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The Loyalist in his New Home

The social history of the United Empire Loyalists was not greatly different from that of other pioneer settlers in the Canadian forest. Their homes were such as could have been seen until recently in many of the outlying parts of the country. In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick some of the better class of settlers were able to put up large and comfortable wooden houses, some of which are still standing. But even there most of them had to be content with primitive quarters. Edward Winslow was not a poor man, as poverty was reckoned in those days. Yet he lived in rather meager style. He described his house at Granville, opposite Annapolis, as being 'almost as large as my log house, divided into two rooms, where we are snug as pokers.' Two years later, after he had made additions to it, he proposed advertising it for sale in the following terms: 'That elegant House now occupied by the Honorable E. W., one of His Majesty's Council for the Province of New Brunswick, consisting of four beautiful Rooms on the first Floor, highly finished. Also two spacious lodging chambers in the second story--a capacious dry cellar with arches &c. &c. &c.' In Upper Canada, owing to the difficulty of obtaining building materials, the houses of the half-pay officers were even less pretentious. A traveler passing through the country about Johnstown in 1792 described Sir John Johnson's house as 'a small country lodge, neat, but as the grounds are only beginning to be cleared, there was nothing of interest.'

The home of the average Loyalist was a log-cabin. Sometimes the cabin contained one room, sometimes two. Its dimensions were as a rule no more than fourteen feet by eighteen feet, and sometimes ten by fifteen. The roofs were constructed of bark or small hollowed basswood logs, overlapping one another like tiles. The windows were as often as not covered not with glass, but with oiled paper. The chimneys were built of sticks and clay, or rough unmortared stones, since bricks were not procurable; sometimes there was no chimney, and the smoke was allowed to find its way out through a hole in the bark roof. Where it was impossible to obtain lumber, the doors were made of pieces of timber split into rough boards; and in some cases the hinges and latches were made of wood. These old log cabins, with the chinks between the logs filled in with clay and moss, were still to be seen standing in many parts of the country as late as fifty years ago. Though primitive, they seem to have been not uncomfortable; and many of the old settlers clung to them long after they could have afforded to build better. This was doubtless partly due to the fact that log-houses were exempt from the taxation laid on frame, brick, and stone structures.

A few of the Loyalists succeeded in bringing with them to Canada some sticks of furniture or some family heirlooms. Here and there a family would possess an ancient spindle, a pair of curiously-wrought fire-dogs, or a quaint pair of hand-bellows. But these relics of a former life merely served to accentuate the rudeness of the greater part of the furniture of the settlers. Chairs, benches, tables, beds, chests, were fashioned by hand from the rough wood. The descendant of one family has described how the family dinner-table was a large stump, hewn flat on top, standing in the middle of the floor. The cooking was done at the open fireplace; it was not until well on in the nineteenth century that stoves came into common use in Canada.

The clothing of the settlers was of the most varied description. Here and there was one who had brought with him the tight knee-breeches and silver-buckled shoes of polite society. But many had arrived with only what was on their backs; and these soon found their garments, no matter how carefully darned and patched, succumb to the effects of time and labor. It was not long before the settlers learnt from the Indians the art of making clothing out of deer-skin. Trousers made of this material were found both comfortable and durable. 'A gentleman who recently died in Sophiasburg at an advanced age, remembered to have worn a pair for twelve years, being repaired occasionally, and at the end they were sold for two dollars and a half.' Petticoats for women were also made of deer-skin. 'My grandmother,' says one descendant, 'made all sorts of useful dresses with these skins, which were most comfortable for a country life, and for going through the bush [since they] could not be torn by the branches.' There were of course, some articles of clothing which could not readily be made of leather; and very early the settlers commenced growing flax and raising sheep for their wool. Home-made linen and clothing of linsey-woolsey were used in the settlements by high and low alike. It was not until the close of the eighteenth century that articles of apparel, other than those made at home of flax and wool, were easily obtainable. A calico dress was a great luxury. Few daughters expected to have one until it was bought for their wedding-dress. Great efforts were always made to array the bride in fitting costume; and sometimes a dress, worn by the mother in other days, amid other scenes, was brought forth, yellow and discolored with the lapse of time.

There was little money in the settlements. What little there was came in pay to the soldiers or the half-pay officers. Among the greater part of the population, business was carried on by barter. In Upper Canada the lack of specie was partly overcome by the use of a kind of paper money. 'This money consists of small squares of card or paper, on which are printed promissory notes for various sums. These notes are made payable once a year, generally about the latter end of September at Montreal. The name of the merchant or firm is subscribed.' This was merely an extension of the system of credit still in use with country merchants, but it provided the settlers with a very convenient substitute for cash. The merchants did not suffer, as frequently this paper money was lost, and never presented; and cases were known of its use by Indians as wadding for their flint-locks.

Social instincts among the settlers were strongly marked. Whenever a family was erecting a house or barn, the neighbors as a rule lent a helping hand. While the men were raising barn-timbers and roof-trees, the women gathered about the quilting-frames or the spinning-wheels. After the work was done, it was usual to have a festival. The young men wrestled and showed their prowess at trials of strength; the rest looked on and applauded. In the evening there was a dance, at which the local musician scraped out tuneless tunes on an ancient fiddle; and there was of course hearty eating and, it is to be feared, heavy drinking.

Schools and churches were few and far between. A number of Loyalist clergy settled both in Nova Scotia and in Upper Canada, and these held services and taught school in the chief centers of population. The Rev. John Stuart was, for instance, appointed chaplain in 1784 at Cataraqui; and in 1786 he opened an academy there, for which he received government aid. In time other schools sprang up, taught by retired soldiers or farmers who were incapacitated for other work. The tuition given in these schools was of the most elementary sort. La Rochefoucauld, writing of Cataraqui in 1795, says: 'In this district are some schools, but they are few in number. The children are instructed in reading and writing, and pay each a dollar a month. One of the masters, superior to the rest in point of knowledge, taught Latin; but he has left the school, without being succeeded by another instructor of the same learning.' 'At seven years of age,' writes the son of a Loyalist family, 'I was one of those who patronized Mrs Cranahan, who opened a Sylvan Seminary for the young idea in Adolphustown; from thence, I went to Jonathan Clark's, and then tried Thomas Morden, lastly William Faulkiner, a relative of the Hagermans. You may suppose that these graduations to Parnassus was [sic] carried into effect, because a large amount of knowledge could be obtained. Not so; for Dilworth's Spelling Book, and the New Testament, were the only books possessed by these academies.'

The lack of a clergy was even more marked. When Bishop Mountain visited Upper Canada in 1794, he found only one Lutheran chapel and two Presbyterian churches between Montreal and Kingston. At Kingston he found 'a small but decent church,' and about the Bay of Quinte there were three or four log huts which were used by the Church of England missionary in the neighborhood. At Niagara there was a clergyman, but no church; the services were held in the Freemasons' Hall. This lack of a regularly-ordained clergy was partly remedied by a number of itinerant Methodist preachers or 'exhorters.' These men were described by Bishop Mountain as 'a set of ignorant enthusiasts, whose preaching is calculated only to perplex the understanding, to corrupt the morals, to relax the nerves of industry, and dissolve the bands of society.' But they gained a very strong hold on the Loyalist population; and for a long time they were familiar figures upon the country roads.

For many years communications both in New Brunswick and in Upper Canada were mainly by water. The roads between the settlements were little more than forest paths. When Colonel Simcoe went to Upper Canada he planned to build a road running across the province from Montreal to the river Thames, to be called Dundas Street. He was recalled, however, before the road was completed; and the project was allowed to fall through. In 1793 an act was passed by the legislature of Upper Canada 'to regulate the laying out, amending, and keeping in repair, the public highways and roads.' This threw on the individual settler the obligation of keeping the road across his lot in good repair; but the large amount of crown lands and clergy reserves and land held by speculators throughout the province made this act of little avail. It was not until 1798 that a road was run from the Bay of Quinte to the head of Lake Ontario, by an American surveyor named Asa Danforth. But even this government road was at times impassable; and there is evidence that some travelers preferred to follow the shore of the lake.

It will be seen from these notes on social history that the Loyalists had no primrose path. But after the first grumblings and discontents, poured into the ears of Governor Haldimand and Governor Parr, they seem to have settled down contentedly to their lot; and their life appears to have been on the whole happy. Especially in the winter, when they had some leisure, they seem to have known how to enjoy themselves.

In the winter season, nothing is more ardently wished for, by young persons of both sexes, in Upper Canada, than the setting in of frost, accompanied by a fall of snow. Then it is, that pleasure commences her reign. The sleighs are drawn out. Visits are paid, and returned, in all directions. Neither cold, distance, or badness of roads prove any impediment. The sleighs glide over all obstacles. It would excite surprise in a stranger to view the open before the Governor's House on a levee morning, filled with these carriages. A sleigh would not probably make any great figure in Bond street, whose silken sons and daughters would probably mistake it for a turnip cart, but in the Canadas, it is the means of pleasure, and glowing healthful exercise. An overturn is nothing. It contributes subject matter for conversation at the next house that is visited, when a pleasant raillery often arises on the derangement of dress, which the ladies have sustained, and the more than usual display of graces, which the tumble has occasioned.

This picture, drawn in 1793 by a nameless traveler, is an evidence of the courage and buoyancy of heart with which the United Empire Loyalists faced the toils and privations of life in their new home.

Not drooping like poor fugitives they came In exodus to our Canadian wilds, But full of heart and hope, with heads erect And fearless eyes victorious in defeat.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

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

 

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