2021 ERW Symposium Highlight: Travis Shaw

Over the next few months, we will be highlighting the speakers and topics for our 2021 Symposium, Hindsight is 2020: Revisiting Misconceptions of the Revolution, taking place on May 22nd. Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, the Symposium will be virtual. Today we highlight historian Travis Shaw who will be covering the role of American Loyalists during the Revolution. Not all Americans supported the “patriot” and many sided with the British.  

Travis Shaw is currently the Public Programs Coordinator for the Virginia Piedmont Heritage Area. He brings nearly two decades of experience in the fields of historic preservation, archaeology, and museum education, working with both private and public institutions. Prior to joining VPHA he spent time at Historic St. Mary’s City, The Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab, Mount Vernon, and Oatlands Historic House and Gardens. He holds a BA in history from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and an MA in history with a concentration in public history from American University. His areas of research include the material culture of colonial America, the American Revolution, and maritime history. In his free time, Travis enjoys exploring historic sites with his family and participating in 18th and early 19th century living history events.

He will be presenting his talk “Disaffected and Dangerous Persons”: Loyalist Resistance in the Mid-Atlantic at the May symposium.

Do you believe the study of Loyalists in the American Revolution has been overlooked and why?

It absolutely has been overlooked for most of the post-Revolutionary era. As the saying goes, history is written by the winners, and loyalists have largely been written out of the national narrative. If they get mentioned at all they are portrayed as a small and unimportant group of weak and cowardly traitors. In reality loyalists hailed from nearly every background and every colony and represented a sizable minority in the colonies. They played an important role in the political and military conduct of the revolution. Following the war tens of thousands would flee the newly independent states, while many more remained behind and had to reintegrate into society. In the interest of post-revolutionary unity their story was suppressed, ignored, and villainized and it’s only been in the last few decades that academics have given their stories serious study.

What first attracted you to the study of early American history? What keeps you involved in the study of this history? Do you find these things are the same or different?

For me, the study of history has always been intensely personal. I grew up near Frederick, Maryland, and so history was all around me. I used to spend countless hours wandering Civil War battlefields or exploring colonial cemeteries. It grounded me in the past and made history a very tangible thing for me. I could immerse my self in the landscape and literally touch it. This led me to archaeology. Uncovering artifacts and knowing that you are the first person to have touched that object in hundreds or even thousands of years is an incredibly powerful feeling.

One of the big missions of the Virginia Piedmont Heritage Area is the preservation of the historic landscape in northern Virginia. Being able to share this passion with others makes it easy to stay involved.

What is the biggest myth about the role Loyalists played in the war, and how did it come about?

I think that the biggest myth about loyalists is that they were all wealthy, deeply conservative people who adhered to the British cause to protect their financial and social status. There were certainly were some who fit this description, such as the influential New Yorker James De Lancy, but the vast majority of loyalists during the revolution came from the middle and lower classes of society, representing a full cross-section of the population. Their reasons for choosing loyalty were just as varied. For some it was driven by a real respect for the British constitution and way of government, which at the time represented the freest and most prosperous government on earth. For many ethnic and religious minorities there was a real fear of oppression at the hands of the local majority if British legal protections disappeared. As the war raged many enslaved people saw an opportunity for freedom with the British, while Native Americans saw British rule as the best bulwark against expanding colonists. For many loyalists, however, their decision was a deeply personal one, based on family and community ties and personal ideas of patriotism and honor. Many others were forced into loyalist after suffering at the hands of their patriot neighbors. There were as many motivations for loyalism as there were loyalists.

Do you think there are common misconceptions of the era of the American Revolution among the American people? If so, what are they and have they ever affected your work?

I come across a number of misconceptions in studying loyalism during the American Revolution. One of the biggest is the idea that the revolutionary movement was wildly popular during the period. Even by the best estimates, the patriot cause never held the majority in many regions during the war, and that the plurality of people just wanted to get by and survive. As with any conflict there are a lot of shades of gray, and an individual could move fluidly between categories of patriot, loyalist, and neutral. It’s also important to note that enthusiasm for the revolutionary cause waxed and waned dramatically depending on the fortunes of war. This is a topic that I’ll be examining at the symposium – how war weariness in communities led to resistance against the patriot government.

In a broader sense, I have always been irritated by the term “founding fathers,” as if all the founders were a monolithic block that all believed the same thing. It gets thrown around by modern people on both ends of the political spectrum as if their very invocation gives their argument indisputable weight. What this obscures is that the founders were individuals who held a wide range of sometimes conflicting political, religious, and cultural beliefs. Some were deeply conservative, others were radically progressive, but they managed to win a war and form a nation.

Join us for our SECOND annual Emerging Revolutionary War Symposium, co-hosted by Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, speakers and topics include:

Michael Harris on Misconceptions of Battle of Brandywine
Vanessa Smiley on Myths of the Southern Campaigns
Travis Shaw on American Loyalists
John U Rees on African American Continental Soldiers
Mark Maloy on myths of the Battle of Trenton

Our registration fee is now only $40 per person and $20 for students. This will allow us to broaden our audience with the virtual program. We hope that 2022 will allow us to come together again in Alexandria for our third annual symposium. To register, visit: https://shop.alexandriava.gov/Events.aspx

Stay tuned as we highlight our speakers and their topics in future blog posts.

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