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The Life of Polly Jarvis
By Stephen Davidson
Polly Jarvis Dibble was a United Empire Loyalist who came to present-day Saint
John in May of 1783. Born and raised in Stamford, Connecticut, she experienced
first hand the persecutions, hopes, and disappointments of New Brunswick's
original refugee settlers. What makes her story unique is that even at a
distance of two centuries we can still hear her voice.
Just four years after her arrival in the new colony, Polly penned a letter to
her brother William Jarvis who had fled to Pimlico, England. It is a letter
full of frustration and despair.
"O gracious God, that I
should live to see such times under the protection of a British Government for
whose sake we have done and suffered everything but that of dying --- May you
never experience such heart piercing troubles as I have and still labor under
-- you may depend on it that the sufferings of the poor Loyalists are beyond
all possible description....
....I dare not let my
friends at Stamford know of my calamitous situation lest it should bring down
the grey hairs of my mother to the grave; and besides they could not relieve me
without distressing themselves should I apply - - as they have been ruined by
the rebels during the war -- therefore I have no other ground to hope, but, on
your goodness and bounty --"
This is the story of Polly
Jarvis Dibblee; a "calamitous situation" that many women of her generation
shared. Few, however, have their stories brought to the light of day in such
Polly was born to Samuel and Martha Jarvis
in Stamford, Connecticut on February 21, 1747. Located near Long Island Sound,
Polly's hometown was noted for agriculture, fishing, and trade by sea. It was
near the colony's eastern border with New York, and was just two hours north of
Long Island by sea. Although her baptismal record gave her name as Mary, the
Jarvis' daughter would always be known as Polly.
sixteen years of age Polly married Fyler Dibblee, a twenty-two year old lawyer
and son of the local Anglican vicar. The couple had grown up together; Polly's
father was the church's warden. Rev. Dibblee solemnized the couple's marriage
vows, and later christened the first five of his grandchildren.
Polly gave birth to Walter Dibblee just two weeks before
turning seventeen. Over the next ten years Polly and Fyler would have William,
Peggy, Ralph, and Sally. As the daughter of the town clerk, the wife of an
up-and-coming lawyer, and the mother of a healthy brood of children, Polly must
have felt that her situation in life was the envy of all her friends. Her
husband was a university graduate, the captain of the town's militia company
and had served as Stamford's representative to the colony's general assembly.
The couple's home was valued at over £500 and had its own library.
Life could easily have been a happy whirl of socials,
parish activities, and parenting responsibilities for Polly had it not been for
the growing desire of her fellow colonists to break free from what they saw as
the increasingly tyrannical grasp of the British government. Day by day,
neighbour was turning against neighbour, finding themselves allied with either
the loyalist or the patriot cause. Polly and Fyler were loyal to King George
III. Both of them, however, had siblings that favoured a revolution against the
In 1775, the year in which Polly turned 28, Fyler
was suspected of helping a British officer to commandeer a number of gunpowder
barrels that were stored in a Stamford home. On September 26, Polly's husband
published a "confession and recantation of toryism" in the local newspapers.
This must have been an effort to stall for time on Fyler's part, hoping against
hope that his neighbours would abandon the thought of a revolution.
The tide of war, however, was not about to reverse. On
July 4, 1776 the Congressional Congress made its Declaration of Independence.
British retaliation was quick. The king's troops took control of New York City
in August, and by the end of September they also occupied all of Long Island.
Suddenly, Stamford, Connecticut was on the frontier that separated patriot and
British forces. It was no longer a safe place for a loyalist lawyer and his
family to live.
In December of 1776 Fyler had to flee to
Long Island to escape a violent mob of rebels. At twenty-nine years of age
Polly and her five children were evicted from their fine home and had to seek
sanctuary with her father-in-law for the rest of the winter. Polly and the
children joined Fyler on Long Island in the spring of 1777. However, marauding
rebels attacked them, stealing all of their effects. Hats were snatched from
the children's heads, shoes from their feet. Almost naked, the Dibblees found
themselves being sent to New York City under a flag of
The Dibblees eventually returned to Long Island,
settling among other loyalists at Oyster Bay. Polly must have felt that their
five children, ranging from thirteen to three years of age, were now finally at
a safe distance from any further rebel attacks. Oyster Bay was, after all, near
the largest of all of Long Island's British garrisons, Fort Franklin. Given the
dependence of New York City on wood as a fuel supply and a large refugee labour
force just outside its walls, Fort Franklin became an important supplier of
timber for the British forces. It was, therefore, an irresistible target for
On April 26, 1778 Polly watched in horror as
whale boat raiders invaded their home and dragged Fyler away. The patriots
captured Fyler and sixteen loyalist woodcutters in a galley accompanied by four
whale boats and fifty men. Fyler was taken to the interior of Connecticut, far
from potential rescue by other loyalists. Six months later Polly's husband was
set free in a prisoner exchange. Fyler moved the family from Oyster Bay to West
Hills, a seemingly safer location.
However, in 1779 the
Dibblees were sought out and attacked by another group of raiders. The children
were threatened with being "put to the bayonet" if they made any noise. Did the
vandals stop to notice that Polly was pregnant with her sixth child? Left to
perish in the cold with hardly any clothing, the Dibblees once again moved,
this time to Hempstead South. On November 26, 1779 Polly gave birth to
Caring for six children would have been
challenging at the best of times, but the daily fear of raids must have been
completely debilitating. Before 1780 was over, the Dibblees' home was yet again
looted of clothing and furniture in a night raid. Added to all of this
adversity was the news that Polly's father, Samuel Jarvis, had died as a
refugee in New York City, just months before his sixtieth birthday.
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