The Proclamation of 1763 was a British policy to secure and manage North American territory gained by Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War. Amongst other measures, the Proclamation attempted to limit and control land claims and settlement by those in the 13 colonies. These controls became a source of revolutionary tension.
The West opens
The end of the French and Indian War in 1763 was a moment of great relief and significant optimism in the 13 American colonies. The colonists there had previously lived under the shadow of a French invasion on their north-western borders. Many had feared the infiltration and threat posed by Catholicism, introduced by French settlers and missionaries working amongst the natives.
With the French defeated, this menace had eased. Not only that, the western lands once under French rule were now considered fair game, open and ripe for seizure and settlement.
On the frontiers, 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 were 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.
The British intervene
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 followed later, however, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 was a reasonable law based on clear thinking and common sense. While it regulated and restricted the Americans, it did so to prevent future problems.
The largest of these problems was the threat of Native American uprisings and the strong possibility of conflict between the ‘Indians’ and American colonists moving west. Such a conflict would again necessitate the involvement of British troops, requiring more men and expenditure.
In mid-1763, a tribal chief named Pontiac organised a confederation between most significant Native Americans tribes in the region, from 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. In doing so, he hoped to drive the British settlers from the western territories.
‘Pontiac’s conspiracy’, as it became known, launched its first attacks in the spring of 1763. These attacks were initially successful, with eight out of 12 British forts falling, hundreds of British soldiers and colonial militiamen dying and dozens of settlements devastated.
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 their 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. Many colonial figures viewed it as means of limiting natural expansion and a way of ‘keeping the colonies poor’, saving the western lands for imperial use – or, worse, the land claims of British aristocrats – further down the track.
There may well have been a political motive to the Proclamation. If westward colonial expansion had continued unchecked and unregulated, the American colonists would become even more difficult to bring to heel later. Restraining them inside their existing borders was useful for maintaining the status quo while a new colonial policy was developed.
A historian’s view:
“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