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The Exodus to Nova Scotia

When the terms of peace became known, tens of thousands of the Loyalists shook the dust of their ungrateful country from their feet, never to return. Of these the more influential part, both during and after the war, sailed for England. The royal officials, the wealthy merchants, landowners, and professional men; the high military officers--these went to England to press their claims for compensation and preferment. The humbler element, for the most part, migrated to the remaining British colonies in North America. About two hundred families went to the West Indies, a few to Newfoundland, many to what were afterwards called Upper and Lower Canada, and a vast army to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island.

The advantages of Nova Scotia as a field for immigration had been known to the people of New England and New York before the Revolutionary War had broken out. Shortly after the Peace of 1763 parts of the Nova Scotian peninsula and the banks of the river St John had been sparsely settled by colonists from the south; and during the Revolutionary War considerable sympathy with the cause of the Continental Congress was shown by these colonists from New England. Nova Scotia, moreover, was contiguous to the New England colonies, and it was therefore not surprising that after the Revolution the Loyalists should have turned their eyes to Nova Scotia as a refuge for their families.

The first considerable migration took place at the time of the evacuation of Boston by General Howe in March 1776. Boston was at that time a town with a population of about sixteen thousand inhabitants, and of these nearly one thousand accompanied the British Army to Halifax. 'Neither Hell, Hull, nor Halifax,' said one of them, 'can afford worse shelter than Boston.' The embarkation was accomplished amid the most hopeless confusion. 'Nothing can be more diverting,' wrote a Whig, 'than to see the town in its present situation; all is uproar and confusion; carts, trucks, wheelbarrows, handbarrows, coaches, chaises, all driving as if the very devil was after them.' The fleet was composed of every vessel on which hands 'could be laid. In Benjamin Hallowell's cabin there were thirty-seven persons--men, women, and children; servants, masters, and mistresses--obliged to pig together on the floor, there being no berths.' It was a miracle that the crazy flotilla arrived safely at Halifax; but there it arrived after tossing about for six days in the March tempests. General Howe remained with his army at Halifax until June. Then he set sail for New York. Some of the Loyalists accompanied him to New York, but the greater number took passage for England. Only a few of the company remained in Nova Scotia.

From 1776 to 1783 small bodies of Loyalists continually found their way to Halifax; but it was not until the evacuation of New York by the British in 1783 that the full tide of immigration set in. As soon as news leaked out that the terms of peace were not likely to be favorable, and it became evident that the animus of the Whigs showed no signs of abating, the Loyalists gathered in New York looked about for a country in which to begin life anew. Most of them were too poor to think of going to England, and the British provinces to the north seemed the most hopeful place of resort. In 1782 several associations were formed in New York for the purpose of furthering the interests of those who proposed to settle in Nova Scotia. One of these associations had as its president the famous Dr Seabury, and as its secretary Sampson Salter Blowers, afterwards chief justice of Nova Scotia. Its officers waited on Sir Guy Carleton, and received his approval of their plans. It was arranged that a first installment of about five hundred colonists should set out in the autumn of 1782, in charge of three agents, Amos Botsford, Samuel Cummings, and Frederick Hauser, whose duty it should be to spy out the land and obtain grants.

The party sailed from New York, in nine transport ships, on October 19, 1782, and arrived a few days later at Annapolis Royal. The population of Annapolis, which was only a little over a hundred, was soon swamped by the numbers that poured out of the transports. 'All the houses and barracks are crowded,' wrote the Rev. Jacob Bailey, who was then at Annapolis, 'and many are unable to procure any lodgings.' The three agents, leaving the colonists at Annapolis, went first to Halifax, and then set out on a trip of exploration through the Annapolis valley, after which they crossed the Bay of Fundy and explored the country adjacent to the river St John. On their return they published glowing accounts of the country, and their report was transmitted to their friends in New York.

The result of the favorable reports sent in by these agents, and by others who had gone ahead, was an invasion of Nova Scotia such as no one, not even the provincial authorities, had begun to expect. As the names of the thousands who were anxious to go to Nova Scotia poured into the adjutant-general's office in New York, it became clear to Sir Guy Carleton that with the shipping facilities at his disposal he could not attempt to transport them all at once. It was decided that the ships would have to make two trips; and, as a matter of fact, most of them made three or four trips before the last British soldier was able to leave the New York shore.

On April 26, 1783, the first or 'spring' fleet set sail. It had on board no less than seven thousand persons, men, women, children, and servants. Half of these went to the mouth of the river St John, and about half to Port Roseway, at the south-west end of the Nova Scotian peninsula. The voyage was fair, and the ships arrived at their destinations without mishap. But at St John at least, the colonists found that almost no preparations had been made to receive them. They were disembarked on a wild and primeval shore, where they had to clear away the brushwood before they could pitch their tents or build their shanties. The prospect must have been disheartening. 'Nothing but wilderness before our eyes, the women and children did not refrain from tears,' wrote one of the exiles; and the grandmother of Sir Leonard Tilley used to tell her descendants, 'I climbed to the top of Chipman's Hill and watched the sails disappearing in the distance, and such a feeling of loneliness came over me that, although I had not shed a tear through all the war, I sat down on the damp moss with my baby in my lap and cried.'

All summer and autumn the ships kept plying to and fro. In June the 'summer fleet' brought about 2,500 colonists to St John River, Annapolis, Port Roseway, and Fort Cumberland. By August 23 John Parr, the governor of Nova Scotia, wrote that 'upward of 12,000 souls have already arrived from New York,' and that as many more were expected. By the end of September he estimated that 18,000 had arrived, and stated that 10,000 more were still to come. By the end of the year he computed the total immigration to have amounted to 30,000. As late as January 15, 1784, the refugees were still arriving. On that date Governor Parr wrote to Lord North announcing the arrival of 'a considerable number of Refugee families, who must be provided for in and about the town at extraordinary expense, as at this season of the year I cannot send them into the country.' 'I cannot,' he added, 'better describe the wretched condition of these people than by inclosing your lordship a list of those just arrived in the Clinton transport, destitute of almost everything, chiefly women and children, all still on board, as I have not yet been able to find any sort of place for them, and the cold setting in severe.' There is a tradition in Halifax that the cabooses had to be taken off the ships, and ranged along the principal street, in order to shelter these unfortunates during the winter.

New York was evacuated by the British troops on November 25, 1783. Sir Guy Carleton did not withdraw from the city until he was satisfied that every person who desired the protection of the British flag was embarked on the boats. During the latter half of the year Carleton was repeatedly requested by Congress to fix some precise limit to his occupation of New York. He replied briefly, but courteously, that he was doing the best he could, and that no man could do more. When Congress objected that the Loyalists were not included in the agreement with regard to evacuation, Carleton replied that he held opposite views; and that in any case it was a point of honor with him that no troops should embark until the last person who claimed his protection should be safely on board a British ship. As time went on, his replies to Congress grew shorter and more incisive. On being requested to name an outside date for the evacuation of the city, he declared that he could not even guess when the last ship would be loaded, but that he was resolved to remain until it was. He pointed out, moreover, that the more the uncontrolled violence of their citizens drove refugees to his protection, the longer would evacuation be delayed. 'I should show,' he said, 'an indifference to the feelings of humanity, as well as to the honor and interest of the nation whom I serve, to leave any of the Loyalists that are desirous to quit the country, a prey to the violence they conceive they have so much cause to apprehend.'

After the evacuation of New York, therefore, the number of refugee Loyalists who came to Nova Scotia was small and insignificant. In 1784 and 1785 there arrived a few persons who had tried to take up the thread of their former life in the colonies, but had given up the attempt. And in August 1784 the _Sally_ transport from London cast anchor at Halifax with three hundred destitute refugees on board. 'As if there was not a sufficiency of such distress'd objects already in this country,' wrote Edward Winslow from Halifax, 'the good people of England have collected a whole ship load of all kinds of vagrants from the streets of London, and sent them out to Nova Scotia. Great numbers died on the passage of various disorders--the miserable remnant are landed here and have now no covering but tents. Such as are able to crawl are begging for a proportion of provisions at my door.'

But the increase of population in Nova Scotia from immigration during the years immediately following 1783 was partly counterbalanced by the defections from the province. Many of the refugees quailed before the prospect of carving out a home in the wilderness. 'It is, I think, the roughest land I ever saw'; 'I am totally discouraged'; 'I am sick of this Province'--such expressions as these abound in the journals and diaries of the settlers. There were complaints that deception had been practiced. 'All our golden promises,' wrote a Long Island Loyalist, 'are vanished in smoke. We were taught to believe this place was not barren and foggy as had been represented, but we find it ten times worse. We have nothing but his Majesty's rotten pork and unbaked flour to subsist on... It is the most inhospitable clime that ever mortal set foot on.' At first there was great distress among the refugees. The immigration of 1783 had at one stroke trebled the population of Nova Scotia; and the resources of the province were inadequate to meet the demand on them. 'Nova Scarcity' was the nickname for the province invented by a New England wit. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that some who had set their hand to the plough turned back. Some of them went to Upper Canada; some to England; some to the states from which they had come; for within a few years the fury of the anti-Loyalist feeling died down, and not a few Loyalists took advantage of this to return to the place of their birth.

The most careful analysis of the Loyalist immigration into the Maritime Provinces has placed the total number of immigrants at about 35,000. These were in settlements scattered broadcast over the face of the map. There was a colony of 3,000 in Cape Breton, which afforded an ideal field for settlement, since before 1783 the governor of Nova Scotia had been precluded from granting lands there. In 1784 Cape Breton was erected into a separate government, with a lieutenant-governor of its own; and settlers flocked into it from Halifax, and even from Canada. Abraham Cuyler, formerly mayor of Albany, led a considerable number down the St Lawrence and through the Gulf to Cape Breton. On the mainland of Nova Scotia there were settlements at Halifax, at Shelburne, at Fort Cumberland, at Annapolis and Digby; at Port Mouton, and at other places. In what is now New Brunswick there was a settlement at Passamaquoddy Bay, and there were other settlements on the St John river extending from the mouth up past what is now the city of Fredericton. In Prince Edward Island, then called the Island of St John, there was a settlement which is variously estimated in size, but which was comparatively unimportant.

The most interesting of these settlements was that at Shelburne, which is situated at the south-west corner of Nova Scotia, on one of the finest harbors of the Atlantic seaboard. The name of the harbor was originally Port Razoir, but this was corrupted by the English settlers into Port Roseway. The place had been settled previous to 1783. In 1775 Colonel Alexander McNutt, a notable figure of the pre-Loyalist days in Nova Scotia, had obtained a grant of 100,000 acres about the harbor, and had induced about a dozen Scottish and Irish families to settle there. This settlement he had dignified with the name of New Jerusalem. In a short time, however, New Jerusalem languished and died, and when the Loyalists arrived in May 1783, the only inhabitants of the place were two or three fishermen and their families. It would have been well if the Loyalists had listened to the testimony of one of these men, who, when he was asked how he came to be there, replied that 'poverty had brought him there, and poverty had kept him there.'

The project of settling the shores of Port Roseway had its birth in the autumn of 1782, when one hundred and twenty Loyalist families, whose attention had been directed to that part of Nova Scotia by a friend in Massachusetts, banded together with the object of emigrating thither. They first appointed a committee of seven to make arrangements for their removal; and, a few weeks later, they commissioned two members of the association, Joseph Pynchon and James Dole, to go to Halifax and lay before Governor Parr their desires and intentions. Pynchon and Dole, on their arrival at Halifax, had an interview with the governor, and obtained from him very satisfactory arrangements. The governor agreed to give the settlers the land about Port Roseway which they desired. He promised them that surveyors should be sent to lay out the grants, that carpenters and a supply of 400,000 feet of lumber should be furnished for building their houses, that for the first year at least the settlers should receive army rations, and that they should be free for ever from impressment in the British Navy. All these promises were made on the distinct understanding that they should interfere in no way with the claims of the Loyalists on the British government for compensation for losses sustained in the war. Elated by the reception they had received from the governor, the agents wrote home enthusiastic accounts of the prospects of the venture. Pynchon even hinted that the new town would supersede Halifax. 'Much talk is here,' he wrote, 'of capital of Province... Halifax can't but be sensible that Port Roseway, if properly attended to in encouraging settlers of every denomination, will have much the advantage of all supplies from the Bay of Fundy and westward. What the consequence will be time only will reveal.' Many persons at Halifax, wrote Pynchon, prophesied that the new settlement would dwindle, and recommended the shore of the Bay of Fundy or the banks of the river St John in preference to Port Roseway; but Pynchon attributed their fears to jealousy. A few years' experience must have convinced him that his suspicions were ill-founded.

The first installment of settlers, about four thousand in number, arrived in May 1783. They found nothing but the virgin wilderness confronting them. But they set to work with a will to clear the land and build their houses. 'As soon as we had set up a kind of tent,' wrote the Rev. Jonathan Beecher in his Journal, 'we knelt down, my wife and I and my two boys, and kissed the dear ground and thanked God that the flag of England floated there, and resolved that we would work with the rest to become again prosperous and happy.' By July 11 the work of clearing had been so far advanced that it became possible to allot the lands. The town had been laid out in five long parallel streets, with other streets crossing them at right angles. Each associate was given a town lot fronting on one of these streets, as well as a water lot facing the harbor, and a fifty-acre farm in the surrounding country. With the aid of the government artisans, the wooden houses were rapidly run up; and in a couple of months a town sprang up where before had been the forest and some fishermen's huts.

At the end of July Governor Parr paid the town a visit, and christened it, curiously enough, with the name of Shelburne, after the British statesman who was responsible for the Peace of Versailles. The occasion was one of great ceremony. His Excellency, as he landed from the sloop Sophie, was saluted by the booming of cannon from the ships and from the shore. He proceeded up the main street, through a lane of armed men. At the place appointed for his reception he was met by the magistrates and principal citizens, and presented with an address. In the evening there was a dinner given by Captain Mowat on board the Sophie; and the next evening there was another dinner at the house of Justice Robertson, followed by a ball given by the citizens, which was 'conducted with the greatest festivity and decorum,' and 'did not break up till five the next morning.' Parr was delighted with Shelburne, and wrote to Sir Guy Carleton, 'From every appearance I have not a doubt but that it will in a short time become the most flourishing Town for trade of any in this part of the world, and the country will for agriculture.'

For a few years it looked as though Shelburne was not going to belie these hopes. The autumn of 1783 brought a considerable increase to its population; and in 1784 it seems to have numbered no less than ten thousand souls, including the suburb of Burchtown, in which most of the negro refugees in New York had been settled. It became a place of business and fashion. There was for a time an extensive trade in fish and lumber with Great Britain and the West Indies. Ship-yards were built, from which was launched the first ship built in Nova Scotia after the British occupation. Shops, taverns, churches, coffee-houses, sprang up. At one time no less than three newspapers were published in the town. The military were stationed there, and on summer evenings the military band played on the promenade near the bridge. On election day the main street was so crowded that 'one might have walked on the heads of the people.'

Then Shelburne fell into decay. It appeared that the region was ill-suited for farming and grazing, and was not capable of supporting so large a population. The whale fishery which the Shelburne merchants had established in Brazilian waters proved a failure. The regulations of the Navigation Acts thwarted their attempts to set up a coasting trade. Failure dogged all their enterprises, and soon the glory of Shelburne departed. It became like a city of the dead. 'The houses,' wrote Haliburton, 'were still standing though untenanted: It had all the stillness and quiet of a moonlight scene. It was difficult to imagine it was deserted. The idea of repose more readily suggested itself than decay. All was new and recent. Seclusion, and not death or removal, appeared to be the cause of the absence of inhabitants.' The same eye-witness of Shelburne's ruin described the town later:

The houses, which had been originally built of wood, had severally disappeared. Some had been taken to pieces and removed to Halifax or St John; others had been converted into fuel, and the rest had fallen a prey to neglect and decomposition. The chimneys stood up erect, and marked the spot around which the social circle had assembled; and the blackened fireplaces, ranged one above another, bespoke the size of the tenement and the means of its owner. In some places they had sunk with the edifice, leaving a heap of ruins, while not a few were inclining to their fall, and awaiting the first storm to repose again in the dust that now covered those who had constructed them. Hundreds of cellars with their stone walls and granite partitions were everywhere to be seen like uncovered monuments of the dead. Time and decay had done their work. All that was perishable had perished, and those numerous vaults spoke of a generation that had passed away for ever, and without the aid of an inscription, told a tale of sorrow and of sadness that overpowered the heart.

Alas for the dreams of the Pynchons and the Parrs! Shelburne is now a quaint and picturesque town; but it is not the city which its projectors planned.


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Chronicles of Canada, The United Empire Loyalists, A Chronicle of the Great Migration, 1915

 

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