CUYLER, ABRAHAM CORNELIUS, office holder and politician; b. 11 April 1742 in Albany, N.Y., son of Cornelius Cuyler and Catalyntje Schuyler; m. 10 April 1764 Jane Elizabeth (Jannetie) Glen in Schenectady, N.Y., and they had three sons and two daughters; d. 5 Feb. 1810 in Montreal, Lower Canada.
Abraham Cornelius Cuyler was born into a prominent New York family of Dutch descent that exercised much influence in the Albany region. After serving as president of the general sessions of the peace, which adjudicated lesser criminal proceedings, he became mayor of Albany in 1770; at various times he also served as coroner of the city and county and as an officer in the militia. At the outbreak of the American revolution Cuyler took an active loyalist stand, and on 4 June 1776 he and some others were arrested as they celebrated George III’s birthday. Imprisoned in Albany and then in Hartford, Conn., he escaped in December to New York City, where he was joined by his wife and family. The next year Cuyler and a party of volunteers accompanied Sir Henry Clinton’s unsuccessful expedition up the Hudson River to relieve rebel pressure on John Burgoyne*’s force. In October 1779 he was appointed lieutenant-colonel commandant of a proposed force of loyalists, but the unit never materialized. The following August he was made colonel of a loyalist militia on Long Island. By the fall of 1782 Cuyler and his family had moved to Montreal, and later that year he was appointed inspector of refugee loyalists in the Quebec City area. During the war the rebel government had expropriated his property, which he valued at £6,000.
While residing in Quebec Cuyler probably met Samuel Johannes Holland, who had surveyed Cape Breton Island in 1766 and was optimistic about the island’s potential. Perhaps influenced by Holland, Cuyler decided to form a settlement there for some 3,000 loyalists then in Quebec. With typical enthusiasm, he sent Captain Jonathan Jones to inspect the island in the fall of 1783 and then in November sailed for England to pressure the Home Department into approving his project. In England, he discovered that plans were under way for the division of Nova Scotia into a number of colonies. With the backing of Sir William Howe, an acquaintance from America and a member of the Privy Council committee for trade, he asked for the separation of Cape Breton from Nova Scotia and, when that was granted, successfully solicited the appointments of secretary and registrar of the new colony. Cuyler was also allowed to bring his loyalists to Cape Breton, but by the time permission was given it was already October 1784 and most of the prospective settlers decided to remain in Quebec. Hence only 140 people arrived at Louisbourg and St Peters that year, and when Cuyler himself came to Louisbourg shortly thereafter he discovered that Governor John Parr* of Nova Scotia had not been informed of the loyalists’ coming and consequently could not provide supplies. In the mean time Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres* had been appointed lieutenant governor of Cape Breton, and he and a group of English settlers founded the town of Sydney in the spring of 1785. By July Cuyler had arrived in Sydney, where he took office and was sworn into the Executive Council. He was also granted 500 acres across the harbour from Sydney, a property he named Yorkfields. There he settled with his family. The household included at least one enslaved African, a child named Diana Bestian.
It soon became apparent that Cuyler and DesBarres could not work together. The lieutenant governor had dreams of a bright future for Cape Breton, and his military background made him accustomed to implicit obedience and determined that his position would not be undermined or challenged; Cuyler was influential and ambitious, anxious to offset his financial losses, and unwilling to play a minor role in the colony’s development. Together with David Mathews*, a former mayor of New York City and attorney general of Cape Breton, he soon came into conflict with DesBarres.
The main contention centred on the recurring shortage of supplies during the colony’s first years. Officially, only troops and loyalists were eligible to receive the supplies furnished by the British government, but since no other supplies were available this policy discriminated against the English settlers who had come with DesBarres. Attempting to solve the problem, in the autumn of 1785 DesBarres tried to assume control of the distribution of government supplies, but Lieutenant-Colonel John Yorke, the garrison commander, claimed the responsibility. Cuyler and Mathews aligned themselves with Yorke in an effort to retain the allegiance of their fellow loyalists and thereby strengthen their own power and weaken DesBarres’s. The dispute raged throughout the winter and into the spring of 1786; supplies were obtained by DesBarres only when he seized those found in a ship wrecked off Arichat. Meanwhile Cuyler’s opposition to DesBarres continued. In the summer of 1786 he signed a petition drafted by the lieutenant governor’s antagonists demanding his removal. When DesBarres was recalled to London that year, the apparent vindication of Cuyler and Mathews increased their determination to control the colony’s affairs.
The new lieutenant governor, William Macarmick, attempted to heal the rift that had developed between Cuyler, Mathews, and their followers and DesBarres’s supporters, among them Chief Justice Richard Gibbons*, but both sides soon incurred Macarmick’s wrath. The break between Cuyler and the lieutenant governor occurred in February 1789, when several shipwrecked Irish convicts had to be accommodated in Sydney. This emergency drained the town’s food supply, and Cuyler criticized Macarmick’s decision to feed the convicts, claiming that council minutes had been doctored to show that he himself had earlier supported the measure. Macarmick therefore suspended Cuyler from the council in June and, hoping to effect his destruction, the lieutenant governor launched an investigation into his behaviour, accusing him of mismanagement of land grants, intemperate language, and general obstructiveness. The investigation was poorly handled and did not result in any definite proof of misconduct, but Macarmick, determined to restore concord in council, forced every councillor except Mathews to agree that Cuyler was guilty, and obtained his suspension from office in August. Cuyler was so infuriated by this decision that for two weeks he refused to surrender the council minutes. He then left for England to appeal his case to the Home Department. Though he received only a mild rebuke and was reinstated in office, he did not remain long in Sydney after his return in October 1790. Prior to his arrival he had had circulated a pamphlet attacking Macarmick, and after resigning his offices he left Cape Breton early in 1791.
After leaving Cape Breton, Cuyler returned to Albany and attempted to regain some of the property he had lost during the revolution. He had submitted a list of these assets in a 1784 memorial to the loyalist claims commission. The rebels had confiscated and sold off, among other things, a “dwelling and storehouse” in Albany (£1,262); the land belonging to Cuyler’s father’s estate, in which he owned a one-fifth stake (£350); household furniture (£300); New York currency (£12,326.8); and three enslaved Africans (£200). The loyalist claims commission awarded him a sum of £1,360.
In 1795 Cuyler and his family were granted 4,000 acres in Farnham Township, east of Montreal. He then joined a group of ten others in an attempt to gain the entire township, but when this grant was secured in 1799 he was again in Albany and so failed to obtain his share. In 1802 he moved from Farnham to Montreal, where he spent his final years.
Abraham Cuyler is a pathetic figure. Obviously a man of ambition and ability, he lost a good deal in the American revolution and was frustrated by the lack of opportunity for advancement in Cape Breton. He settled late in Lower Canada and thus failed to obtain an important position in that colony’s ruling structure. Though he was responsible for bringing the first sizeable number of settlers to Cape Breton after the fall of Louisbourg in 1758, his influence on the island’s development was largely disruptive. The faction that he and Mathews created to oppose DesBarres became a force that was at odds with administrators throughout the life of the colony.
PAC, MG 11, [CO 217] Cape Breton A, 1: 9, 13–15, 16–18, 37–38, 136–37, 151; 2: 370–71; 3: 112–15; 7: 25–26; Nova Scotia A, 108: 240–42; [CO 220] Cape Breton B, 4: 126; 5: 4–13, 84–90, 134–37, 179–80, 249–50; 6: 15–16, 92–93, 115–296; RG 1, L3L: 34628, 34665–67, 34827–28. A. H. Cuyler, Cuylers of Canada and other places (n.p., 1961). A. C. Flick, Loyalism in New York during the American revolution (New York, 1901; repr. 1969; repr. ). Jonathan Pearson, Contributions for the genealogies of the first settlers of the ancient county of Albany, from 1630 to 1800 (Albany, N.Y., 1872). R. [J.] Morgan, “Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres and the founding of Cape Breton colony,” Rev. de l’univ. d’Ottawa, 39 (1969): 212–27; “The loyalists of Cape Breton,” Dalhousie Rev., 55 (1975–76): 5–22.
Bibliography for the revised version:
N.S. Arch. (Halifax), St. George’s Anglican Church, Sydney, 1785–1827, p.39 (Diana Bustian [sic] burial record; available at archives.novascotia.ca/Africanns/archives/?ID=49). National Arch. (London), AO 12/19 (American loyalists claims, ser.1, subser. evidence, New York), pp.153–67. Royal Gazette (New York), 3 Nov. 1779. H. A. Whitfield, Biographical dictionary of enslaved Black people in the Maritimes (Toronto, 2022); North to bondage: loyalist slavery in the Maritimes (Vancouver and Toronto, 2016).