The Captive Loyalists

In the Old Dominion, the Province of Virginia, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, lived Rene LaForce with his wife & family.  He was happy in his family; his wife Agnes was a true helpmeet, & his children were obedient & helpful.  While many of his neighbors were strong Continentalists & ardently desired full Home Rule for the Colonies, LaForce was loyal to his king & his flag.  Never hesitating to express his views, he became most unpopular in the community; he was unjustly treated; heavy fines were laid upon him, & he was subjected to many & increasing annoyances.

At length in 1776, when the Colonies declared their independence, he made up his mind to withdraw from a society which was uncongenial – a society composed of those whom he considered traitors & rebels, & who certainly were Republicans who had forsworn the allegiance into which they had been born, to establish a new nation & live under a new flag.

LaForce was a man of considerable property, owning many slaves, male & female, & a large herd of cattle, with other property.  He gathered his family around him, & in true patriarchal fashion journeyed with wife & children, slaves & herds towards the West, where the wilderness of Kentucky offered him an asylum from the persecution of his former friends.  When they had arrived at the end of civilization & settlement, they stayed their march for a rest, intending to renew it on the morrow.  In the evening two of the sons went to kill a fat ox for food, taking with them their rifles.  A shot from on rifle sufficed to kill the beast; the other rifle was laid down carelessly by the main tent while its owner helped to skin & prepare the ox.  After nightfall, when the young man had retired to rest in his tent, he remembered that he had left his rifle lying on the ground.  He went out & picked it up: in groping around in the dark among the tent cords, he accidentally discharged his weapon.  His father had retired; & unfortunately the bullet found its billet in his body, mortally wounding him.  This unhappy accident delayed their progress; but after a short time, staying but to bury the unhappy father, the survivors took their way westward into the wilderness, & came to a halt at a place estimated by them to be about two hundred miles from any settlement of the recreant Colonists.

Here they picked out a piece of ground for a small fortress, surrounded it with palisades as a defence against the Indians, & built within the stockade huts for themselves & the slaves.  They thought themselves safe from molestation from any but Indians, & had little fear of them, for there seemed enough room for all.  They cleared land, cultivated it, & were making the wilderness bloom as the rose, living entirely within themselves without neighbours & without communication with the rest of the world.  But their settlement was in the favourite hunting ground of the Indians; & the Red Men complained of them & others to the representative of the Great Father, King George, at Detroit.

Many excursions were being made at this time from Detroit by small detachments of British troops, each of them accompanied by a more or less numerous band of Indian allies; the Revolutionary War was raging in all its virulence, & American settlers were everywhere harried by the royal troops & their allies, just as the Loyalists were harried by the Continentalists.  As far west as the Mississippi, through all the Ohio district, the hinterland of the Atlantic Colonies, the Republicans had here & there blockhouses, fortifications of more or less size & strength: they had also some regular & many irregular troops in this wild region.  A raid from Detroit, besides threatening these scattered posts, afforded a convenient opportunity of striking at the rear of the larger & more formidable armies to the east.

One of the most active & efficient officers in the British service was Henry Bird, a captain in the 8th Foot, an engineer of great skill, & no mean tactician, who had come from Niagara in 1778 with a detachment of fifty men.  In the spring of 1779 he was so anxious to proceed against the enemy that he kept urging Henry Hamilton, the commandant & lieutenant-governor of Detroit, to allow him to go with a few volunteers against the revolted Virginians – both those in what is now Virginia & also & primarily those in its western hinterland.  Just at that time, too, a large body of American troops was threatening the loyal Indians; & they were complaining of the neglect of the lieutenant-governor to protect them.  Both Bird & the Indians were pressing & insistent, & at length Hamilton yielded to their importunity; notwithstanding the weakness of his garrison, he allowed Bird to go in command of a small detachment of troops with a number of volunteers.  He also sent considerable ammunition with him for the Indian allies.  Many Ottawas & Chippewas joined the expedition, & it set off for the south.  Although by no means so large or so important a force as that commanded by Bird in 1780, this was no contemptible little army either in numbers or in personnel.

In 1778 there arrived at Detroit from Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh) Simon Girty, Alexander M’Kee & Matthew Elliott, who had escaped from the rebels & made their way to loyal Brittish territory to offer themselves to the service of the crown.

Simon Girty, born in Pennsylvania in 1741 of an Irish father & an English mother, was at the age of fifteen taken prisoner by the Indians with his mother & brothers.  He lived with the Senecas for three years, when he was set free.  For a time he seemed to favour the Revolutionary party, but finally made up his mind to join the other.  He was a hardy, brave, & indefatigable border warrior, whose name has suffered from his taking the losing side.  Like some others he has been blackened by partisan writers: ‘renegade’, ‘fiend’, ‘worse than Indian cruelty’, etc. etc., are freely used in connection with his name, but he seems to have been no worse & no better than the other Indian fighters, many of whom have received fulsome eulogies.  Later on he is said to have been the last man to leave Detroit when it was given up to the Americans in 1796.  Thereafter he lived near Amherstburg, where he died in 1818.

Alexander M’Kee was a native of eastern Pennsylvania.  He became a justice of the peace & deputy Indian agent at Fort Pitt, & was carrying on a large & lucrative business there when the Revolutionary troubles began.  He took the Loyalist side & was imprisoned in 1777 by General Hand of the American forces at Pittsburg.  Released on parole, he was threatened with imprisonment again, & he made his escape with Girty & Elliott.  Arrived at Detroit, he offered his services to the commandant, & was appointed interpreter & captain in the Indian service.  He took part in almost every operation of the loyal forces till the end of the war.  In 1788 he was made a judge of the Court of Common Pleas for the District of Hesse, but declined to act.  He died in 1799.  His descendants are still prominent & respected members of society in & near Windsor.

Matthew Elliott was an Irishman who emigrated to America.  He took up his residence in Pennsylvania & early engaged in the Indian trade with headquarters at Fort Pitt.  He was a Loyalist, but in trading with the Indians he was overtaken in 1776 near the present Dresden, Ohio, by a party of Wyandots, & his goods were confiscated by them.  He made his way to Detroit with his servant, & was there arrested in March 1777 as a spy by Hamilton & sent to Quebec as a prisoner; but next year he was released on parole & went back to Fort Pitt by way of New York.  He left for Detroit with Girty & M’Kee in March 1778.  Arrived at Detroit, he took an active part on the Loyalist side during the whole course of the war.  He was made superintendent of Indian Affairs & received full recognition for his very valuable service.  He lived to fight in the War of 1812, commanding a body of Indians at Miami Rapids, October-November 1812, & taking part in other battles.  He seems to have died in 1814.

These three joined Bird’s expedition, as did Captain Graham, a captain in the Indian Department, whose influence over the Indians was very great.  There was also in Detroit at the time a French Canadian who had become a loyal British subject – Duperon Baby.  Baby was born in 1738 & became a merchant in Detroit of great enterprise & considerable success.  At the time of the conquest in 1759-60 he was at Fort Pitt: he refused at first to change his allegiance, but after assisting Major Gladwin in the defence of Detroit against Pontiac, & after the final cession of Canada in 1763, he took the oath of allegiance to King George, & thereafter was most active in his new allegiance.  He became an interpreter & captain in the Indian Department, & was a prominent & trusted official as well as a successful fur trader.  He also after the war was made a judge of the Court of Common Pleas; but declined to act, on the ground of ignorance of law & his large business connection.  He died at Sandwich in 1789.

Baby joined Bird’s expedition, together with a M. Le Duc.  (Contemporary writers sometimes call him Le Deuke, but French orthography puzzles illiterate – & some literate – Englishmen even to this day.)

Frederick Fisher, an interpreter of the Indian Department, could not resist the temptation to take part in the adventure – he survived till 1810 – & it is probable that there were many other volunteers, whose names have not been handed down.

On June 25, 1779, after the little LaForce colony had enjoyed three years of Arcadian simplicity, there appeared before the stockade a body of British soldiers & Indians, a detachment of Bird’s force, & demanded surrender.  We are not told whether Mrs. LaForce asserted her loyalty at that time; if so, it was in vain; the small garrison surrendered on the promise of being taken in safety to Detroit.

The Indians were apt to get out of hand, & the prisoners with many others were hurried to Detroit, some hundreds of miles away.  At Detroit the slaves were divided among their captors: Simon Girty took Scipio; M. Le Duc, Tim & Ishener; Captain Graham, Stephen; Captain Elliott, Joseph & Keggy; M. Baby, Job; Mr. Fisher, Hannah; Captain M’Kee, Candis; while the Indians took Bess, Grace, Rachel, & Patrick.  The other – the white – captives were sent to Montreal by boat & land; & there they were driven into Provost Prison like cattle into a pound.

Fortunately, on their way to the prison, marching along the open street under charge of an armed party, they were met by William Dummer Powell, then a practising barrister & attorney in the city.  On his making inquiry from the non-commissioned officer commanding the escort, he was informed that they were prisoners of war taken in the Kentucky country & brought into Detroit by a detachment of the garrison there.

Powell at once brought the matter to the attention of Sir Frederick Haldimand, at that time governor, & had Mrs LaForce sign a petition (still extant).  Haldimand issued peremptory orders to the commandant at Detroit to search for the slaves of Mrs LaForce & send them to Montreal to their mistress.  Detroit, however, was too far distant from headquarters, communication was too difficult, interests prompting to disobedience of Haldimand’s order too strong for the order to be effective.  The Detroit commandment temporized, & after repetition of the order he stated that the slaves could not be produced.  Poor Agnes LaForce never saw any of them again.

After this chapter there are notes to the chapter.  Note #6 states: Powell, who makes LaForce take with him his sons-in-law & sons’ wives, says that ‘they had no sooner surrendered…than her sons & sons-in-law had to resort to arms to resist the insults of the Indians to their wives & slaves.  Several lives were lost…’  This is, I think, quite incredible.  Mrs. LaForce does not mention anything of the kind, though she speaks of her five children.  From the fact that Powell seems to connect this incident with the document mentioned in note 8 post, & other suggestions, I think his memory plays him false here & that he has confused this incident with the capture of several forts in 1780 (one of them called Martin’s), when the Indians did act in a shameful manner described by Powell.  See, for example, Michigan Pioneer & Historical Collections, vol. xix, pp. 538, 539.

Note #8 states: To show how captured slaves were disposed of, Powell gives us the copy of a document which came before him in his court.  It reads thus:

‘Detroit, May 14, 1784.

‘I Henry Bird do declare that the wench Esther became my property in consequence of an article of Capitulation of Martin’s Fort, whereby the Inhabitants & Defenders agreed to deliver up their Blacks, moveables & Arms to the Indians as their property on Condition that their Persons should be safely conducted to Detroit: which article was punctuly complied with & fulfilled by the Captors.  The said Esther became my property by Consent & permission of the Indian Chiefs.

(Signed) H. Bird, Captain

Present & Witness to the Capitulation.

(Signed) A. M’Kee, D. A.
Indian Affairs’

‘I do hereby make over & give my Right & Property in the said Wench & her male Child to William Lee in consideration of having cleared for me sixteen acres of land.

(Signed) H. Bird, Captain.’

Story courtesy Old Province Tales – Upper Canada by William Renwick Riddell

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