“Loyalist Trails” 2016-38: September 22, 2016

In this issue:
An Epitaph in Ink: Part One, by Stephen Davidson
Editor’s Note


An Epitaph in Ink: Part One

© Stephen Davidson, UE

Polly Jarvis Dibblee had to flee for safety to her father-in-law’s Connecticut home when her husband declared himself a loyalist. After moving to Long Island, she watched helplessly as rebels dragged her husband off to jail. Pregnant with her last child, Polly was robbed by patriots who took the family’s clothes and effects while holding them at bayonet point. Reunited, the Dibblees were on the first evacuation ship to take loyalist refugees to New Brunswick. Within a year, her husband’s depression spiraled into suicide, leaving Polly a widow with five dependent children.

After surviving fires that completely leveled two log cabins, Polly considered returning to Connecticut. In the end, she was granted some compensation by the British government, and became one the first settlers in the loyalist community of Woodstock, New Brunswick. She once summed up her life as a “calamitous situation.”

In September of 2006, Loyalist Trails carried the feature that I had written about Polly Dibblee for Saint John’s Telegraph Journal. It was my very first contribution to the online newsletter. You are now reading my 486th article, which marks a decade of writing for Loyalist Trails. It seems only fitting that we should revisit the story of Polly Dibblee for, as it turns out, there is more to this unfortunate loyalist’s life than what was discovered in my 2006 research.

After writing “My Calamitous Situation: The Life of Polly Jarvis Dibblee,” I discovered thirteen letters in the archives of the New Brunswick Museum, located in Saint John, New Brunswick. Polly’s correspondence with her older brother Munson Jarvis ranged from 1791 to 1810. While there are a number of collections of letters written by upper class loyalists, finding a “baker’s dozen” of such personal records penned by a middle class woman of the period was extremely exciting.

Polly’s most famous letter was one that she wrote in 1787 to her younger brother, William Jarvis, who had found sanctuary in England. It can be read in its entirety in Wallace Brown’s book, The Good Americans: Loyalists in the American Revolution.

At this point in her life, Polly had been a widow for three years and was living in the “frozen climate and barren wilderness” of Kingston, New Brunswick. Potatoes were her children’s steady diet; the loyalist compensation board had denied her any relief, and she was doing her best to “live on hopes” in the midst of “such heart breaking troubles”. Polly sarcastically referred to the “protection of the British government” that failed to alleviate “the sufferings of the poor loyalists {that} are beyond all possible description”. The 1787 letter resonates with the pain and anguish of a woman forced to bear the “burdens of loyalty.”

Given the raw emotion of Polly’s letter to William Jarvis, one could not be blamed for expecting further insights into the loyalist experience in the thirteen letters that Polly wrote to Munson Jarvis over a period of nineteen years. However, in the intervening years between 1787 and 1791, Polly’s situation had improved somewhat, changing the tone and content of her letters. William had been able to secure financial compensation for his long-suffering sister. With her older brother acting as her financial advisor, Polly was no longer concerned about the source of her children’s next meal.

Rather than revealing the difficulties of loyalist settlement, Polly’s letters are more like shopping lists for items that she wanted Munson to buy for her in Saint John. Nevertheless, tiny aspects of her life in the years that followed her husband’s suicide can be discovered with a careful reading of the thirteen letters that have survived.

Polly’s 1791 letters reveal a woman who spoke her mind and who did not quietly submit to the advice or guidance of the men in her life. In the first two surviving documents, she wanted to know how much money was in her account. The tone is that of a client demanding satisfaction from a financial advisor rather than a meek inquiry from a doting sister. By the third letter, Polly asked, “What the devil is the matter?” These are not the words of a shrinking violet.

Besides references to some survey instruments she had bought for a son-in-law and some material that she wanted for making a dress, Polly’s third letter reveals a great deal of dissatisfaction with her brother’s management of her finances. Of all her letters, this one has the most erratic sentence structure and word choices. One gets the feeling that Polly is so angry that she can’t adequately put her feelings into words.

Polly’s fourth letter makes reference to three or four other family members, indicating that she was in regular correspondence with relatives in New Brunswick and England as well as with those back in Connecticut. This demonstrates that literate loyalists depended on letters to stay in touch with “civilization”. Both British and American ships that visited the port of Saint John carried mail to loyalists hungry for news from their scattered families.

William Jarvis, Polly’s youngest brother who had sought refuge in England following the revolution, became the first provincial secretary for the new colony of Upper Canada. Her last surviving letter of 1791 shows that Polly was expecting William to put the “things I sent for” on a ship sailing for New Brunswick. She was not aware of his imminent departure for Upper Canada; instead she had heard a rumour that he would be visiting their relatives in Stamford, Connecticut.

“An Epitaph in Ink” concludes in next week’s Loyalist Trails.

To secure permission to reprint this article, email Stephen Davidson.

Editor’s Note

With great appreciation for all I have learned about the Loyalists and the times in which they lived from his articles, I thank Stephen for that first article of ten years ago and the many succeeding ones.

Since Sept. 11, we have had internet access only one evening and that did not provide the time required to put together even a simple issue of Loyalist Trails – here it is, but decidedly late.

With luck, you will receive another issue before the end of the weekend; without luck, it will be later in the week.