Over the past few decades, the American Revolution, traditionally the purview of early American historiography, has become an important focus for American literary and cultural studies. Yet much contemporary scholarship continues to characterize “Revolutionary America” as essentially Patriot writing and printed media, with little attention paid to the thousands of Americans who were not as interested in declaring their independence from Britain. When Loyalists of the American Revolution are considered at all, much of the focus is on men, with figures such as Benedict Arnold, John Andre, Jonathan Odell, and Joseph Stansbury standing in the spotlight.
But consider Mrs. Nathaniel Adams, a Loyalist who testified in the court martial of a Continental soldier accused of destroying her home during the Battle of White Plains. Consider Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson of Philadelphia, deemed a Loyalist against her will when she delivered George Johnstone’s attempted bribe to Joseph Reed. Consider, as well, Sarah Cass McGinn, a Loyalist well-versed in Iroquoian languages who served the British as an interpreter during the war. Many Loyalist women—self-identified and otherwise—participated in or were affected by the war, and I have named only a few. Dorothea Gramsby, Catherine and Mary Byles, Peggy Hutchinson, Anna Rawles, Margaret Morris, Janet Shaw, Anne Hulton, and Phila Delancey also either identified as Loyalists or had that identity thrust upon them. Those who stayed behind as their husbands, brothers, and sons left home to fight can tell us what life was like running businesses, raising children, and tending property, all while living among neighbors and relatives who shunned them for their politics. Those who fled in exile write about slipping away in the dark of night, babies in tow, possessions left behind, lurching toward cold and unfamiliar destinations far from home—narratives that provide another, often unrepresented perspective on the American Revolution (fig. 1).
Discussing eighteenth-century Loyalists has been difficult, in part, because their political perspectives do not fit neatly into the American origin story. In his 2007 Common-Place article “What is a Loyalist?” Edward Larkin raises this very point. To the Loyalists, the founding fathers were tyrants, not leaders. The “Sons of Liberty” were vigilantes, not victors, and the war meant the collapse of order and civilization, not the defeat of longstanding injustice. Further complicating the Loyalist/Patriot divide is the harsh truth that people did not always get to decide their political affiliation for themselves. While some had the luxury of pledging loyalty to the crown, others had loyalism thrust upon them. Self-appointed Committees of Safety branded as Loyalists merchants who refused to sign nonimportation agreements, even though their reasons for protest may have been monetary rather than political. Anglican priests were automatically Loyalists due to their affiliation with the Church of England. Unless they made a public display of disavowing their family members, people with prominent Loyalist relatives were assumed to be Loyalists-by-association. The Loyalist Claims Commissioners defined Loyalists very broadly, granting money or land to those who fought for the British or pledged allegiance to Great Britain (even after fighting for or pledging allegiance to the Rebels).
When we read the war from the perspective of female Loyalists, Loyalism becomes even more inclusive. Female Loyalists, like their male counterparts, are typically defined as being ideologically opposed to separating from Great Britain, but their inability to vote, fight, or legislate complicates how we understand their political affiliation. Many Loyalist women were persecuted because of familial ties to other Loyalists, and not because of their own political opinions, in part because eighteenth-century society did not view women as political creatures. Early in the Revolution, women with Loyalist husbands could claim neutrality, since they could not own property or sign oaths of loyalty. Under coverture—the legal doctrine that held that a woman’s legal rights were subsumed by her husband’s upon marriage—husbands assumed a political position on their wives’ behalf, which rendered women politically invisible. Sometimes, this invisibility worked in their favor. Women (both Loyalists and Rebels) were allowed to take food, clothing, and letters across enemy lines—even into prisons—because they were not considered a threat. Letters written by Loyalist women during the war show that such women were considered (and considered themselves) Loyalists not only if they verbally supported independence from or war with England, but also if they married a Loyalist, imported and sold British goods, resisted edicts from Committees of Safety or other local militias, delivered intelligence for the British, declared pacifism, and/or fled occupied cities to live with other Loyalist exiles.
Elizabeth Smith Inman (née Murray), a shrewd Scottish businesswoman, met four of the aforementioned criteria. Her milliner’s shop in Boston was blacklisted both for its British imports and her husbands’ political affiliations. Her second husband, James Smith, housed British troops in his sugar warehouse in 1760, and her third husband, Ralph Inman, was an outspoken supporter of the king. She refused to support independence from Great Britain, even going so far as to deliver intelligence to the British, hiding it in goods she could not otherwise sell. (Readers interested in learning more about Murray will want to consult the excellent online resource The Elizabeth Murray Project, maintained at California State University-Long Beach.)
Ralph Inman abandoned his wife in 1775, shortly after Rebel troops seized Brush-hill, his farm in Cambridge, an event that marked the beginning of Elizabeth’s many misfortunes. The shopkeeper attempted to keep her business afloat by traveling to Boston to check on its wares, but she found that her niece Anne had deserted it. In the meantime, the Cambridge Committee of Safety gave the Inman property to the Provincial Congress. Elizabeth had little recourse; she could not fight against the Rebels as a soldier, and she knew any protest of the decision that she published with her name attached could endanger her or further isolate her from neighbors or family members who might provide support. Communication with her English suppliers had ceased. The once self-sufficient Elizabeth Inman seemed helpless—until she recognized an opportunity, in the form of Scottish prisoner Colonel Archibald Campbell.
As part of the 71st (Fraser’s) Highlanders, Campbell was captured in Boston Harbor on June 16, 1776. Perhaps a distant relative, Campbell reached out to Murray to help facilitate a prisoner exchange—him for Ethan Allen, who had been captured around the same time. She agreed, an acquiescence that not only resulted in Campbell’s exchange, but also in profit for Elizabeth. While Elizabeth’s shop and farm were unavailable to her, she sold goods and information to the colonel. One letter from Campbell, written on March 21, 1777, thanks Elizabeth for “procuring … a loaf of Sugar which has come safe to hand.” He enclosed a “Six Dollar Bill to pay for it” and asked “[i]f another loaf [could] be procured and sent by the Bearer.” He also thanked her for sending cheese, candles, linen, hair powder, and a cask of rum, then encouraged her to set her price for the other goods he requested, suggesting she was profiting from their exchange.
Campbell also expressed gratitude for Elizabeth’s willingness to conceal intelligence in the food and goods she sold to him, delivered by Elias Boudinot, who was facilitating the exchange. Elizabeth knew that people were watching her come and go from the jailer’s apartment where Campbell was held, and hid correspondence concerning Campbell’s exchange for Allen in hair powder and the barrels of rum she sold to other troops in the prison. “Thanks to you Dear Good Madam,” Campbell wrote, “for your obliging note which I duely received last night in the powder—the Intelligence is great and pleasing—I shall be happy indeed to see the hour I am garrisoned in your place and shall gladly partake of a Saturday dinner even of Salt fish fruits & tea.”
Does this interaction with Campbell make Murray a Loyalist? She did not express Loyalism the way that others did. She did not write essays warning people about America’s inevitable decline, should the colonies part from Great Britain. She did not fire muskets or kill Patriots. But as a merchant and a wife, she occupied a dual position. As a Loyalist’s abandoned spouse, she was both invisible without her husband’s legal rights and hyper-visible as the sole remaining Inman family representative. As a merchant, she relied on imports from England but could not sell them, since the Committees of Safety coerced merchants into signing nonimportation agreements or risk having their shops burned, bashed, or blacklisted. Despite these clear obstacles, Elizabeth decided to deliver intelligence for Archibald Campbell, which resulted in his freedom, a decision from which she also profited. Her story teaches us that women both embraced Loyalism and had the identity thrust upon them, an experience that caused as much anxiety and harm as it did benefit.
When Christian Barnes, a milliner in Boston who worked with Elizabeth Murray, saw the town edicts demanding that all merchants sign nonimportation agreements, she feared for her livelihood and her life. “It is long since I have dabbled in politics, …” Barnes wrote to Murray, but “I want to vent myself, and … ‘To whom shall I complain if not to you?'” She explained that “the spirit of discord and confusion which has prevailed with so much violence in Boston has now begun to spread itself into the country,” and that friends and neighbors quickly became enemies once the “Sons of Rapin” or local committee members began issuing ultimatums to the local merchants. She further explained, “At their next meeting they chose four inspectors,—men of the most vioulent disposition of any in the town,—to watch those who should purchase goods at the store, with intent that their names should be recorded as enimes to their country.” The committees, frustrated that the boycotted merchants remained in business, “fixed a paper upon the meeting house, impowering and adviseing these unqualified voters to call a meeting of their own and enter into the same resolves with the other.” In other words, this self-appointed local militia, whom Barnes refused to recognize as a legitimate authority, further outraged her when it encouraged Barnes’s customers and neighbors to punish offenders using vigilante justice. She describes these committeemen as drunk with illegitimate authority: “This was a priviledg they had never enjoyed, and, fond of their new-gotten power, hastened to put it in execution, summoned a meeting, [and] chose a moderator.” Barnes incredulously recalls that mobs raided merchants’ homes and threatened their families in response to the call-to-arms, so that many of the Boston importers were “compelled to quit the town, as not only their property but their lives were in danger. Nor are we wholly free from apprehensions of this like treetment, for they have already begun to commit outrages.” The mob violence became personal when a group of men targeted Barnes, stopping her carriage so that they could hack it to pieces and throw it into a nearby brook.
Christian Barnes’s version of Loyalism, like Elizabeth Murray’s, was tied to what she bought and sold. Although she admitted that she did not like to dabble in politics, she weighed in on the fact that a group of men had appointed themselves the town’s enforcement officers. From her perspective, the Committees of Safety were put together haphazardly, and they instantly abused their power by deciding who was a Loyalist, who was a Patriot, and what punishment or reward was appropriate for both. Barnes and Murray both suggest that merchants were Loyalists by default, since they ordered their wares from England and continued to support the English economy even after the Intolerable Acts were passed in 1774. Rather than being aligned with Patriots who favored independence from Britain because they disagreed with the British system of governance, female merchants were “pocketbook Loyalists,” painted with a political affiliation because of their economic activity. What they bought or boycotted determined who they were, at least in the eyes of the men and mobs responsible for labeling the local townspeople.
Sometimes, women determined their loyalties by declaring whom they opposed, rather than whom they supported. When the Sons of Liberty gathered groups of protestors together to challenge the British government, Loyalists called those groups “the mobocracy.” Mobs punished offenders by tarring and feathering them or destroying their homes and shops. Bostonian Anne Hulton christened these men the “Sons of Violence,” describing them as uncontrollable ruffians, especially after they attacked her brother Henry Hulton’s house at midnight on June 19, 1770. Henry was the Commissioner of Customs, just one of the people that radicals found unpopular as anti-customs sentiment became widespread in the colonies. Anne Hulton writes that masked men dressed in drag and blackface smashed all of the windows of Henry’s house and attempted to beat her brother to death: “Parties of Men … appeard disguised, their faces blacked, with white Night caps, & white Stockens on, one of ’em with Ruffles on & all with great clubs in their hands.” The “hideous Shouting, dreadful imprecations, & threats” haunted her for weeks after, suggesting that these raids were just as traumatizing as they were irksome. She predicts that these statesmen will invite the city’s ruin, writing, “If G: Britain leaves Boston to itself, … it will certainly be the greatest punishment that can be inflicted on the place and people… . The Town is now in the greatest confusion, the People quarreling violently about Importation, & Exportation.” Hulton’s journal suggests that, if she hesitated to embrace Loyalism before the mob targeted her family, the crowd did little to sway her political affiliation in their direction.
Like Anne Hulton, the Philadelphia Quaker Grace Growden Galloway was targeted by a local committee—the Philadelphia Council of Safety—and defined herself in opposition to it. Unlike Hulton, Galloway was able to negotiate with the local committeemen, perhaps because of her considerable connections. Her father, Lawrence Growden, owned 10,000 acres of land and served on the Pennsylvania Assembly (fig. 2). Her husband Joseph, who served as Speaker of the House in Pennsylvania from 1766 to 1774, and as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774, was a powerful political figure who favored continued union with Britain and staunchly opposed the Revolution. He fled to Britain in 1778 after serving as Superintendent of Police in British-occupied Philadelphia, leaving behind his daughter, Betsy, and wife to guard the family property. Grace Galloway’s letter-journal—a diary kept in letter-form addressed to her husband and, later, her daughter—recalls how the Commissioners of Forfeited Estates treated her in Joseph’s absence. They demanded she leave her home, which they sold to a Spaniard, leaving the once-wealthy Galloway destitute. She refused to recognize the commissioners’ legitimacy, so they forcibly removed her from her property. “Pray take notice,” she told both the commissioners and the diary-readers, “I do not leave my house of my own accord, or with my own inclination, but by force. And nothing but force should have made me give up possession.” Galloway’s Loyalism was determined first by her father, husband, and the Commissioners of Forfeited Estates; then, she embraced it for herself via her diary, which positions her defiantly against the Rebels, whom she describes as self-righteous radical vigilantes.
This story of violence and fear repeats itself throughout female Loyalist writings of the eighteenth century. Sarah Cass McGinn of Tryon County, New York, was jailed along with her son, who was tortured out of his senses and bound in chains. The Rebels burned him alive when he was no longer of use. Anna Rawle’s neighbors frightened her into an alliance with the Rebels, destroying her property until she lit a candle in a window of her Philadelphia home, which announced that she favored the Rebels. During her “lying in,” Mrs. Edward Brinley of Roxbury, Massachusetts, was oppressed by Rebels who marched troops through her home so that they might “see a Tory woman” and her children stripped naked. These women were often branded Loyalists before they decided to accept the identity for themselves.
Women who chose (or begrudgingly accepted the request) to house British soldiers also made themselves politically visible as Loyalists. Having a house full of rowdy (sometimes inebriated) young soldiers worried any woman of propriety, but it especially concerned female Quakers such as Elizabeth Drinker of Philadelphia. Quartering soldiers from either side could be interpreted as supporting their cause, and since many Quakers (Free Quakers excepted—not all Quakers opposed the war) wanted to remain pacifists, they resisted becoming involved in the war as long as they could. Local militiamen imposed oaths of loyalty (which many Quakers called “The Test”) and required military service of the able-bodied during the Revolution, and they refused to make exceptions for religious people. Pacifism equated with hostility, as far as many Rebels were concerned. Initially, then, many Quakers were forced to adopt Loyalism by default. As the Revolution progressed, culminating in the formation of a national government in 1780, many Quakers began to embrace Loyalism for themselves. As a result of their British loyalties, both passively assumed and actively embraced, Quakers throughout the colonies were persecuted, and the letter-journalists who documented this treatment reflect a wide spectrum of reactions. So, when Elizabeth Drinker received news that the British Major General John Crammond wanted to station his troops at her house, she was unsurprisingly against the idea. Then, a drunk soldier broke into her home and threatened its occupants with a sword, so Drinker changed her mind, believing she had no other choice but to allow Crammond to quarter there and provide protection. On December 30, 1777, he moved in, along with three horses, two sheep, three cows, two turkeys, servants, and three Hessians who served as orderlies. His presence disrupted Drinker’s efforts to stay uninvolved in the war, and her diary suggests that Drinker believed she had chosen a side, albeit unwillingly (fig. 3).
The cases of Elizabeth Murray and Christian Barnes suggest that women were Loyalists because of what they bought, sold, or believed. Drinker, Hulton, Rawles, McGinn, and Galloway offer an alternative version of Loyalism, suggesting that it could be forced upon the unwilling, either via vigilantism, violence, occupation, or all three. These women at least had the privilege of staying in their homes while their cities were occupied. Other Loyalists were not so lucky; many were exiled to Canada, London, Florida, or the West Indies, often against their will. Their decision to flee to Loyalist strongholds rendered them Loyalists in absentia. At first glance, the argument that an exile becomes a Loyalist as she flees is problematic. Exiles fled their homes because they feared persecution for being Loyalists; so, it would seem that the state of exile is a result of Loyalist sympathies, not the other way around.
But the Loyalist exile’s status is not that simple. While neutral or undecided women may have left their homes because someone else forced them out, their resentment and the challenges of eighteenth-century travel sometimes pushed them toward Loyalism as their journeys progressed. Exiles’ letters depict female Loyalists as hapless victims of a civil war, turned out of their homes with little warning because of the political views held by husbands who had abandoned them. Loyalist letters by exiles often begin by focusing on the interruption of the normal flow of life, and progress on to matters of politics. Sarah Deming’s journal follows this pattern. It opens by lamenting the family heirlooms she left behind when she was forced to flee without warning from her Boston home. She writes,
I know not how to look you in the face, unless I could restore to you your family Expositer; which, together with my Henry on the Bible, & Harveys Meditations which are your daughter’s (the gifts of her grandmother) I pack’d in a Trunk that exactly held them, some days before I made my escape, & did my utmost to git to you, but which I am told are still in Boston—It is not, nor ever will be in my power to make you Satisfaction for this Error—I should not have coveted to keep ’em so long—I am heartily sorry now, that I had more than one Book at a time; in that case I might have thot to have brought it away with me, tho’ I forgot my own Bible, & almost every other necessary.
As she meets other exiles like her, however, she begins to focus not on what she left behind, but on who forced her to go. Rebels treat the Loyalists like “sheep going to slaughter,” she says; their desire to kill “every tory in … town” is no “better than murder.”
The Loyalist exiles saw themselves as victims cast out of the Promised Land, drawing Biblical parallels with Abraham and the Israelites. This mindset is especially clear in letters that discuss the emigration journey, an arduous and traumatic experience that received as much attention in Loyalist writing as the haste with which the traveler had to depart. In a letter dated June 5, 1775, to her brother Joshua Winslow, Sarah Deming told of her harrowing flight out of Boston to the nearby town of Dedham, making unmistakable Old Testament references as she told her story: “What I fear’d, as Job said, is come upon me, & I am this day driven out. When I left Boston, I was in one respect like Abraham when he left Ur —I came forth, not knowing wither I might go—I fled for my life, & God has given it me for a [prayer?]. It would be taking up too much time to tell you all I met with upon the road hither—I will only say, that in the space of ten nights, I lodg’d in eight different towns.” Like the letter to her brother, Deming’s diary also discussed her “exodus,” but in her private journal, she heightened the journey’s theological implications: “We had not resolv’d where to go—In that respect we resembled Abraham—& I ardently wish’d for a portion of his faith —We had got out of the city of destruction; such I lookt upon Boston to be, yet I could not but lift up my desires to God that he would have mercy upon, & spare the many thousands of poor creatures I had left behind. I did not however, look back after the similitude of Lots wife.” Here she likened herself to the Biblical male patriarch most often associated with persecution and exodus, transforming herself into a significant Old Testament figure. She shunned any analogies with Lot’s wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt after looking longingly at the homeland denied her; apparently, Deming saw herself more as a leader of a righteous group of people—the Loyalists—than a woman attached to the past. Her letters and journal recast the British as persecuted martyrs rather than the tyrants Americans fashioned them to be.
Sarah Scofield Frost, a Connecticut native, had a much longer trip than Sarah Deming, though both women describe similar chaos. Frost boarded the ship the “Two Sisters” in Loyd’s Neck, Long Island, bound for Nova Scotia in the spring of 1783, in an effort to escape the hostilities. The voyage took about one month. When Frost recorded her travels, she emphasized not the ideology behind her decision to sail, but the madness onboard the boat, which brimmed with crying children and panicked parents. On June 9, 1783, she wrote: “Our women, with their children, all came on board today, and there is great confusion in the cabin. We bear with it pretty well through the day, but as it grows towards night, one child cries in one place and one in another, whilst we are getting them to bed. I think sometimes I shall be crazy. There are so many of them, if they were as still as common there would be a great noise amongst them.”
When they finally reached their destination, the outlook did not seem any less bleak. “We are all ordered to land to-morrow,” she wrote despondently on June 29, 1783, “and not a shelter to go under.” Likewise, Quaker Mary Gould Almy’s letter-journal, kept when she was fleeing Newport, laments, “Heavens! What a scene of wretchedness before this once happy and flourishing island! Cursed ought, and will be, the man who brought all this woe and desolation on a good people … . six children hanging round me, the little girls crying out, ‘Mamma, will they kill us!’ … Indeed this cut me to the soul.” The female Loyalist served, in some ways, as the head of the exiled family. Rarely did men make these journeys with their families, since they had usually fled ahead of their wives and children. The scene they paint is chaotic, with children sick, frightened, desperate, and crying. As Almy points out, many female Loyalists did not see themselves as people who could choose one side of the war or the other; instead, they were victims of men who brought “woe and desolation” on “good people” who neither asked for nor deserved such treatment.
So, what is a female Loyalist? Mary Gould Almy, Sarah Scofield Frost, Sarah Winslow Deming, and other exiles suggest she was a woman who fled the Rebels either because of her family’s ties to England, her own political opinions, or both. Some left an occupied city as Loyalists-by-marriage, but most emerged on the other side of the journey having internalized a Loyalist perspective. The examples of Elizabeth Murray and Christian Barnes suggest that people who bought or sold banned goods from the British were Loyalists, while the cases of Elizabeth Drinker, Anne Hulton, Anna Rawles, and Grace Growden Galloway intimate that the Sons of Liberty, Committees of Safety, or other self-appointed rebel authorities could determine a woman’s Loyalism for her. The letters and journals kept by these women complicate other nontraditional modes of engaging in civic discourse. The Loyalist claims—petitions that people filed (often orally) after the end of the war to declare their loyalty to the king in exchange for land or money—raise questions about Loyalism and further challenge our understanding of that term. While it is important to ask “What is a Female Loyalist?” it is equally important to wonder, “What is a Native American Loyalist?” or “What is a black Loyalist?” To answer such questions, we have to think beyond the typical modes of civic engagement that were available only to free, white, property-owning men.
Many thanks to Jim Green and the Library Company of Philadelphia/Historical Society of Pennsylvania McNeil fellowship that made my archival research possible. Thanks, also, to Ed Larkin, Phil Gould, and the American Antiquarian Society for its summer seminar on Loyalism, which inspired this piece.
Whenever possible, I consulted manuscript versions of the letters and letter-journals. Grace Growden Galloway, Anna Rawle Clifford, and Elizabeth Drinker’s diaries are available at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Many thanks to the Massachusetts Historical Society for granting me permission to quote from Sarah Deming’s journal. Many of the Loyalist journals can be found in Elizabeth Evans’ Weathering the Storm: Women of the American Revolution (New York, 1975). Other sources for Loyalist writings include James Talman’s Loyalist Narratives from Upper Canada (New York, 1969) and The Price of Loyalty, ed. Catherine S. Crary (New York, 1973), which further include published versions of the writings of Clifford and Galloway. Anne Hulton’s Letters of a Loyalist Lady was published in full by Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Mass., 1927). Some of Christian Barnes’s letters are available in Letters of James Murray, Loyalist, ed. Nina Moore Tiffany (Boston, 1972). Janet Schaw’s Journal of a Lady of Quality is available from Yale University Press (New Haven, Conn., 1921).
For women’s roles in the American Revolution, see Carol Berkins’ Revolutionary Mothers (New York, 2005), Linda Grant DePauw’s Founding Mothers (New York, 1975), Linda Kerber’s Women of the Republic (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1997), Mary Beth Norton’s The British-Americans (New York, 1972), Jan Lewis’s “The Republican Wife,” The William and Mary Quarterly 44.4 (1987): 689-721, and Janice Potter-Mackinnon’s While the Women Only Wept (Montreal, 1993). For more information about Loyalists and/or Loyalism, see Philip Gould’s Writing the Rebellion (New York, 2013), Ruma Chopra’s Unnatural Rebellion (Charlottesville, Va., 2011), Maya Jasanoff’s Liberty’s Exiles (New York, 2011), Judith Van Buskirk’s Generous Enemies (Philadelphia, 2003), Wallace Brown’s The Good Americans (New York, 1969) and The King’s Friends (Providence, R.I., 1969), Esmond Wright’s Red White and True Blue (New York, 1976), and Arthur Meier Schlesinger’s The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution 1763 – 1776 (New York, 1918). Readers interested in learning more about Elizabeth Murray should consult Patricia Cleary, Elizabeth Murray: A Woman’s Pursuit of Independence in Eighteenth-Century America (Amherst, Mass., 2003).
This article originally appeared in issue 13.4 (Summer, 2013).
Kacy Tillman is an assistant professor of English and writing at the University of Tampa, where she teaches early American literature. Her research focuses on eighteenth-century women’s life writing, including letters, diaries, and letter-journals.