Inky Scraps

Maya Jasanoff

  • Atlantic Families: Lives and Letters in the Later 18th Century by Sarah Pearsall
    Oxford, 294 pp, £61.00, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 953299 5

‘Crisses Cryssis Crises Crisis’, Grace Galloway scratched at the bottom of the page. She might not have known how to spell it, but she certainly knew what crisis felt like when she wrote about it in wartime Philadelphia in the fall of 1781. Grace’s husband, Joseph, a prominent Pennsylvania politician, had been a delegate to the first Continental Congress, convened in 1774 to find a resolution to the 13 colonies’ grievances against Britain. Hoping to stave off open war, Galloway proposed a plan for closer imperial union and reform. It lost by one vote. When the colonies and Britain went to war in 1775, a disgruntled Galloway chose to remain loyal to Britain – a fateful decision for his family. Philadelphia, the first patriot capital, was seized by British forces in 1777 to great loyalist acclaim, only to be evacuated eight months later. Joseph Galloway was one of many loyalists who followed the departing British, fleeing first to New York City, then on to England as a refugee. The Galloways’ bright teenage daughter Betsey travelled with him while Grace stayed behind in Philadelphia, hoping to protect her substantial family property from patriot reprisals.

She didn’t succeed. Just weeks after the British withdrawal the local Committee of Safety broke into Galloway’s house and evicted her, leaving her nothing but her clothes. In 1779, the patriot legislature confiscated the Galloway estate outright, divided it into lots, and sold it off before her eyes. Alone, in poverty and desperately missing her daughter, Galloway sank into depression and physical illness. ‘War with it’s Iron hands corrupts ye Manners, & invades ye Mind as Much as it distroys the body. & all ranks of people are more or less affected by it,’ she told Betsey – writing, as she often did, in a minute hand on a tiny scrap of paper so that her letters could be smuggled across enemy lines. Betsey, for her part, now a refugee in London, longed to be reunited with her mother ‘whether at Nova Zembla or Otaheite’.

The same October week that Grace scrawled out ‘crisis’, loyalist fortunes took a desperate turn when Cornwallis surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown, sealing Britain’s defeat. Within a matter of months, British forces began withdrawing. The Galloways’ predicament was replayed in loyalist households across America. What would happen to them if they remained in the republic? Would they retain their property, would they be punished or persecuted? Against an uncertain future in the United States, Britain offered loyalists an alternative full of other unknowns. They could travel at government expense to other British Atlantic domains, where they would receive free land grants, provisions, tools and other benefits to help them restart their lives. From Savannah to New York, they held meetings to plan settlements in places they had hardly heard of: Abaco in the Bahamas, Port Roseway in Nova Scotia, the mouth of the Saint John River on the Bay of Fundy. Newspapers were crammed with advertisements for last-minute sales and announcements about where loyalists were to board their ships. By the time the last British troops pulled out of New York in November 1783, 60,000 loyalists had left the colonies to take their chances elsewhere in the British Empire.

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