Grand River Branch

United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada





Selected Reprints from the

Grand River Branch Newsletter, Branches


"Genealogy In Locating Loyalist Roots"

Gary Peters, Editor, February 1994, Vol.6 No.1, Pages 4-5



    Genealogy is the study of the descent of a family or person from earlier ancestors.  According to one etymological source, the word "genealogy" is a derivative of the late Latin genealogia, from genea (family or race) and logia, (the study or science of something).  Another source traces the Latin to the Greek genos (family) and logos (theory, word).  The prefix "gen", common to both Greek and Latin. conveys the meaning of, "race", "birth", or "kind".  Thus Genesis opens the Holy Scriptures with its accounts of the creation and human origins, but more interestingly, of the origins of being human.

  Genealogy was always a vital component of ancient and traditional societies.  British historian, J. H. Plumb, in that interesting little tome, The Death of the Past (Boston : Houghton Miflin, 1970), has quite eloquently spoken of the relationship between genealogy and political authority in various civilizations.  Couched within the authority of the past, lineage lines have traditionally bestowed special status upon the rulers, the aristocracy, the shamans and the priesthood.  Read, for example, the genealogies in the Old and New Testaments and you begin to see their importance in the cultures of those times.  By "the past", of course, I do not mean history as understood today.  With due apologies to historicists, deconstructionists and others of like mind, I might describe history as a crucial and scientific enterprise, seeking to recover records and artifacts, analyse documentation and interpret events on their own terms and in their many contexts.  In ancient times and even much later, history was an amalgam of fable and fact, and was primarily intended to sanction the political and social orders.  Until recent times, genealogy was more often the aristocratic hand maiden of tradition as a public ideology.  Even in the twentieth century, there are those whose ancestries may be products of family legends, historical facts and sometimes, sheer guesswork or invention.  There are still a surprising number of followers of the genealogical myths of earlier times.  How many people of British descent unquestioningly assume that a direct ancestor fought at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, as a noble companion in arms of William the Conqueror?  Many more I suspect, than the number of adults who still believe in Santa Claus.

 In European civilization, pride in lineage never quite developed into overt ancestor worship, as found in some non-western societies.  But ancestors and "what they stood for", have always been a powerful force in our history.  Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, major social and political changes in Britain threatened and weakened the mediŠval-born aristocracies.  the old families sought to conserve their economic and political power, largely by intrigue, judicious alliances and, when all else failed, by resorting to arms.  But

if power needs to be exercised, it also needs to be seen.  It demands decorum, taste, colour and in the British tradition, a splendid symbolic heritage.  The latter, at least until very recent times, cultivated a sense of awe and quiet respect for the central institutions of the state.  The decorative functions of this political heritage also gave some assurance to the governed that real power was just, orderly and restrained.  Genealogy and heraldry, as "audio" and "visual" symbols respectively, of inherited and therefore "rightful" authority, flourished in the fluid context of the post-mediŠval period.  As one might expect, the tracings and heraldic "quarterings" were often suspect.  Errors, contrivance and outright fraud and deception were not uncommon.  J. H. Plumb, quoting other sources, notes that in 1577, one William Dawkyns, a real achiever in the art of heraldic forgery, was deprived of an ear for his mischievous activities.  Although genealogy and heraldry remained important to the European aristocracies throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, its relevance and capacity to help sustain the old orders gradually weakened with the expansion of democracy and the rise of the middle classes.


  Genealogy in the United States began mushrooming in the years following the 1876 centennial of the Declaration of Independence.  To trace one's ancestry in New England and New York in the late 1800'2 became increasingly a hobby of the wealthy and of the "old stock".  Many Americans diligently attempted to track their family names to the early English colonists, to the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower, to the Puritans who arrived on the Winthrop fleet or to a young hero of the Revolution.  Hundreds of these genealogical efforts were written and published over the years.  Similarly, Canadians in Ontario and the Maritimes began to take an interest in genealogy following the 1884 loyalist centennials.  Although riddled with mistakes and questionable interpretations, the published genealogies, primarily American, are characteristic of the age.  Replete with nostalgic, patriotic sentiment, these family histories were often venerating a particular tradition or ancestral heritage.


  There is a rarely used term for the excessive veneration of ancestors or tradition - filiopiety. Consider such heritage associations as the Society of the Mayflower Descendents, the Colonial Dames of America, the Sons of the American Revolution, the Daughters of the American Revolution or, best of all, the United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada.  These are the groups often accused of being filiopietist.  Make no mistake, the term is derisive.  Joining is voluntary, but only after proving and adequate genealogical tracing to an ancestor who meets the necessary criteria for membership.  There are those who would accuse such organizations of being reactionary, conservative and even racist.  Are their conditions for membership irrational?  Do these groups and their members mistakenly engage in an "excessive veneration" of their ancestors?

  These are difficult questions and to simply respond with a vigourous "no", at least from our position, is not quite adequate.  We need to remind ourselves and our critics, that all associations change over time.  The historical organizations, which I mentioned above, by and large arose in the last century.  From today's perspective, most of these associations were once invested with notions of social, racial or political superiority.  The Canadian historian J. M. Bumsted in Understanding the Loyalists (Sackville, N.B.: Centre for Canadian Studies, Mount Allison University,1986), discusses the origins of the "loyalist tradition" and its elevation to near mythic proportions.  He implies that the politically motivated association of the Loyalists with Anglo-Canadian nationalism, after the 1884 centennials, was related to the newly-formed 'filiopietist' organizations, based on an exclusive loyalist ancestry.  Canada, like the United States, was experiencing its growing pains.  Changing immigration patterns, American economic, cultural and military power, the challenge from nascent "Canada first movements", and the on-going French-English antagonism, were among the forces which probably contributed to the development of an Anglo-nationalist sentiment.  The loyalist refugees provided good seed for a harvest of pan-Britannic and imperial patriotism.


  Times have indeed transformed our nation!  We perceive the United Empire Loyalists as a multi-ethnic class of refugees, who bequeathed to us most of our long-serving and valuable political institutions and a tradition of social stability.  Our modern United Empire Loyalists' Association is concerned, not with propaganda, but with public education.  We are trying to interpret the loyalist experience to a populace that is often ignorant of this aspect of our history.  At times, we are forced to correct a faulty perception of our forefathers and even to confront the "aristocratic bias", an obsolete and tiresome derision, which labels the Loyalists as conservative reactionaries, who rightfully lost the American Revolution.  In a sense, we are still trying to counter the Anglo-Canadian nationalism of a century ago.  Are we, by imputation, open to the charge of snobbery at the least and perhaps racism at the worst, partly because we busily go about tracing some of our ancestors to the Loyalists, one of the three principal founding peoples of Canada?


  Why, in fact, do we engage in genealogical research, especially in an age that seems to eschew the past and much of its ethical and even political heritage?

 As individuals, we have a variety of reasons.  Personal history is harmless detective work.  In short, it is fun.  Many people are also curious about the relationship between "the self" and their family origins.  Our "identities" are partly determined by our genetic an cultural backgrounds and it is a perfectly natural and peculiarly human reaction to seek the provenance of our names.  Genealogy is also educational.  We are compelled to read and study history and geography in order to comprehend the social, political and religious environments into which our forebears were born, lived and died.  Moreover, family research provides practice in modern techniques of historical study.  Think too, of all the auxiliary benefits.  We enhance our writing skills, improve our ability to properly quote sources and organize bibliographies.  If we do succeed in publishing our family histories, we have probably made a small but significant contribution to both local and national history and genealogy.  And then, remember all those new found friends, the distant cousins you have met in your research and would otherwise have never known!


  There is another question which must be addressed.  What are we hoping to avoid, or conversely, hoping to discover, when we prowl along the branches of our "family tree"?  Certainly we should not be fearful of finding rogues, bounders and otherwise despicable ancestors.  Were I able to step into a time machine and visit my ancient kin, I am sure that there would be more than a few, reputable and disreputable alike, whom I would rather not know and some no doubt, who would not care to know me!  It is preposterous too, to be looking for nobility, either in the literal or figurative sense.  Many families have their noble or pioneer legends which may contain a grain of truth.  More often than not, these hand-me-down stories are embellished glorifications of deeds, status or events.  It is tempting to believe that ancestral virtues might have been transmitted to us!  So tempting, I might add, to think that those who paved our way were somehow superior to "the others".  Such legends are deserving of investigation and should be written down for the record, but pride, like questions, should always follow cautious interpretation.  The point of course, that who our ancestors were and what they should or should not have done is interesting, sometimes instructive, but no reason for engendering either guilt or excessive veneration.  Leave the judgement of the dead to God and seek only to understand.


  Modern Canada is a marketplace of ideas.  There is not one, rather, there are many public ideologies competing for control in the courts and in the legislatures.  Even our national polity as a constitutional monarchy, is in transition.  The spirit of the age is one of "enforced egalitarianism", and its demand for the excessive expansion of government and bureaucratic power.  As descendants and defenders of the Loyalists, we find ourselves in the position of an invisible minority, representing a different, but waning tradition.  Our heritage values respect for the ultimate authority of the state, but with a

firm belief in the necessity for limited government.  We strongly emphasize personal and yet, responsible liberty -- first the "rule of lawfulness", then the rule of law.  Today, it seems, Canadians have abrogated the first principle.  Increasingly we find ourselves ruled, not by coherent principle, but by laws -- layers upon layers of incomprehensible, meaningless and wacky rules, regulations and directives.  Most of them, it seems, are mushrooming out of control and all are duly enforced by virtual armies of bureaucratic police.


  Ours is an opposing perspective on the relationship between government and the governed.  We are not, to use that horribly overworked expression, politically correct.  It is vital that we understand, explain and publicly defend our heritage.  Our genealogical research cannot and should not be used to glorify or "venerate" the Loyalists.  But genealogy provides and important foundation for our educational and interpretative outreach.  To genuinely know our past is to know ourselves.  Then and only then, can we develop a worthwhile literature of loyalists and national apologetics and an identity, a "self-definition", that will be respected and appreciated by all segments of the Canadian public.


Gary Peters