“Loyal They Remained” — The Etter Family Saga

In recent weeks CFB Gagetown has become a temporary home for hundreds of Kosovars escaping from the war-torn Balkans. Over the years, Hungarians fleeing Communist oppression, displaced Vietnamese Boat People, and victims of religious and political conflict in Latin America have all found sanctuary in this province. But by far the largest number of displaced people seeking refuge here, came in the late 18th century, as a result of the American Revolution.

Unlike the Yorkshire emigrants, profiled in the last two Tantrama Flashbacks, the Loyalists, as they became known, were literally forced to leave home and country. Because of their unwillingness to support independence for the colonies, they were subjected to intimidation, and in some cases torture. Many had their properties confiscated and homes burned. The prevailing mood toward the Loyalists was conveyed in a contemporary cartoon which depicted them as persons with their heads in England, their feet in America and whose necks ought to be stretched.

Because of a close proximity to Boston and New York, Saint John and the St. John River valley became a natural haven for many Loyalists. In settling here in numbers, they were directly responsible for the creation, in 1784, of a separate province, New Brunswick. A small number of Loyalists found homes on the Tantramar. Among them was the Etter family who came by way of Halifax.

On Aug. 1, 1999 an Etter Reunion was held at Fort Beausjour and St. Mark’s Church Hall in Mount Whatley. The Etter connection with this area may be traced as far back as 1776 when Peter Etter II (1751–93) served in the Royal Fencible American Regiment during the quelling of the Eddy Rebellion.

Loyalist Peter Etter left the army about 1781 and for the next six years was a silversmith and watchmaker in Halifax. During this period he married Letitia Patton (1758–92), a native of Westmorland Parish, and together with their young son Peter Etter III (1787–1873), the family moved to open a similar business in the shadow of Fort Cumberland. Peter Etter’s Halifax store was taken over by his younger brother, Benjamin (1763–1827), who went on to achieve considerable fame as a silversmith.

Those acquainted with local geography will know that a section of land east of Fort Beausjour is known as Etter Ridge. Several members of the Etter family settled there, giving rise to the name. As recently as the early 20th century there were at least six farms along the Etter Ridge Road occupied by descendants of Peter Etter II. A stone house, built by Peter Etter III in 1832, is clearly visible from the Trans-Canada Highway. It was opened to members of the family during the course of their 1999 reunion by its present owner, Nancy Baughan.

Back to the Loyalist credentials of Peter Etter II. His father, Peter Etter I (1715–1794) a native of Switzerland, had settled along with other members of the family, first in Pennsylvania and later in Massachusetts. One of their earliest acts, upon arrival in America, was to take an oath of allegiance to the crown, thus qualifying them for British citizenship.

The senior Peter Etter was a stocking weaver by trade and eventually established a successful business in Braintree, Massachusetts. In January 1775, because of his unwillingness to support the revolutionary cause, the family was forced to flee to Boston. The following March the British evacuated the city and the Etters sailed for Halifax, arriving on March 17, 1776.

Some idea of the financial losses incurred by Loyalist families can be found in submissions presented to a commission established by the British government to deal with this problem. The question to be decided was complex. Were the losses the result of war, which affected both sides equally; or were they directly related to the fact that an individual had chosen to assert his or her loyalty to the crown?

When the Commission held hearings in Halifax presentations were made jointly by Peter Etter I and II. The senior Etter forcefully argued that When the troubles broke out he took the King’s part and advised his neighbors to do the same. Thereupon he and his family were forced to flee for their lives. His factory and all assets were confiscated by one of his journeymen a supporter of the revolutionary cause. Overall, he estimated his losses to be just over 1,000 sterling.

Peter Etter II testified that he was personally mobbed and was obliged to go to Boston on account of his loyalty. He also explained that just prior to their leaving Boston at the time of evacuation, when things were in disorder the family had four trunks stolen from the wharf. These containing their clothing, linen and various articles worth 100. Thus the Etter family arrived in Halifax with the clothes on their backs and little else.

Because of the hundreds of such financial claims, the British government was unable to cover all losses sustained by the Loyalists. In the end, the Etter family had to be satisfied with a settlement of 75. sterling. In fairness it must be pointed out that the Loyalists received other forms of aid. They were supplied with full rations for the first year, two-thirds for the second and one-third for the following year. In the case of the Etter family lands in Westmorland Parish and elsewhere were allocated to them.

Looking back, difficult though their financial plight might have been, the psychological wounds were even greater. The revolution divided, as no other event, families, friends and associates. While many Loyalists eventually made peace with those they left behind, the scars were slow to heal. To their credit, most Loyalists did not wallow in self pity, but rather looked to the future, determined to etch out new lives under the British flag. They were true survivors and destiny was to give them a key role in the growth and development of the remaining British North American colonies.

A final postscript on the Etter family. Peter Etter senior remained in Halifax for the rest of his life. For several years he was employed as a messenger in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly. His son Benjamin, was soon well established in business in Halifax. Another son, Franklin, received a grant of land in the Chester area. He settled there following the Revolution, establishing a separate branch of the Etter dynasty. Meanwhile, Peter Etter II, his wife and family remained in Westmorland Parish. Unfortunately, on December 26, 1793 while returning from a trip to Boston, his ship sank off Brier Island in the Bay of Fundy. All on board were lost.

Special thanks are extended to Marion Wells for her assistance with this Flashback. Acknowledgement is also made to David Etter of Bedford, NS. His comprehensive genealogy of the Etter family is a model for all family historians.