The American Revolutionary War:
Fighting for the British

In the American Revolutionary War (also known as the American War of Independence), the British, finding themselves short of the necessary troops to put down what it saw as the American rebellion, resorted to a number of tactics, including (not in any particular order):

  • they relied on American colonists who were loyal to the British Crown (later known as United Empire Loyalists);
  • they promised black slaves their freedom in exchange for their military service; and
  • they called upon Germany to supply troops to assist in the cause.

While there undoubtedly were other tactics used, and other groups that assisted the British in the War, these were the three largest.

(i) The United Empire Loyalists

According to the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, the definition of a ‘loyalist’ was as follows:

  • as of 19 April 1775, a resident of the American colonies, either male or female, and joined the Royal Standard prior to the Treaty of Separation of 1783, or otherwise demonstrated loyalty to the Crown, and settled in territory remaining under the rule of the Crown; or

  • a soldier who served in an American Loyalist Regiment and was disbanded in Canada; or
  • a member of the Six Nations of either the Grand River or the Bay of Quinte Reserve who is descended from one whose migration was similar to that of other Loyalists.

They also note that others might qualify as well. An example cited was the widow and children of a Loyalist soldier who died in the American Revolutionary War, who then moved to Canada.

As happens to the losing side in most wars, the Loyalists essentially became refugees after the American Revolutionary War. They were forced out of their homes, and their property was forfeited to the government.

"The Coming of the Loyalists".
Painting by Henry Sandham.
Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons
Henry Sandham's painting

Many were evacuated through New York to various points in Canada, which at that time consisted of present-day Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. A set of documents, known variously as the British Headquarters Papers (MG 23 B1), the Carleton Papers, or the American Manuscripts, contains the following lists:

  • refugees in New York, 1776-1783;
  • persons evacuated from New York in 1783; and
  • refugees from Massachussetts and Rhode Island evacuated through New York

All United Empire Loyalists displaced as a result of the American Revolutionary War were promised free land in Canada on which to rebuild their lives.

See my page about Canadian Land Grants and Homesteading for more information on land grants to United Empire Loyalists.

Some lists of Loyalists, such as those outlined above, were prepared at various times during this tumultuous time period. Although the definition of a Loyalist appears straightforward, there were nuances within the language that resulted in some people being included on one list, but excluded on the next, and vice versa.

There therefore is no definitive ‘list’ of who was and who was not a United Empire Loyalist. In conducting research in this area, it would be wise to check more than one list, if available, to attempt to track your ancestors’ movements as a result of the American Revolutionary War. The land petitions are excellent sources of information with respect to who came from which American colony, and may help to ‘connect the dots’ in your research.

The provincial Archives for the Canadian provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia each have some records with respect to United Empire Loyalists, and should be consulted in a search for your forebears displaced as a result of the American Revolutionary War.

For example, the Archives of Ontario has two lists which contain the names of various Loyalists:

  • the UE List from the Executive Council Office (RG 1 L7, vol. 52A, microfilm reel C-2222). This list contains annotations; and
  • Crown Lands Department Loyalist List (MG 9 D4, vol. 9, microfilm reel C-1476). It was published in 1885 as Appendix B in “The Centennial of the settlement of Upper Canada by the United Empire Loyalist, 1784-1884”.

Also located at the Ontario Archives is a group of records relating to Sir Frederick Haldimand (MG 21), a Colonel in the British army, who had risen to the rank of General and Commander-in-Chief by the time of the American Revolutionary War.

These Canadian military records contain many pieces of correspondence between Haldimand and the governors of Quebec, British cabinet ministers, other British colonels and generals, and many other high-ranking officials and “players” in the War. As such, they are a great resource for information relating to what was going on ‘behind the scenes’, in terms of strategizing, as well as a good account of what was happening ‘on the ground’.

Records in this series with respect to Loyalists and former soldiers from the American Revolutionary War include provision lists and muster rolls.

These documents are on microfilm, along with an alphabetical index, on reel C-1475. They can be consulted at the Ontario Archives’ Reading Room, or ordered to your local library through inter-library loan.

Loyalist House, Saint John, New Brunswick. The house was built in 1817 for the Merritt family, Loyalists who arrived after the American Revolutionary War. It remained in the family for six generations, after which it was purchased, in 1959, by the New Brunswick Historical Society, and turned into a museum celebrating New Brunswick's Loyalist history.
Wikimedia Commons
Loyalist House, Saint John, New Brunswick

Loyalist Claims for Damages

Some of the Loyalists – especially those in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick – filed claims with the British government for the losses they suffered as a result of their loyalty to the Crown in the American Revolutionary War. The Commissioners appointed to deal with the claims would receive ‘memorials’, or petitions, from the Loyalists with respect to those losses.

The claimants knew that they had to provide as much information as possible, if the claim was to be considered valid and compensable. Therefore, these records are a ‘goldmine’ for genealogists.

Written by the claimants themselves, they include information with respect to where the person lived, who was in their family, their military service, the type and duration of assistance to the British forces during the American Revolutionary War, property they owned that was left behind, their profession, annual income, and so on.

These petitions are included in the UK National Archives series entitled “Audit Office 12 and 13 (MG 14)”. Library and Archives Canada has copies of these records, under the same name.

Many of these memorials have been transcribed and the transcriptions posted online, with free access, at The Online Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies.

(ii) Black Loyalists

There were many black Americans – some say as many as 30,000 - who fought for the British cause. These men became known as Black Loyalists.

As noted above, the British were short of manpower in the American Revolutionary War.

At one point in the War, the Governor of Virginia, faced with an onslaught of American troops and a shortage of men to fight for the Crown, desperate for assistance, promised black slaves their freedom if they served on the British side in the War.

This tactic worked so well in recruiting more soldiers that it was expanded throughout the entire war effort.

Oro African Methodist Episcopal Church, Oro, Ontario. This church pertains to Black Loyalists from the War of 1812, which involved the British and Americans, with Canada a "bargaining chip" in the middle. The church has been designated a National Historic Site. The English version of the commemorative plaque on the premises reads as follows:

"Built in 1849, this church is the last vestige of one of the oldest African-Canadian settlements in Upper Canada. Here at Oro, former members of the Loyalist militia from the War of 1812 established the only Black community sponsored by the government. Free Blacks from the northern United States later joined them.

Located in the heart of a strategic and vulnerable region, the community guarded against an American invasion via Georgian Bay. This church is a testament to the contribution of African Canadians to the settlement and defence of Canada in the 19th century."

Photo by Wikimedia Commons User Padraic Ryan. Used under Creative Commons licence.

Oro African Methodist Episcopal Church

When the British were defeated in the American Revolutionary War, these black Loyalists were granted Certificates of Freedom, and those who chose to leave the country were evacuated to Nova Scotia, along with the United Empire Loyalists.

A large number of these individuals, faced with racism, and seeing their demands for the same pay as a white man for the jobs they were doing falling on deaf ears, eventually relocated to then-new British colony in Sierra Leone.

The British Headquarters Papers, mentioned above, include a document called the Book of Negroes, which the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Canada (UELAC) has indexed. This Book contains information listing the names, gender, health, distinguishing marks, status (i.e., free or enslaved), origin within the US, and white associates of black Loyalists, as well as the ships on which they travelled to Canada.

The entire book has been reproduced on the Collections Canada Electronic Documents site. Click here for free access to the searchable database index.

Many of the white Loyalists went to Nova Scotia with the intention of settling together, and creating a new settlement. Originally called Port Roseway, the settlement was renamed Shelburne not long after their arrival.

The newly-free Black Loyalists who went to Nova Scotia founded a separate community nearby, called Birchtown. A “Muster Book of Free Blacks, Settlement of Birchtown” is available online, at the Black Loyalist website.

(iii) German Troops

As previously noted, Britain enlisted the assistance of German soldiers in the American War of Independence. Of the 30,000 Germans who fought in North America during this time period, 10,000 of them were stationed in Canada. After the War, about 2,400 of them settled in Canada – that is, in present-day Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has many records with respect to the German troops who served in the War of Independence. The originals are partly in the UK's National Archives, and partly from Germany. The documents relate mainly to the Brunswick, Hesse-Hanau, and Anhalt units.

Hessian troops in the American Revolutionary War.
Artist: C. Ziegler after Conrad Gessner, 1799. Public Domain
Painting of Hessian troops in the American Revolutionary War

Records which the LAC identifies as being of interest to genealogists include the following:

  • War Office 17: Monthly returns, 1776-1786.
  • War Office 28: Headquarters' records, field officers' letters, 1781, 1783.
  • War Office 28: Nominal roll of the 1st Hesse-Hanau Battalion, January 1783.
  • War Office 28: Nominal rolls of German troops, January 1782.
  • War Office 42: Pension Claims by widows of officers of the King's German Legion who died in service or while on half-pay. Files include copies of wills, birth certificates and personal papers, etc. 1775-1908.
  • Colonial Office (MG 11 CO42)
  • Nominal rolls of German troops, 1778-1779.
  • Nominal rolls of German troops, 1779.
  • Sir Frederick Haldimand (MG 21)
  • Letters of officers of the German Legion, with reports, 1778-1784. Includes lists of the regiments and their location.
  • Letters of officers of the German Legion, with reports, 1776-1783. Very few soldiers are named; some officers are mentioned.
  • List of all those discharged from the Hesse-Hanau Chasseurs, 1777-1783
  • Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, 1776-1783. Journals, correspondence, and orders relating to German troops in North America. These records must be consulted on site.
  • Great Britain: Army, German Auxiliaries and Hessian Troops. Records copied from the Provincial Archives of Wolfenbüttel, Germany. Some restrictions apply. These records must be consulted on site.
  • List of Officers, NCOs, and enlisted men from the Brunswick Army Corps who were killed, deserted, or left the Army in some other manner.
  • Nominal rolls of officers, NCOs, and men who were sent to America to fight with the British in the American Revolutionary War, 1777-1779.
  • Nominal rolls of troops considered prisoners of war, 1777-1783.
  • List of total numbers of the Brunswick troops and their different units, including nominal rolls and lists, 1776-1783.
  • List of Brunswickers who were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner in the American Revolutionary War, 1777-1783.
  • List of Hessian or other troops, 1776-1782.
  • British Military and Naval Records (RG 8, C Series). LAC’s description is as follows: 

This series covers the period from the American Revolution to the mid-1800s. It includes a wide range of documents relating to the British Army in Canada, Loyalist regiments, the War of 1812, the Canadian militia, etc. A nominal/subject card index and the actual records are available on microfilm. References located in the index provide a brief description of the document, date, C Series volume number and a page number. After consulting the index, refer to the list of microfilm reel numbers for the actual records.

The LAC used to provide a separate list of Hessian resources, but not includes this in a general description of German immigration to Canada.  That page, as well as links to other relevant sources related to German troops in Canada at this time, can be accessed here.

Go from 'The American Revolutionary War: Fighting for the British' to 'Canadian Military Records: New France"

Go to 'Canadian Military Documents: British Rule'

Go to 'Canadian Military Documents: World Wars I and II'

Go to 'Canadian Military Documents: An Introduction'

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