required only that a new member be endorsed by the existing membership. A federal charter was obtained in 1914 through the efforts of a Central Council, but activity was interrupted by World War I. The Association became more active as a Dominion organization when annual transactions began to be published, and The Loyalist Gazette became continuous from 1963.

It was not until 1970 that bylaws were passed to clarify membership qualifications, after several years of revising an application form for standard use. The Investigating Committee was formed to oversee and review the applications forwarded from the Branches. The application form now required data on each generation of descent, to an approved UE ancestor; and coincided with part of the mission statement to preserve the history of Loyalist families. Not all members or applicants were eager to embrace a "come lately" process that involved some research, as if their integrity of an oral family tradition were being questioned. The new bylaws were not always observed, or observed in a standard fashion, during this evolutionary period of the Association.

This was clearly a transition stage in which the UELAC was not alone. The broader aspect of English-language genealogy in North America had also been undergoing transformation. Consensus among experienced genealogists was that undocumented, uncited publications were no longer to be taken at face value. And the 19th and first half of the 20th century saw many such books and manuscripts, many are still one of the first sources used by novice genealogists, unaware that corrections may have long since appeared in print (see endnote 1). To be fair, many of those previous genealogists relied on word of mouth from family members to make their genealogies as current as possible then. And we are still grateful that they captured living memory. All family historians cannot be warned enough that information taken from uncited family books (published or manuscript) must be regarded as a starting point, not an end result. While they can be guides to families and locations, such histories are no longer acceptable by lineage societies as "evidence" per se.

This whole movement toward documentation of ancestry and lineage was a natural development. Most lineage societies in North America were growing in the same direction, as each "eligible" generation became further removed from the founding premise or reason for existence. Standardizing application forms and evidence requirements was the obvious way to maintain integrity and avoid becoming no more than another historical society. For example, the well-known Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), which has a library to envy, was only one of the others to suffer similar growing pains. The Society of Mayflower Descendants has been revising early published material for some time.

The procedure for joining UELAC is that applicants first approach a Branch, where a Branch Genealogist can assist with the application form and research suggestions (they do not perform the work for you). The completed form will include appended copies of documentary evidence. After reviewing it for content and enclosures, the Branch Genealogist sends the endorsed application to the Dominion Genealogist who consults with members of the Investigating Committee. An applicant at any stage may be asked to provide further evidence if some links in the ancestry appear weak, or if more information is needed about the claimed UE ancestor. Applications should have been reviewed by at least five different knowledgeable people in the policy chain. Approval leads to a certificate of membership (regular or affiliate).

That is the basic procedure. As already mentioned, the development and implementation did not take place overnight; it has taken time and experience to reach consistent practice. As with all volunteer societies, the experience or knowledge of the volunteers can vary. The required Genealogists are essential to the process, and may not always have been available locally. Errors or omissions may not always have been caught.

This background provides a partial response to a complaint that the books Loyalist Lineages (brief outlines of applications to UELAC since 1970, published in two volumes) may show a direct-line ancestry attributed to the "wrong" ancestor, or may list some erroneous data. Indeed, there are mistakes in a few lines. There are errors in all the "lists" or "histories" we hope will supply the faultless ancestry we seek. The obvious course is not merely to complain, but to provide corrected details. No-one ever promised that genealogy was easy to trace, or perfect in presentation. The societies deserve credit for publishing what they have, just as family historians should not wait to make their work public because it is not "finished". It does reinforce that we must do our own research in original materials, and that we can publish any time, as long as we admit where we have uncertainties. Another not-so-little lesson is that before heading straight for the surname index of those books we so happily grab, we should read their Introductions!

A book from University of Toronto Press in 1997 by Norman Knowles is called Inventing the Loyalists, the Ontario Loyalist Tradition and the Creation of Usable Pasts. Once an aspiring family genealogist has passed the point of reading customary source material on Loyalists in general, and their ancestor's context in particular, regarding the events of the Revolution, this is a challenging read no matter where your Loyalist ancestor originated. Knowles gives us rich historical detail concerning political and social facts of Ontario life in the 19th century that influenced Loyalist descendants. On the other hand, it may not please many members of the UELAC to hear that the movement to preserve Loyalist history and tradition included some advocates with additional agendas, such as strong anti-republicanism. Knowles' repetitive and patronizing use of the word "filiopietistic" to describe 19th century Loyalist descendants had me grinding my teeth. But this does not necessarily undermine the historical content. Unfortunately, Knowles stopped his study in 1914 and therefore does not treat the new and better genealogically-related developments of the late 20th century.

We've taken enough space now for framework information, and hopefully the "newbies" will seek out historical books on the Revolutionary War period, as well as genealogy text books. Many books considered "classics" in the field have been reprinted. Reliance should not be placed solely on those with original publication dates in the 19th century or early 20th century, but should be supplemented with more modern works. With the approach of the turn of the millennium, it is more clear than ever that the learning experience never ends, even for long-time devotees of genealogy. Next time we'll go on to look at the "types" of Loyalists that have been described over the years.

    1. This is why the development of PERSI (Periodical Source Index) by the Allen County Public Library is such a huge boon. Researchers can search it and find family name references that appear in all North American genealogy periodicals.

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