Loyalists were American colonists, of different ethnic backgrounds, who supported the British cause during the American Revolution (1775–83). Tens of thousands migrated to British North America during and after the revolutionary war — boosting the population and heavily influencing the politics and culture of what would become Canada.

Why Loyalists?

As American rebels fought for independence from Britain, Loyalists supported the "mother country" for different reasons. Many felt a personal loyalty to the Crown, or were afraid that revolution would bring chaos to America. Many agreed with the rebels’ view that America had suffered wrongs at the hands of Britain, but believed the solution could be worked out within the British Empire.

Others saw themselves as weak or threatened within American society and in need of an outside defender. These included linguistic and religious minorities, recent immigrants not fully integrated into American society, as well as Black and Aboriginal people. Others were simply attracted by free land and provisions.

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. Loyalist property was vandalized and often confiscated.

During the Revolution more than 19,000 Loyalists served Britain in specially created provincial militia corps, accompanied by several thousand Aboriginal allies. Others spent the war in such strongholds as New York City and Boston, or in refugee camps such as those at Sorel and Machiche, Québec. Between 80,000 and 100,000 eventually fled, about half of them to Canada.

Who Were They?

The vast majority of Loyalists were neither well-to-do nor particularly high in social rank; most were farmers, labourers, tradespeople and their families. They were of varied cultural backgrounds, and many were recent immigrants. White Loyalists brought large numbers of slaves with them. Until 1834, slavery was legal in all British North American colonies but Upper Canada, where the institution was being phased out.

Free Blacks and escaped slaves who had fought in the Loyalist corps, as well as about 2,000 Aboriginal allies — mainly Six Nations Iroquois from New York State — also settled in Canada.

In 1789, Lord Dorchester (see Guy Carleton), governor-in-chief of British North America, proclaimed that the Loyalists and their children should be allowed to add "UE" to their names, "alluding to their great principle, the Unity of Empire." As a result, the phrase "United Empire Loyalist," or UEL, was applied to Loyalists who migrated to Upper and Lower Canada. (The term was not officially recognized in the Maritimes until the 20th century.)

In determining who among its subjects 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 United States by the end of the war or soon after.

Those who left substantially later — mainly to gain land and to escape growing racial intolerance — are often called "late" Loyalists.

Settlement

The main waves of Loyalists came to what is now Canada in 1783 and 1784. The territory that became the Maritime provinces became home to more than 30,000. Most of coastal Nova Scotia received Loyalist settlers, as did Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island (then called St. John’s Island). The two principal settlements were in the Saint John River valley in what is now New Brunswick, and temporarily at Shelburne, Nova Scotia. The Loyalists swamped the existing population in the Maritimes, and in 1784 the colonies of New Brunswick and Cape Breton were created to deal with the influx.

Of about 2,000 who moved to present-day Québec, some settled in the Gaspé, on Chaleur Bay, and others in Sorel, at the mouth of the Richelieu River. About 7,500 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 multi-ethnic society.

See also United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada.