Friday, April 12, 2024

The United Empire Loyalists statue in Ontario, Canada. (Photo: Rick Cordeiro)

Loyalists have often been described as selfist, elitist and cowardly. But they were a more diverse group who opposed revolting against England for a variety of economic, religious, emotional and political reasons, and defining a Loyalist woman is complicated. Many were deemed “Loyalists” because their male family members were considered loyal; some women were more active and showed their support through activities such as letter-writing, buying British goods, delivering intelligence and resisting patriots. During the Revolution, Loyalists – including women –  made up roughly 20 percent to 30 percent of the American Colonial population.

Cambridge was home to many early events in the American Revolution. In September 1774, the Powder Alarm took place and most Cambridge Loyalists relocated to Boston. Cambridge became the headquarters for George Washington, the Continental Army and the patriot Massachusetts government in 1775. The Siege of Boston lasted until March 17, 1776, when the British and Loyalists evacuated Boston. In September 1778, Massachusetts banished many Loyalists and later passed additional acts for confiscation of property. All of these events would affect the lives of Loyalist women. Some would never return to Cambridge.

The aim of the Loyalist Women of Cambridge tour is to shed light on who these women were. In addition to highlighting the stories of individual women, we hope to show how many were tied to the greater British Atlantic world (particularly the Caribbean), slavery, the Anglican church and large familial networks.

The Loyalist women we will discuss on the tour are all white, and many of their families owned plantations in the Caribbean and profited from enslaved labor there and in Massachusetts. There were also African and African American Loyalists, though, as in 1775 the British Lord Dunmore issued a proclamation promising freedom to enslaved people if they supported the British, a promise later extended by the 1779 Philipsburg Proclamation. As a result, thousands of Black people of all ages and genders fled to the British side to escape enslavement (though the British also allowed white Loyalists to continue owning enslaved workers). The Book of Negroes contains the names of more than 3,000 Black Loyalists who escaped to British lines and received their freedom and transportation out of New York in 1783. There are 19 people from Boston listed, six of whom were women. None were specifically from Cambridge, so this tour does not explore the lives of any Black female Loyalists. It does seek to highlight the white Loyalist women’s ties to the institution of slavery – which most, if not all, Cambridge Loyalists benefited from. Many owned slaves in Massachusetts or the Caribbean; others engaged in the slave trade. The names of some Loyalists’ enslaved men and women are known, such as Cuba Vassall or Pompey, while others are lost. Their stories matter and deserve to be told as well.

Cambridge Loyalist women were deeply involved in dealing with the consequences of politics and war. They worked to gain financial support, save their homes and maintain their families. Some, including Katherine Brattle Wendell and Elizabeth Murray Campbell Smith Inman, complied with the patriots to save their property. Many were forced to leave their homes and flee with children and few belongings, such as Mary Browne Serjeant. Some left Massachusetts and traveled to the Caribbean, Canada and England; others never left Cambridge, or later returned. These women experienced disruption and loss, but were able to overcome challenges thanks to their familial networks and ties to the larger British Atlantic world.

Hopefully, this tour has highlighted underrepresented voices of Loyalist women, and a few of their enslaved workers. The American Revolution has many nuances and a full understanding requires the inclusion of perspectives from the patriots, Loyalists and neutrals and from multiple genders, classes and races. This tour is intended to be a starting point for discussions about the Revolution and of Cambridge from varying perspectives.

To see all 10 stops on the Loyalist Women of Cambridge self-guided tour, visit the Cambridge Historical Society website. Funding for this project was made possible through the generosity of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati.


About the Cambridge Historical Society

We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We strive to be the most relevant and responsive historical voice in Cambridge. We do that by recognizing that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We support people in sharing history with each other – and weaving their knowledge together – by offering them the floor, the mic, the platform. We shed light where historical perspectives are needed. We listen to our community. We live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone.

Our theme for 2021 is “How Does Cambridge Mend?” Make history with us at

MaryKate Smolenski is an intern at the Cambridge Historical Society.