How to Research Loyalist Ancestors

Loyalists, Royalists, and Tories in the Family Tree

Soldiers wearing red coats and black hats holding guns to their shoulders
Was your ancestor "loyal" to the British cause during the American Revolution? Learn how to research Loyalist ancestors. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Loyalists, sometimes referred to as Tories, Royalists, or King's Men, were American colonists who remained loyal to the British Crown during the years leading up to and including the American Revolution (1775–1783). Historians estimate that as many as 500,000 people—fifteen to twenty percent of the population of the Colonies—opposed the revolution. Some of them were active in their opposition, actively speaking out against the rebels, serving with British units during the war, or supporting the King and his forces as couriers, spies, guides, suppliers, and guards. Others were more passive in their choice of position. Loyalists were present in large numbers in New York, a refuge for persecuted Loyalists from September 1776 until its evacuation in 1783. There were also large groups in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and in the southern colonies of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.1 Elsewhere they were a minority of the population but least numerous in Massachusetts & Virginia.

Life as a Loyalist

Because of their beliefs, Loyalists in the Thirteen Colonies were often treated as traitors. Active Loyalists may have been coerced into silence, stripped of their property, or even banished from the Colonies. In areas under Patriot control, Loyalists could not sell land, vote, or work in occupations such as medicine, law, or education. The outright hostility against the Loyalists both during and following the war ultimately resulted in the flight of about 70,000 Loyalists to British territories outside the colonies. Of these, approximately 46,000 went to Canada and Nova Scotia; 17,000 (primarily Southern Loyalists and the people they enslaved) to the Bahamas and West Indies; and 7,000 to Britain. Among the Loyalists numbered not only colonists of British heritage, but also Scots, Germans, and Dutch, plus individuals of Iroquois ancestry and formerly enslaved Black Americans.

Begin with a Literature Survey

If you have successfully traced your ancestry back to an individual living in America during the American Revolution, and clues seem to point to them being a possible Loyalist, then a survey of existing published source materials on Loyalists is a good place to begin. Many of these can actually be researched online through free sources that publish digitized versions of historical books and journals. Use search terms such as "loyalists" or "royalists" and your area (state or country of interest) to explore available resources online in Google and in each of the historical books collections listed in 5 Free Sources for Historical Books Online. Examples of what you can find online include:

  • Siebert, Wilbur H. "The Loyalists of Pennsylvania." The Ohio State University Bulletin, 24 (April 1920). Digitized copy. : 2013.
  • Lambert, Robert Stansbury. South Carolina Loyalists in the American Revolution, second edition. Digital book. Clemson: Clemson University Digital Press, 2010. : 2013.

When searching specifically for historical publications, try various combinations of search terms such as "United Empire Loyalists" or "loyalists pennsylvania" or "south carolina royalists." Terms such as "Revolutionary War" or "American Revolution" can turn up useful books as well.

Periodicals are another excellent source of information on Loyalists. To find articles on this topic in historical or genealogical journals, conduct a search in PERSI, an index to over 2.25 million genealogy and local history articles appearing in publications of thousands of local, state, national and international societies and organizations. If you have access to a university or other large library, the JSTOR database is another good source for historical journal articles.

Search for Your Ancestor in Loyalist Lists

During and after the Revolution, various lists of known Loyalists were created which may name your ancestor. The United Empire Association of Canada has probably the largest list of known or suspected Loyalists. Called the Directory of Loyalists, the list includes about 7,000 names compiled from a variety of sources. Those marked as "proven," are proven United Empire Loyalists; the rest are either unproven names found identified in at least one resource or those who have been proven NOT to be Loyalists. Most of the lists published during the war as proclamations, in newspapers, etc. have been located and published. Look for these online, in U.S. state archives, in Canadian provincial archives, and in archives and other repositories in other areas where Loyalists settled, such as Jamaica.


1. Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp 549–50.