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Loyalist Trails UELAC Newsletter, 2015 Archive

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“Loyalist Trails” 2015-43: October 25, 2015


The Loyalist Fire Series (Part One): The Great Fire of New York, by Stephen Davidson

© Stephen Davidson, UE

Ancient Greek philosophers believed that everything in the universe was composed of four elements: water, earth, fire and air. While scientists have now determined that there are 103 elements, it is nevertheless true that the "element" of fire was a large part of the loyalist experience. It was a weapon of the American Revolution and a tool of persecution. While fire provided both light and heat in the 18th century, it was often a destructive force that levelled refugee homes and loyalist settlements. Over the next four weeks, we will examine the role of fire in loyalist history. Our series begins with one of the most controversial of revolutionary conflagrations – the 1776 burning of New York City.

From August 1776 until November 1783, New York City was the headquarters for the British forces in North America. Under the command of Sir William Howe, the king's army seized New York City on September 15th; clinching their victory with the defeat of the patriots in the Battle of Harlem Heights on the following day.

Shortly before midnight on Friday, September 20th, fire broke out in the newly occupied city. Within twenty-four hours, a quarter of New York had been reduced to ashes. Between 400 and 1,000 buildings were destroyed. Despite the best efforts of British sailors and local residents, most of the city located between Broadway and the Hudson River was in ruins. Was this destruction the vengeful act of the invading forces? Was it a patriot tactic of war?

In June of the following year, a New Jersey newspaper carried a report of an execution related to the Great Fire. "Abraham Patten, a Spy from the Rebel Army, was executed at Brunswick last Friday ... At the Gallows he acknowledged all the Charges brought against him, and said he was a Principal in setting Fire to New York, but would not accuse any of his Accomplices. The said Patten formerly lived in this Place, and has left a Wife and four Children at Baltimore in Maryland."

Just a few days later, General Washington wrote to the president of the patriot congress: "You will observe by the New York paper, the execution of Abraham Patten. His family deserves the generous Notice of Congress. He conducted himself with great fidelity to our Cause rendering Services and has fallen a Sacrifice in promoting her interest. Perhaps a public act of generosity, considering the character he was in, might not be so eligible as a private donation."

Was Washington simply recognizing Patten's sacrifice rather than his role in the fire? In an earlier letter to a relative, Washington had commented on the Great Fire, writing: "Providence – or some good honest fellow, has done more for us than we were disposed to do for ourselves".

Today, a board of enquiry would be struck to determine the cause of the fire that was the very first "Attack on New York". Our best source for an 18th century "investigation" into the events surrounding the great fire is A History of New York During the Revolutionary War. Written in 1788 by Judge Thomas Jones, a loyalist refugee, the book sheds a much-needed light on a disaster that was then just twelve years in the past.

Eye-witnesses' reports of the fire were not in short supply. Jones' "first witness" was the Rev. Charles Inglis who would later become the first loyalist bishop of Nova Scotia.

""Several rebels secreted themselves in the houses, to execute the diabolical purpose of destroying the city. On the Saturday following an opportunity presented itself; for the weather being very dry, and the wind blowing fresh, they set fire to the city in several places at the same time, between twelve and one o'clock in the morning. The fire raged with the utmost fury, and, in its destructive progress, consumed about one thousand houses, or a fourth part of the whole city.'

A patriot who would later become a judge in Pennsylvania remembered that sailors had told him "that they had seen one American hanging by the heels dead, having a bayonet wound through his breast. They ... averred he was caught in the act of firing the house. They told us also, that they had seen one person, who was taken in the act, tossed into the fire, and that several who were stealing, and suspected as incendiaries, were bayonetted ... The testimony we received from the sailors, my own view of the distant beginnings of the fire in various spots, remote from each other, and the manner of its spreading, impressed my mind with the belief, that the burning of the city was the doings of the most low and vile persons, for the purposes, not only of thieving, but of devastation."

Jones quotes a letter of General Howe, the commander of the British forces, written just two days after the fire. "A most horrid attempt was made by a number of wretches to burn the town of New York, in which they succeeded too well, having set it on fire in several places with matches and combustibles that had been prepared with great art and ingenuity ... The destruction is computed to be about one-quarter of the town; and we have reason to suspect there are villains still lurking there ready to finish the work they have begun; one person, escaping the pursuit of a sentinel the following night, having declared that he would again set fire to the town the first opportunity."

In a letter written by George Washington, Jones reveals the British response to the fire. "Several of our countrymen had been punished {by the British} with various deaths on account of it; some by hanging, others by burning, etc., alleging that they were apprehended when committing the fact."

The most startling claim that Jones makes is that rather than being the act of "wretches", the fire was actually part of the patriots' military strategy. It was certainly a credible rumour.v

A letter written by Governor Tryon is quoted as saying 'Many circumstances lead to the conjecture that Mr. Washington was privy to the villanous act, as he sent all the bells of the churches out of town under pretence of casting them into cannon, whereas it is much more probable to prevent the alarm being given by the ringing of the bells before the fires should get ahead beyond the reach of engines and buckets; besides, some officers of his army were found concealed in the city, supposed for this devilish purpose."

However, Jones had more than rumours and conjecture to present as "evidence". He quoted a letter issued to General Washington on August 1776 by the rebel Provincial Convention which said "if the fortune of war should oblige our troops to abandon that city, it should be immediately burnt by the retreating soldiery, and that any man is authorized to set it on fire."

In September, before the British seized the city, General Greene wrote a private letter to Washington: "Two-thirds of the property of the city of New York and the suburbs belongs to the Tories... I give it as my opinion that a general and speedy retreat is absolutely necessary, and that the honor and interest of America require it. I would burn the city and suburbs, and that for the following reasons: If the enemy gets possession of the city, we never can recover the possession without a superior naval force to theirs... All these advantages would result from the destruction of the city, and not one benefit can arise to us from its preservation, that I can conceive of."

General Silliman, a patriot officer, wrote his wife on September 25, saying: "I believe it was not the regulars, but some of our own people in the city that set it on fire, for they executed several of our friends there for it the next day."

The patriot Colonel Hartley wrote to his superior officer, General Gates, on October 10, 1776, saying: "I am pleased to hear part of New York is burnt. I hope we shall have intelligence that the rest of that nest of Tories and sink of American villiany has shared the same fate. That cursed town, from first to last, has been ruinous to the common cause."

The attack on New York City was one of the first instances where fire was employed as a weapon of war during the American Revolution, but it would not be the last. The burnings of homes and whole communities was a tactic used time and again by both rebel and royal forces – as next week's article will demonstrate.

To secure permission to reprint this article, email Stephen Davidson.

Alexander Forbes: Highlander (Part 7), by Richard Nickerson

In addition to the above, and arriving either contemporaneously with the Forbeses, or within a year or two either way, but certainly by 1794, were:

William Andrews and his wife. They would have no children. William Andrews was from Scotland. Jenny Andrews was a "woman of quality" and had a "dauntless spirit" (CBT 432), something no doubt to be admired - and Alexander and Phoebe Forbes would name their fourth daughter, born in 1796, Jenny Andrews Forbes.

John Lonsdale, his wife, and three little children. Lonsdale was said to have been "a disbanded English soldier, son of a soldier killed at Bunker's Hill" (CBT 515-516).

David Bowman, single. He would never marry.

Neil McCommiskey, his wife, and two little sons. He was another "old soldier" (DN D 8).

John Garron, his wife Lydia (Lacey), and two little daughters.

Thomas McGuire and his wife Elizabeth (Lacey).

And more arrivals, apparently soon after 1794:

Dennis Lyons; his wife Rebecca (Porch) (Lacey) - mother of Garron's and McGuire's wives - and their three Lyons youngsters. Young John Lyons would grow up to marry Alexander and Phoebe Forbes' daughter Nancy.

Dennis Connell, single. He would later marry a daughter of Dennis Lyons.

The four last listed men were a group of Irish from the LaHave area, well up the coast near Lunenburg. They were all "old soldiers", according to Doane (DN D 8; E #88) - although Dennis Connell, whose estate was administered in 1871, could hardly have been old enough to be a soldier in the Revolutionary War.

Including Alexander and Phoebe Forbes and their three little daughters, we can estimate that by 1796, the total population of Woods Harbour would have been approximately 65, with several actively-expanding young families.

Alexander & Phoebe: Forbes Point

As we have seen, Alexander and Phoebe and their first youngster(s) arrived in Coquewit possibly by 1792 and certainly by 1794, settling on the east side of Woods Harbour. Of the foregoing list of those in Woods Harbour by that time, only Lonsdale with his small family, and the still-single McNevin were on the opposite, west side. The rest were either on the east side, or around the head, of the five km-deep, one km-wide harbour.

Alexander and Phoebe, however, soon made their final move - across to the west side of the harbour, tradition placing the date as 1798 (CBT 385). The small peninsula of land that was their destination, projecting five km into the Atlantic between Woods Harbour and Pubnico Harbour, was known for many years by the prosaic name of West Woods Harbour. But it was destined to be thoroughly stamped with the Forbes imprint. And when the post office was established there in June of 1885 (with John D. Forbes the first postmaster) the official postal-cancellation stamp would read "Forbes Point". Alexander and Phoebe had arrived at what would be their home for the rest of their lives.

John Lonsdale "and Duncan McNevin were living at Forbes Point when Alexander Forbes moved there. It was at that time that Lonsdale moved to Lower Woods Harbor" on the east side (CBT 515-516). Family tradition has it that Alexander and John Lonsdale exchanged properties with each other. This seems credible, although no registered property transaction has been found. At that time, 1798, most of the settlers at Woods Harbour held their land by virtue of having taken possession of it, living on it, and improving it. Confirmatory grants did not follow from the Crown until 1812, when the General Grant of Woods Harbour was issued (Nova Scotia Provincial Crown Lands Record Centre, Grant Book C, p.48).

Soon after Forbes joined McNevin on the west side, David Bowman and John Garron followed.

David Bowman was a single man, and never married (DN E #72). He lived with the Garrons, at least at first, while improving his land (Nova Scotia Crown Lands Record Centre, Shelburne Co. Portfolio, No.27).

Duncan McNevin would marry Elizabeth Peck. Tragically, "Duncan McNevin ... was out of his mind, and hanged himself -- His wife came home and found him in that condition" (DN E No.67). His widow and children, if any, moved away.

Which left only two young and expanding families in West Woods Harbour in the first decade of the 1800s - those of Alexander Forbes and John Garron. These families would have sustained themselves through farming and fishing, and would no doubt have been eagerly looking forward to the day when they had grown-up, brawny sons to help out with the heavy work. By the year 1800, these two families had produced nine children between them - five for Garron, four for Forbes. Enough for a full baseball team (or a full rounders side, as I suppose it would have been then). All girls. The gender imbalance righted itself thereafter for Forbes however; Alexander's last seven children were six boys and one girl. Not that we should in the least imagine that the Forbes daughters would have taken a back seat when it came to shouldering the family's work load in maintaining and expanding the Forbes establishment.

The early years, we may guess, were not easy (we may particularly think of 1816, "the year without a summer", caused by the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies). Nevertheless, the Forbes family, as far as we know, thrived.

The Nova Scotia Census provides us with a snapshot of the Forbes family in 1827 (Argyle, p.14). The oldest son, Alexander, had started his own young family by then, and the oldest daughter, Nancy, had been married to John Lyons for 17 years. Among the three households, totalling 23 people, they are recorded as having 15 acres of land under cultivation. Production in the previous year included 15 bushels of grain, 22 tons of hay, 900 bushels of potatoes. They had 18 cattle, 45 sheep, and 12 swine. (The Argyle census-taker, William Robertson, grouchily appended a note to his return warning that the "ignorant classes" had formed an "unfavorable impression" of the government's motives behind this newfangled thing called a census, with the result that "The Returns of Produce and Stock are in Many Instances much short of the real Amount".)


CBT: Edwin Crowell, A History of Barrington Township and Vicinity, 1923.

DN: Arnold Doane, "Notes" (later used by Edwin Crowell for A History of Barrington Township), collected c.1870s through 1911. Cape Sable Historical Society.

A Brief Guide to the British Government During the American Revolution

We know the familiar figure of King George III, often portrayed by painters in either military uniform or his coronation robes. He is the central villain in the Declaration of Independence, the unhappy victim of the crowd pulling him down, vicariously, as his statue rides a horse in New York City. Dozens of books portray him as the tyrant who would not let the colonies go. But of course George III did not have the powers that kings had in medieval times.

Explore more about what powers King George III actually held, how he could influence other areas and who did what in this article by Will Monk in Journal of the American Revolution.

War of 1812 Plaque for George Gallinger Jr. to be Placed on Nov. 7

A plaque unveiling ceremony will be taking place at St. George's Anglican Cemetery in Gallingertown on November 7th at 2:00 p.m. 2015. A War of 1812 Veterans plaque will be placed on the grave of George Gallinger Jr. in recognition of his service with the Stormont Militia during the War of 1812. This is part of the War of 1812 Veterans Graveside Project. Everyone is welcome.

George Jr. was the son of George Gallinger Sr., a UE Loyalist;

...Amanda Fasken 905-435-5644

Where in the World?

Where is Gov. Simcoe Branch member Doug Grant?

Participate by submitting a photo of yourself in UELAC promotional gear with a description. If you are a member of a branch, please indicate that as well – send to Jennifer Childs.

From the Twittersphere and Beyond

  • Betting on the Continental Army's Canadian Campaign. In mid-January 1776, the paths of two military officers crossed in Hartford, Connecticut. While passing through the city, General Charles Lee encountered the imprisoned British Major, Christopher French. There, during an evening meal, they exchanged competing assessments about the ongoing military struggles of the period. At some point during the evening, they put their money where their mouths were, settling on a bet of "ten guineas" over the Continental Army's prospects in Canada. Specifically referring to the ongoing Canadian Campaign (1775-1776), French foresaw a British victory whereas Lee believed the Continental forces would claim control over the colony before that very winter was over. By Jacqueline Reynoso in Borealia.
  • The Mystery of William Johnson's 'Fish House'. One of the real pleasures in researching and writing When Men and Mountain Meet was exploring the actual sites of the historic places mentioned in my book. There was one site, however, that was a little harder to locate than the others; Sir William Johnson's fishing camp "Fish House". Fish House was built for Sir William Johnson in 1762. Read the article by Glenn Pearsall in The New York History Blog.
  • Women of the laboring classes wore stays made of stiff leather. Not only were leather stays substantially less expensive (they were the stays given to poor women as "charity stays"), but they also were much sturdier, and offered more back support for jobs that required physical exertion. They also gave the fashionable conical silhouette to women couldn't afford the whalebone stays. Like all stays, leather stays were never worn next to the skin, but over a shift, and under the wearer's other clothing. By Two Nerdy History Girls.
  • Native American, Revolutionary War artifacts sought in Boston Common dig. "We're looking for Revolutionary War-era material," she said. "The British had encampments here. . . . We're also hoping to find some Native American artifacts."
  • Ye will not likely get to Weston, MA on Sunday afternoon, but if ye did, ye could take in a Tavern and Tombstone Tour. For example the Golden Ball Tavern was built in 1768 by Loyalist-turned-Patriot Isaac Jones.
  • The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTOED) is a rich and wonderful collection of synonyms, some archaic and obsolete, others from slang and dialect, but all of them reflecting the long history and wide reach of the English language. Test your knowledge of them with this tough quiz!

Editor's Note

A nice bit of R&R as we continue through the western Mediterranean. Yesterday Malaga in southern Spain; today Tangier in Morocco - for us a first visit to this bustling and growing city.


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