In the months following the end of the American Revolutionary War, British authorities in Canada desperately required supplies for refugee Loyalists slated to be resettled in that northern colony. The cross-border market that they targeted to meet these supply demands was ironic. They looked southward to a region of the United States that, during the recent military conflict, British, Loyalist and Indigenous troops had recently raided and ravaged.
By 1783 the war and its effects had turned tens of thousands of American Loyalists into landless refugees. They were no longer welcome in the Thirteen Colonies—now the newly-minted United States of America—where they formerly made their homes and where they had lived for years or decades. In the case of Indigenous Loyalists such as the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), their wartime displacement disrupted a history that spanned centuries. Many factors contributed to the Loyalists’ plight: siding with the Crown during the conflict in general; enlistment and service in Loyalist military regiments; and indirect acts such as supporting raiding parties or gathering intelligence for the British war effort against their rebellious neighbours. Moreover, throughout the war, Loyalist lands and possessions in the thirteen colonies were seized and sold by their enemies. In some areas, both sides waged vicious campaigns in which vast amounts of property and numerous lives were destroyed.
In particular, during the previous eight years of war, detachments of Loyalist regiments and allied Indigenous war parties based in Canada (also known as Québec) launched destructive raids into the northern colonies. Originating from British posts on the Great Lakes, the upper St. Lawrence River, and the settled parts of Québec, the Loyalists were often joined in these raids by British regular regiments and occasionally by German auxiliary troops. Their objectives focussed on the fertile regions of the Mohawk River valley in central New York. Occasionally targeted were the communities nestled among the green mountains along the eastern shoreline of Lake Champlain in what is now known as western Vermont. One such raid against the latter was commanded by Major Christopher Carleton, the nephew of Guy Carleton who was an earlier Governor of Québec and who would soon to become its governor once again.
Major Carleton’s force scoured the shores of Lake Champlain in 1778, destroying Rebel infrastructure along both sides of the lake, including the east side which would later become the State of Vermont. Major Carleton’s journal describes how the use of fire was essential in this operation: on November 6, 1778, in reference to the planned destruction of a Rebel-owned mill, Carleton wrote that he “sent a mattross with a fireball least they should not have time to fire it in the usual way.” A mattross was an artilleryman. A fireball, also known as a carcass, was an incendiary projectile usually fired from artillery. It was used to set fire to buildings or vessels and was made from a metal frame filled with a flammable mixture of gunpowder, pitch, saltpetre, sulphur, turpentine and tallow. Its vent holes spewed forth inextinguishable flames for several minutes. In total, Carleton’s raid resulted in the destruction of ninety-five structures, including twenty-one barns full of wheat, as well as dozens of sacks of wheat and stacks of hay.
Another raid was led by Loyalist leader Sir John Johnson in 1780. His force included a large detachment of Johnson’s military unit, the King’s Royal Regiment of New York, which was the largest loyalist regiment to serve out of Québec during the war. It targeted Johnson’s former stomping grounds in the Mohawk Valley of New York. Many of his regiment’s soldiers and officers hailed from the region. Johnson’s post-raid report to Québec Governor Frederick Haldimand noted that his party had been busy “laying waste to everything before them.” His men destroyed 120 houses, barns and mills in which, according to Johnson, “vast quantities of flour, bread, Indian corn and other provisions were burnt . . . many cattle were killed and about seventy horses brought off.” These and other raids have received attention in print, in detailed historical books such as Gavin K. Watt’s The Burning of the Valleys and Fire & Desolation, and also in fictional works such as Walter D. Edmond’s 1936 novel (and 1939 movie) Drums Along the Mohawk. The ferocity of these raids renders it surprising that, only a few years later, British authorities would look to both New York and Vermont as possible sources of post-war seed and livestock for the Loyalists newly settled in Québec.
In 1783 the Treaty of Paris brought an official end to the conflict. Article VI of the treaty seemingly protected the future interests of Loyalists. It stated that:
there shall be no future confiscations made, nor any prosecutions commenced against any Person or Person, for or by reason of the part which or they may have taken during the present War; and that no person shall on the account suffer and future loss or damage either in his person, liberty, or property.
These words were evidently difficult to enforce among a war-weary populace; the victorious were disinclined to entertain the notion of status quo ante bellum. Instead, the Loyalists became landless refugees who were unwelcome in their former communities.
After much thought about the landless Loyalists’ plight, Québec Governor Frederick Haldimand eventually recommended that lands on the north shore of the upper St. Lawrence River, west of Montréal, become a landing spot for a portion of these displaced people. Situated adjacent to New York State and not far from the area that would soon become the State of Vermont, this region had been inhabited and hunted by the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and other Indigenous people for centuries. It had also been navigated by French traders, explorers and soldiers during decades prior to 1763 when it was part of New France. In 1783 the area had not yet received permanent European settlements. Immediately prior to the Loyalists’ arrival in this region, government surveyors subdivided the lands into farming lots to permit an orderly distribution of lands for settlement. Simultaneously, British government officials recognized that these settlers would require assistance in the form of provisions and agricultural supplies; with time running out, they urgently required a procurement plan for those necessities and decided to look southward to meet the demand.
The first step in this cross-border shopping excursion occurred on March 4, 1784, only a few months before the scheduled movement of Loyalists from refugee camps around Montréal, Trois Rivières, and Québec City, to the undeveloped lands on the upper St. Lawrence River. On that day Governor Haldimand, through his military secretary Maj. Robert Matthews, authorized Loyalist officer Capt. Justus Sherwood to investigate a full range of supply possibilities in Vermont. Sherwood was a Connecticut and Vermont Loyalist and an officer in the Queen’s Loyal Rangers. He was also famously the Crown’s wartime secret service expert in that neighborhood. He took part of the bold late-war attempt to lure Vermont back into the Crown fold, away from its rebellious predilections. In reference to the search for agricultural supplies, Matthews explained to Sherwood that it was necessary to examine this area within the United States for these commodities because Canadian-sourced wheat was “not only very dear, but scarce and indifferent in its quality.” He proposed that wheat, potatoes, and cattle could be procured from Vermont.
In reply to Matthews, Sherwood instead advocated obtaining wheat from another source: the Mohawk Valley of New York State. He suggested that suppliers in that region of the United States could deliver the grain to Oswego, a lakeside community at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. He considered Oswego to be an excellent location that offered easy water access to the new Loyalist settlements along the upper St. Lawrence River. Sherwood advised a “seasonable application” of effort along these lines and suggested that the low purchase price—five livres per bushel—made this a particularly attractive option. A livre was an old French unit of currency which persisted into the British Regime, roughly equivalent to the British pound. Governor Haldimand, upon being advised of this shift in geographic focus, quickly approved the plan and agreed with Sherwood’s rationale. Haldimand summarized that “the conveyance from Oswego will be more convenient and more expeditious.”
Several months later and mere weeks before Loyalists were scheduled to pitch their wedge tents on their newly granted lands, little progress had been made on the provision procurement front. Perhaps the volume of other tasks associated with this demanding period interfered with the provisioning project. On May 20, 1784, Haldimand discussed the matter with the aforementioned Sir John Johnson, who had remained in Québec at the end of the war. Johnson had lost his vast Mohawk Valley estate during the war, originally amassed by his famous father, Indian Superintendent Sir William Johnson. Johnson the younger was an ardent Loyalist. Even before the war had begun he publicly declared his loyalty to the Crown when he received a request for support from the Tryon County Committee of Safety, a prominent Rebel organization in the Mohawk Valley. The committee wanted Johnson’s assistance in embodying local militiamen against the British. Johnson replied: “Concerning myself, sooner than lift my hand against my King, or sign any association with those who would, I should suffer my own head to be cut off.” Moreover, when his regiment, the King’s Royal Regiment of New York, was first formed in 1776 he described it as “a force sufficient to enable me to stand upon my legs and look my enemies in the face” and he described these adversaries as “ingrateful Rebellious Miscreants.” In early 1784 Johnson had a new role: he was involved in the resettlement plan for the new “Royal Townships” on the St. Lawrence River upstream from Montréal. Haldimand told Johnson that, in addition to seed, livestock could also be sourced from the Mohawk Valley. Time was running out and the project was further delayed, likely by the continued heavy demands of British and Loyalist authorities at the time.
The western Mohawk Valley of New York State was in no state to consider agricultural exports in 1784. Peter Sailly was a recent immigrant from France who travelled through the area that year. He described in his travel journal its bleak economic plight. For example, his entry dated May 29, 1784 describes the ravages perpetrated on German Flats during the late war, to which he noted:
it would seem that Nature itself were in league with the enemy to desolate the country, for the land, naturally fertile, has been unproductive the present year. The most beautiful country in the world now presents only the poor cabins of an impoverished population who are nearly without food and upon the verge of starvation.
Eastern portions of the valley, close to Johnstown, were not much better off. In his entry dated July 5, 1784, Sailly noted there was “but little commerce upon the Mohawk. The inhabitants are poor since the war.”
In the northern colony of Québec, the Loyalists disembarked from their batteaux and stepped onto their newly allotted lands along the upper St. Lawrence River in June 1784, starting the work of transforming forest and bush into productive farmland. Despite this migration, again little progress had been made with the supply missions south of the border. By July of that year, Captain Sherwood and his men continued to investigate sources of supplies. During this period of continental transition, some Loyalists returned temporarily to their former homesteads in the former thirteen colonies, taking personal risk in attempts to settle their affairs. Sherwood informed Governor Haldimand, through Major Matthews, that Conrad Best planned to make such a trip in the near future. Best was a former ensign in the Loyal Rangers. He had offered to make enquiries while he was in the Mohawk Valley, to explore the availability of exporting wheat northward for use by the newly settled Loyalists. Conrad Best was one of five brothers who joined Crown forces during the war, one of whom (Jacob Best Jr.) was a member of the King’s Royal Regiment of New York and who died in the final year of the war. Their father, Jacob Best Sr., was “an old man, not able to bear arms” and stayed on the family homestead in the Hoosick region of New York, part way between Saratoga, New York and Bennington, Vermont. Best the elder was nonetheless “well attached to British Government” and had been fined by the Rebels for assisting Loyalist scouts from Québec. He had remained in Hoosick after the war and his location there was likely part of the reason why Conrad wished to visit the area in 1784, in addition to collecting debts owed to the family.
Several days later Major Matthews also asked Sir John Johnson to despatch a trusted man to the Mohawk Valley “to learn to a certainty if any and what quantity may be procured, at what price, how soon, and what place it can be delivered for the most convenient and most expeditious transport of it to Cataraqui and downwards.” Cataraqui was the location of the town site of Kingston, at the head of the St. Lawrence River on Lake Ontario, and “downwards” referred to the Loyalist townships situated downstream from that site. Evidently this duplication of effort was necessary to ensure rapid progress on the much-delayed project. Johnson promptly replied, stating he had “great hopes” for the success of this mission.
Governor Haldimand eventually accepted Captain Sherwood’s manpower recommendation of Conrad Best as the man for this covert mission into the Mohawk Valley of New York State. Best received special instructions directly from Haldimand, which underscored the importance of discretion: “Do not impart to any person whosoever that this purchase is ordered to be made by Government,” Haldimand advised, “but on account entirely of the settlers.” He also requested that these written instructions should be left in Canada to prevent them from “falling into improper hands.” Haldimand wisely hedged his bets by issuing similar instructions to Elijah Bottum, another former member of the Loyal Rangers, whose procurement mission targeted Vermont. It is likely that Bottum had also been recommended by Capt. Justus Sherwood: The two men served together during the war, they were brothers-in-law, and Bottum had recently participated in an exploration of the north shore of the St. Lawrence to determine the lands’ suitability for Loyalist resettlement.
Prior to Best’s return from the Mohawk Valley Sir John Johnson continued to be optimistic about the possibilities of acquiring wheat from these portions of the United States. He also predicted that Mohawk Valley wheat would be much cheaper than that procured from Vermont. This was an important factor for a government whose purse had been drained by nearly a decade of war, on many fronts, and by the huge costs of maintaining the disbanded Loyalist soldiers and their families.
Finally, in early September 1784, Best provided an update on his mission. The information was disappointing. He reported, via another officer, that alarming intelligence forced him to abort his trek into the Mohawk Valley: “He was informed that his appearance upon the Mohawk River would be attended with danger to his person.” Best therefore decided that the risk was too great; he sent another man into the valley in his stead. His alternate learned what British administrators ought to have known from the start: “No wheat would be permitted to go from that country, and that any proposals to the inhabitants upon the subject would be attended with disagreeable consequences.”
Attention then turned back to Vermont, despite the higher price tag and greater transport costs. Best and Bottum, now both tasked to that region, together secured 480 bushels of wheat for distribution to the Loyalists of the upper St. Lawrence River. The man on the ground in the Loyalist settlements, Sir John Johnson, reported that this quantity, supplemented by smaller amounts available at Montréal, “will very near answer any demand that might be made.” The seeds were sent to the settlements for placement in warehouses known as the “King’s Stores” for methodical distribution to Loyalist settlers.
Governor Haldimand was optimistic about the agricultural potential of the new Loyalist settlements and their occupants. He boldly estimated that “their industry will in a very few years raise in that fertile tract of country great quantities of wheat and other grains and become a granary for the lower parts of Canada.” Several years would pass before these Loyalist settlements would attain Haldimand’s lofty projections of plenty. According to Thomas Gummersall Anderson, a boy soldier in his father Capt. Samuel Anderson’s company in the King’s Royal Regiment of New York, the settlers on the St. Lawrence had to “suffer many privations before they could raise crops to support their family.” Anderson described the basic meal of this time, which consisted of “Indian corn, ground, and boiled for several hours, then eaten with milk, butter, sugar, etc., to suit the taste. It is very wholesome, nourishing and cheap food.” Loyalists also supplemented their diets through local hunting and fishing.
The British government provided rations to the Loyalists for three years after their resettlement along the St. Lawrence River. These rations consisted of flour, peas, meat such as pork or beef, and butter, distributed on a descending scale. In the first year, a full daily ration was provided, which was reduced to two thirds in the second year, and to one third in the third year. The end of this rationing coincided with what is known as “The Hungry Year,” a period of low crop yields that caused a near famine in 1788-1789. Almost a century later the memory of this trying time persisted. Early historian William Canniff noted in 1869 that:
The period of famine is even yet remembered by a few, whose memory reaches back to the immediately succeeding years, and the descendants of the sufferers, speak of that time with peculiar feelings, imbibed from their parents.
Canniff referred to the Hungry Year as the “sad first page in the history of Upper Canada.” As noted by Canniff, the Loyalist settlements on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River became part of the founding townships of Upper Canada, a new colony created through British legislation in 1791. Upper Canada was officially renamed as Canada West in 1841. It later became the Province of Ontario, in the new nation called Canada, in 1867.
How did our cross-border shoppers—Conrad Best and Elijah Bottum—fare in the post-war period? Conrad Best survived the possibility of “disagreeable consequences” in his investigation of agricultural supplies in the Mohawk Valley in 1784, but not for long. He was one of the Loyalists who insisted on settling in the Missisquoi Bay area of southern Québec, much to the dismay of Governor Haldimand who preferred the upper St. Lawrence valley and elsewhere. Best, a widower, died there in June 1785 leaving his two daughters orphaned. Elijah Bottum, on the other hand, lived a long and prosperous life in what became the British colony of Upper Canada. There he settled in Augusta Township, which is now part of the United Counties of Leeds and Grenville on the north bank of the St. Lawrence River where he “settled and improved” several hundred acres of land. In 1792, Bottum had the honour of delivering an address to John Graves Simcoe and his wife on behalf of “the loyal provincial corps” of the area. Simcoe was a prominent veteran of the American Revolutionary War and the newly-appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, who was on his way westward to take up his new vice regal appointment. A report of the proceedings described Bottum as “a large portly person, having at his side a formidable, basket-hilted claymore,” who delivered the speech to Simcoe “in brief, military phrase, and gave one of the old war slogans.” He died in 1825 at sixty-eight years of age and is buried in the Blue Church Cemetery near Prescott, Ontario.
Guy Carleton was also and the commander-in-chief of the British army in America during the latter part of the American Revolutionary War. See G. P. Browne, “Carleton, Guy, 1st Baron Dorchester,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, www.biographi.ca/en/bio/carleton_guy_5E.html.
David McConnell, British Smooth-Bore Artillery: A Technological Study to Support Identification, Acquisition, Restoration, Reproduction, and Interpretation of Artillery at National Historic Parks in Canada (Ottawa, ON: Environment Canada, National Historic Parks and Sites, 1988), 307-309.
Gavin K. Watt, The Burning of the Valleys: Daring Raids from Canada Against the New York Frontier in the Fall of 1780 (Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press, 1997); Gavin K. Watt, Fire & Desolation: The Revolutionary War’s 1778 Campaign as Waged from Québec and Niagara Against the American Frontiers (Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press, 2017); Walter D. Edmonds, Drums Along the Mohawk (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 1936).
Haldimand Papers, Vol. B178, 311-312; Ian Pemberton, “Sherwood, Levius Peters,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sherwood_levius_peters_7E.html.
Loyalist financial claim:The National Archives, AO13, Series II, Piece 011, 262-263; Loyalist financial claim: The National Archives, AO12, Series I, Piece 031, 64-65; Sherwood to Mathews, 1 March 1784: Haldimand Papers, Vol. B162, 190.
Find A Grave, Elijah Bottum: www.findagrave.com/memorial/241915607/elijah-bottum.