Excerpt – Loyalists and Layabouts


By Stephen Kimber

First, you had to meet with Joseph Durfee at his home on Water Street so he, and perhaps a few of the others, could personally vet you.Not everyone was eligible to join their exclusive club of “loyalists associated for the purposes of removing and settling at Port Roseway in Nova Scotia,” as their articles of association described them. You needed to be a true Loyalist. And a proper British citizen. Which meant you couldn’t be a Jew; British law didn’t allow Jews to own land, and land was what this organization was all about. No one needed to inquire whether membership was open to the thousands of freed black slaves who’d also ended up in New York because of this American Revolution; it wasn’t. British promises of freedom were fine during wartime, but the war was ending and many of the members of this group had slaves of their own. They certainly didn’t want them getting the wrong ideas.

Once you had passed muster with Durfee and obtained your prized letter of recommendation–the other key needed to enter this exclusive club–you were eligible to attend a meeting. Tonight’s was being held at New York city hall at the corner of Broad and Wall streets.

It was November 30, 1782, yet another millstone-milestone day in the tumultuous seven-year war between England and her estranged American colonies. In Paris that day, British negotiators at the peace talks had formally agreed to recognize American independence. Communication being what it was then, the news wouldn’t officially reach New York for close to four months, but no one in tonight’s jostling, anxious, milling crowd of several hundred needed official notice. They knew. Which is why there were now so many more applying to join them that they’d had to move tonight’s gathering to city hall and even post a doorman to make sure only those with letters of recommendation got inside.

Previously, they’d gathered at Charles Roubalet’s tavern, a smoky establishment on Cortland Street near the Paulus Hook ferry that had become a favoured loyalist gathering place during these last few years of war. The refugees would meet to forget their troubles. They’d watch entertainers like the famous magician Isaac Levy, whose handbills boasted that the “hand is quicker than the eye.” Or they’d enjoy an evening of music–usually a three-hour musicale followed by dancing–at one of Roubalet’s regular Tuesday night public concerts. Whatever the entertainment on offer, of course, the real purpose of the gatherings was to give the dispirited Loyalists the chance to drink a few pints; puff on what Rivington’s Gazette, the popular loyalist newspaper, characterized as some “monstrous good smoking tobacco”; and complain, commiserate, and contemplate.

Although bands in many taverns, including Roubalet’s, still played “God Save the King” on the hour, and some among the Loyalists still optimistically toasted their shared dream of “a happy reinstatement of the loyal refugees,” most had finally become more realistic. The British had let them down, made a balls-up of the war strategy, ignored their advice and offers of help, and treated them . . . well, as if they were the enemy, too. And now they who had been so loyal had lost–or would soon lose–everything. Because they’d supported the wrong side, their homes, farms, land, businesses, careers, sometimes families, and, of course, country were gone.

Even those lucky enough to still have the resources to take care of themselves could no longer count on being able to buy what they needed in this teeming, overburdened city where what wasn’t in short supply was overpriced. Many once proud, successful, independent men had been reduced to subsisting on government largesse. By the time Sir Guy Carleton had arrived in the spring of 1782 to preside over this foregone conclusion, in fact, more than six thousand civilian men, women, and children were on the dole in New York.

New York was the last loyalist stronghold in the thirteen revolted colonies. After New York, what?

With the British army obviously preparing to depart and many former New Yorkers–rebels, patriots, winners to their losers–showing up to reclaim their abandoned homes and demand payments of past rent from the loyalist squatters, it was obvious they could not remain in New York much longer. Which invited the question, what was to become of them?

The Loyalists at Roubalet’s weren’t the only ones trying to answer that question. Loyalist societies had been spawned in taverns and pubs all over New York, their meetings often advertised in the newspapers with messages that hinted obliquely at “secret and important business [to] which all should attend.” Many of the gatherings were geographically based: Pennsylvania Loyalists, for example, gathered at Birkets Tavern near Maiden Lane, while those from Virginia met at the Queen’s Head, and Massachusetts refugees congregated at Hicks’ Tavern on Broadway. Some of these informal gatherings had evolved into associations, often the official successors to loyalist military organizations set up during the war. Others, including the group at Roubalet’s, had sprung up more recently and spontaneously, their members drawn from all of the rebellious colonies.

The Port Roseway Associates had had its beginnings the year before when a group of twenty-¬six men–“chiefly of the number of those who, for their attachment to [the British] government and after numberless fatigues in support of the royal cause, have been obliged to quit their all and take refuge within the King’s lines”–met to launch a search for an “ideal Loyalist refugee township” where they could settle together after the war.

Their leader was Joseph Durfee, a former Newport sea captain and merchant who’d parlayed his valuable work piloting British vessels for General Clinton during the successful siege of Charles Town in May 1780–how long ago that seemed now!–into his current job as the director of vessels in New York Harbor. Others in the group came from almost all of the about-to-become United States: New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia. And though they represented the spectrum of professions, crafts, and trades–there were seven merchants, four farmers, two carpenters, two tailors, a hat maker, a printer, a bookbinder, a doctor, a grocer, and a mariner among their number–¬they were, by and large, the good burghers of a suddenly bygone colonial America. That was deliberate. Their goal was to create a new and better New York–more exclusive, more sophisticated, more loyal than the one they were leaving behind….