Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to review history; to refresh facts and figures in our minds. Sometimes refreshing those elements may even gives us new perspective and understanding of our own ideals and the way we currently live. Peter C. Newman has given us the opportunity to expand our thoughts on Canadian history with his new book Hostages To Fortune: The United Empire Loyalists and the Making of Canada.
Most Canadians remember the Loyalists, if at all, as shadowy figures, left behind after a brief mention in a high school classroom on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. And yet, even if not claiming or getting much attention, these unassuming pioneers, sparse of speech and haunted by their history, deserved most of the credit as the founding mothers and fathers of our country. The Loyalists saw the world differently from their British rulers, and it was this margin of free choice that became a key factor in Canada’s birth.
In fact, it is no exaggeration to contend that the birth of an independent Canada grew out the Loyalists’ dreams and visions. Initially little more than placeholders for the British Empire, they moved to occupy and own Upper Canada’s available shores, untamed rivers, overflowing lakes, and – at least in theory – the whole damn country. Their ability to persevere against all odds came together in that rare moment of historical triumph that gave to the land, best captured by poet Al Purdy, as being “North of Summer.” Those tight-lipped American refugees, who had chosen to reject the American Revolution and move to Canada, were ideally suited to realizing our pioneering ethic, with their meld of self-sufficiency and willingness to challenge authority. But if this book proves anything, it is that with out them, without these ghosts of a world we scarcely knew, whose lives we would not have wanted to share – without these angels in their faded and torn coveralls, Canada would not exist.
But Newman has done a bit more than just regurgitate the facts surrounding the story of the United Empire Loyalists. He has researched details of families who endured hatred and persecution during the American Revolution and documented their hardships during their sometimes multiple relocations. There are elements of this book that have a clear literary feel to it making the facts of history come alive.
When (the Revolutionary War) was finally over, all that remained for Polly Jarvis Dibblee were the bitter memories of her terrible ordeal. The revolution had driven her and her children from their home in Stamford, Connecticut; forced her into exile in, as she recalled, the “frozen climate and barren wilderness” of New Brunswick; and caused the tragic suicide of her husband, Fyler.
“O gracious God, that I should live to see such times under the Protection of a British Government for whose sake we have Done and suffered everything but that of Dying,” she wrote from New Brunswick to her brother William in mid-November 1787. “May you never Experience such heart piercing troubles as I have and still labour under . . . You may Depend on it that the Sufferings of the poor Loyalists are beyond all possible Description. The old Egyptians who required Brick without giving straw were more Merciful than to turn the Israelites into a thick Wood to gain Subsistence from and uncultivated Wilderness.”
Until the 1770s, life had bee good for Polly, the daughter of Samuel and Martha Jarvis of Stamford, and a sister to Munson and William, two of her nine siblings. She was born in 1747 and grew up as her siblings did, heeding their parents’ credo to “fear God and honour the King.” By the time she was sixteen, Polly had married her sweetheart, Fyler Dibblee, a twenty-two-year-old lawyer and the son of Reverend Ebenezer Dibblee, the past of St John’s Anglican Church in Stamford, and his wife, Joanna. A graduate of Yale University, Fyler must had studied or “read law’ with a local lawyer or judge for two years before he was admitted to the bar. He was ambitious and a community leader. He headed Stamford’s militia company with the rank of captain and served as the town’s representative to the Connecticut General Assembly. When the revolution began, Polly and Fyler had five children – Walter, William, Margaret (Peggy), Ralph, and Sally – and owned a fine house with its own library, a sure sign that they valued reading, an interest hey would have imparted to their children. Benjamin Franklin, who conceived the public library, wrote in his Autobiography, published a decade after the Revolutionary War ended, that his lifelong passion for learning and literature started for him as young man with his father’s small collection of books.
Newman has collected here not just a story of a group of people, but manages at times to capture their thoughts and influences. Yes, he has done his research, but he also uses some imagination to reflect on the ideals that the United Empire Loyalist had and brought forth in to the land they settled in. It may be small, unique details he brings forward, but adding those details adds new colour to the concepts of the Loyalists.
A Loyalist pioneer diet was what you might expect: lots of pork and occasionally fish – bass, pike, pickerel, salmon – which was plentiful in Upper Canada’s rivers and streams. Boiled cornmeal sprinkled with brown sugar was a favourite for breakfast, as were cornmeal pancakes. For a long time, Loyalists refrained from cooking American-style johnnycakes, a cornmeal flatbread, because as (W. S.) Herrington writes, “it was regarded as a Yankee dish.” The women picked wild strawberries, raspberries, and gooseberries and prepared jams,, and they taught their daughters to sew and weave clothes on a spinning wheel. Nearly everything the Loyalist wore was homemade including their leather boots, which involved moths of tanning, kneading, and rubbing using solutions of lye and oak bark. Making decent boots was a skill that was much admired and in demand. In the winter, fur from bears, foxes, and raccoons were used for thick hats, and in the summer, rye straw was utilized for straw hats. Neighbours watched out for each other and large tasks were accomplished with cooperative “bees” -everything from logging and stumping to quilting and paring bees.
Peter C. Newman has certainly refreshed the understanding of the Loyalists for many people with his book Hostages to Fortune: The United Empire Loyalists and The Making of Canada. A unique and interesting read for sure.