Grand River Branch

United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada





Selected Reprints from the

Grand River Branch Newsletter, Branches

"Fireside Chats Of Historical Content" (Ontario Loyalist Traditions - PART I)

Gary Peters, Editor, August 1996, Vol.8 No.2, Pages 6-10


The Ontario Loyalist Tradition

 Part I: The Early 19th Century


    Known only to a fraction of Ontario's citizens, the provincial motto, Ut Incepit Fidelis Sic Permanet - As Loyal She Began, So Forever She Remains, was adopted by the province in 1909.  Premier James Whitney accepted it on the suggestion of E. M. Chadwick, the compiler of Ontario Families and a Toronto barrister.  Chadwick was the legal advocate and genealogist for the United Empire Loyalist Association of Ontario.  The classical Latin idiom, so characteristic of Victorian and Edwardian cultural ideals, appropriately adumbrated the essence of a late nineteenth century phenomenon, which historians have labeled the 'Loyalist tradition'.  The new model encapsulated past and present, a loyal beginning and an imperial flowering.1

  In 1898, historian and onetime registrar of deeds for Elgin County, James Henry Coyne, wrote a "Memorial to U.E. Loyalists" which was published in a pamphlet for the Niagara Historical Society.  Coyne took the recent (1897) Diamond Jubilee celebrations  of Queen Victoria's reign to honour the memory of the United Empire Loyalists whom he described as:


"... The very cream of the population of the Thirteen Colonies.  They represented in very large measure the learning, the piety, the gentle birth, the wealth and good citizenship of the British race in America, as well as its devotion to law and order, British institutions, and the unity of the Empire.  This was the heaven they brought to Canada, which has leavened the entire Dominion to this day." 2


  Coyne's ennoblement of the refugee founders of Upper Canada exemplifies a genre of patriotic writing which might be described as 'memorial' or 'commemorative discourse'.  Among its features, memorial discourse commonly exhibits a pattern of exclusive praise, an exaltation of a particular past through the ubiquitous application of florid prose.  A singular event of a people's history is often sanctified through the judicious displacement of religious idiom.  Memorial discourse was only one thread woven into the tapestry of the Loyalist tradition in old Ontario.  The tradition (more accurately, the traditions, since there are distinct strands) was a mythology composed from history, story and symbol.  At least one dimension of the folklore provided an ideological justification for the conservative and authoritarian political culture of the province.  From the mid-nineteenth century, there also emerged a romantic, pastoral heritage of Upper Canada's founding soldier-pioneers.  This later tradition, though not devoid of political implications, has continued to invigorate the collective memory of Ontario's people.

  Viewed as a local variety of cultural romance, loyalism owed much of its influence to a hortative, chauvinistic interpretation of early colonial and American Revolutionary history.  A note of caution is in order.  History as a scholarly and analytical study cannot be equated with popular ideas of "the past". That latter is a diffuse cloud of notions, sentiments, symbols and nostalgia revolving around certain singular events.  How do societies remember their unique histories?  Which events, which political or genetic forebears, deserve the brass band and parade?  Who and what do we collectively forget?  How and by what means did our immediate ancestors in Ontario frame the distinctive pictures of the United Empire Loyalists?

  The roots of this patriotic mythology can be traced to certain social and political conditions in the early 1800's.  As a nostalgic record of Upper Canada's pioneer origins, the Loyalist tradition began to take shape in the 1850's.  The pressure of major socio-economic changes, publications of nationalist American historians and the passing of the original Loyalist settlers prompted a number of notable antiquarians to begin recording the early history of the colony.  Appropriated by Loyalist descendants and by proponents of the imperial federation movement in the later Victorian era, the tradition was gradually embellished.  History gave way before the twin juggernauts of romantic sentiment and convenient propaganda.  In an unpublished 1992 doctoral dissertation, Inventing the Loyalists : The Ontario Loyalist Tradition and the Creation of a Usable Past, 1785 - 1924, Norman J. Knowles persuasively argues that the Ontario Loyalist tradition was not so much an inheritance received from the Loyalist refugees as it was a cultural after-effect which was constructed in the latter half of the Victorian era.3

  The tradition evolved largely in response to internal events and forces within the province and as a reaction to partisan histories and filiopietism in the United States.  Yesteryear's pious and apologetic historiography of the United Empire Loyalists certainly activated and propelled the Ontario legend well into the twentieth century, but the capacity of the Loyalist myth to capture the patriotic spotlight declined after the First World War.  Nevertheless, the Loyalist heritage has not only perdured but has proven to be remarkably adaptive to the rapid political changes since the 1960's.

  Loyalism has survived against tremendous odds partly because it is an innocuous and natural affirmation, vital to the ecology of Ontario's mechanisms of communal remembrance.  Construction and the invention of tradition invoke the metaphors of power, control and mastery over social reality.  The unfolding of the Loyalist myth may also be perceived as a reflective interpretation of certain cultural ideals -- a process of seeking, searching and limited discovery, leading to dynamic and constantly changing self-definition.  Practically all human societies, yesterday and today, frame and mythologize their historical experiences.  Commemoration, even if it is sometimes haughty and exclusive, is surely a natural and inescapable foundation for any community.  One implication of this thesis is a rejection of "presentism" and the state-supported varieties which flourish in the multicultural arena.  An authentic community envelops and respects the living and the dead constantly recapitulating the past in order to inform the present.

  The Ontario tradition, as patriotic historiography, had its actualized forms, but it should not be seen as a timeworn Victorian mansion, designed and executed according to some preconceived plan.  Undeniably, the myth took root and acquired motif, but to assume that the tradition was anything more than a contingent outcome of historical events is to fall into a significant error.  The tradition was undoubtedly characterized by prescriptive history much more than by descriptive history.  A particular community in the past was gradually invested with social and political virtues for the benefit of a particular present.  The prescriptive element was fluid and capable of meeting recurring challenges to the felt need for cultural continuity.

  The Loyalist traditions in Ontario and New Brunswick assigned certain objective meanings to their respective pasts.  Those 'meanings' differed in each colony as a unique response to their peculiar histories.  The Loyalist 'story', as it evolved in New Brunswick, followed a mythic structure with initial resemblances to the Ontario tradition.  Persecution, exile, wilderness hardship and triumph became the governing symbols as the romance unfolded in the Atlantic colony.  Murray Barkley focuses on the importance of nature in the New Brunswick Loyalists tradition.  Never having experienced American military aggression during the War of 1812, the New Brunswick Loyalists met their enemy on land.  "The ultimate victory," in Barkley's words, "could be gained by carving out of the wilderness of defeat, the garden of victory".4  Dennis Duffy has expanded upon this theme with respect to Upper Canada where the War of 1812 added a military and heroic component to the covenant with the ancestral heritage.5  Upper Canadian loyalism, especially in its later varieties, acquired an anti-American and imperialist tone.  The rhetoric was more visceral and polemical than its cousins in the Atlantic colonies.  To understand Ontario's Loyalist tradition, it is vital to step outside its contents and internal structures and pursue its historical development.

  The Loyalists were a cross-section of American colonial culture.  Bruce Wilson has provided strong evidence to suggest that the majority of the refugees had been relatively recent immigrants to the Thirteen Colonies.  Many spoke with accents and a few (e.g., Gaelic-speaking Catholic Highlanders) could not speak English.  Ethnically and religiously diverse, most of the soldiers and their families had been pioneer farmers in the colonies.  Only a small percentage fit the customary image of wealthy colonists, "bluebloods and snobs, toadies to the British authorities and ersatz aristocrats".6

  Cultural diversity, coupled with defeat, aggravated internal dissension among the settlement process.  Donald Akenson, examining the Loyalist origins of Leeds and Lansdowne townships, found that the refugees' behaviour was atomistic, oriented toward individual self-interest and seldom communitarian. Along the St. Lawrence 'Royal Townships', Loyalists insisted on settling according to their ethnic and religious inheritance. Discontent erupted between the 'rank and file' soldier settlers and their former officers.9  Mary Beacock Fryer's analysis illuminates the umbrella of political subterfuge and officer cliquishness, which constantly shadowed life in the Québec receiving camps and Cataraqui communities.10  The general confusion exacerbated the frustrations of the refugees and fostered suspicions and incessant complaints.  The picture which emerges is one of divided, clannish settlements with no coherent identity.

  Added to the lack of cultural cohesion was the absence of a common political ideology.  A generation ago, the Loyalist tradition was interpreted through the theoretical abstractions of Louis Hartz, Kenneth McRae and Gad Horowitz.11  Thus David Bell grounded the tradition squarely within the Loyalists' experience of rejection and expulsion and the consequent necessity to invent a new identity.  The Loyalist was forced to create "a myth that helps him survive --  he insists that he is British".12  Bell defended the view that the Loyalists developed a political culture in response to a collective psychology of loss.  He concluded that Anglo-Canada's predilection for responsible government, "cratophilia" (or "love of government") and our perceived fondness for a multicultural society, could be traced to the Loyalists.  As late as 1967, S. F. Wise felt confident in arguing that Ontario's conservative habits and anti-Americanism were largely an inheritance of the Loyalist founders of the colony.13

  Current historical research calls into question some earlier assumptions concerning the alleged 'Britishness' or 'Anglophilia' still commonly attributed to the Loyalist refugees.  Contrary to popular belief, people of English origin were probably a minority among the arrivals.14  The ethnic diversity renders suspect any simplistic conceptions of unswerving alliance to the royal cause during the American revolution.  The break with the mother country was complex and an individual's 'choice', when choice was an option, was always difficult.  A sense of attachment to the Crown and to Britain was undoubtedly a significant factor in the decisions of many people.  Some immigrant communities may have felt threatened and weak without the presence of British power.  Local politics and grudges, family disputes and clientelism played their roles in determining political fealty.15  The Loyalists did not bring, create or foster a monolithic conservatism and universal admiration for all things British.

  Historians David Mills and Jane Errington maintain that early Upper Canadian patriotic attachments were amplified by ideologies of loyalty promulgated by the colonial elites.  Jane Errington had made the substantive observation threat "Upper Canada between 1784 and 1828 was a colony of both Great Britain and the United States".16  Despite the stubborn efforts of the conservative compacts to inculcate a unitary admiration for the 'British constitution', Upper Canadians, including the Loyalists, could not avoid their dual heritage.17  Nonetheless, long before the War of 1812, the elitist leadership, out of necessity and self-interest, began to appropriate the real and imagined fidelity of the Loyalists.18  Modern historical studies qualify the received wisdom, which traditionally assumes an inherited, heroic tradition, native to the United Empire Loyalists.  On the contrary, there was a quiet, sometimes ambivalent allegiance, which was gradually transformed by the political requirements of a post-Revolutionary age and annexed to the ideological demands of High Tory puffery.  In contrast to popular belief, the Loyalists probably had neither a coherent, communal identity nor any common or well-articulated, political preferences.

  Scholars agree that land held a common and singular interest for all Loyalists.  In 1783, British Prime Minister, Lord North, informed Sir Frederick Haldimand, the Governor-in-Chief of Canada, that the Loyalists were to be granted land for their services to the King.  Military surveyors partitioned the land along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River and acreage was allotted to civilian and military heads of households and to the family members, according to simple formulas based primarily on military rank.19  In 1786, Lord Dorchester (Sir Guy Carleton) was appointed as Governor at Québec.  Dorchester established local district government in what was soon to become Upper Canada and he corrected previous land granting inequities by increasing the acreage offered to reduced officers of the late provincial corps.20  In such a bureaucratic system, confusion arose over who was actually a Loyalist and deserving of free land.  Attempting to distinguish 'genuine Loyalists' from those of dubious background, Dorchester declared that

  "... it was his wish to put a mark of honour upon the families who had adhered to the Unity of the Empire, and joined the Royal Standard in America before the Treaty of Separation in the year 1783... it is accordingly ordered that the several Land-Boards take a course of preserving a Registry of the names of all persons falling under the description aforementioned, to the end that their posterity may be discriminated from future settlers in the Parish Registers and Rolls of the Militia in their respective Districts..." 21  

  Added to the London dispatch was a memorandum stating that all the Loyalists' "Children and their descendants by either sex, are to be distinguished by the following Capitals, affixed to their names: U.E. Alluding to their great principle The Unity of the Empire".22  Dorchester also stipulated that the sons and daughters of Loyalists were entitled to grants of 200 acres without survey and patent fees.  Unlike the U.E. designation, the land grants to children, or 'U.E. Rights' were never intended to be given in perpetuity.  Dorchester's order-in-council not only failed to solve the problem of who was a Loyalist, it helped to stoke the first fires of the Loyalist tradition.23

  Norman K. Knowles has noted the difficulty faced by subsequent colonial governments whenever they attempted to halt the Loyalist claims which Dorchester had introduced.  Purging the U.E. List of questionable entries or imposing settlement duties triggered howls of outrage from Loyalist offspring.  Each confrontation was accompanied by a rhetoric of sacrifice and service and by self-serving claims to special considerations, in short, to social rank and acknowledgment not deserved by others in the population.24  By fueling a pretentious rhetoric over land rights Loyalist children in Upper Canada unwittingly helped to plant the seeds of a colonial nativism which would begin to flower shortly before Confederation.

  To be fair, it should be emphasized that the 'U.E.' and the free land grants emanated from the chief colonial administrator, Lord Dorchester.  Loyalists and their immediate progeny came to be known as 'U.E. Loyalists'.  The designation acted to distinguish the founding settlers and eventually their descendants from later immigrants.  The 'U.E.' possessed an intrinsic exclusiveness which put the Loyalists a cut above ordinary mortals.  The ultra-conservative leadership was not slow to exploit 'honours and origins'.  Unswerving adherence to King and Empire, valour and sacrifice, triumph and reward for steadfast service -- the U.E. Loyalist became a convenient symbol to deploy in securing unquestioning obedience to the Upper Canadian administration and to the imperial fold.

  On 3 June 1814, the Reverend John Strachan led a service of Thanksgiving for his parishioners at York.  Word had reached Upper Canada of Napoleon's defeat in April.  Strachan's sermon was a providentialist's celebration of British victories in Europe.  Peace had not yet come to Upper Canada but the people could take heart.  "We have shown that the same spirit animates the children of the Loyalists which inspired their fathers to put down treason and rebellion; and to stand up for the unity of the empire".25  Strachan, a Scottish born Anglican divine, was one of the architects of the narrow ruling clique which later gained some political notoriety as the Family Compact.

  Men like John Strachan, stubborn, single-minded and unyielding in their praise for the British connection, were singularly adept at orchestrating patriotism graced with the necessary rhetorical flourish.  They created the militia legend from the War of 1812 and constantly invoked the Loyalist exemplar during both the Alien Question in the 1820's and the political standoffs prior to 1837.  Upper Canadian 'High Tories' had cast the mould for a Loyalist 'imperial tradition' which would take shape later in the nineteenth century.

  The 1840's witnessed the end of the Compact and the rise of moderate Tories and Reformers.  By the 1850's, major political, economic and social changes were transforming Upper Canada (officially Canada West).  Responsible government arrived about the same time as the birth of the railroad revolution.  Large-scale immigration from the British Isles during the 1840's transformed Upper Canada and the provincial culture acquired a distinctively different cast from that of the neighbouring states.  The idea of loyalty, as David Mills has brought into focus, spread from the accommodative tone, acceptable to a broader spectrum of the population.  The Loyalist homeland became merely the home of the loyal and the U.E. Loyalist was transformed from a symbol of vital political discourse into an object of sentiment and nostalgia.26


1George W. Spragge, "The Great Seals and Arms of Ontario", Ontario History 51 (1959): 36-7.

2James Henry Coyne, "Memorial to U.E. Loyalists", Niagara Historical Society Pamphlets, No. 4 (Niagara-on-the-Lake, 1898).

3Norman James Knowles, "Inventing the Loyalists : The Ontario Loyalist Tradition and the Creation of a Usable Past, 1784 - 1924", (Ph.D. dissertation, York University, 1992), v.

4Murray, Barkley, "The Loyalist Tradition in New Brunswick", Acadiensis 4 (Spring 1975): 8.

5Dennis Duffy, Gardens, Covenants, Exiles: Loyalism in the Literature of Upper Canada/Ontario (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), 23.

6Bruce Wilson, As She Began: An Illustrated Introduction to Loyalist Ontario  (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1981), 10, 13, 18-20.

7Donald Akenson, The Irish in Ontario: A Study in Rural History  (Kingston and Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1984), 79, 82.

8Bruce Wilson, As She Began: An Illustrated Introduction to Loyalist Ontario  (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1981), 73.

9Gerald M. Craig, Upper Canada: The Formative Years, 1784 - 1841, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart dissertation, 1963), 11.

10Mary Beacock Fryer, King's Men: The Soldier Founders of Ontario, (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1980), 318-21.

11Norman James Knowles, "Inventing the Loyalists : The Ontario Loyalist Tradition and the Creation of a Usable Past, 1784 - 1924", (Ph.D. dissertation, York University, 1992),  11.

12David Bell, "The Loyalist Tradition in Canada", Journal of Canadian Studies  5 (May 1970): 24.

13S.F. Wise, "Upper Canada and the Conservative Tradition", Profiles of a Province: Studies in the History of Ontario, Edith Firth, ed.  (Toronto: Ontario Historical Society, 1967), 20, 31.

14Bruce Wilson, As She Began: An Illustrated Introduction to Loyalist Ontario, Upper Canada: The Formative Years, 1784 - 1841, 13-18.   Larry Turner has also analyzed the demographics of the Associated Loyalists who were settled at Adolphustown.  About 37% were of Dutch ethnicity, 28% British, 20% French and 15% German.  The large majority were Mehodist by religious persuasion and only a few were Anglican.  See: Larry Turner, Voyage of a Different Kind: The Associated Loyalists of Kingston and Adolphustown (Belleville, Ont.,: Mika Publishing Co., 1984), 143.

15Bruce Wilson, As She Began: An Illustrated Introduction to Loyalist Ontario, Upper Canada: The Formative Years, 1784 - 1841, 13-18.   See also: Walter Stewart, True Blue: The Loyalist Legend (Toronto: Collins, 1985), 2.

16Jane Errington, The Lion, The Eagle, and Upper Canada: A Developing Colonial Ideology, (Kingston and Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1987),  5.


18David Mills, The Idea of Loyalty in Upper Canada, 1784 - 1850, (Kingston and Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1988),  14-16.   Mills notes that as early as 1798, Richard Cartwright, a wealthy merchant, wrote that the Loyalists were ...

... the most valuable Class of His Majesty's Subjects in this Province.  The truth is .. that the generality of those gallant men, so little known, and so much undervalued by their pretended advocates, were men of property; and some of them the greatest landowners in America ...                                          (Mills, 16)

The excerpt is taken from Richard Cartwright in Chief Justice John Elmsley, 7 January 1798, as quoted in Donald C. MacDonald, "Honourable Richard Cartwright, 1759 - 1815" in Three History Theses, (Toronto: Ontario Department of Public Records and Archives, 1961),  114.

19Mary Beacock Fryer, King's Men: The Soldier Founders of Ontario, (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1980), 311.

20Ibid., 35-36

21From the minutes of the Executive Council, 9 November, 1789, quoted in Mary Beacock Fryer, King's Men: The Soldier Founders of Ontario, 335.

22Quoted in United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada, Toronto Branch; Lynn A. Morgan, ed. Loyalist Lineages of Canada 1783 - 1983, (Agincourt, Ont.,: Generation Press, 1984), xix.

23Norman James Knowles, "Inventing the Loyalists : The Ontario Loyalist Tradition and the Creation of a Usable Past, 1784 - 1924", (Ph.D. dissertation, York University, 1992), 34-35.

24Ibid., 35-36

25John Strachan, A Sermon Preached at York on the 3rd Day of June, Being the Day Appointed for General Thanksgiving, John Strachan Papers, unpublished sermons, 1803-28, Archives of Ontario, Toronto; quoted in Jane Errington, The Lion, The Eagle, and Upper Canada: A Developing Colonial Ideology,  97.

26David Mills, The Idea of Loyalty in Upper Canada, 1784 - 1850, 133.