Flag of the United Empire LoyalistsI spent the better part of a year researching my paternal great-grandmother’s family in 2018 and it was a very insightful process. If you’re Canadian, you’ve probably heard of the United Empire Loyalists. For those of you unfamiliar with the so-called Loyalists, they were a group of people living in America prior to the revolution who remained loyal to, and in some cases fought for, the Crown during the American Revolutionary War. Upon losing said war, they settled in what was then British North America and what is now Canada. In many instances, the Loyalists were the first major wave of immigration to Canada. My hometown, Sydney in Nova Scotia, was founded by Loyalists who migrated north during the conflict. The Loyalists gave Canada its distinct culture from that of America, and indeed the fact that Canada today remains a nation separate from America can be largely attributed to the Loyalists.
In 1789, Lord Dorchester, the Governor-General of the Canadas [sic] (the highest official in British North America at the time), wishing to recognise the loyalty displayed by those Americans who remained loyal to the Crown, declared and granted that ‘those Loyalists who have adhered to the Unity of the Empire…and all their Children and their Descendants by either sex are to be distinguished by the following Capitals affixed to their names: UE. Alluding to their great principle, The Unity of the Empire.’
Today, the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, which consists of the descendants of Loyalists as well as those interested in the history of the Loyalists, assists people in tracing their heritage to see whether they are descended from Loyalists. If it is found that a link to the Loyalists exists, they assist in preparing a report outlining the link for review by a national committee which, if the link if found to be genuine, issues a certificate confirming that one is a descendant from the Loyalists and as such is entitled to use the post-nominal UE. This is what I spent the better part of 2018 doing.
As the years pass, it becomes an ever more challenging endeavour to, firstly, locate records from nearly two centuries ago and, secondly, create a continuous path of primary and secondary records to link oneself to people who were often born in the early to mid eighteenth century. In my case, I was lucky to start with a comprehensive set of records which were compiled in the 1950s by my great-great-grandfather. From these, I was able to guide my online research to find more records and to draw a line connecting myself back to my ancestors of two centuries ago. Even with this great resource at hand, it was still very challenging. Moreover, given I reside in Australia, I was not able to visit record repositories in Canada myself.
I was very lucky to have the help of the United Empire Loyalists Association of Canada – Nova Scotia Branch genealogist, Carol Harding, who provided invaluable guidance and assistance in tracing records, filling gaps, and even visiting archives in Nova Scotia on my behalf.
After a number of months, the whole picture started to come together and the number of gaps to be filled shrunk to be countable on one hand. I received my certificate in April this year which was very exciting not only because it confirmed a long held belief of mine that I was descended from Loyalists, but also because it represented a year’s worth of evenings and weekends spend browsing online genealogy records.
In the end, what I took most from the experience was a much greater understanding of my who my family are and where they come from. My ancestors have been in North America since the very first days of British settlement, long before the witch trials at Salem and certainly before an independent America was even a thought in anyone’s mind. They helped found (British) America and then, after the revolution, moved north and helped found what is now Canada.
It was a long but very enjoyable experience and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about one’s family. Even if it turns out you’re not descended from a Loyalist, you’ll learn so much about where your family come from.