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"Fireside Chats Of Historical Content"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 II : The Later 19th and 20th Centuries)

Gary Peters, Editor, February 1997, Vol.9 No.1, Pages 14-18



    The political turmoil of Upper Canada's early years arose in the context of polarized conceptions of eighteenth century British constitutional theory.  The tripartite balanced constitution -- monarchy, aristocracy and democracy -- had deep roots in history and in the ideas of many luminaries, among them, such men as Edmund Burke and Sir William Blackstone.  In Upper Canada, the image of the U.E. Loyalist was increasingly shaped as a patriotic symbol and deployed in a propaganda battle in defence of  monarchy and aristocracy.  In practice, monarchy and aristocracy were identified with the conservative governing oligarchy which was suspicious of a large American immigrant population.  Despite the victory in 1814 and the overwhelming support of British immigrants during the 1837 Rebellion, it was obvious by the late 1840's that democracy was emerging as the dominant presence in provincial politics.

  While the U.E. Loyalist, as a symbol of yesterday's conservatism, receded into the political wilderness, the few remaining first generation Loyalist migrants (most of whom had arrived as children) were rapidly joining the ranks of the deceased.  the sense of loss was felt acutely by the aging children of these original settlers and by a number of amateur and local historians who were not necessarily of Loyalist stock.  Nostalgia and the fear of cultural ebb congealed in the efforts of such traditionalists as William Kirby, William Canniff, George Coventry and Egerton Ryerson.  These men, partly in reaction to American nationalist historians and influenced by Lorenzo Sabine's more balanced treatment of the Revolution, initiated historical writing in the province.  It was this pre-Confederation antiquarian response which shaped the Ontario Loyalist tradition.

  Long subject to the cultural infusion from the United states, Upper Canada was not immune to the writings of many American historians, some of whom were zealously chauvinistic in their interpretations of the Revolution.  Striking at odds with partisan historiography was the New England historian, Lorenzo Sabine.  Sabine, presaging a later generation of critical scholars, took an impartial look at United States history and presented a balanced treatment of the King's Americans during the revolutionary turmoil.  In the introduction to his 1847 biographical essay on the Loyalists, Sabine used a term "the United Empire of Loyalists".  Sabine's book soon entered Upper Canada where the same expression, sans the preposition, gained popularity.1  Of greater significance was Sabine's short biographical sketches of over 6000 prominent Loyalists.  Forced to use existing sources which favoured the colonial elite, Sabine unintentionally reinforced the growing conviction that the Loyalists were the cream of colonial society.

William Kirby

13 Oct. 1817 - 23 Jun. 1906

The U.E. Loyalists

  The Toronto Globe, in a column dated 30 October 1856, bemoaned the widespread ignorance of the Loyalists and expressed deep concern that "the only men who would accurately inform, [were] fast dying, if not already dead".2  As the decade drew to a close, Upper and Lower Canadians were becoming conscious of their great historical events, the birth pangs of British North America.  The centennial of Wolfe's victory on the Plains of Abraham was commemorated with pomp and splendour in September, 1859.  Never to be outclassed, Upper Canada (officially Canada West) responded with a splendid inaugural of the second Brock monument in October.3   William Kirby, editor of the Niagara Mail, disheartened that Upper Canadians had still largely ignored the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Loyalist migration in 1859, published an epic poem: The U.E.: A Tale of Upper Canada.  Born in England in 1817, Kirby emigrated to the United States in 1832 and removed to Upper Canada by 1839.  Eventually settling at Niagara-on-the-Lake, he met his future wife, Eliza Madeline Whitmore, a woman of solid Loyalist stock.  Kirby composed his poem in 1846 while courting his future wife.4   The epic, proclaiming the virtues of an inclusive loyalism, "[was] closely based on the local, nostalgic, and folkloric traditions of the Mohawk and Niagara regions ... communicated to him by the Loyalists themselves".5   Kirby's amalgam of pastoralism and heroic virtues appealed not only to the pioneer spirit, but to all those who still looked with fondness on an eighteenth century, agrarian social order nurtured under the guiding institutions of crown and landed aristocracy.  For William Kirby, the United Empire Loyalists represented ideal exemplars, a people that all Upper Canadians could admire and seek to emulate.

  On 16 March 1859, Canniff Haight, a Picton druggist and bookseller, delivered and address "Scraps of Local history", before an audience at the local Mechanics' Institute.  "I venerate the memory of those true and noble-hearted men, who loved their fatherland so well that they even preferred to live under the protection of her flag in the wild woods of Canada, and endure hunger and want, than enjoy the comforts of home under the banner of a rebellious but now independent people".6   Noble resolve, not threat and expulsion, activated the Loyalist exodus.  Historical authenticity was hardly Haight's intention.  His address was a lengthy, meandering paean to his Loyalist forebears.  "Scraps" would likely have been forgotten, had it not been included in the second volume of Egerton Ryerson's The Loyalists of America and their Times, published in 1880.

  The conservators of the Loyalist heritage in Upper Canada were gradually shaping a mirror image of similar endeavours which were emerging in the United States.  Loyalist apologists linked a pastoral tradition with the militia legend from the War of 1812.  By identifying with a heroic past, these amateur historians possibly entertained hopes of achieving an elevated social status in provincial society.  Repetitive attributions of snobbery, however, too often become the first and last refuge of the intellectually lazy.  Many of the nineteenth century promoters were already men of distinction and wealth, eminently well-placed, and they possessed a genuine, if sometimes pious affection for their colonial heritage.  Historians of the time were quite convinced that cultural continuity depended on a democratization of the social memory, but a memory which invariably depicted a glorious and praiseworthy past.7

Egerton Ryerson

1803 - 1882

Egerton Ryerson, Methodist minister, founder and editor of the Christian Guardian in 1829 and the architect of Ontario's educational system.  Ryerson was of Loyalist descent and took a greater interest in his heritage following the death of his father, Col. Joseph Ryerson in 1854.  Ryerson wrote the two-volume Loyalists of America and their Times, published in 1850.  He died in 1882, a major figure in the history and politics of Victorian Upper Canada and the early years of the Confederation.

  In 1859, several prominent individuals petitioned the Legislative Assembly to authorize funds for the collection and preservation of documents pertaining to the early history of Canada West.  The Library Committee authorized a Cobourg journalist, George Coventry, to collect and transcribe relevant papers and documents.  Over the next two years Coventry succeeded in forwarding valuable material to the Parliamentary Library.8   With the backing of the Union government, the Loyalist revival was about to blossom.  Paralleling these events was an attempt, in 1861, to establish the 'Historical Society of Upper Canada'.  The founding committee consisted of William Hamilton Merritt, his son J. P. Merritt, J. G. Hodgins, Egerton Ryerson, George Coventry and William Canniff.  The Society fractured by 1863 but during its brief existence, Egerton Ryerson was persuaded to proceed with his tome on the Loyalists of America and Their Times and William Canniff was urged to research and prepare a paper on Loyalist settlement along the Bay of Quinte.  Canniff's efforts expanded into The Settlement of Upper Canada, published in 1869.9  

  At the urgings of the Historical Society, Ryerson and Canniff began compiling reminiscences of the few remaining Loyalists and their children.  Egerton Ryerson prepared and circulated a public request to "the United Empire Loyalists and their descendants" seeking "any letters or papers in their possession which would throw light upon the early history and settlement in these Provinces by our UE Loyalist forefathers".10   William Canniff wrote in the preface to his Settlement of Upper Canada that he had to sift a mass of promiscuous material which has come under investigation, so that grains of truth alone might fill the measure which this volume represents.11   Canniff had interviewed aging individuals in the Quinte region, consulted the private library of Canniff Haight in Picton and collected private papers, obituaries and pioneer recollections, the latter replete with local colour, folklore, homespun adages and above all else, nostalgia.  the second volume of Ryerson's  Loyalists of America and Canniff's Settlement of Upper Canada idealized the Loyalist experience.  Both authors were of Loyalist descent and their efforts culminated in apologetic histories.  Softened with lament but surprisingly charitable towards the United States, the King's men nonetheless emerged as a larger-than-life elite.  The elderly settlers' narratives are strikingly devoid of anti-American hostility and their comments on the American Revolution, persecution and exile, when present, are little more than glosses prefacing lengthy accounts of the hardships, triumphs and communal simplicity of pioneer life.  The 'hungry year' of 1788 clearly focused the memories of many aging pioneers who were never short on oral legends and lessons for the present generation.12   The recollections were products of selective, self-censored nostalgia, and the narrators were sometimes casting judgement on a present which they often tended to view as a period of decline and moral decay.  Ryerson, Canniff and many local historians were prescriptive chroniclers.  In the nineteenth century, the active antiquarian rummaged through the past as if it were a vast storehouse of spare parts, necessary for the ongoing maintenance of civilization.  The original Loyalists were passing from this world but their perseverance in the face of adversity and their steadfastness could not be forgotten, at least not without imperiling this most loyal bastion of Her Most Gracious Majesty, Queen Victoria's Empire.

  Within the first two decades after Confederation, at least two elements were well entrenched in the Ontario Loyalist tradition.  The pastoral myth of defeat and exile, wilderness trial, and triumph over the land was conjoined with the militia legend, Isaac Brock and the loyal defenders during the War of 1812.  "Myth' is a dangerous word.  The contents of the tradition had more than a grain of truth but denotation is not connotation.  Historical description was gradually transformed into folklore of moral prescription.  The Loyalist legend was now thoroughly embedded in a literature of heroic and memorial discourse.  Though far from being a widespread symbol, the United Empire Loyalist was now an emblem of origins and honour, an icon to be unveiled with fanfare and commemoration.

  Historical celebrations are primary vehicles for recapitulating the great events in the life of a nation.  In 1876, the United States marked the centennial of the Declaration of Independence.  Ontario responded during the summer of 1884.  The centenary year of the arrival of the loyal few was commemorated at Adolphustown, Toronto and Niagara.  The programmes and speeches, especially in Toronto and Niagara, attempted to legitimate the elite status of the Loyalists and appropriate their loyalty to the imperial cause.  The Adolphustown celebrations, while featuring the ritual addresses, focused primarily on an inclusive, pioneer tradition.  Norman Knowles observes that the "Adolphustown centennial celebrations were not the product of a general, broadly felt revival of interest in the Loyalists and Loyalism, but rather, local political and religious tensions".13   Behind the ceremonies lay months of planning, plagued with infighting and intrigue.  Methodists versus Anglicans, Conservatives versus Liberals, personalities and ego -- each faction sought to claim a particular strand of the tradition for essentially partisan ends.  No single clique came to dominate the proceedings, and the ceremonies, especially beyond the platform speakers, had a distinctly apolitical colour.14 

  The festivities in Toronto and Niagara were stridently political, anti-American with a barely muted assault on Canadian nationalism.  The President of the organizing committee in Toronto was William Canniff, a moderate imperialist who came into conflict with a more militant wing, led by Lt.-Col. George T. Denison and his supporters.  Hard-line chauvinism won and the United Empire Loyalists were resurrected and sent into battle against the nascent Canadian nationalists.15   Here was patriotism on parade -- a snooty, feisty loyalism, dismissed by the people of Ontario, but the harbinger perhaps, of a temperate imperial federation movement which would emerge later in the decade.  The ceremonies were representative of neither a monolithic imperialist sentiment nor of a uniform and ubiquitous Loyalist tradition, as Berger seems to imply.16   A cranky, supercilious imperialism could not forever encrust the Ontario Loyalist tradition in an ideological shell.  The legend was now popular 'naive history', too tempted by democratic sentiments to be left to the elite.

  The last fifteen years of the nineteenth century were notable for debates between proponents of imperialist federation and advocates of Canadian independence.  Loyalist descendants, at least those who possessed an historical consciousness, probably tended to hold common cause with the imperialists.  While imperialists favoured increased immigration from the Isles, some descendants of the Loyalists, following American trends, promoted preferential status for their U.E.L. ancestors.  Since the 1870's, genealogy had become an addictive habit of the aristocratic heart among much of America's pure laine.  By 1900, there were one hundred and five patriotic and filiopietistic orders in the United States.  The Sons of the American Revolution was formed in 1889 and the Daughters of the American Revolution was first organized in 1890.17   In 1894, Dr. George Sterling Ryerson, of Toronto, suggested the formation of an Ontario society to be named the 'Sons of the Loyalists'.18  

  When the United Empire Loyalist Association of Ontario was founded in 1896, it was only modeling the lineal descent societies in the neighbouring republic.  The constitution of the Association, adopted on 11 May 1896, was conservative and somewhat exclusive, but with a didactic intent.  The Loyalists were to be claimed for the present and their memory preserved for the benefit of all Ontarians.  Membership expansion in the Association's formative years was sporadic and possibly dampened by some of the leadership's propensity for insisting on a rather piggish, historical correctness.  In 1914, a national association was formed, assuring the survival of the Loyalist traditions across the Dominion.19  

  Interest in the Loyalist heritage began to decline after World War I.  The slaughter in the trenches sorely tested the sacred and secular attachments of the pre-war era.   The imperial federation movement died, but out of its ashes rose the British Commonwealth.  The 140th anniversary of the Loyalist arrival, in 1924, was hardly noticed in Ontario.  The following year, 1925, signalled a significant shift away from the traditional attachments of Canadians and Ontarians.  The Presbyterians and Methodists, together with a smaller number of Congregationalists, joined in the establishment of the United Church of Canada, a liberal communion born of a sense of nationhood as much as it was of Protestant ecumenicism.  The church union was followed by the 1926 election of William Lyon Mackenzie King who survived the customs scandal and the King-Byng affair.  The twentieth century arrived in the young Dominion in the middle years of the third decade and the Loyalist traditions began a long and steady decline.  After World War II, Empire Canada slowly faded and a new Canadian-centred patriotism, replete with presentist jargon and disdain of 'Britishness', emerged triumphant by 1965.

  The Upper Canadian Loyalist myth evolved in stages throughout the nineteenth century.  Lord Dorchester's 'U.E." (the mark of honour) and U.E. land rights planted the seeds of a short-lived elitism among the Loyalists and their children.  The loyalty of the refugees was gradually insinuated into the political hyperbole of the early colonial administrators who were vexed with the problem of securing the allegiance of later American settlers.  The Loyalists were increasingly portrayed as exemplary models of fealty to crown and empire.  The War of 1812 added Isaac Brock, the militia legend and a strong anti-American component to Upper Canada's nascent 'proto-nationalism'.  To the elite status of the Loyalists was grafted a defensive, militant patriotism.  The Ontario Loyalist tradition existed in embryo by the 1850's.

  In reaction to American chauvinistic historians, a small coterie of prominent Upper Canadian literati, with sentimental leanings, began to compile oral histories and reminiscences from the few surviving founders.  Such men as William Kirby, William Canniff and Egerton Ryerson succeeded in idealizing the Loyalists.  Their efforts sparked a revival of interest in the first settlers of Upper Canada.  In the late Victorian era, the Loyalists were politicized by militant imperialists and publicized by some descendants seeking social recognition, but also a greater understanding of their roots in colonial America and Upper Canada.

  The Loyalist picture was originally little more than a canvas sketch, framed by a discourse of parental patriotism towards the mother country.  Beginning in the 1850's, the founders were painted as hardy pioneers, bounded within a pastoral myth of patriotism to home -- Upper Canada, Ontario and eventually the Dominion.  Twenty years after Confederation, these two scenes of Canadian nationalism -- Britain in one perspective and Ontario, (or Canada) in another -- coexisted in tension within the Ontario Loyalist tradition.  This nuclear unease lies at the core of Ontario's search for a unique self-definition.  Its political culture is a product of a seventeenth century 'court values' structure, but our unique variety of the English language, our popular ideals, fashions and social practices owe much to rustic colonial soldiers and later settlers from the new republic.20   We have a dual and discordant heritage which has long been symbolized in the story of the King's loyal Americans.

  The Ontario Loyalist tradition, in the singular, is a misnomer.  Several political and cultural motifs emerge in successive layers.  The tradition grew and changed in response to internal (provincial) and external (American) forces.  Although the Loyalist refugees profited from British protection and were clearly grateful for unexpected rewards in recognition of their services, their input into the development of an elitist myth had less impact than is usually assumed.  the sources of the Loyalist and the pious hagiography was a later development.

  If Ontario tradition is partitioned, at least two main constituent elements are revealed.  A political component, the anti-American and pro-British trait, can be traced to early Upper Canada and the War of 1812.  Fuel for these passions was added by chauvinistic American historians during the mid-nineteenth century.  As a type of heritage patriotism, it was recapitulated during the imperialist renaissance of the 1880's and into the Edwardian era.  A distinctly social, almost apolitical strain can be found in a sense of reverence towards the Loyalists, a sentiment still felt by many people in Ontario.  This tradition has its sources in American inspired filiopietistic movements and in the rural antiquarianism of the nineteenth century.  From this pioneer myth came the familiar pattern of persecution, defeat, exile and rebirth in the wilderness of Upper Canada.

  The discourse of yesterday's Ontario Loyalist tradition, though sometimes self-justifying and annoyingly supercilious, nonetheless possessed a spirit of respect for the founders, for the heritage and institutions of the province.  That same spirit still has an appeal for a great many people in Ontario.  the conclusion to this series will examine the present and the future of the Loyalist traditions in Ontario and Canada.

  Badge and Insignia of the United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada
Monument and symbol, poem and chronicle - each in its own way formed a part of the traditions through which Ontarians once honoured and remembered the United Empire Loyalists, the founders of Upper Canada.  The visual and aural reminders, actually commemorative icons, served to idealize the Loyalists.  From the 1850's to the turn of the century, nostalgic narratives and pious, apologetic histories depicted the Loyalist pioneers as moral exemplars - an elite group who chose the path of honour and fealty to king and country, who valiantly faced persecution, defeat, exile and the tribulations of the wilderness to find triumph in a new land.  The Loyalist mythology in Ontario declined after World War II.  The end of the British Empire and the successful emergence of Canadian nationalism, the latter symbolized in the new flag, were paralleled by rural depopulation and the rise of metropolitan, multicultural Ontario.  The romance and 'local chronicle' once associated with pioneer life and the Loyalist experience has receded in the collective memory of most Ontarians.  With the link between history and present existence broken, the Ontario Loyalist tradition also lost its patriotic and political relevance.


  Although a variety of valuable, secondary source literature was consulted in the preparation of the first and second parts of this paper, the works of Murray Barkley, Dennis Duffy and James Norman Knowles are invaluable.  Knowles' 1992 Ph.D. dissertation "Inventing the Loyalists" (see below) is an important contribution to the historiography and the history of the Loyalist traditions in Ontario.  Knowles' work tends to follow the approach of Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds. The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1983), Hobsbawn and Ranger argue that memory construction is a product of governing and wealthy elites, who manufacture symbols, rituals, heroes and history in order to legitimize and perpetuate their authority and control.  For an alternative view, see Iwona Irwin-Zarecka, Frames of Remembrance: The Dynamics of Collective Memory (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1994).  Irwin-Zarecka's analysis of the post World War II Polish response to the Holocaust illuminates the complexities of social memory work, the political psychologies and the contributions and inter-relationships of many factions in the dedication of monuments, the formation of symbols and historical interpretations.

  1Lorenzo Sabine, "Preliminary Remarks, or Historical Essay", in The American Loyalists, Or Biographical Sketches of Adherents to the British Crown in the War of the Revolution (Boston, 1847; [1864]), 90; also noted in Murray Barkley, "Prelude to Tradition: The Loyalist Revival in the Canadas, 1849 - 1867", in None Was Ever Better... The Loyalist Settlement of Ontario: Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Ontario Historical Society, Cornwall, June 1984, ed. by S. F. Wise, D. Carter Edward Witham (Cornwall, Ont.: Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Historical Society, 1984), 86.

  2Norman James Knowles, "Inventing the Loyalists: The Ontario Loyalist Tradition and the Creation of a Usable Past, 1784 -1924", (Ph.D. diss., York University, 1992), 41.

  3Barkley, "Prelude to Tradition: The Loyalist Revival in the Canadas, 1849 - 1867", 93.

  4Knowles, "Inventing the Loyalists: The Ontario Loyalist Tradition and the Creation of a Usable Past, 1784 -1924", 44-6.

  5Barkley, "Prelude to Tradition: The Loyalist Revival in the Canadas, 1849 - 1867", 88.

  6Canniff Haight, "Scraps of Local History: Extracts of an Address delivered before the Mechanics' Institute of Picton, March 16th, 1859", in Egerton Ryerson, The Loyalists of America and their Times, (Toronto: William Briggs, 1880), 2:225.

  7Knowles, "Inventing the Loyalists: The Ontario Loyalist Tradition and the Creation of a Usable Past, 1784 -1924", 53.

  8Barkley, "Prelude to Tradition: The Loyalist Revival in the Canadas, 1849 - 1867", 92.

  9Knowles, "Inventing the Loyalists: The Ontario Loyalist Tradition and the Creation of a Usable Past, 1784 -1924", 50-2.

 10Egerton Ryerson, The Loyalists of America and their Times, 1:iv.

 11William Canniff, History of the Settlement of Upper Canada (Ontario) with Special Reference to the Bay of Quinte, (Toronto: Dudley & Burns, 1869; reprint, Belleville, Ont.: Mika Publishing Co., 1983),  vi.

 12Barkley, "Prelude to Tradition: The Loyalist Revival in the Canadas, 1849 - 1867", 96-7.

 13Knowles, "Inventing the Loyalists: The Ontario Loyalist Tradition and the Creation of a Usable Past, 1784 -1924", 136.

 14Ibid., 149-150.

 15Ibid., 173 passim,194-95.

 16Carl Berger, The Sense of Power: Studies in the Ideas of Canadian Imperialism, 1867 - 1914, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970),  70,   81-2, passim.

 17Ibid., 85.

 18Knowles, "Inventing the Loyalists: The Ontario Loyalist Tradition and the Creation of a Usable Past, 1784 -1924", 287.

 19United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada, Toronto Branch; Lynn A. Morgan, ed., Loyalist Lineages of Canada  1783 - 1983, (Agincourt, Ont.; Generation Press, 1984) xx.

 20Gordon Stewart, The Origins of Canadian Politics: A Comparative Approach, (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1986) viii.  Stewart develops the thesis of a 'court-country' dualism in order to explore British, American and Canadian political differences.  In the United States, 'country values' triumphed and took democracy in a distinctly non-statist direction.