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Teach My Research: Loyalist Women and the Experience of Revolutionary Exile in Nova Scotia


G. Patrick O’Brien

This post was originally published on Borealia as part of the new occasional series Teach My Research. The aim of the series is to “help connect research and teaching, putting the latest scholarship on early Canadian history – Indigenous, French, British, or early national, to about 1900 – into our classrooms. [The series invites] authors of recent historical monographs or research articles to think about how their scholarship could translate into high school or university classrooms, providing teachers and students with curricular connections, discussion questions, and primary source materials.”
On 4 June 1783, nineteen-year-old Mary Robie made a short note in her diary complaining about the “noise of the guns fir’d in honor of the day.” It was, as Robie noted, “The day which gave birth to his most gracious Majesty George the third,” and the people of Halifax took to the streets to celebrate. It was the king’s forty-fifth birthday, but it was his first since the negotiations that would grant American independence had begun in Paris that April. No doubt some of the revelers were refugees who had fled the revolution in the American colonies to escape persecution. These “loyalists” celebrated publicly as a sign that they, unlike their former friends and neighbours, remained the king’s faithful subjects. Robie too was a refugee, but she made no comment on the king’s birthday. Instead, when a friend called that evening to see if she and her younger sister Hetty were attending the ball in honor of the king’s birth, she refused, explaining later in her diary, “Neither Hetty or I had the least inclination to go.”

I chose Robie’s reflection on 4 June 1783 to introduce this piece because it both encapsulates and challenges the image of the loyalists in the popular imagination. In the depiction, faithful British colonists celebrate the birthday of their beloved King George III much like, and perhaps even more fervently, than Britons across the Atlantic. But Robie wanted no part in the celebration. Her feelings foreshadow some of the cynicism that increasingly came to define the loyalist perspective through the 1790s as many grew frustrated with both parliament and the king for abandoning the empire’s most loyal subjects.

I also chose this entry because it is one of the only places in Robie’s diary, which she kept almost daily from May 1783 through July of the following year, where she made any mention, even if subtle, to loyalist politics. Most of her entries focus instead on the seemingly endless influx of refugees to Halifax that followed the peace of 1783 and the physical and emotional hardships these exiles faced. Describing the inescapable sadness that seemed to envelop Halifax on the king’s birthday a year later she noted, “If I look round me, what thousands may I see more wretched than myself.”

Acadiensis - 14 décembreIn my article, “‘Gilded Misery’: The Robie Women in Loyalist Exile and Repatriation, 1775-1790,” published in the Spring 2020 edition of Acadiensis: Journal of the History of the Atlantic Region, I look more closely at the emotional toll of exile and loyalist women’s responses to this hardship. I push back on the idea that grief forced loyalist women into the home and relegated them to the domestic station of supporting wife or daughter. To the contrary, in settlements where suffering abounded, empathic women became important public figures of support. They visited newly arrived strangers providing them valuable new connections in their adoptive home. They also invited newly-arrived families into their own homes, helping acquaint them with the community. Perhaps most publicly, women also served at the funerals of men and women they had never met in order that the deceased—and probably more usefully, the deceased’s family—would be spared the embarrassment of a funeral without mourners. Collectively, loyalist women helped create an “emotional community” from the shared suffering. I also demonstrate that loyalist women were instrumental in bringing their families back to the United States after the war. Free from the masculine trappings of allegiance that defined male loyalism, wives and daughters were free to consider a return to their American homes. Many loyalist women, including Mary Robie, led their families back to the United States after the peace of 1783.

Studying the loyalists gives scholars the unique opportunity to examine people at the intersection of Canadian, American, and British history and the chance to bridge these narratives.

Unfortunately, however, much of what is taught about loyalists only further divides these histories. The loyalists feature prominently in debates about the creation of Anglophone British Canada, especially in the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Ontario. In American classrooms, the loyalists—or “Tories” as many Americans refer to this group—often serve solely as the self-interested antagonists in the revolutionary story. In both instances, the loyalists are framed within a single nationalist perspective that hinders a more nuanced understanding of people who traversed borders and certainly did not see themselves as either Canadian or American.

So how can we better teach the loyalists? My research suggests two avenues to promote a more comprehensive understanding in both Canadian and American classrooms. First, we need to move beyond examining and discussing only political allegiances. Too often, classroom discussions get bogged down in the “ideological origins” of American patriotism and British loyalism, which inherently privileges a male perspective. In the United States, historians narrow in on questions of allegiance to parse out how colonists understood the political and economic origins of the Revolution. In Canada, scholars debate the extent to which loyalist refugees brought with them the governmental structures that helped cement British control north of the American republic. Because women were barred by their sex from both declaring public allegiances during the Revolution and from direct political participation in either country throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women have largely fallen into the background of loyalist studies. Building from recent scholarship that has worked to correct this imbalance, I suggest we ask how a diverse group of loyalists—including free and enslaved Africans, elite colonial men and women with strong ties to the empire, and more common people with less robust British sympathies—experienced the Revolution and exile rather than exclusively focus on why they chose sides.

Second and intimately related, we need to be more creative about how we interpret loyalist sources. One way to do this is to consider the loyalists as refugees. Here, I need to confess that I did not enter the archive looking for the voices of loyalist women. I actually stumbled into it. Mary Robie’s diary is a part of the much larger Robie-Sewall Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. As someone with ties to Nova Scotia, I only recognized the name because of Robie Street in Halifax and decided to glance at the papers. The finding aid told me that the Robie’s diary covered only “weather, dinner with friends and family, church services attended, social engagements, and daily activities.” In other words, the diary described only “insignificant” daily occurrences.

But when considered from the perspective of a refugee, these facets are far from trifling. As I have suggested here and as a part of my current book project, Robie’s diary provides an intimate glimpse into the loyalist refugee experience if we read closely. Robie’s attention to the weather can be attributed to her concern for the newly arrived, destitute refugees, especially during the winter. She detailed the people around her family’s dinner table in order to keep track of the various refugees from across the colonies, the majority of whom were constantly coming and going from Nova Scotia. Church services were different in exile too. Although she was from a famously Congregationalist family, in Halifax, the Robies attended Anglican services because the Congregationalist minister was rumored to be sympathetic to the Revolution. Her daily activities often included walks to what is now Halifax’s Point Pleasant Park, where she described coming across a sod-covered hut, home to a family of free black loyalists. While she says little about loyalist politics, at least explicitly, Robie used her diary to detail life as a refugee and the shared emotions that united a diverse group of exiles. These insights, I argue, provide a much more accurate picture of the common loyalist experience than political debates and governmental proceedings.

2e image du 14 décembreFor those interested in teaching the loyalists and loyalism from this perspective, I am including a high-school-level lesson plan that I created, along with a few suggestions on how it could be adapted for a university course. With guidance and input from Kate Melchior, the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Assistant Director of Education, I crafted this lesson for teachers attending the MHS’s Teachers’ Workshop in July 2018, which focused on “Loyalism in the Era of the American Revolution.” The lesson gives students the opportunity to engage transcriptions of primary source documents from the MHS’s archive. Students read three primary source accounts of loyalist exile all from different women of the Robie family and at different times in their experience as exiles. A background handout provides information on the coming of the Revolution in Massachusetts, the Robie family’s time in Halifax, and their return to New England in 1790. Guided reading questions and a creative writing exercise challenge students to not only interpret the sources, but also to imagine a response based on their own insights on the sources.

Teachers in both American and Canadian classrooms could adapt the plans to fit their lessons and emphasize the inherent connection between the two national histories. University students could also benefit from the primary source transcriptions. While the guided questions are a bit elementary for college students, pairing the Robie family sources with descriptions made by women who remained in the United States—perhaps most conveniently, the published diaries of Grace Growden Galloway, Elizabeth Drinker, and Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson—would challenge students to highlight and explain differences and similarities in the loyalist experience and think more critically about how women and families chose allegiances and experienced the Revolution.

Auteur 14 décembreG. Patrick O’Brien is a Limited-Term Assistant Professor of History at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. His current book project examines how loyalist women navigated the physical and emotional hardships of exile during the Revolutionary Era. You can find him on Twitter at @historia_passim.