The Original Regiment
It is unfortunate that Canadians have forgotten their colonial history. While many are familiar with rebellious Americans like George Washington and Paul Revere, most are completely unaware of the Loyal men and women who opposed those notorious Americans. Those Loyal Americans with their ideals, their values and their dreams built early Canada and the foundations of our existing government.
In 1775 Canada was part of an area known as British North America. The history of the King’s Royal Yorkers starts well before the American Revolution and goes back to a time when New York was a province of British North America and Six Nations territory.
In the early eighteenth century, a lone Irish fur trader emigrated to an area known as the Mohawk Valley in New York Province. This region was considered at the time to be the frontier with a few white settlements of Palatine Germans and Dutch. These settlements bordered on the fearsome tribes of the Six Nations Native peoples. The Irishman, named William Johnson, settled in the Mohawk Valley and became very good friends with the Mohawk Indians, the Elder Brothers of the Iroquois Confederacy. In fact, he was so close to the Natives that the Government had little choice but to name him official Superintendent of Indian Affairs. The natives would only accept Johnson!
Many of the other settlers of the Mohawk valley were jealous of the lands the Mohawks were giving to William Johnson. The Dutch settlers had been there since the seventeenth century and did not, have a good relationship with the Mohawks whom they had numerous land disputes. William Johnson’s position assisted the Indians with their land disputes. As a result he became widely accepted by many Native nations, but made a few white enemies. William Johnson became wealthy and famous for his heroism in the Seven Years War in America for which he was knighted and granted a Baronet. As a result of the War, Britain conquered all the North American holdings formerly claimed by France.
Before and after the war, Sir William had been settling his lands with immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Scotland and other places. The majority of these people adored Sir William for his generosity and sense of fun. The new settlers got along surprisingly well with Sir William’s Native neighbors. However, because of both ethnic and religious divisions the old settlers did not like the newcomers to the area but, they did not make any moves against them for they feared Sir William and his Mohawks. As Sir William’s importation of immigrants continued, by 1770 the Mohawk valley was no longer a frontier but a thriving agricultural community.
In 1774, Sir William died. The enemies of Sir William did not fear the son as they had his father and, with the support of Congress, began making life difficult for Sir William’s people.
Sir John Johnson, who had inherited his father’s title had to go as far as fortifying his home and arming both white tenants and Native allies as a body guard. Fearing for their lives, many loyal settlers were beginning to flee to Canada. The rebels were becoming bolder and began to commit offenses including arresting loyalists for simply supporting their true and lawful government. Many of the influential families close to the Johnson’s had left. At the same time, Congress had formed an army and invaded Canada.
At Quebec city, the army was defeated in disgrace over the winter of 1775-76 by an enthusiastic mix of Loyalist Americans, French Militia, Loyal English, Some loyal Canada Natives, British sailors and few companies of British soldiers. The invasion of Canada caused tensions to rise in the Mohawk valley. As Congress’s army struggled in the north, the rebels in the valley made their move against the Johnson house. First, the authorities disarmed Sir John’s tenants. As a result of this measure, Sir John knew he could not mount a defence of his home or property. Soon after, he was warned that the rebels were coming to arrest him and he had no choice but to flee. With only a few hours notice, he gathered up two hundred of his followers. Guided by Mohawks, they began the march to Canada.
With few weapons, provisions, and unsuitable clothing, the march through the swampy Adirondack mountain range was arduous. In the spring of 1776, Johnson’s starving, weakened band finally made it to Montreal. Obviously thirsty for revenge, one of the first things Johnson did was seek out the Governor to approve his wish to raise a regiment. From this day forward, Johnson lived up to his family name and became one of the most active and able Tory leaders during the war.
Governor Carleton approved the beating order to raise Johnson’s regiment and shortly afterwards at Chambly, Quebec, the King’s Royal Regiment of New York began recruiting. Most of the soldiers came from Johnson’s followers but with the general mood of the Province others readily volunteered.
The Battle of Oriskany
The first major campaign in which the King’s Royal Yorkers were involved was the 1777 Burgoyne/ St Leger expeditions. While a major British force marched south from Montreal to invade New York, a significant force of loyalists, natives and British soldiers pushed east from Oswego in an attempt to subdue the Mohawk Valley. They went as far as the rebel garrison at Fort Stanwix where they encamped and laid siege to the Americans.
Meanwhile the rebel militia brigade of the valley marched west to relieve the fort. Informed of the rebels’ approach, the Yorkers, Indian Department Rangers, Six Nations Indians, and Joseph Brant’s Volunteers, waited at a swampy valley known as Oriskany. The ambush by the Crown force was devastating and shattered the rebel column. The rebel general was fatally wounded. The fierce hand-to-hand fighting sent the rebels packing in a rout.
There is much controversy over this battle. Although it was a clear victory for the Crown forces, many modern Americans ignore documented statistics and insist it was a great victory for them. Since the time of Sir William,the differences between the loyalist and rebel inhabitants of the valley had been widening. At the battle of Oriskany, the pent-up emotions of a generation (several generations for the Native people) came to a head. As a result of the strong regional passions of the two sides, many fought not out of patriotism but out of local hatred. The battle was reputedly the bloodiest of the revolution.
The Burning of the Valleys
Throughout the remainder of the War, the Yorkers proved themselves with numerous raids into their former communities. These raids achieved several purposes. They rescued loyalists who were enduring continuing harassment by local rebels. They destroyed barns, homes, and more importantly the harvests and livestock which fed Washington’s armies in the south. They damaged the morale of the rebel community who were terrified by the raiding parties.
The larger raids such as Sir John Johnson’s 1780 raid on the Schoharie area were largely missions of pure destruction. So effective were the raids on New York that by the end of the American Revolution the Mohawk valley was battered and useless. Anything north of the valley was clearly under British control. The reality of this fact should not be lost upon us in modern times. Imagine Northern New York being a part of Canada today! Imagine the shock and despair of the loyalists and Six Nations at discovering their lands had been written off by a politician’s pen in Europe.
While the King’s Royal Yorkers achieved much during the revolution, the real defeat for them and all loyalists came at the bargaining table in Paris. With the Treaty of Paris which ended the war, all of the areas which the Yorkers and others had fought for were lost with a stroke of a pen. This was a problem for the Canadian Governor who had thousands of loyalist refugees already in Canada and more coming in every day.
The solution was to create a new province. In 1791 the giant province of Quebec was split in two creating Upper and Lower Canada. Even before the war ended, loyalist families were already settling areas of Upper Canada. Upon disbandment of the loyalist regiments, the refugees formed brand new communities and began building new lives. The Yorkers in particular settled the area around Cornwall and south of Napanee, Ontario.