Episode 39: The Royal Proclamation of 1763

Host: Henry Wiencek, Assistant Editor, Not Even Past
Guest: Robert Olwell, Associate Professor, Department of History

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Between 1754 and 1763, Great Britain, France, and a collection of French-allied Native American tribes fought a brutal war over trading rights in colonial North America. This war, generally called the “French and Indian War,” or “The Seven Years’ War,” resulted in a British victory and a large acquisition of French territory across the eastern half of North America. So, faced with the task of how colonists would settle all of this land, King George III issued a Royal Proclamation in 1763 which attempted to reorganize the boundaries of colonial America, as well as the lives of its inhabitants.

Guest Robert Olwell describes the proclamation, its effects on the history of colonial North America, and ponders whether the Royal Proclamation is really the smoking gun that caused the American Revolution as some have claimed.

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Could you briefly talk about the proclamation itself? What are its terms, and what is it trying to accomplish?

The Proclamation is written to determine what to do with this land, as you said, that was acquired from the French in the Treaty of Paris which was signed in February 1763. In some ways it’s just imperial housekeeping, I guess you could say, to organize the new colonies, like Quebec, which had been French Canada, and in the South, the Floridas, which had been Spanish territory before. So, that’s its first goal; it starts by talking about the boundaries of these colonies, the appointment of governors, land settlement.

But the other problem that the British were trying to deal with is this other section of land the British had gotten that the French called the Louisiana Territory; that is the Mississippi river valley westward to the Mississippi River. The French had, in February of 1763, given the other half, that is the Mississippi River valley west of the Mississippi, to the Spanish. We’re dealing with this area west of the Appalachian mountains west to the Mississippi river which, as you say, was the home of these native groups that had traditionally been allied with either the French in the north or the Spanish in the south, and who are now by virtue of the treaty under British authority.

One of the most important aspects of this proclamation was the proclamation line that it established. How did that proclamation line change Britain’s colonial relationship with North America, both in terms of the colonists living there as well as the land itself?

If you were a colonial American, that is, living in the 13 colonies, what would have piqued your interest once you got past the boundaries of Florida and Quebec was this line that the proclamation draws along what is called a “height of land,” that is the watershed between the Atlantic and the Mississippi Valley, which cuts off traditional westward of the colonies. Most of the colonies had been organized and settled in the 17th century, and had vague, if any, westward limits — often it said something like, “Sea to sea,” so it would potentially it would go westward to the Pacific Ocean, but it would certainly go to the Mississippi. But now, the proclamation line has drawn this new boundary, the seaboard colonies east of the mountains–that was new–and reserving everything to the west of this line to the Indians, which are now described as “Our Subjects” by the king. So, there’s this new idea that the Indians who had been traditionally the enemies, allies with the French, are now being treated as subjects by the king and given this territory, parts of which had been taken from what the colonists had thought of as their own.

It also strictly limits that there shall be no settlement west of that line without the approval of the British government in London. The authority to grant territory is taken away from the colonial governments and the governors. So, there’s a new centralization of imperial administration that the colonists would have been surprised by.

The territorial boundaries established under the Proclamation of 1763. (Image courtesy of Getty Images)

The territorial boundaries established under the Proclamation of 1763. (Image courtesy of Getty Images)

Can you expand on that a little bit? How did the American colonists respond to this imposition of imperial power, and the limiting of settlements on western lands?

A lot of the colonists before, during, and immediately after the Seven Years War had been looking forward to settling, or speculating more likely, lands in the Ohio River Valley–what’s now Kentucky and southern Ohio–particularly Virginians, and, of course, the Proclamation Line made that impossible. That’s not, of course, practically possible for the British to stop an individual settler to walk across this imaginary line across the top of the mountains — they’re not going to stop squatters from walking in, but what they’re stopping effectively is anyone gaining legal title to the land. So, if you’re a George Washington, he doesn’t want to move to Kentucky, he would like to get land grants in Kentucky that he can then sell, and this is going to put a stop to that. He can’t gain title to that land, so he can’t speculate. That’s where it pinches the most for prominent colonials.

Washington himself says he just can’t believe that is going to stick. He says he can’t see it but as a temporary thing to quiet the Indians. It’s true that if you read the Proclamation they’re not saying anything about perpetuity, this isn’t Indian land forever, it’s simply reserved to the Crown for the use of the Indians. The prospect is that at some future date, at the discretion of the Crown, in one form or another this land may be granted. In some ways, it’s taking land from the colonists and holding it to the crown, and the Indians are being allowed to live there but they’re not being given title in any way.

You mentioned that the impact on the Native American tribesmen who were residing in America, Can you talk more specifically the kind of role that the Proclamation envisions for native Americans who are now within the British Empire?

With a few exceptions–the Iroquois and the Kataba–most of the native groups in this region were traditionally allied with the French, or in the south the Spanish, or had kind of played the sides off of each other. When they learned the terms of the Treaty of Paris, that is, when they learned that their lands had been granted by the French to the British at this conference across the ocean that they had no part in, they were shocked. Militarily, the Native Americans had not been defeated in the Seven Years’ War, so they just don’t understand how either by right of conquest or any other way that they could be dispossessed like this. They’re very hostile to the notion that the British have any authority over them. The British are mostly military men who are on the scene in 1760, 61, 62, are usually pretty ham-fisted about trying to impose their authority upon the Indians, restricting their access to trade. They’re the new ruler in town.

So, there’s a great deal of resentment and anger and fear among Native American groups, and this explodes in the spring of 1763 with and Indian– it’s hard to avoid phrases like “rebellion” or “uprising,” which of course is the British view, because the Indians don’t see themselves as rebellions because they don’t see themselves as subject. But there’s violence in the interior here and along the frontier, what’s called Pontiac’s Rebellion in the history books. It’s actually tempting by way of the coincidence to see the Proclamation Line as a response to that, but in fact given the time travel for news across the Atlantic Ocean, but its terms are being drawn up at the same time; it’s coincidental with the violence in the Americas. But, however coincidentally, the Proclamation is trying to address this native disquiet, trying to calm the natives, trying to assert British authority by protecting the natives from colonial encroachment, reassuring them that they can enjoy their lands and will be protected by the crown from this fear of colonial settlement.

It’s interesting, I was reading about there’s some interest in exploring this new region that had just been granted. John Bartram, who’s a Pennsylvania Quaker, is a naturalist and he very much wants to get out there to Mississippi and the Floridas, but he’s very worried that the Indians will be violent. He says that the Indians will view surveyors or anybody coming from the eastern seaboard as trespassers, but also as an entering wedge. If surveyors come, then settlers will follow. So that notion of reassuring the Indians that their land wasn’t going to be taken was a potent one at the time.

1762 portrait of King George III (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

1762 portrait of King George III (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

How successful was the proclamation line in ensuring tranquility between Native American and British colonial lands?

Well, it doesn’t last, of course, because the imperial crisis gets cooking. It’s interesting, if you read some British writing around the time of the proclamation, there are several different imperatives at work: one is to calm the natives in the interior. This is the British trying to decide how to govern non-English subject peoples, they’re dealing with Indians in South Asia more or less at the same time, so there’s the goal of pacifying the Indians and bringing them under government, that’s something they push in the next year, in 1764. But there’s also in Britain a disquiet about the rate of British colonial growth and a desire to limit it, there’s a fear that colonists who pass west of the mountains will pass out of British control, and we should keep them on the east side. There’s also almost like a demographic hydrology, this notion that if we put a dam for settlement along the mountains, the burgeoning settlement will have to flow north and south. They do want Anglos to get into Canada. They don’t like the idea of French Canada, they don’t like Quebec being populated by French speaking Catholics, they want more English speakers to move there. They also want the Floridas to be populated, they’re largely empty. The Proclamation Line serves that other function; if we stop the settlement from going west, they’ll have to go north and south and that’ll serve these other purposes. So, there are multiple agendas being served in this document.

You just touched on the imperial crisis that ensues after the Proclamation Line is established, and in a lot of narratives of the American Revolution the Proclamation Line is cited as yet another indignity that the colonists had to endure, another cause for the revolution. Do you find that narrative persuasive?

It’s sort of an after the fact logic. We know there’s going to be an American Revolution and we naturally look back to find its origin, and that leads us to 1763 and people point to the Treaty of Paris and say it was the British decision to keep Canada that was the first domino, and of course the proclamation the same year. If the revolution hadn’t happened, I don’t think that these documents would be given the weight that they have. I don’t think you can see them as sufficient to cause the revolution themselves. I think the most that you can say about the Proclamation of 1763 is that it is the first evidence of a new imperative of the British government to behave imperially, to take control of the empire, to try to organize and run it from the center. This is something that shouldn’t be managed by the colonists themselves, it should be managed by the central government in London. That imperative is going to lead to other steps: the Sugar Act the next year, the Stamp Act of 1765. You can see the American Revolution as being caused by that British project of centralizing the Empire, then you can look at the Proclamation as the first step on that road. But by itself, at the time colonists didn’t like it, they didn’t expect it to last, but it’s only in retrospect when you look back at it that this is the moment where you can see that this desire to control or “enslave” us began.

I suppose a good concluding question would be: what is the significance of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 in American History?

It speaks to British history, this British desire to control. It’s also a very important document in American history, that is this recognition by the British of the Native Americans as a subject people, who in some ways are possessed of–I don’t want to say “rights,” but need to be considered as having some claim to territory, as having some claim to the protection of the king, is significant. That’s something new from the British, at least. This imposition of imperial authority upon the colonists is also a new thing. It really does signify a kind of change, a change in the wind, that things are going to be different for all three of those peoples and the end of this previous colonial system.

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