A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #2: Settlement, Revolution & War. TOC
Part 3, "Post-Revolution -- The Loyalists (1782-90)" TOC
Ch. 4 - Loyalists At Shelburne:

The community of Shelburne is certainly well known as a place to which loyalists had come. They however were not the first to settle in the area. Large grants had been made in the 1760s to Alexander McNutt. He and his brother in 1765 built an establishment there. The brother settled on McNutt Island. Evidently McNutt had induced a dozen families of Scottish and Irish origins to settle on the McNutt grants. By 1783 these McNutt settlers had mostly pulled out for other pastures though apparently a few stayed behind. Thus upon the arrival of the Shelburne Loyalists, there would have been seen there a family or two of poor fisherman.1

The year 1783 was the year when a great fleet of settlers from New York arrived at Port Roseway (Shelburne)2. This was the 4th of May, they had left New York on the 27th of April.

The British general, Sir Guy Carleton3 -- who was then in New York together with Rear Admiral, The Honourable Robert Digby, to oversee the extraction of the British military and those who supported the British crown in its fight with the colonies -- wrote Thomas Townshend, the Home Secretary at London. The letter is dated April 13th, 1783. "The refugees who are going to Nova Scotia will embark tomorrow, and sail in a few days for Port Roseway4 and St. John's River, consisting of about four or five thousand in number."5 The few days to which Carleton referred stretched into 13. On April 26th, the transports slipped their moorings and sailed from New York.6 Marion Robertson reported that of the 7,000 "Loyalist refugees, provincial troops, and freed blacks" who sailed from New York, 3,000 came to Port Roseway.7

It was a Sunday afternoon on May 4th when a fleet of "30 sail" came into Shelburne Harbour.8 There were more than 3,000 people on these sailing vessels and they had been at sea for better than a week as they came up the coast from New York. The official count was 577 men, 452 women, 354 children over 10 and 303 under 10. In addition there were 415 "servants" and 936 "freed slaves."9

Surveyors had been sent down from Halifax to mark off the lots for the new town. They had arrived but a few days before the settlers. It had been determined to mark off an area on the eastern side of the harbor near its head. Before their departure from New York the settlers had been organized into sixteen companies, each with its own head. Shortly after the arrival of the settlers a committee of them, presumably representing the sixteen companies, came ashore to meet with the surveyors. Now it is not known what it was that these new arrivals thought they should see, but what they did see -- rough land strewn with boulders and trees -- they did not like. They felt that the surveyors had done a poor job of picking a site and insisted that the area should be more fully explored, this time with certain of the captains of the companies to be present so to give their consent. The surveyors were not too impressed with these developments thinking that the process of picking suitable land should not be left, as Benjamin Marston was to comment, "to a mere mob of sixty" and that they could not possibly improved upon the site selection which "a few judicious men" had already made.10 In fact, no better site was found and the surveyors on May 9th commenced their work to lay out the lots on the ground. By May 22nd the Loyalists were drawing for their lots.

During that summer "many hundreds" more loyalists came to Port Roseway. Governor Parr paid a visit and announced to those that gathered to hear his speech that he was going to name the newly founded town after William Petty Fitzmaurice, 2nd Earl of Shelburne (1737-1805). Though the name Shelburne was to stick it was not a name that was appreciated by many of the Loyalists who settled there, for, Shelburne was part of the British ministry that brought the war with the American colonies to an end and in the process sold out the Americans who throughout the war had been loyal to the crown.

By that fall the count was 8,900. Of this number there were 1,000 discharged soldiers many with wives and families. These numbers come from a return that was filed in October of 1783.11 The returns for the other areas that were to take Loyalists, disclosed populations as follows: St. John, 14,162; Annapolis Royal, 2,530; and, Halifax, 928. These people were to be maintained by army rations throughout the winter of 1783/4. At Shelburne there was to be in place by November a large store of food: biscuit, flour, pickled pork and beef (tons of it), butter, rice, oatmeal, pease, vinegar, rum (3,200 gals.) and molasses (7,700 gals.).12

From the start, there was a definite effort on the part of the British authorities to screen out the freeloaders. Back in New York it was determined that "No person should be admitted for passage who was not known to be a Loyalist in want of assistance and who had suffered from adhering to the royal cause."13 One test that was applied before assistance was given was that the person applying for assistance had to be behind the lines for more than a year. Esther Clark Wright:

"It became impossible to limit the evacuees to those who had been within the lines for at least a year, as the first embarkation orders had decreed. It also became impossible to limit the evacuees to those who were destitute, as seems to have been the first intention. The army transports and victualers and the navy victualers available were found to be insufficient for the removal of the numbers, which seemed to increase rather than diminish. Both in New York and in Nova Scotia, officials became more and more harried as the summer wore on, and as the thousands became tens of thousands."14
The initial group to arrive at Shelburne were continually supplemented by more Loyalists from New York; "all summer and autumn the ships kept plying to and fro." Governor Parr reported that by August 23rd, 12,000 had landed; by the end of September 18,000; and by the end of that year, 1783, Parr computed that a total of 30,000 Loyalists had come into the province.15 On November 25th, the British troops finally withdrew from New York. They had stayed, notwithstanding that Washington was anxious for them to go, until the British were satisfied that those who wanted to leave New York, could leave.16

The Royal Navy took a considerable interest in Shelburne at first. It was thought that the community would be an outlet for the pine logs of which, in those days of sailing ships, the navy was always in need. A number of the great naval ships came to Shelburne with some very important observers aboard. In 1784 Sir Charles Douglas (1725-89) the commander in chief for the King's navy in North America arrived in the Hermione.17 In 1788 Prince William Henry18 came into Shelburne's harbour aboard his vessel, the Andromeda, in company with the Thisbe and the Brisk. For whatever reason, the navy's initial enthusiasm for Shelburne waned, such that, what business the port had in 1787, when 69 ships cleared, had dwindled down by 1789 to only seven ships cleared.19

One of the surveyors sent down from Halifax to assist in the set up of Shelburne, Benjamin Marston, from whom we have heard before, noted late in 1784, that "by 1 February 1784 1,127 houses had been built, 231 framed, the rest of logs.20 Between then and late 1784, near 300 houses and stores had been erected, for the most part large and commodious." During his time in Shelburne, we might add, Marston had surveyed "2,400 House Lotts, 837 store and warf lots, 800 country lots and 50 500 lots."21 The expectations, at first, of those involved in the set up of the new town were high. By 1785, there were three newspapers: The Port Roseway Gazetteer and Shelburne Advertiser, The Royal American Gazette and Nova Packet and General Advertiser.22 There was the Merchant's Coffee House at which men of commerce would meet. One of the arrivals set up a vessel in order to go into the whale fishery.23 Well, in spite of this early record of industry, the people of Shelburne were much from the first, unhappy24; and increasingly became more so. One of the things that wrangled the newcomers was taxation. The people of Shelburne were upset to think that they should be made "to bear the burden of others, or contribute to purposes foreign to their own wants." In particular, they were upset that the taxes collected at Shelburne, rather than being used for "purposes of Public Utility to this Settlement," were going up to Halifax.25 Further, they felt shortchanged when it came to the distribution of the land. The water lots went to those who had gone to Halifax and greased the right wheels. "They also resented the large tracks of land reserved for the King's Forest and the land marked by the Royal Engineers for military and naval purposes."26 Things got so bad, that in the spring of 1784, at least one of the surveyors (Benjamin Marston) fled to Halifax and Governor Parr had to come down to quell what amounted to a riot.27 Robertson wrote that the manner in which the land grants were handled at Shelburne was "a major factor in the rapid decline of Shelburne" and concludes: "Disillusioned Loyalists left, many for their former homes in the new United States,28 and embittered soldiers turned away from promises too long unfulfilled."29 The result was that in but a couple of years Shelburne became emptied of the people who first come to make a new home for themselves. By 1787 there were 360 deserted houses facing on empty streets.30

Phyllis R. Blakeley observed in her contribution to Robert S. Allen's work The Loyal Americans31 that the new town of Shelburne, before the summer of 1783 was out, with a population of 10,000, or so, was the fourth largest city in North America after Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.

"Two years later, two-thirds of the town was uninhabited. By 1791 it was considered that the decline of the town had reached its peak, leaving behind in its wake the few who had entrenched themselves in the town's economy. ... Some [empty houses] stood in desolation for years with cattle and hogs roaming 'parlours and wine cellars.' Strangers who stood beside the ruins 30 and 40 years later wrote of its grass-grown streets, its broken cellar holes, its wharves falling into the water, and marvelled that these ruins existed within a few years of their first erection -- tragic proof that towns are not built without careful forethought and resolution."32
Overall, the conclusion is bound to be that the settlement of Loyalists at Shelburne was a failure. Edwards wrote "the agricultural impossibilities of the surrounding country were overlooked or mis-stated."33 Cuthbertson observed that the newly arrived loyalists poured "their rapidly evaporating wealth into building fine new houses rather than into industry. They had failed to see that Shelburne lacked a natural hinterland and that the surrounding land was poor farming country ..."34 Most, were soon of the view, that things back home could not possibly be worse than what they were experiencing in Shelburne. Back home was of course the new United States of America. There the rebels were turning themselves back into respectable citizens and their attitude towards their old enemies softened. Within a couple of years, "laws that had been passed by the state legislatures, which provided for confiscation and the sale of Loyalists' estates, were repealed, certain of those that had come to Nova Scotia were quite willing, in view of their continuing hardships that went along with establishing themselves in Nova Scotia, to return to the United States and pick their lives up under the new republican regime."35

[NEXT: Bk. 2, Pt. 3, Ch. 5 - "Loyalists At Other Centres."]

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