Nova Scotia

Pandemic boredom sparks record drive to prove Loyalist roots

The 2020 coronavirus lockdowns led record numbers of Canadians to dig through history to prove their United Empire Loyalists roots.

United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada sees 25% jump in people seeking certification

The Nova Scotia branch of the United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada gathers around the Loyalist Queen Anne flag. (Submitted by Carol Harding)

The 2020 coronavirus lockdowns led record numbers of Canadians to dig through history to prove their United Empire Loyalist roots.

The United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada reported a 25 per cent jump in certifications over 2019. Many were from people stuck at home in Ontario and the Maritimes, two of the main settling areas for the Loyalists. 

The Loyalists date back to the late 1700s. Many had migrated to British North America from Europe. But in 1776, American insurrectionists overthrew the Crown and declared their independence. Those who remained loyal to Britain suddenly found themselves branded as traitors. 

Katharine MacLeod traced her Loyalist roots to Hanna Sypes, whose husband fought for the British and fled after the seditious rebels won. Her husband died during the escape, leaving Sypes to bring their nine children to safety in Canada. Sypes settled her family in the area of Dunville, Ont., where MacLeod still lives.  

MacLeod worked as a nurse for many years and credits her patients with sparking an interest in her roots; in particular, a woman named Marion Smith Tait. Smith Tait, who died in September, encouraged MacLeod to follow the paperwork to prove her connection to the Loyalists. 

A part of something 'a lot bigger'

She keeps digging so that her grandchildren will know from where they came. 

"It would be my hope that it would help them think past just today and realize who might be standing with you and the strength that it took to be where they are. And to be proud of all that's happened, to be a part of something that's a lot bigger," MacLeod said. 

Carol Harding proudly flies the Loyalist Queen Anne flag in her home in Digby. It honours her ancestors, including Loyalist Israel Harding. 

"The Loyalists are kind of a unique diaspora of people who came not because they wanted to in most cases. They had a very hard life and I think they're honoured by their descendents honouring them," she said. 

Carol Harding gets her certificate from Brian McConnell. (Submitted by Carol Harding)

Harding has proved several of her ancestors were Loyalists. It's mostly done through archival paperwork and tracking records of births, deaths and marriages to show a straight path from the descendent to the Loyalist ancestor. 

She helps other people prove their roots. 

"If a person contacts me, they usually have some sort of genealogy that they've done that they usually know they have a Loyalist ancestor," she said. 

"First of all, I tell people to start with themselves and work back. Find out the records for your parents that tell you who they were, what their names were, and then your grandparents. You work back one generation at a time until you get to the ancestor. Most people today, it's about seven or nine generations back to the ancestor."

Harding said 2020 saw her volunteer workload increase by about 33 per cent. She personally helped certify more than 50 people, more than ever before.

Fear of mob rule in the U.S.

Brian McConnell lives in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley, his home of 35 years, but his Loyalist ancestor settled in Ontario. McConnell is a longtime volunteer with the national organization and leads the Nova Scotia branch. 

"There has been a dramatic increase in applications for certificates of Loyalist descent right across Canada," he said. 

This painting shows Loyalists arriving in Canada after a hard journey north. (Library and Archives Canada)

He thinks it's partially due to the lockdowns and also because of the increased coverage in recent years about the Black Loyalists. They fled the same conflict, but were often also fleeing slavery and faced racism on arrival in Nova Scotia. 

McConnell, who wrote Loyalist History of Nova Scotia, said about 30,000 Loyalists landed in Nova Scotia, doubling the population. 

"Close to two-thirds of the Loyalists who came here ended up leaving because the conditions were just so hard and desperate," he said. "Black Loyalists as well, of course, faced discrimination on top of all this."

His ancestor James Humphrey fought for the British. McConnell said Humphrey didn't trust the "mob" that had taken over the country. He wouldn't swear loyalty to the new government, so he fled to safety with the old British government. Humphrey settled in the Prescott area of Ontario, near where McConnell grew up.  

Researching in quarantine

Jason Myers works in the wine industry in Simcoe, Ont., and had long wondered if he had Loyalist roots. In 2020, he had a brush with COVID-19 and suddenly had two weeks of quarantine. He used it to finally prove his roots.

"It's not expensive, but it is hard to do," he said of certifying it. 

He contacted the United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada and traced his mother's line back to Loyalist John Shaver, who died in Ontario in 1795. 

"It helps me to connect with what must have been going on in their minds," he said.

"To have so much upheaval and then leave the Old World, settle in the New World, and then have to pick up roots after building homes and starting lives, and then moving again and having to do it all over again? I think to me it's a reminder that our lives these days are so easy compared to what they may have had to go through."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jon Tattrie

Reporter

Jon Tattrie is a journalist and the author in Nova Scotia. You can reach him at jon.tattrie@cbc.ca.

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