On the Fourth of July we always celebrate the winners, the people who won our independence and set up our country, but what happened to the losers? No, not the British, but the Americans who fought with them? Our revolution was, for some, a civil war. Even the founding fathers' families were split. Benjamin Franklin's son William defied his father and remained Royal Governor of New Jersey until his arrest in 1776. After his release in 1778, William eventually fled to England; he and his father were forever estranged.
By the spring of 1783, a massive refugee exodus was under way. At a time when the total population of America was about 2.5 million, an estimated 100,000 Loyalists, up to 2,000 Indians (most of them Iroquois) and perhaps 6,000 former slaves were forced to leave the country.
A large portion of these people, perhaps as many as 40,000 in total, headed for the British colony of Nova Scotia. One Loyalist refugee described her arrival, "I watched the sails disappearing in the distance, and such a feeling of loneliness came over me that although I had not shed a tear through all the war, I sat down on the damp moss with my baby on my lap, and cried bitterly."
This fascinating story took me to Shelburne, Nova Scotia, a little town on the eastern coast of Canada. While we're celebrating our independence, people here will be marking a far different milestone: 225 years since the Americans who lost the Revolutionary war fled to their little village.
“It’s all the same names,” points out Patrick Melanson. “It’s all the same faces. Is all the same history.”
Fifty-three American regiments fought alongside the British during the American Revolution. At war's end, about 100,000 of those Loyalists left the country, with nearly half fleeing north, by boat, to Canada. King George offered a powerful incentive for those thinking about leaving for Nova Scotia. The fleeing Loyalists who had waged a war over taxation were offered a tax break.
Unfortunately, everything did not go smoothly. Gesturing to the rocky coastline, Lorraine Chapman explains, “most of them expected homes to be here and land to be prepared, and none of that happened.”
“They stayed aboard ship,” adds Brian Ogilvie. “Some of the women wouldn’t even come ashore.”
They faced their first Canadian winter living in tents, so surveyors quickly laid out an exact replica of the place many of them had left: Philadelphia. Overnight, their new town, Shelburne, Nova Scotia, became the fourth largest city in North America.
Barely two years after the American Revolution, another boat arrived in Canada carrying a battled scarred man walking with a slight limp. Everyone knew his name and you do, too: Benedict Arnold.
“Oh, the traitor, eh?” grins a man who looks remarkably like him. Steve Arnold is Benedict’s closest living relative, his great-great-great grandson. In the Arnold family, history does not flow back into the past, it's always around.
“There isn’t a Sitcom that hasn’t taken a potshot at Benedict,” Steve smiles.
Even Homer Simpson tried to pass himself off as the old turncoat.
“I’m Benedict Arnold!” shouts Homer racing away from bad guys.
“The same Benedict Arnold that promised West Point to the hated British?” cry the cartoon thugs as they grab him.
Homer's response, “D’oh!”
But has history been too tough on the Arnold name? “The biggest history lesson,” says Steve Arnold, “is that there’s more to the history.”
The British gave Benedict a deed to nearly 15,000 acres in Canada. He set up stores, warehouses and wharves, even managed to sell goods in the United States. Within 15 months of his arrival, he was the most successful trader in the colony. But controversy followed him to Canada. When the British army pulled out, the economy tumbled and Benedict went broke. He hounded his neighbors to pay their bills and once again became the most hated man in the country.
“By giving people credit,” says Steve, “he was just setting himself up.”
Benedict left his son, Steve's great-great grandfather to look after things and sailed back to England, where he died, penniless.
It's amazing that Benedict Arnold stands at the cross roads of so much American and Canadian history.
"He has had a huge impact in history,” Steve agrees.
Benedict left behind an astonishing legacy. Today, ten percent of Canada's population (three and a half million people) are direct descendants of Americans who lost the fight for independence. They might never have left, if Steve's great-great-great grandfather had his way. In a way, we are all family, on both sides of the border.
Want to see behind-the-scenes pictures of how the story was shot? Click here:
For more details on the 225th anniversary celebration in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, July 17-20, 2008, click here:
Want to contact the subjects in this morning's American Story with Bob Dotson? Here's their contact information:
Shelburne Historical Society
P.O. Box 39
Shelburne, Nova Scotia
My thanks to the re-enactors who gave up their day to bring this story to you:
Brigade of the American Revolution
Shelburne Reenactment Association
3rd New Jersey Volunteers
King's Orange Rangers