Did My Jamaican Kin Descend From British Loyalists in America?

Tracing Your Roots: How to track down ancestors who fled to Jamaica after the Revolutionary War.

 
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British and American troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolutionary War.

Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

“My father told me that his maternal grandmother’s side of the family descended from a British Loyalist family who owned a plantation in Virginia. When the American Revolution started, this family relocated (and took all their slaves with them) to Jamaica, another British colony at that time. Is there any way that I can verify this? Please advise on where I should begin. My grandmother’s maiden name was Jones.” —Candace

Loyalists in Jamaica

At the end of the Revolutionary War, those who remained loyal to the British Crown departed America either to return to Britain or to settle in other colonial territories. Many relocated to Canada, while others left for resettlement in other British colonies in the West Indies, including Jamaica. As noted in the Amazing Facts About the Negro column “George Washington’s Runaway Slave, Harry,” historians estimate that about 15,000 former slaves left the United States with the evacuating British. It is also estimated that up to 10,000 Southern Loyalists and their slaves left for Jamaica, where there were already numerous sugar plantations.

To accommodate these refugees, the Assembly of Jamaica passed several acts that made it easier for these loyalists to settle, with incentives for them to start their own plantations on the island. In addition to white Loyalists, some free African Americans who were loyal to the British during the Revolutionary War were also granted passage to Jamaica and the Bahamas.

One of the largest groups, arriving in Jamaica in early 1783, was a result of the evacuation of the British from Charleston, S.C. The majority of the Loyalists who relocated to Jamaica were from Georgia and North and South Carolina, but they also came from other Southern colonies, including Virginia.  

According to the historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton, some of the black Loyalists were responsible for the spread of the Baptist religion in Jamaica. The most famous black Loyalist was George Liele, who was also the first African American to be ordained and—with his arrival in Jamaica in 1783—the first Baptist missionary from America to go to any other land. He was born a slave in Virginia and freed by his master before the Revolutionary War.

In light of these facts, your family’s story may be true. However, given the passage of time and the gaps in records, finding documentation to support this claim may be challenging. Fortunately, there are a few different ways in which you can begin your search to find evidence of Loyalists ancestors from Jamaica in your family tree.

Working Backward

First, you will want to begin by tracing your great-grandmother’s family back as far as possible. You mentioned that your grandmother’s maiden name was Jones, so starting from there, you will next want to determine your great-grandmother’s surname to find the family name that owned the plantation in Virginia.

To accomplish this, you can use census, birth, marriage and death records to connect each generation. If you hit any brick walls, you may also want to talk to other relatives and extended family members in the same line to see if they have any additional information, oral traditions or family artifacts that might give you an indication of where the family’s plantation was in Virginia. You will also want to search for any evidence that your family came back to America from Jamaica by searching passenger lists or census records that show your ancestors’ birthplace as Jamaica. 

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