“Loyalist Trails” 2016-39: September 25, 2016
© Stephen Davidson, UE
Polly Jarvis grew up in a middle class home in Stamford, Connecticut, where she had the opportunity to learn how to read and write. She married a man of letters, Fyler Dibblee, who eventually accumulated a library valued at over £500. In addition to having a lawyer as a husband, Polly had the local Anglican minister as her father-in-law. Given her literacy-rich environment, it is little wonder that this loyalist woman valued writing and receiving letters. For over forty years, Polly kept in touch with both her loyalist and patriot relatives long after the American Revolution had compelled her to become a political refugee.
While her 1787 letter to her brother William Jarvis is her most often quoted epistle, Polly also composed thirteen letters that are now in the collection of the archives of the New Brunswick Museum. Ranging from 1791 to 1810, these letters provide insight into the day-to-day life of a loyalist widow who lived in deep in the New Brunswick “wilderness” and demonstrate how she maintained contact with relatives in larger urban areas.
After a five-year gap in the record of Polly’s correspondence, we find her asking her brother for a hogshead of lime in 1796 so that her sons could repair a chimney. Alas, there are no insights into her life in Woodstock, no news of her children, and no descriptions of her home or neighbours.
Two years later, she asked Munson for hinges and a lock for a small trunk, and three different types of fabric. This indicates that Woodstock still did not have a dry goods store of its own and that Polly had to continue to order hardware and cloth from Saint John. (What would she think of her descendants ordering online from Amazon?)
In 1799, Polly complained that Munson had not sent her enough calico to complete a gown. Her reference to a neighbour’s “wood boat” that would be a “good opportunity” for sending the needed fabric indicates how loyalists in the “wilderness” stayed connected to the port city on the Bay of Fundy.
The wood boat or “johnny woodboat” was a small sailing craft that served the farmers of the St. John River Valley in the same way that 21st century farmers use pick-up trucks. Loyalist refugees built johnny boats to carry timber to the mouth of the river at Saint John and were an everyday part of the traffic of New Brunswick’s inland waterway. Judging by Polly’s letter, the same boats could bring goods back up the river to the country.
Polly also mentioned sending socks “as soon as I can knit them”. It seems that she supplemented her income by selling handmade socks in Munson’s Saint John store. Socks would appear again in an 1801 letter along with a request for ten yards of cotton. Polly was not one to let her hands remain idle. She asked that the bolts of fabric be left at a local tavern where they would be safe until she could retrieve them. She also mentioned receiving tea delivered by her late husband’s cousin, Walter Bates. The lack of a formal postal system forced the early settlers to rely on the kindness of travelling relatives to secure life’s small pleasures and to use existing businesses as post offices.
Tea was featured in Polly’s letter of 1803. She sent Munson twelve pounds of butter (which she had no doubt churned herself) in exchange for a mere pound of tea. This reveals how costly tea was at the time – and the existence of barter system between country loyalists and city loyalists that had developed over the twenty years since the revolution’s refugees first arrived in New Brunswick.
Written ten days later, another of Polly’s epistles reveals her “ten thousand thanks” to Munson for sending her tea and sugar. Unwell and unable to do much housework, 56 year-old Polly had “nothing left but a grateful heart” for her older brother. It may well be that the tea Polly had ordered (“soushong” and “bokou”) were valued for their medicinal properties.
Polly’s letter of 1808 made reference to her “things that had arrived from the States”. Twenty-five years after being compelled to leave the land of her birth, Polly clearly had no qualms about buying (or receiving gifts of) American goods.
The letter that Polly Dibblee wrote to her brother in January of 1810 is the last surviving example of words written in her own hand. She was 63 years old and still relied on her 68 year-old brother to manage her finances. The final two sentences read, “I have had a bad turn of my old complaint. Am something better.”
The nature of Polly’s “old complaint” is unknown, but she managed to survive the winter of 1810, living for sixteen more years. She died in Woodstock, New Brunswick in May of 1826 at the age of seventy-nine. (Given that both her daughter Sally and her brother in-law Frederick Dibblee died within a few weeks of Polly, one wonders if there may have been some sort of illness sweeping through the loyalist settlement.)
Polly was the second-last of her loyalist siblings to die. Her alcoholic brother John Jarvis died at 93 in 1845 and was the only loyal sibling to have his obituary featured in a New Brunswick newspaper. William Jarvis, the first provincial secretary of Upper Canada died in 1817; Munson, a successful Saint John businessman, died in 1825. However, two sisters and two brothers who had remained in the United States survived Polly. At her death, friends and relatives remembered Polly as having had six children and thirty-six grandchildren. Since both her daughter and brother-in-law were buried in the Woodstock Anglican cemetery, it would seem safe to assume that this is where Polly was laid to rest on May 11, 1826. Her gravestone did not survive into the 20th century.
But while an engraved stone failed to commemorate the life of Polly Dibblee, the frail pages of the letters she wrote over 200 years ago have. Though not as richly detailed as her 1787 letter of despair, these 13 epistles reveal the day-to-day world of a loyalist refugee whose last surviving words were that she was “something better” –a fitting epitaph for a woman who regarded much of her life as a calamitous situation.
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Editing and design work for the Fall 2016 issue of the Loyalist Gazette are well under way.
As a member of a UELAC Branch, or as a subscriber to the Loyalist Gazette (published May 1 and Nov 1), you can try out the full colour edition.
From the UELAC branches, news and events of interest to others.
- Sir Guy Carleton Branch, UELAC will hold their Fall Social on November 19, 2016; 11:30am at the Best Western Ottawa CityCentre, 1274 Carling Ave., Ottawa, ON K1Z 7K8. The speaker will be Jennifer de Bruin, UEwith the Topic : In Search of “Home”: The Loyalist Experience through War, Displacement, and Settlement from the Mohawk Valley to the St. Lawrence River. The price is $30 per person. Cash bar, but dinner is included. Cheque to Bob Adair, 34 Briardale Crescent, Ottawa, ON K2E 1C2. Phone 613-274-3331.
- Wedding Bells in Singapore. Congratulations to Farah Dawood and Andrew Fleming UE of Toronto Branch UELAC on their recent wedding! The following communication came in Wednesday, September 7th from Dubai, UAE — “Just eloped.” Andrew proudly wore the UEL rosette on his lapel for the ceremony. Our best wishes go out to the happy couple who are now travelling in Singapore. We hope to see them back in Canada in the new year.
- PhD Candidate Stephanie Walters Wins Scholarship to Study Loyalists – notice in George Mason University Accolades.
- Early American Manuscripts Project. The New York Public Library is currently digitizing upwards of 50,000 pages of historic early American manuscript material. It will also make widely available less well-known manuscript sources, including business papers of Atlantic merchants, diaries of people ranging from elite New York women to Christian Indian preachers, and organizational records of voluntary associations and philanthropic organizations. Read more and check out the blog posts and the list of Digitized archival collections.
- South Dundas [County – Eastern Ontario] is steeped in history, but do its citizens know where to look to find it? One Morrisburg woman made it her mission in life to document and protect the stories of her neighbours’ families, local churches, schools, newspapers, and more. Her dedication to preserving local history was so strong she offered up her home to the mounds of paperwork, books, official documents, and artifacts that came her way. Her home became the Loyalist Resource Centre, opened five days a week for the benefit of anyone, near or far, interested in learning more about the people who have lived in South Dundas and its neighbouring communities. Lynne Cook had a clear passion for history, devoting her life to finding and capturing it on paper. She died March 16, 2016. Now, the question for many is what happens to the rooms jammed floor to ceiling with local history? While the future home of Cook’s collection remains unknown, Empey was emphatically clear it will remain intact and in Dundas County. Read more