Paul Bunnell's genealogical research has taken him in directions he never expected when he began his exploration almost 30 years ago - from a bucolic farm to a bloody battle led by Benedict Arnold, down to New York and New Jersey, up through Canada, and even, serendipitously, to a psychic fair on Cape Cod.
The Milford genealogist and author remembers his tremendous shock at discovering an ancestor, Benjamin Bonnell, who was loyal to the British crown during the American Revolution and fought on the British side under Benedict Arnold. It was a turning point in Bunnell's research, a journey that became a passion and led him to become a genealogist who helps others, especially those with Loyalist roots, trace their family histories.
"My first reaction was, 'Oh, no, what am I going to tell the family?'" Bunnell says of the moment he discovered his Loyalist roots. "They're going to think we're traitors."
Bunnell, 58, and his family have come to embrace their roots, which are more common in New England than one might think, he says. Bunnell recently founded the Loyalists Quarterly, the only U.S. journal dedicated specifically to Loyalist studies, which bears his motto, "Loyalty is Everything."
"What I learned left me with a different impression than I started with," Bunnell says, sitting before a wall of family portraits dating back to the 19th century. "It was difficult to go against the king. Britain was a huge military power. Loyalists were not necessarily rich, although the establishment was well represented, but there were also so many farmers and merchants."
Bunnell considers the colonists who launched the American Revolution - the patriots, or, as Benedict Arnold called them, the rebels - a brave lot. But he considers the Loyalists equally brave.
"Both ways were very hard," Bunnell says. "There were over 100,000 people on the side of the king. You never learn that in school. There were a lot of Americans that lost."
In more ways than one.
Many Loyalists lost their homes and were forced to flee. Those from the Northeast took refuge primarily in British-controlled New York or sheltered in tents in the Canadian Maritime Provinces. The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783 at the end of the war, assured Loyalists safe return to their homes and the return of their property; however, many states passed measures contradicting it.
"The Banishment Act of the state of Massachusetts prevented the return of Loyalists to the state and stopped them from reclaiming their goods and estates,"Bunnell says.
He participated in a 2004 reenactment of the evacuation of Boston Loyalists at Fort Independence in Boston, during which ships carried Loyalists to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
"There were 10,000 tents in Saint John (New Brunswick)," Bunnell says. "A lot of people starved to death or froze to death. Some snuck back into the country. They came through Vermont and New Hampshire."
Granite State Loyalists
Bill Copeley, librarian at the New Hampshire Historical Society, says New Hampshire tended to be less severe than Massachusetts in many ways, including the treatment of Loyalists. Many people fled Massachusetts and came to New Hampshire, where religious freedom was generally greater.
Bunnell, who himself moved to New Hampshire from Massachusetts in January, has also written of the end of British rule in New Hampshire. Gov. John Wentworth -the second and final royal governor of New Hampshire - and his family were forced to leave the state in 1775 for Canada, where he later served as royal governor of Nova Scotia.
Despite the more lenient treatment in New Hampshire, some Loyalists were imprisoned in Exeter. In a publication called New Hampshire Loyalist: Gov. John Wentworth, Bunnell has gathered a partial list of New Hampshire Loyalists, listed alphabetically from Archibald Achincloss to Benjamin Wood, whose histories he encountered during his research.
The diverse lives and fates of the New Hampshire Loyalists demonstrate the conflicts of the times. Thomas Carnavan, Sgt. John Curry, Neil Murphy and Thomas MacDonough, Gov. Wentworth's secretary, went to New York. Hugh Ruinton of Londonderry settled in New Brunswick. Benjamin Snow, a Dartmouth College graduate, opened a grammar school in Nova Scotia. Woodbury Langdon and Col. Stephen Holland, who escaped from the Exeter jail twice, fled to England. The elderly Peter Gilman, also imprisoned in Exeter, stayed in New Hampshire and was even elected town moderator in 1775.
Yeoman Jeremiah Bowen from Dunbarton was listed, along with 75 others, as an enemy by the New Hampshire General Assembly in November 1778. George Boyd, a member of the Council of New Hampshire, was also on this list of enemies and could be found in exile in Flatbush on Long Island, N.Y., in 1777, Bunnell says. Captain Simon Baxter was "condemned to death by the Whigs but escaped on the day of his execution with the rope around his neck," Bunnell writes. After fighting in the war, Baxter settled in Canada.
Serving Benedict Arnold
Reading these histories, Bunnell felt an immediate kinship with his Loyalist ancestor, Benjamin Bonnell, originally a farmer from New Jersey. (In his research, Bunnell discovered family members who spelled the name as Bunnell and Bonnell.) A muster roll call in August 1781, showed that Benjamin Bonnell enlisted as a corporal to serve in the American Legion under Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, Bunnell writes in Thunder over New England: Benjamin Bonnell, The Loyalist, published by Willow Bend Books in 2003.
Bonnell was present when Arnold sailed up the Thames River in Connecticut, separating the city of New London from the Patriot-held Fort Griswold. While Arnold and several troops attacked and set fire to New London, Bonnell was part of a contingent that took over the crudely-built earthen fort. It was a gruesome battle, which ended when Patriot Col. William Ledyard was stabbed to death with a sword after his surrender to the British forces. Bunnell has visited the site; he picked up a bit of broken brick there.
Not all of Bunnell's research has been confined to documents and death certificates. Bunnell is now a certified ghost hunter and paranormal investigator with the International Ghost Hunters, an aptitude he says he discovered while hiking up Devils Back, the last home of Benjamin Bonnell overlooking the St. John River in Canada. Bonnell had settled there after leaving New York City in the "Great Exodus of 1783," when the British lost that final stronghold.
Bunnell had taken a picture at the Bonnell homestead site, where he felt a particularly strong connection to his ancestors. The photo shows a strange blue light against a grove of trees.
Bunnell brought the picture and the broken brick from Fort Griswold to a psychic who provided him not only with astonishingly accurate information, but also an important lead.
She closed her eyes, drew a map resembling an area of New Jersey and wrote the misspelled town name "Succassunna," giving him details about a building burning down and records being moved. Bunnell says these details helped him discover Benjamin Bonnell's indictment for carrying counterfeit notes, moving his research forward.
'The trail is so challenging'
Bunnell's own background in genealogy was formed by taking courses through Brigham Young University. He was awarded the accreditation and fellowship of the American College of Genealogists of Illinois.
"You are an excellent genealogist if you have a Loyalist in your line," Bunnell says, pointing out the difficulty of tracing the roots of a Loyalist ancestor. "The trail is so challenging. It's not like they settled down, lived their life and died. They started in one place, went to the military, maybe fled to the (Canadian) Maritimes or the interior, settled in refugee areas like New York, then maybe settled elsewhere."
Bunnell now travels around the region giving talks to genealogical groups, assisting others with their research using his own extensive Loyalist library and occasionally manning "Ancestral Roadshow"tables, modeled on the Antique Roadshow TV show, at genealogical events. A list of his publications can be found on his Web site at http://www.bunnellgenealogybooks.citymaker.com.
Bunnell offers the following advice to people interested in exploring their genealogy: "Always start with yourself and work backward. Verify each document. Most family stories are not true, but they may lead to pieces of the truth. You can't leave any possible source untouched."
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By PAULA DELBONIS-PLATT
For the Monitor