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The Life of Polly Jarvis
Noel Chenier photo Detail of
The Loyalist Landing, painted by A. Sherriff Scott circa 1933.
By Stephen Davidson
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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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