Is There a Loyalist in Your Family Tree?

By Carolyn L Barkley


The Loyalists were those North American colonists who remained loyal to the British Crown during the American Revolution. Often called Tories or “King’s Men,” they may have agreed with some of the principles being pursued by the founders of the fledgling nation, but they, nonetheless, preferred more peaceful, less chaotic methods of resolving the pressing issues of the time.

The greatest concentration of Loyalists lived in New York, a bastion of British influence for most of the Revolutionary period. These individuals tended to be Anglican, better-educated, and more well-to-do.  Loyalists also were quite numerous in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. In the more southern states, particularly in South Carolina, they were more often back-country farmers. While Loyalists were found in other colonies as well, they were in a distinct minority, particularly in New England and Virginia.

Loyalists’ professed or perceived loyalty to the Crown proved dangerous. Many had their land and property confiscated, suffered the indignity of tar and feathering, or in some cases, lost their lives. It is estimated that approximately 100,000 Loyalists left the colonies, about half of them going to Canada beginning in 1783. About one-third of those entering Canada settled in the Maritime Provinces: in Shelburne in Nova Scotia, in the St. John’s River Valley, and on St. John’s Island (later Prince Edward Island). By 1784, the rate of emigration was so great that Nova Scotia was divided into three colonies (Nova Scotia, Cape Breton and Brunswick) to better accommodate the influx of settlers. Another 2,000 moved into present-day Québec, and about 7,500 settled in what would become the province of Upper Canada in 1791 (present-day Ontario). Some returned to the newly-independent United States soon after the war, while others spent several generations in Canada before migrating south.

Several years ago I heard a Scottish historian state that during the American Revolutionary War, about one-third of the Scottish-born population sided with the patriots, one-third with the Crown, and one-third just wanted to be left alone. While the exact percentages may be arguable, the concept is sound and might possibly describe the population in general at the outbreak of the war.

Oftentimes, our Revolutionary War research often focuses solely on those who sided with the patriots (or rebels depending on your perspective). If a military or pension record can not be located, you might be tempted to assume that your ancestor had no Revolutionary War service. It is important not to “admit defeat” too soon, and instead continue your research to determine if your ancestor might have been a Loyalist.

Here are five strategies that you can use in researching the possibility of a Loyalist ancestor:

  1. Locate your ancestor prior to the outbreak of the Revolutionary war. Research all the land records beginning in 1775 to see if he sold or lost land during or immediately after the war.  Read county or locality histories to see if there were Loyalists in the area. If so, how were they treated? Did they leave the area? Where did they go? Did any of them return?
  2.  Check military records to determine if your ancestor might have served with the British forces. The British “provincial line” enlisted about 19,000 men in 50 units: 10,000 served in loyalist militia units known as “associations,” and others served in the regular British army and navy. This research is particularly important if your ancestor came from New York or a southern colony. A list of Loyalist regiments and muster rolls can be found on the Internet at The On-Line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies. The list of regiments often includes links to online materials and documents related to a specific regiment. Also, please note that you will not be able to search the muster rolls by an individual’s name, but instead will need to search within each unit, using the links provided in the muster roll index. I searched across the entire web site for the surname “Barclay” and received twelve items including references to a court martial, as well as muster rolls for the Loyal American Regiment, Hatton’s Company of New Jersey Volunteers, and a list of men from the King’s Orange Rangers.
  3. Confiscation Lists and Claims. The Treaty of Paris included a provision requiring the U. S. Congress to restore property confiscated from Loyalists. Although many did not file a claim for compensation, confiscations lists can be very valuable. Lists are available both online and in print. A downloadable version of Loyalism in New York during the American Revolution contains a list of New York confiscations in the appendix. The Gaspe Loyalists website includes confiscation lists for Albany, Charlotte and Tryon Counties in New York, as well as lists for Vermont and other claims-related documents. Of particular interest is the two-volume United Empire Loyalists: Enquiry into the Losses and Services in Consequence of Their Loyalty. Evidence in Canadian Claims. Second Report of the Bureau of Archives for the Province of Ontario, by Alexander Fraser. (Clearfield, 1005, reprinted 1994, currently out of print, but available on CD, see list at end of article). This source contains records of the claims for losses of over 1200 individuals who fled to Canada during and immediately after the Revolutionary War. The entries are based on notes taken by the commissioners who handled the claims between 1783 and 1790 and include the claimant’s name, country or place of origin, reason for emigrating, date of migration, place of residence in America, occupation, names of family members and friends, location and value of confiscated property, war service rendered, losses sustained, evidence of character, statements of witnesses, notes of deeds and wills, and highlights of the claimant’s experiences during the war.
  4. Libraries, Archives and Organizations. Consult the collections housed in organizational libraries and archives both in the United States and Canada. The United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Canada is an organization founded in 1914  to “enrich the lives of Canadians through fostering public awareness of our national history, and in particular, of the United Empire Loyalists and their contributions to Canada, while also celebrating their memory and perpetuating their heritage as an integral part of the Canadian identify.” The UELAC web site provides a searchable Directory of Loyalists in which I was able to locate twelve Barclay (and variant spellings) entries. Each entry includes surname, given name, rank, where the individual resettled, status as a Loyalist (proven, expunged, etc.), and source detail (NYGBS, etc.). The UELAC’s Toronto-based research library provides an extensive collection on Loyalist history and genealogy. In addition, the Haldimand Collection provides access to a significant collection of primary source material. Other resources include the Library and Archives Canada as well as Loyalist collections in the James A. Gibson Library at Brock University in St. Catherine’s, Ontario.

Finally, although I would almost always refer you to links provided on Cyndi’s List, I found the site unhelpful in this instance. Although there is a subject heading “Loyalists,” no links are attached to it. You might find helpful information, however, by delving into the military and Revolutionary War sections. I do recommend, however, an “card catalog” keyword search for “Loyalists.” Almost all of the thirty-nine responses provide access to information on Loyalists during the Revolutionary War.

The following titles will also provide assistance and background information as you research a possible Loyalist ancestor:

  •  Loyalists in the American Revolution (Genealogical Publishing Company; now on sale at This CD contains some of the most useful titles for Loyalist research including Marion Gilroy’s Loyalists and Land Settlement in Nova Scotia; Robert DeMond’s The Loyalists in North Carolina During the Revolution; Lorenzo Sabine’s two-volume biographical Sketches of Loyalists in the American Revolution; Alexander Fraser’s United Empire Loyalists, Murtie June Clark’s Loyalists in the Southern Campaign of the Revolutionary War, and several more.
  • In Search of Your Canadian Roots: Tracing Your Family Tree in Canada, by Angus Baxter. (3rd ed., Genealogical Publishing Company, 2008).
  • Finding Your Canadian Ancestors: a Beginner’s Guide, by Sherry Irvine and Dave Obee (Ancestry, 2007).
  • Canadian History for Dummies by Will Ferguson (Toronto, CDG Books, 2000)







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