Saint John, New Brunswick

This large mural depicting the Loyalists was painted, circa 1983, by Rod McKay and hangs in the Saint John Trade and Convention Centre.

A Calamitous Situation
The Life of Polly Jarvis Dibblee

By Stephen Davidson

Courtesy N.B. Archives Polly Dibblee & her family had a considerably tougher time than this representation of a loyalist landing.    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 rich detail.
   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.
   At 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 king.
   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 truce.
   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 rebel raids.
   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 Ebenezer.
   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.