Todd W. Braisted is a leading expert on Loyalist studies, a die-hard Mets fan and craft beer connoisseur. In addition to his many articles for Journal of the American Revolution, Todd is the author of the first volume in our book series, Grand Forage 1778: The Battleground Around New York City. Since 1979, Todd has amassed and transcribed over 40,000 pages of Loyalist and related material from archives and private collections around the world. He has authored numerous journal articles and books, as well as appearing as a guest historian on episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? (CBC) and History Detectives (PBS). He is the creator of royalprovincial.com, the largest website dedicated to Loyalist military studies, and is a Fellow in the Company of Military Historians, Honorary Vice President of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, and a past-president of the Bergen County Historical Society.
What inspired you to start researching and writing about the Revolution?
It was the Bicentennial. My family always had an interest in history, and living in Bergen County, New Jersey, there was local Revolutionary War history all around. I became a reenactor in 1976 at the age of twelve and the following year helped found a Loyalist reenactment group. We realized we needed someone to make clothing and accoutrements, and someone to do the research to tell that person what to make. My cousin Steve could sew and do leatherwork but fell asleep on the screen (literally) in his first encounter with a microfilm reader. I couldn’t (and still cannot) sew to save my life but was an avid reader. The division of responsibilities therefore became rather easy. From that point on, everything has been a natural progression, led on primarily by curiosity. I enjoy studying things few (if anyone) has studied before. That is another reason that led me to concentrate on Loyalist studies. Not a great number of people were studying that in the United States in the seventies and eighties.
What historians or books have most influenced your work? Why?
I have been extremely fortunate in meeting fantastic researchers along the way. Being able to share and collaborate makes this thing we do so much more fun. Lt. Col. Don Londahl-Smidt (USAF retd.) took me under his wing and taught me the right way to go about my business. Don had been researching long before I was born, and had amassed a collection of transcribed documents and microfilm that was (and perhaps still is) unrivaled in private hands. His patience, guidance and friendship helped push me to keep going, expanding the scope of my work, and forcing me to speak publicly on the subject. Getting to befriend and work with top notch researchers such as Don Hagist, Robert Selig, John U. Rees, Gavin Watt and so many others has really made this a great experience. The first of the two books that probably sent me on my way was Tom Fleming’s Now We Are Enemies. I bought it for fifty cents at a library book sale when I was eleven. It really helped spark my interest in the period. The other book would be The Revolutionary War in the Hackensack Valley by the late Adrian Leiby. Leiby’s book, although written in 1962, was chock full of never or seldom used primary sources. This book became my guide to manuscript collections, and after my first year of high school, I used the references to write to the different repositories cited so I could start gathering my own research. These four establishments in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom all answered back with guides and further information, but most importantly, then didn’t tell me to go away! I then realized that these documents belonged to all of us; they were not the domain of just a privileged few. That may sound odd now, but entering Grade 10 at Dumont High School, you have a healthy respect for your betters, and at age fifteen, pretty much everyone fits into that category!
What are your go-to research resources?
There are several repositories that I love going to, for a variety of reasons. The David Library of the American Revolution in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania is the place I have been to by far the most. In addition to being just 85 miles from home, it has a wonderful staff to tend to the 10,000 reels of microfilm culled from collections around the world. While small in size, it has not just something for everyone, but a lot of things for everyone! The William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan just lets you immerse yourself into the original documents in a classical setting. Located in the town of Ann Arbor, the social scene there makes any trip a vacation as much as it is work. Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, like the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan, lets you research endless collections in a vibrant city. And of course, The National Archives of the United Kingdom in Kew, Richmond, Surrey, because … England! Any excuse to go to the UK, and the number of collections there not available anywhere else is still remarkable.
Which of your own JAR articles is your favorite or most rewarding? Why?
Perhaps the article on the wreck of the Martha, a transport ship carrying Loyalist soldiers and their families to Nova Scotia at the end of the war. These people had fought for the British for years, left behind their homes, property and friends, lost a war through no fault of their own, and were going into refuge to start new lives in peace, and in one violent accident dozens lost their lives before even getting that chance. Something just terribly sad about the whole incident, and a bit of history that I felt should be remembered.
Other than your own contributions, what are some of your favorite JAR articles?
Any of the articles that deal with the common soldiers of the army, any of the armies. Take for example Don Hagist’s article on the age and experience of British soldiers. To me, that brings the period to life. We have no photographs of the soldiers as in the Civil War. Portraits of common soldiers were almost unheard of during the Revolution. So anything that talks of the everyday activities, performed by ordinary people, holds a special interest to me.
What books about the American Revolution do you most often recommend?
The book I most often recommend is John Dann’s The Revolution Remembered. It is not any sort of general history of the Revolution, at least not one told in a conventional way. Rather, Dann lets the original American soldiers tell their tales through their nineteenth century pension applications. Very cleverly, the order of the soldiers’ applications corresponds to campaigns and theaters of the war, all seen through the eyes of the participants. Fantastic piece of research.
What new research/writing projects are you currently working on?
There is always something I am working on. Short-term over the next year is the completion of a Battlefield Preservation Study Report for the National Park Service and the town of Fort Lee. This study is focused on the little-studied May 1781 battles between four hundred militia and three hundred and fifty Loyalist Refugees attempting to establish a blockhouse and base to cut firewood on the grounds. Otherwise, it is back to research and writing on the Loyalists and my frequently delayed though much anticipated book on the American Provincial Corps.
What makes your books and articles different than other works on the subject?
While generals and the big battles are important, I always like to find and use the accounts of the average soldier in the ranks, hopefully one that has not been used before. In Grand Forage 1778, I tried to incorporate as many of these firsthand accounts as possible. Popular histories never mention these forgotten soldiers by name, but in helping descendants research the military careers of their ancestors, I know how important that sort of mention and connection can be to them. Introducing the public to these people, I think, puts a face on the battle or march or camp or whatever is being discussed at the time. We need the words, their words, to paint the picture that no conventional artist did.
Do you have a bucket list of places where you’d like to speak one day?
I have been extremely fortunate in being able to present and lecture at some incredibly historic places, while meeting wonderful people along the way. There are still a few places though where I would like to speak, which is why I would like to get my book on the Provincials finished and out there sooner rather than later. Ninety Six National Park in South Carolina is definitely someplace in the United States I would be honored to speak at. Besides being one of the most tenacious Loyalist victories of the war, it was where my ancestor (John Braisted of the 3rd Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers) served for about ten months, from August 1780 to June 1781. In Canada, I definitely want to speak in Saint John, New Brunswick and Halifax, Nova Scotia. While I have spoken before in different places in each province, these cities were the centers of Loyalist or British activity and it would definitely be very cool to visit and share some history.
What other hobbies/interests do you enjoy?
In addition to writing and researching history, interpreting it is another way of educating the public. Through my reenactment group (the 4th Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers) and the Bergen County Historical Society at their important site, Historic New Bridge Landing, I have an opportunity to interact with visitors and show off the past in perhaps a more tangible way. The BCHS has been attempting to raise money for a museum to preserve our collections and give them a permanent home. It has been a tough road, but we are getting there.
I strongly believe everyone should have something completely unrelated to their work to keep them on an even keel, and for me its sports and craft beer. I am an avid fan of Mets baseball and Islanders hockey and get to as many games as I can primarily for the former. You can make a legitimate argument that the game of baseball is historic in its own right, and makes a tangible connection from generation to generation for over 150 years now. It was the only sport I played as a kid. I literally pitched my last Little League Game the day I became a reenactor in 1976. As for hockey, the skill level, talent and speed of the game is incredible. The 1980 Olympics, the “Miracle on Ice” hooked me, and I simply followed Olympian Ken Morrow to the Islanders. As for craft beer, what more historic beverage could there be? Beer was a daily issue to the British and Provincial soldiers, so I simply view that as research by another means …
Why is Journal of the American Revolution important to you?
It is a fantastic means to provide a centralized cyber publishing vehicle to scores of researchers and authors around the country, and indeed well beyond, while at the same time providing interesting, well-written and researched articles to a vast audience who may have never before taken the time to read up on our nation’s founding. I like that it has encouraged a new generation of researchers and writers into the field. I always worry that history is fading into public irrelevance, so anything that can promote and keep it alive is a good and important thing. Another excellent feature of JAR is that it provides a forum for learning on the lesser known events of the war, actions and people that might not otherwise get the coverage they deserve.
Is there an article, or subject area, that you would like to see appear in JAR?
Definitely more on the war out of East Florida, West Florida and Georgia. Before the end of 1778, these places are hardly mentioned in most books, but that is not to say there were not many interesting things going on. Same for Jamaica, the West Indies and Central America. Places we think of as tourist destinations today played very significant roles in the war. And there is always room for more Loyalist material!
Is there a research Holy Grail out there you are in quest of?
Yes, probably several! Certain written works make reference to original documents that have not seen the light of day since. In 1964, a British history magazine published an article on Major Philip Van Cortland of the New Jersey Volunteers. It included four incredible war-dated letters to him from his wife Catharine and made several mentions in the text to his journal. No journal has been seen since that time. E. Alfred Jones’ The Loyalists of New Jersey, published in 1927, makes mention of the author viewing a portrait miniature “in a ring” of Captain Samuel Hayden of the New Jersey Volunteers and King’s American Rangers in his uniform, held by a descendant in Albany, New York. That’s the last anyone saw that. In 1920 a Bergen County Historical Society Annual published an account of the travels of a society officer to Nova Scotia where he met the descendant of Lt. Col. Abraham Van Buskirk of the New Jersey Volunteers, who was shown several war-dated letters of his and an “original enlistment roll” of his battalion, with all the men’s names and places of residence in Bergen County. None of those things seem to be around anymore either. I would be very, very happy to find any one of these things!
Since my ancestor was a Loyalist in the King’s American Regiment, Todd Braisted has supplied my family with invaluable information and documents. Can’t thank him enough!
Donald, always a pleasure to help a Loyalist descendant whenever possible. Glad I could be of service.