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

    Sometime in this period Polly's husband brought an escaped slave, Tom Hyde, into his employ. The African had broken free from his master in Fairfield in 1778 and then served with the British forces before being employed by the Dibblees. (How the twenty-seven year old African escaped from his master in Fairfield and met the lawyer is not recorded.) With the arrival of Fyler and Tom, there came word that the family's property in Stamford had been confiscated.
   When Fyler had recovered from his long imprisonment, he drew on his legal skills to petition the British government for restitution and relocation. Within two years, Fyler was repaid for his losses and made a deputy agent in transporting loyalists from New York to Nova Scotia.
   Polly and the children were going to be leaving everything and everyone they knew, but they could look forward to a fresh start in a new land far from rebel raiders. Sometime before the family packed up to leave Long Island, Fyler acquired an indentured servant for Polly. Little is known of the mulatto child, Sukey, except that she was freeborn and just nine years old. The Dibblees were the only passengers to have servants on the ship that took them to Nova Scotia.
   In early April the transport ship Union sailed into Huntington Bay to take on its refugee passengers for Nova Scotia. Fyler Dibblee compiled the manifest of all who went aboard. By Wednesday, April 16th the sails were hoisted, and the ship headed southwest towards New York City. Here, in the former Loyalist stronghold, the Union's passengers made their final preparations to leave the land of their birth.
    While the Union was in port, British commissioners came aboard to certify that the Dibblees' African servants were not actually the rightful property of American citizens. Their names were duly recorded in The Book of Negroes compiled under the authority of Commander Guy Carleton.
   (There is an interesting historical footnote here. Because Tom Hyde and Sukey were on the Union, they became the very first Black Loyalists to arrive in present-day New Brunswick. Three thousand other Africans who had been loyal to King George would follow them over the course of the refugee evacuations of 1783.)
   On Thursday, April 24, 1783, with 101 adults and 108 children on her passenger manifest, the Union sailed out of New York harbour as the flag ship for a fleet of nineteen vessels. Their seven thousand loyalist passengers arrived at the mouth of the St. John River after a journey of two weeks.
   On May 11th, the Union was guided into the harbour of Parrtown, a settlement that would one day be known as Saint John. The rest of the refugee convoy joined the Dibblees and their fellow passengers in the days that followed.
   With his duties as deputy travel agent for the Union's passengers now fulfilled, Fyler Dibblee prepared to settle his family in Parrtown. At first the swelling settlement offered the Connecticut lawyer many opportunities to use his legal training. He was appointed a magistrate and served as an agent in the settling of the loyalist refugees. No doubt Polly was beginning to feel optimistic about life in their new community.
   Fyler became the loyalists' representative on a committee that investigated who was illegally settled on crown lands. Settling land disputes was a welcome return to normality for the Connecticut lawyer after the years of violence and imprisonment he suffered during the Revolution. By October Fyler wrote his father that his family was settled "to their unspeakable satisfaction".
   Amazingly, 1,500 homes would be built around the mouth of the St. John River by the loyalist refugees between June and October of 1783. It is hard to imagine what it was like for Polly and her two servants to run the household and feed six mouths in such wilderness conditions. Perhaps the older children, Walter, William, and Peggy were able to find ways to earn a living in the new settlement. Perhaps a proud father forbade them to do menial work. The records are silent.
   The first winter in Parrtown was overwhelming for Fyler Dibblee. The calls for his services had diminished over time. During the early months of 1784, Fyler borrowed a great deal of money from a fellow Union passenger as well as Polly's brother, Munson Jarvis, who had also settled in Parrtown.
   The gloom of that first winter in the northern wilderness of Nova Scotia must have lightened for at least a few days in early April. Fyler and Polly were the parents of a bridegroom. Walter, their first born son, became the husband of Hannah Beardsley. She was the oldest daughter of the Rev. John Beardsley, an Anglican pastor from Poughkeepsie, New York. No doubt both Fyler and Polly were pleased to be connected to such a prestigious clergyman's family.
    However, April's brief excitement faded quickly for the Dibblees. Living in a crowded home and being forced to subsist on a diet of potatoes were physical discomforts. Depression over Fyler's property losses in Connecticut and the limited chances for success in his new country were psychological strains. Fyler even feared that he might be put in prison due to his rising debts.
   Eventually, it was all too much for Polly's forty-three year old husband. On the evening of Thursday, May 6th as his family sat down for their meal, Fyler was clearly agitated. He paced back and forth in their small log cabin. Suddenly, he took out his razor, drew the curtains around his bed, lay down, and cut his throat. The Dibblees' winter of despair did to Fyler what rebel attacks, incarceration, and the loss of property over seven years had been unable to do -- utterly crush his will to live.
   It was indeed a calamitous situation for Polly. Although she had two brothers in the new colony, the new widow must have realized that they could not give her very much assistance. The burden of supporting five children was ultimately Polly's to bear. If they had not already been let go earlier in the winter, the Polly's African servants must have been dismissed by the end of May, given the family's economic plight.
   Polly could not even consider selling their house and land. One of Fyler's creditors claimed the Dibblees' property to cover what the lawyer owed him. But the ultimate ownership of her house was taken out of Polly's hands. A fire swept through Parrtown in June, burning the Dibblee home to the ground.
   The loss of her father and the family's economic predicament must have been especially stressful for seventeen year old Peggy Dibblee. They had the potential to thwart her future marriage to John Bedell, formerly of Staten Island. Would Peggy, now the daughter of a suicide victim and a penniless widow, be a desirable a match for an ambitious young man? However, the circumstances surrounding the death of his fiancee?s father did not deter John Bedell. He married Peggy later in 1784.
    In July of 1784 Polly Dibblee was given a grant of land that included Palmer Point up on the St. John River near Amesbury (later to be known as Kingston). The widow and her children settled there, building themselves a log cabin and taking on a native girl as a servant. Polly would eventually rent Hay Island, a portion of her grant, to Walter Challoner, formerly of Rhode Island.
   As a community made up of refugees from Connecticut and passengers from the Union, Amesbury would be as close to a replacement for Polly's hometown of Stamford as she could find. Her younger brother, John Jarvis, and his wife Sally had already settled in the community, so there was the promise of nearby family support as well.
   Polly's brother-in-law, Frederick Dibblee, had also moved to Amesbury with his family. Besides working his own land, he served as the lay reader for the settlement's small Anglican congregation. All that he had endured as a loyalist would give Frederick a great deal of empathy for others. He had not only lost his brother Fyler to a depression-induced suicide; his sister in Stamford had gone insane from the intense fear of so many violent attacks on her father's home.

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