Loyalists, American colonists of varied ethnic backgrounds who supported the British cause during the American Revolution (1775-83). In 1789 Lord Dorchester (see Guy Carelton), governor-in-chief of British North America, proclaimed that the Loyalists and their children should be allowed to append "UE" to their names, "alluding to their great principle, the Unity of Empire"; hence the phrase "United Empire Loyalist," or UEL. (The term applied initially in the Canadian colonies alone; it was officially recognized in the Maritimes only in the 20th century.)

In determining who was eligible for compensation for war losses, Britain used a fairly precise definition: Loyalists were those born or living in the American colonies at the outbreak of the Revolution who rendered substantial service to the royal cause during the war, and who left the US by the end of the war or soon after. Those who left substantially later, mainly to gain land and to escape growing intolerance of minorities, are often called "late" Loyalists.

The Loyalists supported Britain for highly diverse reasons. Many evinced a personal loyalty to the Crown or a fear that revolution could bring chaos to America. Many agreed with the rebels that America had suffered wrongs at the hands of Britain, but believed the solution could be worked out within the empire.

Others, seeing themselves as weak or threatened within American society and in need of an outside defender, included linguistic and religious minorities, recent immigrants not fully integrated into American society, blacks and Indians. Sympathy for the Crown was a dangerous sentiment: those who defied the revolutionary forces could find themselves without civil rights, subject to mob violence or flung into prison. All the states finally taxed or confiscated Loyalist property.

During the Revolution over 19 000 Loyalists served Britain in specially created provincial corps, accompanied by several thousand Indians. Others spent the war in such strongholds as New York City or in refugee camps such as those at Sorel and Machiche, Qué. Between 80 000 and 100 000 eventually fled, about half of them to Canada. The vast majority were neither well-to-do nor particularly high in social rank; most were farmers. Ethnically, they were quite mixed, and many were recent immigrants. White Loyalists brought sizable contingents of slaves with them. Free blacks and escaped slaves who had fought in the Loyalist corps and as many as 2000 Indian allies, mainly Six Nations Iroquois from NY, settled in Canada.

The main waves of Loyalists came to what is now Canada in 1783 and 1784. The Maritime provinces became home for upwards of 30 000; most of coastal NS received Loyalist settlers, as did Cape Breton and St John's Island [PEI]. The 2 chief settlements were in the Saint John River valley and temporarily at Shelburne, NS. The Loyalists swamped the previous population of 20 000 Americans and French, and in 1784 New Brunswick and Cape Breton were created to deal with the influx.

Of about 2000 who moved to present-day Québec, some settled in the Gaspé on Chaleur Bay and others in the seigneury of Sorel at the mouth of the Richelieu River. About 7500 moved into what would become Ontario, most settling along the St Lawrence River to the Bay of Quinte. There were also substantial settlements in the Niagara Peninsula and on the Detroit River, with subsidiary and later settlements along the Thames River and at Long Point. The Grand River was the main focus of Loyalist Iroquois settlement. The Loyalist influx gave the region its first substantial population and led to the creation of a separate province, Upper Canada, in 1791. Loyalists were instrumental in establishing educational, religious, social and governmental institutions.

Though greatly outnumbered by later immigrants, Loyalists and their descendants, such as Egerton Ryerson, exerted a strong and lasting influence. Modern Canada has inherited much from the Loyalists, including a certain conservatism, a preference for "evolution" rather than "revolution" in matters of government, and tendencies towards a pluralistic and heterogeneous society.

See also United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada.