Editor’s note: This is the first of two essays on working with online databases to research Loyalist history in Upper Canada. They originally appeared in the Autumn of 2016 in a slightly different form as part of a longer series at the group history blog, Isles Abroad. You can find all their posts about Loyalists here. We are grateful for the opportunity to offer readers these posts in partnership with Isles Abroad.
There is a wealth of information about early Canadian history online, and for those of us who like to go back to original source but live some distance from Ottawa, Toronto, or London, online databases of digitised primary sources are vitally important to our work. Recently I’ve been looking into some Loyalist records from early Canada. Thanks to government-funded digitisation programmes such as Héritage and the work of Library and Archives Canada, many sets of records once only available in the British Library or on 1960s-era microfilm at select national libraries are now online and free to access.
The digitised, handwritten documents found in such collections as the Upper Canada Land Petitions and the Haldimand Papers (two sets I’ve used quite a bit) also serve as excellent reminders that just because a source has been put up online does not mean that it will be easy to search through, read, or use. Even databases with an integrated online search application can give difficult or incomplete results due to many different factors. First, searches are often limited to name and location: content or subject is left out. This is promising for family history and genealogy research, but what if I want to know about early settlers to a specific region or find examples of cultural interactions between different groups? The search engine (and, in some ways, the presentation of the collection) has therefore been aimed at genealogists rather than historians. Also, these collections have been digitised as complete microfilm reels, not volumes, meaning that it is the format and limitations of film and the archival practices of the 1960s that is being reproduced online.
However, the hunt can be well worth it. In these two posts, I’d like to use examples from my own Loyalist research as an example of the benefits and challenges of using online sources. A while back I was looking into some of the Loyalists in my own family history and starting to dig through the Haldimand Papers. Unlike the Land Petitions for Upper Canada 1763-1865 and the Land Boards of Upper Canada 1765-1804, the Haldimand Papers do not have an online search page for names or places mentioned within the text. I had thankfully come across the details of records for one of my ancestors in the published work of another researcher. It still took me almost an hour to track down the correct pages in the records, but it was great to finally find Jacob Anguish, my 6x great-grandfather, in the Haldimand Papers.
At least three of my male ancestors were Loyalists who fought for the British in the Revolutionary War and later settled in Canada with their families. I have found one of my 6x great-grandfathers, Jacob Anguish, in Héritage’s digitised reels of the formerly microfilmed Haldimand Papers. Jacob and his family had been living in Pennsylvania and joined Butler’s Rangers, a Loyalist regiment, in 1777. He was captured following the Battle of Oriskany and imprisoned in Hartford, where he suffered irreparable damage to his health. Members of his family can also be found in various Loyalist-related records from Upper Canada, and his son Henry’s descendants are found in the Canadian County Atlases. A number of Loyalists from Butler’s Rangers ultimately settled in the Niagara region, as Earnest Alexander Cruikshank’s The Story of Butler’s Rangers and the Settlement of Niagara (1893) recalls.
I thought that I would reproduce some of his testimony here to demonstrate how valuable these papers can be.
To Lieut. Col. De Peyster Commanding Niagara, etc., etc.,
The Petition of Jacob Anguish, Late a Ranger in Lieut. Col. Butler’s Corps., Most Humbly Sheweth,
That Your Petitioner in the year 1777 quitted his habitation near the Susquehanna, and joined Lieut. Col. Butler, under whose command he went on the Expedition against Fort Stanwix, and was present at the Battle of Orisca.
That when the army retreated, he obtained permission from Lieut. Col. St. Ledger to return home in order to bring off his family; but having the misfortune to be taken Prisoner on his journey, he was put into a Dungeon in Hartford where he was detained nine months.
The letter goes on to detail how, after being released due to ill health, Jacob manages to return home, only to find that his family is missing. He returns to Butler’s Rangers, but the damage done to his foot and leg from lying on the frozen ground of the dungeon ultimately means that he must lose his leg at the Garrison Hospital in Niagara, is still unwell, and can no longer support his found family. Therefore, this letter was created as the result of his request for financial aid, not necessarily for himself (it’s noted that he’s now 59 and may not live long due to his ill health), but for his wife and family:
That your petitioner humbly hopes, that in case he should not recover from the operation, His Excellency will nevertheless extend his Bounty towards his helpless widow now between fifty and sixty years of age.
The letter is signed with Jacob’s mark, an ‘X’. This indicates that Jacob is illiterate and has dictated the story to an agent. Jacob’s statement regarding his health and fitness is corroborated by John Butler in a short statement following the petition, dated 4 August 1784, at Niagara.
As you can see from just one letter, the Haldimand Papers give insight into the experiences of normal soldiers and immigrants who found themselves on the losing side of a war that resulted in them never being able to return ‘home’. They add names to the battles, information about background and details of locations, and even insights into the history of medicine and prison conditions. They have preserved the stories of men and women who could not write their own story, albeit in a formalised style and interpreted by someone else. For example, additional research has shown that Jacob’s last name was probably Enckisch; he has been identified as a German immigrant who arrived in Philadelphia on 9 September 1751 on the ship, The Patience, so his name here has been anglicised.
You can find the full text of Jacob’s petition in the Haldimand Papers amongst Héritage’s digitised collections. In the next post, I’ll provide an overview of some of the digitised record collections and search engines to pull all of these resources together, walking through them in search of another Anguish ancestor.
Paula E. Dumas is a Tutor of slavery history at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Open Studies. Her first book, Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), explores the defence of slavery in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain. You can follow her work on Isles Abroad and on Twitter @historybypaula.
 It seems to me that a lot of this confusion could be cleared up by a simple reorganisation of the digitised files. Instead of listing them by microfilm reel (each of which could hold several volumes and over a thousand images), they should really be separated out into volumes and listed on their website by volume. This list of the volumes could then be cross-referenced to the ‘original’ microfilm reel number for researchers who already have that information. The actual documents themselves, at least in the case of the Haldimand Papers and the Land Petitions, were clearly organised into separate volumes when they were rewritten by hand for preservation. These volumes have title pages and tables of contents or indexes to help researchers. The microfilm reels ignore these tools because of their format, but there’s no reason to reproduce the format of a microfilm reel online.