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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

Noel Chenier photo Detail of The Loyalist Landing, painted by A. Sherriff Scott circa 1933.

By Stephen Davidson

Detail of The Loyalist Landing, painted by A. Sherriff Scott circa 1933.    It must have been difficult for Polly Dibblee to live among those she knew from her days on Long Island. The prominent lawyer's wife who once had a fine home and servants was now the destitute widow of a suicide victim and the sole guardian of four children. But more than anyone in the new colony, her Amesbury neighbours would have understood the circumstances that drove Fyler to his desperate end. They were all too familiar with the stresses and strains that the revolution could put on husbands, wives, and children.
   Whether deliberately or accidentally, Polly's servant girl set the Dibblees' log cabin on fire, burning it to ashes. A second log cabin was built, but by now the family had no furnishings. When her brother visited Polly, he was shocked to find her in a "miserable habitation". The fire, which was in the centre of the room, had no chimney and the cabin had only a dirt floor.
    Polly received no help whatsoever from Great Britain. Her brother Munson Jarvis, who lived in Saint John, had received £250 from the British government as compen-sation for the losses he suffered in the American Revolution. However, Polly Dibblee, who had lost both home and husband, got nothing.
   Having had every one of the family's deeds and papers destroyed in the many fires they had survived since coming to New Brunswick, Polly had nothing but the testimonies of her children to verify her claims of loss. All of the loyalist widow's frustration and grief finally burst out in the letter she wrote to her brother, William on November 17, 1787.
   Somehow throughout the upheaval of the revolution, Polly managed to stay in touch with this brother who was nine years her junior and living in England. Earlier that year William had sent Polly a trunk from Pimlico filled with old clothes, brushes and other items. He had heard from Munson that his sister was "in low circumstances".
   Polly's letter to William reveals the despair of a woman who felt her life was one horrid "calamitous situation".

   "Since I wrote you, I have been ... left Destitute of Food and Raiment; and in this dreary Country I know not where to find Relief -- for Poverty has expelled Friendship and Charity from the human Heart, and planted in its stead the Law of self-preservation -- which scarcely can preserve alive the rustic Hero in this frozen Climate and barren Wilderness --You say "that you have received accounts of the great sufferings of the Loyalists for want of Provisions, and I hope that you and your Children have not had the fate to live on Potatoes alone" - I assure you, my dear Billy, that many have been the Days since my arrival in this inhospitable Country, that I should have thought myself and Family truly happy could we have "had Potatoes alone" -- but this might Boon was denied us! I could have borne these Burdens of Loyalist with Fortitude had not my poor Children in doleful accents cried, Mama, why don't you help me and give me Bread?"

   While 1787 was the year of Polly's despair, 1788 signalled a time of new beginnings for the entire extended family. Polly's sons, William and Ralph followed their Uncle Frederick Dibblee to the new settlement of Woodstock which was further up the St. John River. They were joined by John and Peggy Dibblee Bedell.
   Polly's life in (recently renamed) Kingston had been one of indebtedness and poverty despite the best efforts of her brothers. By September 1788, Polly came to a decision. She would return to Connecticut to live with her family in Stamford. Ever since her arrival in New Brunswick, Polly's aching homesickness for her aged mother, her siblings, and her childhood friends had never left her. Polly was about to gather up Sally and Ebenzer to sail for home, when she received word from her brother William in England that urged her to stay in New Brunswick.
    Her younger brother feared that a trip back to the United States would injure any hope Polly might have for receiving compensation from the British government for the losses suffered as a result of her loyalty to the crown. Apparently there were stories abroad in England that a number of loyalists were returning to their homes once they received their compensation settlements from the crown.
    In February a letter from William made Polly's decision for her -- and would determine her home for the remainder of her life. Her brother's appeals to the British government on her behalf had been successful. Polly was to receive three hundred fifty pounds as compensation for all that she had lost during the revolution.
   With brother Munson's assistance, Polly used her newly acquired pounds to pay off her late husband's debts, lend her children money, and buy necessities "wanted for current use". With the balance of £186 and the income from her St. John River lands, Munson felt that Polly would "make a tolerable life of it." But would that life be lived in Connecticut or New Brunswick?
    In the spring of 1789 Polly Dibblee and her two teenaged children sailed out of Saint John harbour on a ship bound for Stamford, Connecticut. Fyler's widow had not seen her hometown's familiar streets and houses in over a dozen years. It was the first time Ebenezer would have ever met his Grandmother Jarvis, Dibblee grandparents, aunts, and uncles. They had last laid eyes on Sally Dibblee when she was only two years old. After this visit, however, Polly would never again set foot in the United States of America.
   Perhaps the reality of American animosity to loyalists ultimately made Polly see the futility of her dream to stay in Connecticut. Perhaps she felt obligated to stay on British soil in response to the compensation William had secured for her. Perhaps the fact that her children and grandchildren were in New Brunswick was more than her maternal instincts could ignore. Whatever the reasons, Polly Dibblee did not remain in her beloved Stamford.
   Within two years of her return to New Brunswick Polly packed up her family's few possessions and sailed up the St. John River with Sally and Ebenezer to live in Woodstock with her son, William. For the second time in her life, Polly faced the decision of where to live in North America, and for the second time she decided to stay with the king's loyal subjects.
   The move to Woodstock in 1791 was a profound turning point for Polly. She had finally put behind her any possibility of going back to the life she had known in Connecticut. At forty-four, Fyler Dibblee's widow determined to make the best of what life had given her. She became the mistress of her son William's home, and for the next thirty years she busied herself preparing their meals, tending their garden, and running their household.
   By the 1820s the people of Woodstock regarded Polly Dibblee as a "well preserved old lady" who liked to sit and knit. Clearly, the last half of her life was much more peaceful than the first half had been. With a spirit stronger than that of her late husband's, and in the company of family and friends, Polly was able to know happiness in her final years.
   The last recorded memory of Polly Dibblee was put to paper by one of her great-grandsons. The frail widow took a moment to show five year old Charles Raymond how to roast an apple over an open fire. Drawing on memories of her own childhood in the 1750s, Polly suspended an apple from a string and twirled it over the flames so that it would bake equally on all sides. Her great-grandson grew up to become the father of Reverend W.O. Raymond, New Brunswick's earliest historian of the loyalist period.
   In the early days of May, 1826, Polly died at the age of eighty. A most amazing life had come to an end.
    Polly had been witness to one of the greatest upheavals in North American history, surviving rebel attacks, separation from family, the loss of a husband, and the neglect of the British Empire. A "calamitous situation"? Yes, but it was a life that forced Polly Jarvis Dibblee to dig deep into reservoirs of faith and perseverance, securing for herself the courage to see life through to its end.

-Author: A contributor to The Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Stephen Davidson has been an elementary school teacher for over 25 years. He has just finished writing a book that contains the stories of over one hundred loyalists, including that of Polly Dibblee. The Burdens of Loyalty: Refugee Tales from the First American Civil War is available as an e-book from Trinity Enterprises, Ltd. of Saint John, New Brunswick. His manuscript for a young adult novel about the Dibblees' servant, Sukey, is being considered for publication.

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