Introducing Loyalist Migrations

Tim Compeau

Loyalist Migrations is a collaboration between Huron University College’s Community History Centre, the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada (UELAC), and Liz Sutherland at the Map and Data Centre at Western University. This will be a multi-year project that draws upon archival sources and family histories to visualize the movement of thousands of migrants, exiles, and refugees, from all walks of life, who were displaced by the American Revolution. By plotting these individual journeys using ArcGIS, we hope to demonstrate the scope and diversity of the migrations for public audiences and, in the years to come, provide new research and analysis based on this collection of data.[1]

Thanks to generous funding from the UELAC, undergraduate students at Huron have begun exploring the journeys found in the Loyalist Directory, a resource of over 9000 entries describing families and individuals who resettled in Canada. The family stories contained in these entries would have remained scattered in land registries, church records, and family bibles had they not been gathered and shared by UELAC members. The Loyalist Directory is a testament to the abilities of family historians and loyalist descendants to preserve their history. We encourage genealogists, historians, and researchers to contribute to the project by submitting a loyalist, refugee, or migrant using this online form.

Each line on the map represents an individual or a family, and a mouse click will reveal a small snippet of lives turned upside-down by the conflict. Take for example the entry for Philip George Bender and his family. Born in Germany in 1743, Bender emigrated to the Thirteen Colonies before the Revolution. He fled his Philadelphia home in 1776 and joined Butler’s Rangers, a loyalist unit fighting on the frontier. He later resettled in the Niagara region of Upper Canada with his wife, Mary, and at least three children.[2] The single line on the map represents the movement of a whole family of five and it demonstrates both the potential and the limitations of the map.

We are conscious that the entries may replicate the patriarchal thinking and practices of the period. The official documents used to trace the loyalist journeys often focus on the male householder and his services to the Crown. We do not know Mary’s family name nor her place of birth, and there is nothing to indicate what she may have thought about the Revolution or her husband’s allegiance. As Kacy Tillman writes, a variety of perspectives and motivations “were scripted as loyalism, often against the so-called loyalist’s will.”[3] While this map includes loyalist soldiers and their families, it will also plot the movement of enslaved and free African Americans, Indigenous people, and many others who had their own reasons for leaving the United States.

Thanks to the research of family historians, we also have entries like Elizabeth Cline. Cline, a German migrant, arrived in America with her husband in 1765 and settled in what is today German Flatts, New York. Her husband was killed during the Revolution and she fled to British protection on Carleton Island on the St. Lawrence River. There she married a Hessian soldier and settled near Kingston, Ontario where she lived until her husband died in 1796. She did all of this with seven daughters in tow, the youngest born in 1781.[4] While details for entries like this are tantalizingly brief, they provide examples of the real human stories of the American Revolution.

The loyalist refugees and migrants who fled the Revolution represent a shared North American and Atlantic history. The conflict, followed by two centuries of collective forgetting and mythmaking, buried thousands of local and family connections between Canada, the United States, and the wider Atlantic World. We may never be able to plot every journey, but through cooperation and collaboration, we hope to build a detailed picture of the migrations and help reconnect the threads of our shared history.

Loyalist Migrations is in its very early stages, and we encourage anyone with questions, comments, or ideas to reach out to the team.

Tim Compeau is an assistant professor of history at Huron University College in London, Ontario. He is the co-editor of Seeing the Past with Computers: Experiments with Augmented Reality and Computer Vision for History (University of Michigan Press, 2019). You can find him on Twitter at @TimCompeau. Student researchers are Tom Lang (2019) and Jacob Vanderhoeven (2020). Liz Sutherland, GIS specialist at Western Libraries’ Map and Data Centre designed the website and guides the team in their work with the ArcGIS platform. Loyalist Migrations could not exist without the generous support and assistance of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada.


[1] For an overview of historical GIS see Ian N. Gregory and Alistair Geddes, Toward Spatial Humanities: Historical GIS and Spatial History (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2014).  Our project was inspired and influenced by many spatial history projects such as Stanford University’s Spatial History Project and the Tennessee State Archives Patriot Paths.

[2] Philip George Bender’s entry in the Loyalist Directory provides specific details and sources: http://www.uelac.org/Loyalist-Info/detail.php?letter=b&line=233,

[3] Kacy Tillman, Stripped and Script: Loyalist Women Writers of the American Revolution (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2019), x.

[4] Elizabeth Cline’s entry in the Loyalist Directory was contributed by Don Brearley and Christopher Plante. http://www.uelac.org/Loyalist-Info/detail.php?letter=c&line=477

Latest Comments

  1. nalmat59 says:

    This looks like an interesting study. My 5th great grandfather is listed on UELAC as a proven loyalist. His name was James Burdick. He had been with the Revolutionary Army in American but deserted, eventually being caught and jailed for being a loyalist sympathizer. In 1790 he was in Vermont and petitioned the Canadian government from their for a land grant which he eventually received.

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