Canadian Refugees in the American Revolution
By Carl Wittke


AMONG the first plans of the leaders of the American Revolution was the desire to make Canada the fourteenth colony in the rebellion against Great Britain’s authority in North America. In spite of the friction of earlier days between Canada and the New England colonies, there were elements in the Canadian situation in 1775 which, at first glance, promised success to the effort to win Canada for the cause of the revolution. Many of the colonial radicals in the English seaboard colonies were of the conviction that the French Canadians were discontented under British authority, which they had been forced to accept hardly a dozen years before. There was an influential English minority in Canada, known to be hostile to the provisions of the Quebec Act. Furthermore, Sir Guy Carleton. at the beginning of hostilities, had scarcely a thousand soldiers at his disposal for the defence of the many miles of the long Canadian frontier. It is not surprising, therefore, that for years after the first attempt of 1774 to have the inhabitants of Quebec send representatives to the First Continental Congress, the efforts to win Canada for the revolutionary cause were diligently continued. Personal emissaries to the British minority in Canada, agents to carry on a propaganda which proved signally stupid and unsuccessful among the French, and an armed invasion of the province of Quebec by Continental troops in the first stages of the lighting— all had the same purpose, to persuade or force Canada to change her allegiance. The operations of Arnold and Montgomery, in the winter of 1775-1776, were the most pretentious of the military demonstrations intended to impress Canadians with the advisability of revolt against British authority. It was clearly the policy of General Washington and the other Continental leaders not to irritate the Canadian population by these enterprises, but rather to treat them as friends and possible “fellow-subjects”. The offensive campaign of 1775-1776 against Canada was, however, a failure, and might have resulted in disaster save for the excellent generalship of Benedict Arnold. The campaign clearly revealed that the practice of short enlistments made the Continental forces most unstable, encouraged dis-orderliness and disobedience, and frequently compelled the officers to act precipitately with what was left of their rapidly disintegrating commands. These difficulties, coupled with the lack of hard money and the outbreak of small-pox among the expeditionary forces in Canada, sufficiently accounted for “the miscarriages in Canada”. Nevertheless, colonial leaders stubbornly adhered to the idea of annexing the northern provinces to the revolutionary cause. On January 22, 1778, the American Congress resolved '“That an irruption be made into Canada”; the conclusion of the French alliance in the same year revived interest in the project to gain the support of the French population of Quebec; and as late as 1781, Washington was still considering the advisability of a joint attack on Canada by French and Americans. Lastly, the first experiment of the thirteen independent states in federation left the door open for the admission of Canada to the Confederation, should she accede to the provisions of the articles of union.

The situation in Nova Scotia promised, for a time, to be even more troublesome for the British authorities ;n Canada than the problem of the control of the French population of Quebec. Many of the settlers ,n Nova Scotia were New Englanders, who had arrived after 1700 to exploit the fishing and trading opportunities of the province. Liverpool, for example, was founded in 1760 by seventy heads of families from Connecticut. Even Benjamin Franklin had been attracted by the possibilities of Nova Scotia, and had sent Anthony Wayne to survey the land around the Bay of Fundy, preparatory to indulging in a bit of land speculation. When the American Revolution broke out, Nova Scotia was in a particularly critical condition. Her governor was extremely unpopular; Halifax had been stripped of troops to carry on the military operations around Boston; there were rumours of an invasion by Continental forces; and most serious of all, a large proportion of the people could be expected to be sympathetic with the New Englanders. Two members of the Assembly actually joined the rebels, and four delegates left for Philadelphia to lay before the Continental Congress a list of some six hundred settlers who were believed to be willing and ready to join the revolution.

In spite of the repeated efforts of the Continental Congress and the revolutionary leaders to entice or cudgel Canadians into a course that would result in difficulties for Great Britain, it appears that very few permitted themselves to be persuaded to ally themselves with the revolution, or give open aid to the cause of the colonies, whatever their sympathies may have been. The statesman-like provisions of the Quebec Act of 1774, the weaknesses and blunders of the Continental Congress and its military forces in the opening years of the war, and the bold and effective measures of Sir Guy Carleton, were largely responsible for the failure of the American propaganda to make Canada a fourteenth colony. But there were several hundred Canadians who openly allied themselves with the thirteen colonies, and in consequence found it necessary' to seek refuge on the American side of the border. It is with the fortunes of these Canadian refugees in the American Revolution that this paper deals.

At the beginning of the War for American Independence, a number of Canadians joined the expeditions of Arnold and Montgomery against Montreal and Quebec. The disastrous failure of this first offensive against Canada forced a number of these volunteers to withdraw with the retreating American troops. Others who were residents of Quebec or Nova Scotia, due to their trade and family connections with the American revolutionists, or to an honest sympathy for the cause, retired voluntarily from Canada. A few were undoubtedly forced to go. Of these refugees, a number joined the military forces of the Revolution, particularly General Hazen’s brigade, and fought during the remainder of the war. Others were less active on behalf of the Continental cause, and quite a number took no part whatsoever in the revolutionary struggle. The entire number could hardly have exceeded several hundred. But even such a small group of Canadian refugees was sufficient to raise a special problem for the American government which was in some respects similar to the problem of the British government in caring for the Loyalists who, at the close of the Revolution, preferred voluntary exile to a life under the new republican regime. Although the number of Canadian refugees is in no way comparable to the tens of thousands of Loyalists who emigrated during and immediately after the American Revolution, nevertheless the former soon presented a special claim upon the generosity of the American government for compensation for the losses which they had suffered because of their devotion to the American cause. A number of these refugees were left practically penniless at the close of the war; they had lost their property in Canada, and felt it impossible to return to the provinces which they had abandoned in order to participate in a rebellion against those who had been their legal governors.

The Continental Congress, and its successors under the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, from the outset recognized the obligation which rested upon the United States to deal fairly with the Canadian refugees. As early as August 10, 1776, Congress passed a resolution directing General Schuyler to inquire into the services of all persons who had served as volunteers in Canada and had retreated with the army, so that proper rewards and wages might be assigned. Apparently a number of persons drew pay and rations in consequence of this resolution, and it. was not specifically repealed until October, 1781. November 10, 1780, Congress approved the orders of General Washington to supply the Canadian families, living in New York, with rations, and the governor of New York was requested to investigate the circumstances of the refugees, to give them protection, and "such further assistance, at the expense of the United States, as he shall judge necessary”.

Immediately after the close of the Revolution, petitions began to reach Congress from refugees, praying for relief and for some substantial recognition of their services and sufferings during the late war. Congress showed no inclination to dispute the justice of these claims upon the beneficence of the government, but found it impossible, because of the financial embarrassment and inadequate revenues of the new government, to make compensation to the petitioners at that time. The only resources the central government had during this early period were western lands, and so Congress decided very early to satisfy the claimants as soon as possible by land grants in the undeveloped west.

In April, 1783, Congress, in reply to a letter from General Hazen, in whose brigade many Canadian refugees had rendered valiant services, resolved “That the memorialists be informed, that Congress retain a lively sense of the service the Canadian officers and men rendered the United States, and that they are seriously disposed to reward them for their virtuous sufferings in the cause of liberty”. The resolution promised compensation in the form of land grants. Congress in the same year also received the petition of Captain Clement Goselin, “in behalf of the officers, Canadians and other refugees, residing at Fish-kill, in the state of New York, to the number of eighty men and women, besides children,” and resolved to recommend that New York receive them as citizens of the state. At the same time, the rations to the officers of Brigadier-general Ilazen’s regiment, who had been residents of Canada, were ordered continued. Two years later, Congress acknowledged the claims of a group of Nova Scotian refugees, led by Jonathan Eddy, even though many of the petitioners had seen no active service in the war, and were simply refugees as a result of their attachment to the American cause. It was still impossible to render substantial aid, so the petitioners were “recommended to the humanity and particular attention of the several states in which they respectively reside,” but they were also assured “that whenever Congress can consistently make grants of land, they will reward, in this way. ...such refugees from Nova Scotia, as may be disposed to live in the western country”.

In the famous Land Ordinance of 1785—-one of the two really constructive pieces of legislation of permanent value passed by the feeble Confederation Congress—a definite provision for the relief of Canadian refugees was included for the first time, although the development of events made it impossible to enforce this part of the ordinance. Three townships adjacent to Lake Erie were to be specifically reserved for land grants to such refugees as could present a valid claim for compensation. On June 7, 1785, Congress created a committee to investigate these claims, and resolved that commissioners “be directed to examine the accounts of such Canadian refugees, as have furnished the late armies of these states with any sort of supplies”, and report to Congress. The resolution was ordered published in Canada.

In the meantime, in 1784, the state of New York had offered to provide land for such Canadian refugees as might desire to settle in that state and a number of grants, some as large as a thousand acres, were actually made along Lake Champlain. The United States government thereupon undertook the task of transporting the Canadians who had accepted the donation to their new lands, and fifteen months’ rations were provided from the federal treasury. Settlement in the new region involved many hardships and disappointments, so that in 1787 Congress received an entreaty from the Canadian refugees settled along Lake Champlain for a continuance of the rations. It was resolved to provide the aged and infirm with an additional twelve months’ rations at the public, expense, “excepting the articles of rum, soap, and candles”. An estimate of the number of refugees involved in the transfer to the Lake Champlain region, can be derived from the report of a committee of Congress which in 1788 investigated the accounts of the war department. It was found that in 1787, 170 rations a day had been issued; under the subsequent order of October 12, 1781, granting relief to the aged and infirm, 45 rations were issued daily.

The section in the Land Ordinance of 1785 providing for land grants to Canadian refugees along Lake Erie proved to be of little value. It was soon discovered that settlement in this region would be most hazardous, due to the fact that the Indian title had not yet been extinguished. Furthermore, the lands set aside proved to foil within that area which was reserved by the state of Connecticut. In the early seventeen-nineties, therefore, the question of compensating the Canadians was again brought to the attention of Congress, and a committee of the House of Representatives, of which Mr. Dayton was chairman, made an exhaustive report on the Canadian refugee question. The report recited the various resolutions of earlier Congresses, by which the justice of the claims of the petitioners had been clearly recognized, and the committee found that there were approximately 230 refugees from Canada, among whom were 22 who should be classed as “principal sufferers”. Not all of the refugees had brought their families with them. The committee reported that some had already been compensated, and “not a few returned to Canada both before and since the peace, to possess their property, or to pursue their business”. The latter statement is curiously at variance with the affirmation of some of the petitioners to the effect that they could not return to Canada to recover their property. Returns from the War Office showed that 292 men, women, and children had been “victualled at Albany and Fishkill [New York], from the public stores, in 1784”; that in 1785 vouchers were drawn for only 93, and that 205 were entitled to lands in New York, in pursuance of the act of the New York legislature of 1784. The committee found the data most confusing and incomplete, but recommended that compensation should be made in the form of land grants. It refused, however, to fix the specie value of such grants. On March 2, 1793, the secretary of war, Henry Knox, reported the names of three refugees from Nova Scotia, and six from Canada to the House of Representatives.6 Another committee of the House, in April, 1794, recommended that a tract of land— the number of acres still undetermined—northwest of the Ohio River, from the mouth of the Great Miami, down the river a distance not to exceed three times the breadth in length, be appropriated as compensation for refugees from Canada and Nova Scotia, each refugee to receive five hundred acres, provided his claim had been properly filed and proved in a court of record.

Definite legislation for the relief of the Canadian refugees was not passed until 1798, although the matter was investigated, and bills were, introduced and debated in earlier sessions. Edward Livingston, a member of the House of Representatives from New York, was particularly active in hurrying Congress to a definite settlement. His extraordinary interest is not difficult to explain. One of the most prominent of the refugees who would benefit by the proposed legislation was Colonel James Livingston, connected with the Livingstons of New York and New Jersey. James Livingston was born and educated in New York, and had settled in Montreal in order to practice law. Together with a number of Canadians about Montreal, Livingston had joined the American forces in New York during the early stages of the Revolution, and had participated in General Montgomery’s assault upon Montreal. It is interesting to note that Montgomery himself was connected with the Livingston family by marriage. After the collapse of the American offensive before Quebec, Livingston and his band withdrew to New York, and remained in the Service of the Revolutionary army.

It was under the Act of April 7,1798, that the first real provision for compensation to Canadian refugees was made. The act once more specifically recognized the earlier promises contained in the congressional resolutions of 1783 and 1785, and the secretary of war was directed to insert a notice in one or more of the public papers of Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania, requesting all refugees to file their claims within two years. The claimants were divided into three classes, and included not only those who had actually left Canadian provinces due to their desire to aid the colonies, but also their widows, members of their families, and other heirs. Proof of claims had to be presented, and the secretary of war, the secretary of the treasury, and the comptroller of the treasury were designated to act as commissioners to administer the law and report on the claims filed. The door was left open for special cases by the provision that all such must be made the subject of special reports to Congress.

According to the provisions of the Act, a time limit of two years was fixed for the presentation of claims. As a matter of fact, all claims were not finally adjusted and disposed of until President Jackson’s administration, in 1834. The report of James McHenry, secretary of war, Oliver Wolcott, secretary of the treasury, and John Steele, comptroller of the treasury, was made to the House of Representatives on February 17, 1800. In May another report was filed, to which was appended a list of forty-nine names, involving land grants of 33,500 acres. A total of seventy-three claims had been examined. From the reports, it appears that a number of the claimants had already received some compensation from Massachusetts and New York, ranging from 133 % acres to 1000 acres. The names of claimants are recorded in the reports and various acts by which the land allotments were made, and for the most part, have little significance now. Some, however, involve special cases, and the presentation of such special claims sometimes threw light upon the nature of the services and sufferings of these Canadian refugees. The report of the commissioners in May, 1800, specifically mentions the heirs of James Boyd, who had lost 50,000 acres with some valuable improvements on the St. Croiv River; the widow of Thomas Walker, who had lost property worth £2,500 sterling, and a lucrative business; and John Edgar, whose “losses were very great, and his sufferings still greater”. The claims of eighteen were rejected, because there was no proof that they had fled to the United States, and no record of their services and losses; or else because they had already received adequate compensation from New York. The claim of the heirs of Nathaniel Reynolds was rejected because “Some of the dates in the depositions are written on an erasure". Action on six cases was suspended. The most detailed information with reference to any of the claimants is to be found in a special report of the commissioners on the case of Seth Harding. The experiences of Harding may have been Tn some degree typical of those of others in the refugee group. Seth Harding, in 1771, had moved from Norwich, Connecticut, to Liverpool, Nova Scotia, with personal property valued at two thousand dollars. In Nova Scotia he became a member of the General Assembly, and in 1773, a justice of the Court of Common Pleas in Queen’s county. In August, 1775, he left Nova Scotia, “with an inconsiderable portion of his property”. The remainder was sold at public auction by the commander of a British warship, as enemy property. Harding returned to Connecticut for the specific purpose of engaging actively in the revolutionary- war, and he soon acquired a reputation as a successful naval officer. His first command was the Defencc, a brigantine of the Connecticut state naval forces, and after a short' service on the Oliver Cromwell, he was transferred to the command of the United States frigate Con-fidency. In the federal navy, he proved himself a brave and capable officer, and served until 1781, when the Confidency was captured by a superior force. Perhaps his most valuable service was rendered in 1776, when, with the Defence, he captured three vessels, carrying a regiment of troops, five thousand stands of arms, ammunition, tents, clothing, etc. Harding was recommended for a grant of two thousand acres, because of his destitute circumstances and also because “ . .. .owing to the depreciation of the public currency, the insolvency of prize agents, and other casualties, the claimant has, at no time, derived emoluments which might have been reasonably expected as the result of his perseverance, bravery, and good fortune, as a naval commander’’. In the final allotment, Harding actually received two hundred and forty acres in excess of the recommendation. It is significant to note the number of officers included in the list of Canadian refugees who were finally awarded land grants. In addition to Seth Harding, whose services were in the navy, the list includes Colonel James Livingston, Lieutenant-colonels Richard Livingston and Bradford, Brigadier-general Moses Hazen, Major B. Van Heer, and Lieutenants William Maxwell and L. F. Deles-dernier. Captain Clement Goselin, Major Lorant Oliver, and Lieutenant-colonel J. F. Ilamtramck had received aid from New York. There may have been others, but their rank is not recorded in the Acts or reports.

The reports of the commissioners were referred to a committee of the House of Representatives, and the latter made its report on May 9, 1800. Albert Gallatin, then a representative from Pennsylvania, led the movement in the lower house to increase the amount of land to be distributed, and in general pleaded for a greater generosity toward the claimants, especially since the whole amount of claims fell short of what had been generally expected, and because all the claimants were original holders and for the most part, in destitute circumstances. It was also argued, in support of greater liberality, that the claimants had been forced to wait twenty years for their compensation. As a result of the discussion, the amount to be granted to each class of claimants was increased, the total addition amounting to four thousand seven hundred and forty acres, and an Act of Congress was passed in 1801, enacting the report, as amended, into law. By this Act, the “Canadian Refugee Tract” in Ohio came into existence. The surveyor-general was directed to survey, subdivide into half sections, and set aside for the relief of Canadian refugees, “those fractional townships of the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth, twenty-first, and twenty-second ranges of townships, which join the southern boundary line of the military lands.” The tract as surveyed was a strip of land about four and a half miles wide and forty-eight miles long, running east from the Scioto River and covering what is now an important part of the city of Columbus, Ohio. The priority of location for persons entitled to land in this district was to be determined by lot, thirty days after the survey had been completed, and the locations were then to be made on the second Tuesday of January, 1802. The act enumerated the amount to be granted to each individual, the grants ranging from one hundred and sixty acres to two thousand two hundred and forty acres.

The Refugee Tract, as laid out and surveyed in accordance with the law, fell within what are now the counties of Franklin, Fairfield, Perry, and Licking, of the state of Ohio. By far the greater part of the tract lay in Franklin county, and included what is to-day the wealthiest section of Ohio’s capital city. Montgomery township, a part of the present Franklin county, was named by Judge Edward C. Livingston, whose father had been with Montgomery in the Canadian campaign, and who had received a grant of two sections of land in the refugee tract as compensation for these revolutionary services. Truro township, another section of Franklin county, is reported to have been named by Robert Taylor, who came from Truro. Nova Scotia. Practically all of the grants were finally located in Franklin county, and the amount appropriated by Congress proved to be almost double the amount of land actually needed to satisfy all the claims that were filed.

By 1801, when the first real step was taken to make land actually available for compensating the refugees, twenty years had elapsed since the close of the revolutionary war, and in that time, many of the original claimants had died (as is evidenced by the number of heirs included in the Acts), or were too old to venture into the perils of a new country which was still largely a wilderness. Some of the original claimants no doubt sold their allotments to land speculators; a few made personal use of their grant, and their descendants were for a long time residents of the Refugee Tract. A number of claims had been postponed in 1800 for lack of evidence—for example, that of Samuel Rogers, who, in 1803, received three and a half sections—and it was soon discovered that in spite of the expiration of the time limit fixed by the Act of 1798, there were a number of deserving Canadians who had not presented their claims. As a result, an Act of March 16, 1804, revived the Act of 1798, and continued it in force for two years after the date of the new law. In 1810, still another extension was made, and refugees were permitted to present their claims during another two year period. In April, 1812, an Act awarded nearly thirteen thousand acres to a group of seventeen claimants, whose claims had been filed under the laws of 1804 and 1810.

By 1816, it was clear that much of the land appropriated by Congress for the relief of the refugees would remain unclaimed, and consequently the Ohio General Assembly, in that year, by resolution, instructed the congressmen and senators of the state to use their efforts to secure the passage of a federal law, providing for the sale of the unappropriated portions. On April 29, 1816, such a measure was enacted, providing for the sale of the unclaimed sections of the refugee tract by auction at the Chillicothe land office, for a minimum price of two dollars an acre, the details of the sale to be fixed by presidential proclamation. What still remained after this auction, was to be disposed of at private sale.

In 1827, the benefits of the earlier Acts were extended to the heirs of Gregory Strahan, deceased, the grants to be located in the territory of Arkansas, and in the year following, a patent was issued to Andrew Westbrook, formerly of Upper Canada, for a grant of two sections, to be located anywhere in the unsettled west. In 1831, the president was authorized to issue a land patent for the relief of John Gough, near Vincennes, Indiana. The final legislation for the satisfaction of the claims of Canadian refugees seems to have been the Act of 1834, for the relief of the heirs of Lieutenant-colonel Richard Livingston, who had served in the regiment commanded by Colonel James Livingston.

In all, 58,080 acres were granted in the Refugee Tract, at one time or another, for the relief of 67 claimants, the grants ranging from 2,240 acres to 160 acres. Seven claimants received the maximum allotment of 2,210 acres; four received 1,280 acres each; twenty-two received 9G0 acres; seventeen were given 640 acres; sixteen received 320 acres each; and one claimant was granted but 160 acres.

Carl Wittke


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