Hostages to Fortune
1 A GLORIOUS DAY FOR AMERICA
From an American start, a British interregnum, and ultimately a Canadian base, the Jarvis family’s evolution and remarkable involvement in national and international affairs—coloured their days and inspired their nights—became the hallmark of passionate lives.
JUST BEFORE DAWN ON April 19, 1775, at the common green in the puppy bush settlement of Lexington, Massachusetts, in the shadow of its white steeple church and cozier meeting house, there occurred an unexpected confrontation between seven hundred British regulars, resplendent in their colonials’ distinctive bright scarlet uniforms, and sixty local militiamen trying to shake themselves awake. The exchange of musket fire that followed triggered the real beginning of the American Revolution. It was an uncharacteristically minor-note overture to a brutish war that lasted eight interminable years without respite, drastically altering the trajectories of its contestants. A new pecking order was being born that foreshadowed evolving mainline history. More than a century later in 1886, in an ironic twist, the Montreal-born artist Henry Sandham immortalized the Battle of Lexington in his painting The Dawn of Liberty, which
portrayed the New England militiamen as defiant, polished, and as brave as the British. The ultimate promise of what transpired on Lexington Green that April morning was indeed momentous: it was an early warning signal that being Canadian would be less a nationality and more of a condition.
The townsfolk, some descendants of the Puritans who had settled the area in the late 1630s, had been alerted the evening earlier by silversmith and Patriot Paul Revere (who was on a clandestine mission and never did shout, as was alleged, “The British Are Coming!”—since by then the British had been there as colonizers for 150 years). Still, British troops were on the march towards nearby Concord via Lexington and it was Revere and his famous ride that was immortalized in American history. At forty years of age in 1775, Paul Revere was a skilled artisan and “a New England Yankee to the very bottom of his Boston riding boots,” as one of his many biographers depicts him. He spoke in a “harsh, nasal New England twang,” was energetic, ambitious, and devoutly devoted to the Patriot cause. That night, the British were in search of a cache of arms and the rebel leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who were attending the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in Concord. Both men were staying with Reverend Jonas Clark in Lexington at the home previously owned by Hancock’s grandfather, also named John Hancock, a respected minister in the town for more than five decades.
But on the evening of April 18, a sympathetic source close to General Thomas Gage—“circumstantial evidence” suggested it was his American-born wife, Margaret, who was profoundly distressed by the British-colonial rift—had alerted Dr. Joseph Warren, a young Patriot leader and a “gentleman revolutionary,” about the action. Warren was not prone to rush to judgment, yet in this case he trusted his source. He immediately dispatched his couriers, Revere and William Dawes, to warn the citizens of Lexington and Concord.
The Lexington militia was no ragtag band of hick farmers. As tensions had escalated, the militiamen regarded with utmost seriousness their duty to protect their families and property. Under the
command of Captain John Parker, a forty-five-year-old veteran of the French and Indian War (1754–1763), the North American part of the Seven Years’ War that began in Europe in 1756, the men had drilled as intensely as any Napoleonic army.
It was four-thirty in the morning by the time the British regulars, led by Major John Pitcairn, reached the outskirts of Lexington, and another twenty minutes until the militiamen assembled on the town common and he saw them. A crowd, among them the wives and children, had gathered at a safe distance to watch the unfolding spectacle.
Parker did not want any trouble, nor did he want any of his men hurt or killed. Yet his military and patriotic instincts were acute and he was prepared to stand his ground. “Let the troops pass by,” he firmly emphasized to his men. “Don’t molest them, without they [sic] being first.” Seeing the mass of red coats advancing towards them, one of the assembled colonists exclaimed, “There are so few of us here, it is folly to stand here!” Parker, however, would not countenance such talk in the ranks and threatened to shoot any man who ran. “Stand your ground! Don’t fire unless fired upon!” he ordered. “But if they want to have a war let it begin here.”
The British soldiers on foot, and the officers on horseback, moved closer. Pitcairn yelled towards Parker, “Lay down your arms, you damned rebels!” Parker was bold, but not stupid. His militia was completely outnumbered. So he instructed them to disperse and not to fire. Some began to move away, but there was confusion: most of the militiamen stayed put with their muskets at the ready.
Suddenly a shot rang out. No one knew who had fired, British or American. It made no difference. The British regulars let loose a volley of musket balls in reaction and a few of the American militiamen shot back. Two colonists were killed instantly and another six in the tussle which followed. One of the men, Jonathan Harrington, was severely wounded. He stumbled and crawled back to his house and died as his wife and son tried desperately to save him. Another ten colonists were wounded and the rest ran for cover in the nearby woods and buildings. Only one British soldier died.
Regrouping, the British troops continued on toward Concord. But many more colonial militiamen awaited them at the North Bridge in a scene later described by Ralph Waldo Emerson in the first stanza of his stirring poem “Concord Hymn”:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
By the end of the day, ninety-three Americans had been killed and forty-one wounded. However, the Brits were stunned: they had lost 273 soldiers and hundreds more were wounded. The Revolutionary War had begun to move into the history books.
Earlier that morning, while they fled from Lexington just as the British regulars arrived, Sam Adams and John Hancock, having heard the gunfire on the Common, stopped to talk.
“It is a fine day,” said Adams.
“Very pleasant,” commented Hancock, figuring Adams was referring to the weather.
“I mean,” Adams replied, “this is a glorious day for America.”
And so it was. Slightly more than a year later, Adams and Hancock both would be among the esteemed signatories of the American Declaration of Independence.
Meanwhile, in the town of Danbury, Connecticut, a different type of skirmish was under way. This was between a father and son, both with the same name: Stephen Jarvis. Their family feud was initially about Amelia Glover, the splendid young woman Stephen wanted to marry. Yet in the turmoil of those dangerous times that engulfed them, their quarrel soon became about choosing sides in the civil war that was about to tear the colonies asunder.
In this life-and-death struggle, young Stephen Jarvis (1756–1840)—later immortalized in family folklore as “the Colonel,” one of the patriarchs of the Jarvis family branch whose members were to
rise to prominence in Upper Canada—would emerge as a fierce defender of the British Empire and a man who took great pride in his designation as a Loyalist. He was most aptly described by his Boswell and great-great-granddaughter, the sympathetic chronicler Ann Jarvis Boa, in her definitive biography titled My Eventful Life. His “story is really about one brave and reckless man who, always anxious to please, throws himself headlong into situations from which, once committed, there is no turning back,” she concluded. “As a Loyalist, who has declared himself on the British side, he had no choice but to be in the fight until he dies, or it is over.”
As a young man of nineteen in 1775, all Stephen Jarvis desired was to marry his love, the tempting, tempestuous Amelia. The only portraits of Stephen and Amelia were painted when they were much older. Wearing a distinguished morning coat with a high collar and a white cravat, Stephen was the model of an upper-class gentleman and a trooper who had experienced a full life. Though he was balding and appeared somewhat weary, the painting still attests to his strength and sense of purpose. Amelia, her head covered by a white frilly bonnet, or mob cap as it was called, was then a handsome woman with a kind demeanour. Yet even in her advanced age, her spirit, her dark eyes and slender nose suggested that she truly was the walking miracle who had caught Stephen’s eye.
Stephen Jarvis Sr. (1729–1820) was a proud man of substantive standing in Danbury, like many of the extended members of his family who populated the town. His father, known as “Captain” Samuel, had lived nearby in Norwalk, thirty-six kilometres south on the shores of the Long Island, where he was involved in the shipping trade. As a young man, Stephen Sr. had moved inland to Danbury, become a farmer, and married Rachel Starr in 1756. Later that year their first child, Stephen Jr., was born. Rachel’s roots were in Danbury, a typical settlement in the mid-eighteenth century with a population of 1,527. Within two decades, on the eve of the revolution, that number had increased to 2,526—though that did not include the African American slaves and servants, who were then common in
Connecticut towns. (In the 1770s, Connecticut had a slave population of 6,464, the most among the New England colonies.)
There was no documentation on whether Stephen and Rachel owned slaves or had servants, yet Danbury’s ministers, lawyers, and town officials certainly did. There were colony-wide laws against any black servant or slave travelling beyond where they lived. And by 1730, any black, Indian, or mulatto slave guilty of uttering or publishing any words that a white person found objectionable received forty lashes as punishment.
Daily life as elsewhere revolved around religion, a bevy of chores, and family responsibilities. The Jarvises were devoted Episcopalians, an Anglican offshoot, which reinforced their British ties. In any confrontation with the Mother Country, few Anglicans, and certainly no Anglican ministers, disavowed King George III, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Mostly everyone else in Danbury, however, was Congregationalist, an autonomous Protestant sect that soon fostered the spirit of the revolution. The seeds of independence had been planted decades earlier by outspoken preachers such as Jonathan Mayhew, a twenty-nine-year-old pastor of the West (Congregational) Church in Boston. In 1750, Mayhew, in a widely circulated sermon assessing King Charles I’s legacy as a martyr, stated that in the face of tyranny, it was “warrantable and glorious” for people “to disobey the civil powers in certain circumstances . . . in order to redress their grievances; to vindicate their natural and legal rights . . . and free themselves and posterity from inglorious servitude and ruin.” A year before his death in 1766, he publicly decried the British attempts to extort the colonists through unfair taxation.
At the handful of Danbury churches, simple and unelaborate structures, Sunday was a serious occasion, as it was throughout the Thirteen Colonies. The Jarvises and their neighbours might not have been subjected to the God-fearing fire-and-brimstone of the early Puritans, but it was damn close. The Lord’s Day remained a time of piety, prayer, and reflection, a consequence of the First Great Awakening, the evangelical religious revival that engulfed (and divided)
Connecticut in the 1730s and 1740s. At the same time, a visit by the English Methodist George Whitefield, one of the movement’s chief proponents, literally brought entire towns like Danbury to a complete standstill. For Nathan Cole, a farmer from Middleton, a town eighty kilometres east, south of Hartford, hearing Whitefield speak made him feel as if he was one of the Apostles. Or so he claimed. “When I saw Mr. Whitefield come upon the Scaffold he looked almost angelical, a young, slim slender youth before some thousands of people with a bold undaunted countenance,” Cole recorded in his journal.
And my hearing how God was with him everywhere as he came along it solemnized my mind, and put me into a trembling fear before he began to preach; for he looked as if he was [clothed] with authority from the Great God, and a sweet solemn solemnity sat upon his brow. And my hearing him preach gave me a heart wound; by God’s blessing my old foundation was broken up, and I saw that my righteousness would not save me; then I was convinced of the doctrine of Election and went right to quarrelling with God about it, because all that I could do would not save me; and he had decreed from Eternity who should be saved and who not.
SUCH POWERFUL MEMORIES resonated for decades after, making religion an institution to be revered. There was no doubt that Stephen and Rachel inculcated their sons and daughters to heed the Almighty and their parents—not necessarily in that order. At the dinner table, meals were usually eaten in silence. According to the customs of the day, children “were ordered never to seat themselves at the table until after the blessing had been asked, and their parents told them to be seated. They were never to ask for anything on the table; never
to speak unless spoken to; always to break the bread, not to bite into a whole slice; never to take salt except with a clean knife; not to throw bones under the table.”
After Stephen Jr. was born, Rachel gave birth to another eight children, about the norm in colonial America. Her youngest, a son, Eli, was born in 1768, which meant that during the first twelve years of her marriage, she was pregnant more often than she was not. The Jarvis clan knew how to procreate, ranking that activity as their favourite indoor sport. Stephen Sr.’s older brother, Samuel Jarvis (1720–1783), was Stamford’s town clerk and Anglican Church warden. He and his wife, Martha (1726–1803), had eleven children, six of whom were boys. Those six boys—the two most prominent were William (Billy) (1756–1817) and Munson Jarvis (1742–1825)—had more than forty children, many of whom later lived in New Brunswick and Toronto. One of their five daughters was Mary (Polly) (1747–1826), who married lawyer Fyler Dibblee (1741–1784), and also left a record of her tragic experience as a Loyalist.
Until he was twelve years old, Stephen Jr. and his siblings were educated at the church-run public school or tutored at home. Rachel’s great-great-grandfather, Comfort Starr, a physician, left £800 in his will for the establishment of a school fund in Danbury. However, parents and children were occupied six days a week with field work, wood chopping, manning the fireplaces, weeding the gardens, tending to the farm animals, preparing food, and sewing clothes. In a diary entry from 1775, young Abigail Foote from Colchester, Connecticut, described her packed workday like this:
Fix’d gown for Prude,—Mend Mother’s Riding-hood,—Spun short thread,—Fix’d two gowns for Welsh’s girls,—Carded tow,—Spun linen,—Worked on Cheese-basket,—Hatchel’d flax with Hannah, we did 51 lbs. apiece,—Pleated and ironed,—Read a Sermon of Doddridge’s,—Spooled a piece,—Milked the cows,—Spun linen, did 50 knots,—Made a Broom of Guinea wheat straw,—Spun thread to whiten,—Set a Red dye,—Had two
Scholars from Mrs. Taylor’s,—I carded two pounds of whole wool and felt Nationly,—Spun harness twine,—Scoured the pewter.
Even with such a rigorous list of household duties, the Jarvis family prospered and found comfort and support in each other. Their wooden-frame farmhouse on Wooster Street was not large, but suited their needs. The houses were heated by fireplaces, though in the winter it was often still necessary to warm the inner sheets with pans of hot coals. Much of the daily focus involved the kitchen, wrote Alice Morse Earle in her 1898 account, Home Life in Colonial Days. “The walls were often bare, the rafters dingy; the windows were small, the furniture meagre; but the kitchen had a warm, glowing heart that spread light and welcome, and made the poor room a home.” Sunday supper was a favourite event and would have featured goose, chicken, pheasant, or quail served with pumpkin bread, which was popular in Connecticut. The children sipped on milk, which became a routine part of a New England diet in the late 1720s.
Slightly more grandiose, but still middle-class, was Sunday dinner at the home of John Adams. A guest later noted that “the first course was a pudding of Indian meal, molasses, and butter; then came a course of veal and bacon, neck of mutton, and vegetables.” Adams was by no means wealthy, and later, when he was in Philadelphia in 1774 as a congressional representative, was overwhelmed by the hospitality and the “sinful feasts,” as he referred in his diary to the sumptuous culinary experiences he frequently attended. “Dined with Mr. [Benjamin] Chew, Chief Justice of the [Province of Pennsylvania],” Adams recorded about one such dinner. “Turtle and every other thing. Flummery, jellies, sweet meats of twenty sorts. Trifles, whipped syllabubs, floating islands . . . and then a dessert of fruits, raisins, almonds, pears, peaches—wine most excellent and admirable. I drank Madeira at a great rate and found no inconvenience in it.” Clearly, the American colonists enjoyed the finer aspects of life, and Adams noted that “even plain Quakers . . . served ducks, hams, chickens, beef, creams and custards.”
THE REVOLUTION INTERCEDED in the idyllic lives of Stephen Sr., Rachel, and their children in a profound way. From a Patriot perspective, the darkest day in Danbury’s history was April 26, 1777, the day the town was occupied and then partially destroyed by British forces under the command of General William Tryon, who was also the governor of New York from 1771 to 1780. Danbury had been specifically targeted by the British. Stephen Jarvis was later suspected of having guided Tryon to Danbury, though at the time he claimed he was fifty-eight kilometres away in Greenwich—an alibi that proved to be true because the Americans were using the town to store arms and supplies.
Munson and William Jarvis participated in the destruction as members of the Prince of Wales Loyal American Volunteers. Most of Danbury’s residents had fled before the British troops arrived. According to the town’s history the “enemy” soldiers captured and killed several Patriot supporters.
Throughout the Revolutionary War, almost all Loyalists were derisively denigrated as “Tories,” allegedly upper-class Brits who were traitors and had to be driven from the colonies with the same resolve as a dreaded plague that had to be expunged. The Tory label, as will be seen, hardly fit all Loyalists—in truth, it did not fit most of them. There was no off-the-rack Loyalist, despite later mythology that portrayed them as diehard monarchists. The Loyalists meshed British traditions with American republicanism and were forced to live with this unholy contradiction between authority and liberty wherever they settled. But in the case of the Jarvises, “Tories” was an accurate depiction. The family’s roots stretched back to fifteenth-century England, the time of the Tudors and Robert Gervayes of Chatkyll, County Staffordshire, northeast of London. By the early 1600s the family’s name had changed to Jervice when one of Robert’s grandsons, John, who was born in the 1580s, emigrated to the colony of Virginia, establishing the Jarvis presence in the New
World. John’s three sons settled in Boston, a town still under control of the Puritans.
Even after two generations, the Jarvis family retained its strong connection to England. Even more so when the call for revolution was heard in the colonies. From the start, Stephen Sr. made it clear to his son, friends, and associates that the Jarvises were on the side of the King. Or as Stephen Jr. put in his memoirs, “my father was one of those persons called Torries [sic].”
When the citizens of Danbury heard about Lexington and Concord, a wave of patriotism swept through the town—except at the home of the Jarvises and the other hundred or so Loyalists. The bell at the First Congregational Church rang nonstop, cannon was fired, and bonfires were lit, as James Montgomery Bailey related in his history of Danbury. “A public meeting was held, and the village orators who were not friends of King George made fervid speeches, urging the able-bodied to enroll themselves in defence of the country,” Bailey added. That presumably did not include Stephen Jarvis Sr.
Stephen Jr. (hereafter Stephen Jarvis) was not about to allow his father’s stubborn disapproval of Amelia to stop him from making her his bride, no matter how precarious the political situation might be. “Some time in the month of April, 1775, when the first blood was shed at Lexington,” he later recorded, “I became acquainted with a Lady to whom I paid my address, and who I afterwards married; this attachment was disapproved of by my father, who carried his displeasure to great lengths and I was under the necessity of visiting the Lady only by stealth.” Stephen Sr.’s anger only increased; father and son barely spoke.
Two months after Lexington and Concord, hostilities continued unabated with the far bloodier conflict between the rebels of Massachusetts and the British forces at Boston’s Battle of Bunker Hill (more accurately Breeds Hill nearby), the unsuccessful British attempt to occupy Boston. The fighting was intense and the colonial troops under the command of William Prescott put up a fierce resistance. One of the Patriot casualties was Joseph Warren. The
thirty-four-year-old physician had been shot in the face before British soldiers repeatedly stabbed him with their bayonets. It was that kind of war.
Boston did not fall that day; indeed, more than a year later the siege ended in a stalemate as the British evacuated the city. Though technically victorious at Bunker Hill, they sustained heavy casualties, proving that an army of colonials would not crumble before the mighty British regulars. “We have . . . learned one melancholy truth,” a British officer conceded after the battle, “which is, that the Americans, if they were equally well commanded, are full as good soldiers as ours.”
The courageous stand of the colonials at Bunker Hill, who had heeded the orders of their magical commander, General George Washington, provided a psychological boost. In New England and the other northern colonies, young men were drafted into local militias mainly to protect New York, thought to be the Royal Navy’s next target.
Regardless of his family’s loyalties, Stephen Jarvis was drafted. He might have avoided it, or he could have found a substitute. But because of the bitterness over his relationship with Amelia and in a fit of high pique, Stephen insisted on angering his father even more by picking the least forgivable gesture: he joined the rebel militia and went to New York against his family’s enduring faith and then current wishes.
“I was obstinate and declared my intentions of going as a soldier,” he remembered.
For this declaration [my father] took me by the arm and thrust me out of the door; during the evening, however, I went to my room and went to bed. The next day was Sunday and I kept out of sight, the next morning we were to march, a Brother of my Mother was the officer commanding. On leaving the house I passed my father and wished him “good-bye,” he made me no reply, and I passed on to the house of my uncle, the place
of rendezvous, but before the Troops marched my father so far relented as to come to me and after giving me a severe reproof, ordered me a horse to ride, gave me some money, and I set off. We arrived in New York the next day, and my uncle took up his quarters at Peck Slip [southwest of Manhattan] and took me into his house. He had a son with him, a little younger than myself, with whom I spent my time very agreeable.
After two weeks, the unit Jarvis had joined was inexplicably dismissed, possibly due to the disorganized state of the American revolutionary military in the early days of the conflict. When Stephen returned home, he theatrically swore to his enquiring father that he would break off his “suit with Miss Glover” thereby unintentionally spreading an essential bit of evidence about his long-term intentions. The father took him at his word. And Stephen changed out of whatever he wore as a rebel militiaman, donned his courting clothes, and dutifully trotted off to pass on the bad news to his beloved. But there was many a slip twixt the cup and the lip—or in this case between the Jarvis farm and the Glover homestead. Seeing Amelia face-to-face melted whatever resolve Stephen may have accumulated. “Before we parted, we renewed our vows of love and constancy.”
That night of ardent promises had to face the cold light of day when Stephen confronted his father and reported on his mission. “My reception the next morning was everything but pleasant. I continued, however, to visit her as often as I could.” Stephen’s layover would last less than a year, during which time the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia issued the Declaration of Independence and the British, led by General William Howe, occupied New York City. By early 1777, local Patriots were hell bent on capturing Stephen for his part in helping Loyalist prisoners escape Connecticut. The teenager sought refuge in the home of Loyalist William Hawley, who was married to one of Amelia’s sisters. This couple kindly arranged to have Amelia visit them, since they sensed that the mounting hostilities would soon be separating the young lovers until
the revolution could be resolved. Stephen appreciated the rendezvous and later wrote, “the pleasure I spent in her society surely can be better imagined than described,” which proved not only that he was mature beyond his years as a lover, but that he had a way with words. Finally, a rebel relative arrived at the Hawley house to take Amelia home. Loath to leave any earlier than she had to, Miss Glover pretended that she had more packing to do and asked the relative to wait. In Jarvis’s words, she “left him and visited me in my apartment. In this manner we kept him until a late hour, when we at last took leave of each other.”
Stephen then fled Connecticut and joined the British garrison in New York as a sergeant with the early promise of a commission that would accord him a respectable wage and status as an officer. He would not see Amelia again until the spring of 1783.
Stephen Jarvis’s story and that of his cousins in Stamford provide a personal and intimate account of the trials and tribulations of Loyalism. Stephen’s cousin Polly Dibblee later reflected on their “Burdens of Loyalty” and, as the Jarvis family saga demonstrated, that turned out to be a gross understatement.
There was no such thing as a “typical” Loyalist refugee experience. Yet the Jarvis family’s collective saga is historically significant because it touched on so many varieties of experience. Most Loyalists were middle- or working-class, while the Jarvises were decidedly middle-class. The Jarvis men and women were literate and the men, like Stephen Sr., had professions or readily moved into them following the revolution. Many adherents came from New York—where half of the population were Loyalists compared to only a tenth’s of New England’s and about a third in the South—whereas the Jarvis clan, based in Connecticut, had New England roots. Unlike Stephen Jr. and his cousins, however, a majority of Loyalists did not take up arms against the rebels. (Some years ago, American historian Paul H. Smith calculated that 15 percent of adult white male Loyalists—or about 21,000—were active in provincial corps or in the British army.) It was thus accurate to state, as New Brunswick Loyalist historian
Stephen Davidson put it, “that many Loyalists shared some of the Jarvis family’s experiences, but not all Loyalists experienced all of the elements of the Jarvis saga. The Jarvises illustrate the Loyalist refugee experience the way old book plates illustrated the key points of a novel but didn’t give away the whole story.”