The first in an eight part series to help people with potential UE Loyalist lines access the wealth of documentation available online for free, as well as offline sources that can provide further evidence linking generations.
An estimated half a million colonists were loyal to the Crown during the American Revolution. Of those, some 420,000 Loyalists remained in the former colonies at the close of the war.
However, 60,000-100,000 Loyalists -- those who experienced persecution, the confiscation and destruction of their property, and who served the British cause -- left the United States and were compensated for their losses by the Crown. Some loyalists went to refugee camps early in the war and when peace was declared those, and others evacuated from surrendered territories, began taking up land grants in British colonies.
This generated a tonne of paperwork.
The survival of these documents, mostly intact, is a tremendous boon for those seeking to extend their North American family histories well into the 18th century, as well as access biographical details that do not tend to survive in church records. Up until about five years ago, accessing these records required surmounting the usual bricks-and-mortar research institution obstacles.
However, given that approximately 50,000 Loyalists came to Canada -- where they are known as United Empire Loyalists (UELs) -- Library and Archives Canada (LAC) took the initiative to place the most important UEL record sets (as well as all Canadian census records), online for free.
LAC's priority digitization of these records reflect the continuing importance of the Loyalists in Canada. Canada's population was only about 125,000 in 1770. Therefore, the 50,000 refugees from the former colonies to the south exert a lasting founder-effect on the population and their legacy is embodied in a significant percentage of the Canadian population today.
Additionally, my own research tracing the descendants of couples born in the late 18th century has shown me how many Canadians were caught up in American expansion westward starting in the 1850s. A significant number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren of UELs returned to American soil. My "back-of-the-envelope" attempt at estimating the percentage of UEL descendants in both Canada and the US indicates the following scenario is not impossible:
The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of UELs were justifiably proud of their ancestors, who had lost everything, trekked into the Canadian wilderness, and successfully started again. They were also aware that many church records were gone and set about writing family and county histories to document their ancestors' lives before memories were lost forever. While such sources always need to be checked against primary documents, many of these 19th and early 20th century books are now in the public domain and accessible on sites such as Canadiana, OurRoots, OurOntario, and Internet Archive. Some of those sites also index the text to Google, ensuring the content will come up in a Google search, particularly if a township name and key date is included in the query.
In addition to the LAC digitization projects, and the provision of old county histories and family genealogies online, some provincial governments (Ontario, British Columbia, New Brunswick, PEI, Newfoundland) deserve tremendous credit for placing not only vital records indexes, but actual scans of registrations online, for free.
The vital records, particularly marriages and deaths, often include parents' names and can be key to linking back to the preceding generation. While the records offer excellent coverage, there are unfortunate sequences which do not include intergenerational information (list forms were briefly used in some jurisdictions) and there is always a risk that ancestors were residing in a frontier township that could not properly support registrarial functions (or a generation was averse to registering, which does happen).
The final key in linking generations may therefore come down to wills. While the online coverage of wills is not (yet, fingers crossed) on par with these other record sets, some are online and there are techniques that enable wills to be obtained through interlibrary loan services such as Family History Centers.
Looking at the process for investigating UELs, I can break it down into 6 steps, some very easy, that you can follow to identify UELs in your tree, access the documentation of their lives, and collect solid evidence of your connection to these ancestors and their experience with some of the great events of history.
Start with Step 1...
SERIES INDEXPART I - Background
PART II - Step 1: Search FamilySearch.org, look at Canadian censuses online
PART III - Step 2: Search FamilySearch again, access Canadian vital records
PART IV - Step 3: Google, using township name
PART V - Step 4: Take stock, seek advice as needed
PART VI - Step 5: Access free UEL record indexes and records online
PART VII - Step 6: Search wills, obtain evidence linking to later generations
PART VIII - Future possibilities