The Proclamation of 1763

proclamation of 1763
A map showing the divisions, colonial claims and proclamation line in 1763

An artistic depiction of fighting during the French and Indian War[/caption]The end of the French and Indian War in 1763 was a moment of great relief and significant optimism in the American colonies. They had previously lived under the shadow of a French invasion on their north-western borders. Many also feared the infiltration and threat posed by Catholicism, introduced by French settlers and missionaries working amongst the natives. Now this menace was gone and the western lands were uninhabited, open and ripe for seizure and settlement (of course they didn’t take their native American neighbours into account when contemplating this great push westward). On the frontier the poorer elements prepared themselves to uproot and move westward, to be in the best position to claim cheap land when it became available; some had been doing this even when the war was in its final stages. In the cities, wealthy colonists turned into speculators and prepared to snap up vast tracts of cheap land for later profit. Among these speculators were George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, who had in mind to make large sums of money from land deals in the west.

It seemed like a promising time for the British colonies in America. Then, the British passed a law that became the first real ‘interference’ in colonial matters prior to the revolution. Unlike the raft of taxes and customs duties that would follow it, however, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 was a reasonable law based on clear thinking and common sense. The issue the British parliament was seeking to resolve was the threat of Indian uprising and the strong possibility of conflict between the ‘Indians’ and the colonists (such a conflict would again necessitate the involvement of British troops, requiring more men and expenditure). In mid 1763, a tribal chief called Pontiac organised an amazing union between virtually every native tribe in the region between the Great Lakes down to the lower Mississippi. Pontiac’s plan was to launch surprise attacks on nearby forts on a specific day, wiping out the garrisons and then plundering the unprotected settlements. ‘Pontiac’s conspiracy’, as it became known, was a stunning success with eight out of 12 British forts falling, hundreds of British soldiers and colonial militiamen dying and dozens of settlements devastated.

“By the mid-1760s, George Washington’s landholdings had grown to 15,000 acres, but he remained unsatiated. Washington’s quest for land was resolute, even when he knew he was not entitled to it. The proclamation of 1763 prohibited settlement of Indian territory west of the Alleghenies, but almost no one took it seriously. Washington dismissed it as a temporary expedient to mollify [appease] the Native Americans. He declared that only a fool would bypass the chance to acquire new land. The western movement, he believed, was inexorable [relentless].”
Ethan M. Fishman, historian

Aware that there was a risk of this conflict expanding, the king quickly passed the Proclamation which provided, in essence, a form of temporary native title. The western regions were reserved for the native tribes, with hunting and fishing rights granted to specific tribes according to region. Colonists were forbidden to encroach onto this land, to seize it or settle on it; those who had already moved west were ordered to return. Despite the good logic of this proclamation it was met with animosity within the colonies, who viewed it as means of limiting natural expansion and a way of ‘keeping the colonies poor’, saving this land for imperial use later on. There may well have been a political motive to the Proclamation: if colonial expansion had continued unchecked and unregulated, they would become even more difficult to bring to heel later… restraining them inside their current borders was useful not only for preventing conflict but also for buying time while a new colonial policy was developed.

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