Hoda Muthana wants to come home from Syria – just like many loyalist women who fled to Canada during the American Revolution

American emigrant Hoda Muthana begged American authorities last month to let her return to the United States.

Muthana, who was 19 when she left her family in Alabama in 2014 to join the proclaimed Islamic State caliphate, married three IS fighters after her arrival in Syria and was widowed twice.

Ultimately, Muthana claims, the birth of her son in May 2017 allowed her to see how foolish she had been.

Despite her insistence that she no longer harbors any radical sentiments, many Americans remain skeptical of Muthana’s intentions and believe she forfeited her American citizenship when she joined the enemy organization.

While the case has its own modern intricacies, early Americans confronted similar questions concerning the return of colonists who had supported Britain during American Revolution.

Much like Muthana’s insistence that she wants to return to America for the good of her young son, these exiled mothers also played a significant role leading their families back to their American homes after 1783 – despite resistance from their husbands.

Statue of Loyalist family in Hamilton, Ontario. Photo by Rick Cordeiro, CC BY

Stay or leave?

During the American Revolution (1775-1783), roughly 1 in 5 white American colonists sided with the British. These colonists called themselves “Loyalists.”

When the war ended, the majority of these Loyalists stayed in the United States and reintegrated into American society.

Others chose to leave.

The formal conclusion of the war in 1783 began a series of evacuations from the last British strongholds of the eastern seaboard. In all, more than 60,000 people fled the American states during and after the war, with the majority of these refugees heading north to British Nova Scotia and the newly organized colony of New Brunswick.

Thomas Robie of Marblehead, Massachusetts, was one of the approximately 2,000 people who fled the state early in the conflict. A wealthy merchant, Robie resisted the colonial effort to boycott British-made goods in the late 1760s, angering the town’s patriot majority.

Fearing for his family’s safety as attacks against Loyalists turned increasingly violent, Robie left New England bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia, with his wife and four young children in late April 1775.

While Thomas’ business decisions had initially stirred up the locals’ anger, his wife made a more inflammatory denunciation of the town’s rebels.

“I hope that I shall live to return, find this wicked rebellion crushed, and see the streets of Marblehead so deep with rebel blood that a long boat might be rowed through them,” Mary Robie is recorded to have said.

According to Massachusetts lore, it was only her sex that saved her from physical harm.

Making home in exile

As a historian studying Loyalist refugees in Nova Scotia, I highlight how these colonists, and women in particular, navigated the physical and emotional hardships of exile.

All told, roughly 32,000 Loyalists arrived in Atlantic Canada, more than doubling the population and overwhelming the unprepared and poorly funded British colonial government.

In contrast to the fertile land the crown promised, the majority of refugees found Nova Scotia to be a barren and forbidding wilderness.

Of the widespread hunger, poverty and despair in Loyalist Halifax in June 1784, the oldest Robie child recorded in her diary, “If I look round me, what thousands I may see more wretched than myself.”