Two hundred years ago, choosing to be a Tory or a Patriot wasn't as easy as you might think
By Robert Liftig
• Thugs surround your house at 3 a.m. and drag you from your bed.
• Representatives from a local revolutionary cadre — without uniform, but armed with muskets and bayonets — rummage through every room in your house in search of things to steal, including your sixteen-year-old son, who is hiding from them. If he’s discovered, they will give him the choice of joining their Band of Brethren or being hanged.
• The cadre herds you and other prominent members of your community, including the clergy, to a place sacred only to them, and you are all put on “trial.”
• You are charged with disloyalty to a new shadow government; they call you an enemy of the state.
• The gang demands that you declare your loyalty to them or be fined, imprisoned or even hanged, without appeal, and within hours of sentencing.
• You are hauled into town, humiliated and kicked at by a mob of jeering cadre sympathizers, then thrown into a makeshift prison.
• While in your cell, you hear rumors that your property has been confiscated by another act of the shadow government, and that your family — now homeless — has fled into the woods.
• You ask to contact your lawyer but are told he too is in jail. You think the local clergyman could help, but he’s also been arrested, and, by another act of the shadow government, his church has been closed “for the duration.”
• One morning you hear your captors celebrating. The shadow government has become the official rulers of the land. One of the first laws it passes is an act of exile, which expels you, your family and thousands of others who supported the former government to another country.
Are you in Nazi Germany? Stalin’s Russia? Saddam Hussein’s Iraq?
Nay, you are in the same place and time as the Westport Minutemen, who 200 years ago “shouldered their muskets, and showed how fields were won.” The date was April 25, 1777. General William Tryon landed at Compo Beach in Westport with 2,000 British regulars for a raid on the Colonial storehouses in Danbury. Leading the British troops were members of the Prince of Wales Royal American Volunteers, a group that knew Fairfield County well because they had grown up here. A few days before the invasion, Tryon had sent two empty transports to Oyster Bay, Long Island, to pick up these loyalist fighters. As the combined forces marched up South Compo Road, many of the Minutemen recognized their former neighbors and shot at them.
Today, most Fairfield County residents are proud of the Minutemen’s fight for independence. However, although Connecticut was strongly behind the Revolution, there still were many pockets of loyalists. In Hartford, Governor Jonathan Trumbull was particularly worried about Fairfield County’s leanings. And General George Washington was so concerned about what he considered to be a Tory conspiracy in the area that he assigned undercover agents to monitor local sympathies.
This might be surprising if you believed the take on the American Revolution presented in your high school history books, in which colonists craved independence, Washington and the Minutemen successfully fought for it and presto! the United States of America was born.
But among the 2.5 million residents in the thirteen colonies, at least 15 percent to 20 percent of the white population (about 500,000), and much of the black population (another 500,000) sided with the mother country and were prepared to fight to stay with Great Britain. The exact percentage varied widely, depending on where people were living and which side seemed to be winning at the time. In New Jersey and on Staten Island, for example, Tories made up at least half of the population, while in Fairfield County, estimates range as low as 6 percent.
Also, British army regulars didn’t enter the fray in significant numbers until relatively late in the Revolution and, for much of the war, the more serious battles took place between the colonials. In fact, even more than during the Civil War, the Revolution tore families apart, set neighbors against neighbors, split communities down the middle and terminated promising careers. Almost anyone could be accused of disloyalty. In some cases the only “crime” was the mere suspicion that a man or woman harbored lingering affection for King George III and for Great Britain.
The birth of a nation suffered a very difficult delivery. As the following vignettes show, it is not hard to find examples of local Tories who believed themselves to be on the side of “law and order” and who suffered as a result.
Trials & Tribulations
Consider Nathan Bears Jr. of East Norwalk. He owned a gristmill and an icehouse — the foundations of which still stand on the banks of the Saugatuck River. Bears, who was suspected of harboring loyalist sympathies, was harassed wherever he went by the Revolutionaries, including Norwalk’s Congregational minister.
When he couldn’t take the gossip and whispering campaigns any longer, Bears “went over” to the Tories on Long Island. His mill and icehouse were confiscated by the Town of Norwalk and later sold to David Judah and Thomas Cable for eighty-four pounds — a mere two pounds more than the mortgage and taxes on it. Two years later Judah and Cable, both of whom billed themselves as revolutionaries, sold Bears’ properties to Daniels Nash for a profit of almost 400 percent (the Nash family still owns it).
Daniel Nash fared better than his cousin, Samuel Nash Jr., whose farm in Norwalk was confiscated because Samuel had joined the British army for a brief time back when he was sixteen. Although he had quickly resigned, the stigma remained. After the war ended, Samuel applied to the state assembly for restoration of his land and buildings. He received back only three acres of his once impressive farm and even that had been stripped of its timber.
Just west of Norwalk, in Middlesex Parish (now Darien and Stamford), loyalist Sylvanus Whitney was arrested in 1775 for selling tea, a substance that had been banned in Connecticut. The local Committee of Inspection wrung a confession out of him, and Whitney and his confiscated tea were paraded through Stamford to a makeshift gallows. Although Whitney was not hanged — only nearly frightened to death — the tea was reduced to ashes in what became known as the Stamford Tea Party.
Up the road in Canaan Parish (now New Canaan) — considered to be among the most “patriot” towns in Fairfield County — as many as seventy-five of the area’s 1,500 residents eventually went into voluntary exile as a result of their disgust with the Revolution. Historians have always maintained that “nothing important ever happened in New Canaan during the American Revolution, except that the militia were late for the Battle of Ridgefield.” However, losing 5 percent of the area’s residents surely must have been noticeable.
Not Justice for All
Patriots of the time often said, “A Tory is a thing whose head is in England, its body in America and its neck ought to be stretched.” Tories responded by maintaining that they would rather “be governed by a tyrant 3,000 miles away than by 3,000 not a mile away.”
Committees of Inspection were established throughout Fairfield County, and even descendants of founding families were interrogated about their political allegiances. Those who were judged to be sympathetic to the patriots received a certificate testifying to their loyalty. Those who did not pass muster found their names were entered on “inimical lists,” which led to their being publicly humiliated, tried, imprisoned and even banished, first from their hometowns and later, by an Act of Congress, from the United States.
The case of Norwalk lawyer Asa Spalding of Mill Hill is typically unfortunate. Local rebels hijacked his mail and, after noticing that some of it came from England, turned it over to the Norwalk Committee of Inspection. The local militia was then ordered to chase Spalding out of town. He made it to Pound Ridge, New York, just over the Connecticut line, where his wife sent word that the Norwalk committee had banished him from his hometown forever unless he signed an oath of allegiance to the United Colonies. At any rate, Mrs. Spalding said, she was staying in Norwalk.
In Fairfield, upstanding residents like David Adams, Thomas Turney, Hezekiah Jennings and Increase Burr were fined when their sons went “over to the enemy of the United States,” while thirty-nine loyalists, including members of the prominent Hoyt family, were jailed. And in Norwalk the committee imprisoned thirty-six men whom they suspected might cause trouble. The purpose of sending people to jail seemed to be to teach those siding with England a lesson, and most of the “convicts” were released fairly quickly. After that experience, however, many simply quieted their opposition, while others fled to the friendlier environs of Long Island or New York City.
Nuisance or Threat?
At the beginning of the Revolution, many incidents involving the loyalists of Fairfield County were considered more of a prank than a crime. As late as 1780, when independence-minded residents of Greenfield Hill set up a “liberty pole” and “drank confusion to King George & hurra for Liberty,” Redding loyalists slipped quietly “over the hill” and cut it down. The patriots retaliated by erecting another liberty pole, this time securing it with iron plating around the base.
Even religious congregations took sides. Fairfield County’s Congregational churches generally offered rock-solid support for the patriots. These included Congregational minister Dr. Moses Mather from Middlesex Parish (now Darien), who during the war was imprisoned numerous times for his patriotic leanings — once even spending five months in a British prison in New York City before being released.
But the area’s Episcopal churches supported King George III. The Reverend James Lamson of the Fairfield Episcopal Church wrote to his ecclesiastic superiors in London that “anarchy & disloyalty prevailed throughout the country in general; & that missionaries were urging their parishioners to be loyal to the mother country by submission & quiet deportment.” Meanwhile the Reverend John Beach of the Redding Ridge Episcopal Church urged nonviolent resistance to the Revolutionary cause, and continued to end his services with the traditional prayers for the King.
In response to complaints of harassment, local patriots attacked both churches with “the most beastly defilements” and anyone attending them was fined fifty pounds. Eventually the Continental Congress shuttered all Episcopal churches for the war’s duration, and loyalists were denied voting privileges, the right to hold public office, the right to practice law, medicine or teach; nor could they buy, sell or bequeath property.
The Morehouses, A Family Divided
In 1639 Thomas Morehouse helped Roger Ludlow found the town of Fairfield. By the time of the Revolution there were at least 415 Morehouse family members spread along coastal Fairfield County, from Greenwich and Stamford up to Fairfield and into what is now Redding Ridge.
Most Morehouses supported the Revolution, but the Joseph Morehouse family of Redding Ridge sided with the loyalists. One night Fairfield patriots formed an impromptu militia and raided the family’s 1727 farmhouse, which still stands on Poverty Hollow Road. One curious citizen recorded the story:
Thursday Morning — Our people made them rise about three o’clock in the morning, when there was the greatest confusion imaginable. Some were taking an everlasting leave of their families, whilst others were crying ready to kill themselves, for they all expected to be hanged immediately on
10 a.m. — One hundred and fifty men on horseback have this moment entered the Town in triumph, attended with musick [sic], and brought in eight criminals, together with their arms, also, the arms of a number of petty ones, whose persons they thought unworthy of notice. Half after ten another entry of fifty men equipped as the others brought in five more of the wretches, all of whom are carried up town where I shall repair as speedily as possible to gain more intelligence.
8 p.m. and just returned — All I can learn is that they are to take their trial before the Committee, who are now sitting for that purpose. It is expected they will not break up before morning, when I shall march up to hear the conclusion. It is said some have been found guilty tonight, but I can’t vouch for it.
Some of the Darien Morehouses were also troubling to the patriots. Young John Morehouse, age fifteen, who lived next door to the Reverend Mather’s meetinghouse, was arrested for joining the loyalists on Long Island. He later claimed to have been kidnapped.
And he certainly could have been. Throughout the war Tory raiders based across the Sound in Lloyd’s Neck, Long Island, regularly carried men and property away from Fairfield County. In one instance in 1778, Tories in their brig, Diligent, staged a spectacular raid on the American sloop Eagle near Gorham’s Mill in Darien. They carried off the captain, ship, crew and cargo to New York City, where the Connecticut rebels were thrown in jail until a prisoner exchange could be negotiated. The Tories also staged raids on Noroton and Rowayton.
One of the most memorable raids occurred near the end of the war in 1781, when Selleck Reed of West Norwalk was on sentry duty near the Five Mile River. Loyalist “refugees” from Darien and Norwalk slipped across the Sound at night. After being hailed by Reed, who thought they were friendly, the intruders shot and killed him.
Some Stay — Others Choose Exile
With the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, local loyalist families recognized that their world had turned upside down, but not everyone fled. At least 350,000 of an estimated 500,000 Tories in the colonies remained in the United States. Some stayed out of the way for a while, then petitioned their local and state governments for permission to resettle on their former property if it was still available, or to buy new land, often at intentionally inflated prices.
The Morehouses of Redding Ridge, however, were among the 70,000 or so loyalists who chose to accept King George’s invitation, George Washington’s advice, and the order of the new Congress, and leave the United States for Canada, the Caribbean or England: “By An Act of Congress, You are hereby notified to depart … as you are considered an enemy of your country. Therefore, take your all and your family and follow your friends to that country that your King, your master, has provided for those of your character.”
These exiles were joined by 5,000 black loyalists who had been promised their freedom from slavery if they signed up with the British army. Also, many Native Americans, especially the Iroquois, had sided with the British and were expelled from New York State. They accepted a British offer to cross into Ontario and settle on the Six Nations Reservation at Grand River.
Loyalists from Fairfield, Norwalk, Darien, New Canaan and Stamford — including Israel Hoyt, widow Mary Raymond, Silas Raymond, James and Louis Pickett, the widow Hester Burlock, John Marvin and three members of the Scribner family — helped found Kingston, New Brunswick, near the loyalist center of St. John. Others, such as the Morehouses of Fairfield, Redding, Westport and Darien, went to Nova Scotia and to St. John’s River in New Brunswick. Many New Canaan loyalists settled in upstate New York, while some continued on to Niagara and crossed into Canada. So great was the infusion of loyalists into Ontario and the Maritimes that they are credited with establishing the form and pronunciation of today’s Canadian English — the same dialect spoken 200 years ago by their Colonial cousins in Fairfield County, Connecticut.
To this day the United Empire Loyalists of Canada have among their membership thousands of Canadians and U.K. citizens who descend from Fairfield County’s founding families. They are the only Canadians permitted to use the initials U.E. after their names, in recognition of their ancestors’ loyalty to the Crown and the Crown’s recognition of their steadfastness.