WILLARD, ABIJAH, army officer and office-holder; b. 27 July 1724 at Lancaster, Massachusetts, second son of Samuel Willard; m. 2 Dec. 1747 Elizabeth Prescott of Groton, secondly in 1752 Anna Prentice of Lancaster, and thirdly in 1772 Mary, widow of John McKown of Boston; d. 28 May 1789 in Saint John, New Brunswick.
The Willard family of Worcester County, Massachusetts, combined land holding with a long record of provincial military service. As a result of his own military duties Abijah Willard twice became involved in Canadian history. The first period of involvement occurred between 1745 and 1760, when Massachusetts was supporting Britain’s efforts to expel the French from North America. In 1745 Willard served at the siege of Louisbourg, Île Royale (Cape Breton Island), as a captain in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, commanded by his father. Ten years later he was a captain in William Shirley’s provincial regiment at the siege of Fort Beauséjour (near Sackville, N.B.). During this campaign he kept a journal which contains a vivid account of the forced dispersal of the Acadians after the French defeat. Willard was ordered by Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Monckton to round up the French inhabitants and to “burn all the houses that I found.” He carried out his orders punctiliously but regarded the grief caused by his raids as “sumthing shoking.” After the campaign he was promoted colonel, and in 1759 and 1760 he commanded a regiment under General Timothy Ruggles at Fort Edward and Lake George (Lac Saint-Sacrement), New York. In the latter year his regiment was part of the force under William Haviland which assisted in the capture of Montreal.
With the return of peace Willard retired from public service and for the next 14 years pursued a quiet existence as one of Lancaster’s more prosperous landowners. However, the increasingly acrimonious debate within Massachusetts over British colonial policy brought him back into the public sphere. Labelled a Tory because of his long service with the British army, Willard became a natural target for public abuse by those opposed to British policies. In 1774 his position became even more difficult when Governor Thomas Hutchinson appointed him a mandamus councillor. He was seized by a mob in Connecticut and imprisoned for five days until he agreed to resign his seat. Yet crowd violence could not undermine Willard’s commitment to royal government in America. After the battle of Lexington, in April 1775, he offered his services to the British army and was commissioned a captain in the first company of the Loyal American Associates. When the British evacuated Boston in March 1776, Willard accompanied the troops to Halifax and then to New York. Massachusetts formally cut her ties with this loyalist son by including him in the Banishment Act of 1778 and confiscating his property in 1779.
Willard spent the rest of the Revolutionary War as an assistant commissary on Long Island, but it was not until 1781, after a trip to England, that he obtained a regular salary. With the achievement of American independence in 1783, he prepared to immigrate to British North America, and sent his nephew Abel Willard to England to represent his interests with the loyalist claims commissioners. While still in New York that summer, Abijah Willard, along with such persons as Colin Campbell*, Ward Chipman*, Charles Inglis*, and William Wanton, signed the controversial petition of the Fifty-Five Associated Loyalists. This petition, in which the signatories requested special grants of 5,000 acres in Nova Scotia for themselves, was bitterly resented by other loyalists, and the fact that Willard’s was the first signature made him particularly vulnerable to criticism. The British government did not agree with this criticism; the claims commissioners pointedly praised Willard’s scrupulous handling of his wartime accounts and granted him compensation of £2, 912 as well as a yearly pension of £150. In addition, he was appointed to the Executive Council of the new province of New Brunswick, a post he held until his death.
Willard arrived at Parrtown (Saint John) in the fall of 1784. Aside from attending occasional council meetings, he did not take a conspicuous part in the public life of New Brunswick. He did acquire a good deal of property on the west side of the Saint John harbour. The parish of Lancaster was apparently named after his birthplace. Although the few personal documents remaining do not reveal Willard’s particular reasons for becoming a loyalist, his position was quite typical of persons with a similar military and economic background. His decision caused him real financial hardship, and he particularly resented the failure of his former American neighbours to honour their pre-revolutionary debts. As a result, his estate was insolvent when he died. He was survived by his third wife and three children, all of whom returned to Massachusetts. No portrait of Willard is known to exist, but he is described as a “large and portly” man of “stately presence and dignified manner.”
Willard’s journal has been published: “Journal of Abijah Willard of Lancaster, Mass., an officer in the expedition which captured Fort Beauséjour in 1755,” ed. J. C. Webster, N.B. Hist. Soc., Coll., no. 13 (1930), 3–75. Huntington Library, HM 497, Abijah Willard, journal and orderly book, 1755–56. Worcester County Registry of Probate (Worcester, Mass.), Ser.A, no.65822, estate papers of Abijah Willard, 1816. G. O. Dent, “The loyalist Willards,” Acadiensis (Saint John, N.B.), V (1905), 157–65.