Eleazer Olney – 1803 Petition to Congress for “relief as a British refugee”

Eleazer Olney Refugee Petition p1

Eleazer Olney Refugee Petition p1

Eleazer Olney Refugee Petition p2

Eleazer Olney Refugee Petition p2

Eleazer Olney Refugee Petition p 3

Eleazer Olney Refugee Petition p 3







While doing broad searches on my Olney family members recently, I happened to search for Eleazer Olney on the Library of Congress website, in the ‘American Memory’ section under Government and Law (don’t ask, no idea why) – and I discovered a little gem:

“Journal of the Senate of the United States of America, 1789-1873

…Mr. Worthington presented the petition of Eleazer Olney, of Marietta, late a resident in the province of Nova Scotia, praying to be entitled to the benefits of the “Act for the relief of the refugees from the British provinces of Canada and Nova Scotia,” for reasons stated in the petition; and the petition was read.

Ordered, That it be referred to the committee appointed on the 27th of October last to consider the petition of Martha Seamans and others, to report thereon to the Senate.”

I had no idea what the “Act for the relief of the refugees from he British provinces of Canada and Nova Scotia” was, but I read through the several entries in this database and came to understand that Eleazer had requested assistance of some kind due to his being an American in British-held territory (Canada) during the Revolutionary War and which he was forced to leave due to the war.

The Document Hunt

I never considered trying to see the original document, but after a friend who has done a lot  of genealogy recommended I give it a try, as you never knew what you might find, I took the time one vacation day to head for the Library of Congress.

The general reading room staff warned me that there were very few original federal government documents extant dating to before Aug 1814, when the British burned the White House during the War of 1812.  Most federal documents had been held there and were destroyed in the  blaze.  They looked in their back room but couldn’t find anything to help, and suggested it would be worth trying the specialty reading room that dealt in legal matters.

So, I hiked over to the the Law Library in the Madison building to inquire.  There, the junior staff member had to request help from the senior staff member, who knew immediately where to start, finding the right section for me to look through in a published volume of indexed petitions to Congress.  While I couldn’t find Eleazer or Seamans mentioned in 1803, I did glimpse the name Seamans on a petition dated 1812.  The woman had told me that if I found anything, the originals would be held at the National Archives – possibly, if they still existed.

The day was still young, so I walked around the Capitol and down the hill to the National Archives to see what I could find.  There, I was told to go to the Research Assistance area and ask for a Legislative Affairs Specialist.  He patiently listened to me explain what I was looking for, both the document mentioned in the Library of Congress website and the referenced Seamans document, then looked for location information on where the documents MIGHT be.  He didn’t promise anything, but he said if he found anything, he’d bring it to the Reading Room and for me to meet him there.

Luck was on my side; while the archivist hadn’t been able to locate the 1803 Seamans petition, he had miraculously found Eleazer’s original 1803 petition to Congress [Sen 8A-G4, Petitions & Memorials, Select Committees]!  The LoC is in the middle of a digitization process of their documents, and this one had already been copied, so I couldn’t handle the original, but he very graciously brought it out for me to see and made me a copy of it before returning it to the vault.

He had also brought out a few boxes of original documents which had not yet been digitized that I would need to search through for the 1812 Seamans petition.  After going through a few boxes of miscellaneous records, including requests for additional appropriations from the nascent US Navy, I came upon a large file of documents, all in support of the Seamans claim!   I was able to carefully read through and photograph them all.

Historical Background to the Petitions

In September 1776, Congress passed a resolution granting varying numbers of acres of land to officers and non-commissioned officers who served in the armed services during the Revolutionary War.  Over the following years the law was extended and expanded at various times.  One addition happened in April 1783, which allowed for lands to be given to ‘Refugees from Canada and Nova Scotia’ – heads of families, widows or heirs of those who had been living in Canada before 4 Jul 1776 who lost property or suffered by supporting the United States during the conflict and who at some point moved to the US.  The act was extended in 1798, 1801, 1804, and 1810, with final claims being granted in 1812.

Details of the resolutions and (some?) named grantees can be viewed here:


Eleazer’s Petition

Eleazer Olney Transcribed Petition 1803

On 31 Oct 1803, Eleazer Olney, b.  abt 1752 in Smithfield, Rhode Island, wrote a petition “To the honorable the Senate & House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress ofserved” requesting ‘relief’ as a refugee from Canada.  He stated that he had been born in Rhode Island but had moved to Canada before the start of the late war.  There, at the commencement of the war, he had supported Colonel Jonathan Eddy

“in his attempt made on the British Garrison at Fort Cumberland in the month of November 1776; which attempts proving unsuccessful, your petitioner was subjected to the alternative of giving up his arms to the British or abandoning , at that season of the year & in the inhospitable climate, a large family of young and helpless children to the mercy of their enemies.”

Wikipedia article on the action above:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Fort_Cumberland

Eleazer said he was one of those who laid down his arms, yet resolved to return to the United States as soon as the circumstances and his family would permit.  “But through the loss of property and the confusion of the times, your petitioner was not able to remove his family from Nova Scotia till after the conclusion of the war.”   He stated that he had left Nova Scotia with his family in 1792, settling in Marietta, Ohio (where many of his relatives and friends from Nova Scotia and Rhode Island had also settled).  He felt “justly and equitably entitled to the benefits & privileges” provided for in the refugee act, even though he was applying for benefits outside of the time limit (he petitioned Congress before the Act was extended in 1804).

The document is short, just two and a half pages, with no witness statements or other kind of support (at least which have survived).  Given that the war ended in 1783 and Eleazer didn’t leave Nova Scotia until nine years later, it might have been hard for Congress to see him as a sufferer, even if he had helped the American cause.  I find no reference to Eleazer’s petition being approved.

For Martha Seamans 1812 Petition – see separate post  to follow

Connection to Olney-Hooker Family:  Eleazer Olney was the brother of my ancestor, Coggeshall Olney.  Martha Seamans was his wife, Susanna’s, mother.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s