The Proclamation Line of 1763

From the early days of the Virginia colony, John Smith and other leaders sought to extend their control over territory and to reduce the power on the Native Americans. Competition over land led to three Anglo-Powhatan wars during 1609-1646, as the English displaced the Algonquians living on the Coastal Plain.

Starting with the first Jamestown Fort in 1607 and in 1611 with construction of a pallisade to fortify the site of Henricus, the colonists sought to isolate “English” territory from “Native American” territory. In 1613 Bermuda Hundred was blocked off. After the 1622 uprising, the General Assembly considered building a wooden barricade between Martins Hundred and Chiskiack (now the Naval Weapons Station at Yorktown), but instead colonists reinforced their individual houses. In 1633, a pallisade was constructed further upstyream between College Creek (called Archer’s Hope at the time) and Queens Creek, forcing the Chiskiack tribe to migrate north across the York River.

The first Native American “preserve” to be established in Virginia was Indiantown Neck on the Eastern Shore. 1,500 acres were designated for use by the Accomac (Gingoskin) tribe in 1640, establishing a model used for other tribes.

After the 1644 uprising, the victorious colonists forced the putative Algonquian leader, Necotowance, to sign a 1646 peace treaty that restricted Native Americans to lands west of the Blackwater River and north of the York River. Theoretically English settlement was prohibited north of the York River, except for the land south of Poropotank Creek (current boundary of Gloucester-King and Queen counties). All trade was to be channelled through specific forts, and Native Americans were required to wear “a coat of striped stuff” when inside the restricted zone.

Despite the promises, English settlement was quickly authorized in the territory supposedly reserved for the Algonquians. Rather than live in compact towns, the colonists established scattered tobacco plantations and isolated “quarters” that intruded into the Algonquian hunting territories. The boundary of “English” and “Native American” territory did not restrain one side. The inevitable conflict erupted in Bacon’s Rebellion, followed by the Treaty of Middle Plantation in 1676. The English created specific reservations for the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes, and gradually abandoned the idea that those “tributary tribes” could serve as a buffer against the Iroquois.

As colonial settlement expanded, conflict was minimized by designating areas reserved for Native American occupation:

“Just as specific tracts had been assigned to the Eastern Shore’s Accomack Indians in 1640 and to the Pamunkey, Chiskiack, and Weyanoke in 1649, during the early 1650s acreage was assigned to the Rappahannock, Totusky, Moratticund, Mattaponi, Portobago, Chickahominy, Nanzattico, Nansemond, and upper Nansemond (Mangomixon), and perhaps others as well. Many of these Native preserves lay in the Middle Peninsula or Northern Neck.”

In 1676, Bacon’s Rebellion provided colonists another opportunity to attack nearby tribes, both peaceful and hostile. “Outrages” on the frontier were pepetrated by both sides for another century. Isolated groups of Native Americans or settlers were attacked/murdered with little or no provocation, retaliatory raids created more hostility, and the cycle of violence and vengence contionued intermittently.

Multiple treaties sought to separate the Native Americans from the English, with each treaty expanding the area for colonial occupation and reducing the territory of the tribes. Tribes living within Virginia were suppressed, but problems continued with tribes on the borders. By 1722, Governor Spottswood was negotiating with the Six Nations, based in New York, to push their hunting expeditions (and raids on the Cherokees) west of the Blue Ridge.

Virginia officials in Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Richmond never solved the problem of how to expand settlement and maintain peace with the Native Americans. After Virginia ceded its claims to the northwestern territory across the Ohio River to the Congress in 1781, and Kentucky became an independent state in 1792, Virginia no longer had lands on the frontier. Making peace with the Native Americans became a problem for Federal officials – but since 7 of the first 12 presidents were Virginians (and William Henry Harrison had been born in the state), the Virginia perspective remained significant.

In the 30 years between 1745-1775, English leaders recognized that the European population in North America (and the slaves they imported from Africa) would grow substantially. As settlers sought cheap farmland, colonial settlement extended west of the Appalachian Mountains. It was clear to all that once a critical mass of farmers were producing crops beyond the Eastern Continental Divide, agricultural trade would go down the Mississippi River rather than directly to the Atlantic coastline… and France/Spain controlled New Orleans and Mississippi River trade.

The expected shift of population to the west had substantial political ramifications. The French claimed the Ohio River watershed, and Native American land claims on the western boundaries of the colonies would have to be extinguished or finessed.

The French and Indian War (known in Europe as the Seven Years War) eliminated the power of the French in North America. After the English victory, the Virginia gentry expected easier access to the unsettled lands claimed by Virginia in the Ohio River valley, especially lands claimed by the Loyal Company. Colonial officials also expected England to pay for the costs of protecting the recently-won territory.

Unfortunately for the land-hungry gentry, defeat of the French did not bring peace to the American frontier. The European rivals had fought in North America primarily through proxies, recruiting different Native American tribes (or the same tribes at different times) to attack their rivals. In 1763 the Native Americans launched desperate attacks on the western frontier from New York to Virginia, recognizing that the English would grow stronger over time and the Native Americans would no longer have access to French support. During “Pontiac’s Uprising” in 1763-64, all the British forts west of the Ohio were captured except Detroit and Fort Pitt.

It was clear to the English politicians that the expensive seven Years War to defeat the French would be followed by expensive peacekeeping operations on the American frontier. The regiments raised for the war could not be demobilized or withdrawn, and soldiers would have to be supplied and paid. Taxes in England would have to stay high to subsidize the military occupation of the acquired land in North America.

George III could not afford to perpetuate an unending series of foreign wars. Officials in London, looking for a low-cost solution for managing the frontier, chose a different approach that what the colonists expected. To the dismay of colonial leaders, George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763 that created three new provinces out of lands acquired from the French, plus a huge “Indian Reserve.” The Indian Reserve was all the acquired land outside the boundaries of Quebec, West Florida, and East Florida, west of the divide separating the watersheds of rivers flowing to the Atlantic Ocean vs. rivers flowing to the Gulf of Mexico.

The decree prohibited colonial governors from authorizing surveys or issuing land grants beyond a Proclamation Line drawn at the crest of the Alleghenies. All French and English settlers living west of that watershed divide – including everyone in Kentucky – were, at least in theory, supposed to leave. The objective was to minimize conflicts with the tribes and thus reduce the costs to the English government of defending the frontier.

From the Proclamation of 1763:

And We do further declare it to be Our Royal Will and Pleasure, for the present as aforesaid, to reserve under our Sovereignty, Protection, and Dominion, for the use of the said Indians, all the Lands and Territories not included within the Limits of Our said Three new Governments, or within the Limits of the Territory granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company, as also all the Lands and Territories lying to the Westward of the Sources of the Rivers which fall into the Sea from the West and North West as aforesaid. [emphasis added]

And We do hereby strictly forbid, on Pain of our Displeasure, all our loving Subjects from making any Purchases or Settlements whatever, or taking Possession of any of the Lands above reserved, without our especial leave and Licence for that Purpose first obtained.

And We do further strictly enjoin and require all Persons whatever who have either wilfully or inadvertently seated themselves upon any Lands within the Countries above described or upon any other Lands which, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are still reserved to the said Indians as aforesaid, forthwith to remove themselves from such Settlements.

Land speculators in the colonies hoped to obtain title to vast stretches of western lands at little or no cost from the colonial government, holding land for a generation or even two before selling it as population moved westward. The land hungry gentry in Virginia controlled the colonial government, and through the Ohio Company, the Loyal Land Company, and other grants the speculating Virginia gentry had acquired claims to hundreds of thousands of acres “lying to the Westward of the Sources of the Rivers which fall into the Sea from the West and North West.”

However, the gentry could not control the government in London. With the stroke of a pen, George III dramatically undercut the economic dreams of most of the political leaders in Virginia. The Proclamation of 1763 abruptly blocked colonial westward settlement into “all the Lands and Territories lying to the Westward of the Sources of the Rivers which fall into the Sea from the West.” The long-coveted Ohio River valley, over which Virginians had contested with the rench since 1752, was reserved for Native Americans. The king had told land claimants in the Loyal Company the equivalent of “drop dead.”

George III’s Proclamation Line is consistent with modern “smart growth” land use principles where development is concentrated within urban growth boundaries, steering development to specified areas and reducing the cost of government operations. However, the political leaders in Virginia placed a higher priority on increasing their personal wealth through continued land speculation, and the Proclamation blocked conversion of land claims into cash. The average colonial soldier who fought in the French and Indian War wanted to settle on the lands acquired through military action, rather than reward the Native Americans – especially tribes that had been allies of the French.

Virginia’s leaders agitated constantly to open up the western frontier, and evaded the official limits on settlement whenever possible. Officials appointed by London sought to satisfy the demand for opening the western lands for settlement, while preventing new wars on the frontier. In 1768 Sir William Johnson and John Stuart, superintendents for the northern and southern districts of the British Indian Department, negotiated treaties with Iroquois and Cherokee tribes that gave the English the appearance of “clear title” to the lands northeast of the Kanawha River and, further west, north of the Ohio River.

In the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix, the Iroquois ceded claims to lands south of the Ohio River. In a separate Treaty of Hard Labor in 1768, the Cherokee ceded their claims to lands northeast of the Kanawha River. In later treaties, they surrendered claims to even more territory, with both sides ignoring the need for consent by the Shawnee, Delawares, Mingos, and Wyandots. Up to 1776, the colonial officials appointed by London facilitated the peaceful surrender of Native American land claims within the Indian Reserve.

In 1774, after the “Boston Massacre,” King George III extended the boundaries of the province of Quebec down to the Ohio River. In theory, this eliminated any opportunity for the Virginia governor and General Assembly to close on the land claims north of the Ohio River.

The king’s decision failed to intimidate the Virginia gentry or other rebellious colonial leaders. The American Revolution completely eliminated English authority to dictate the terms of American settlement of its western lands, though delays in withdrawing British garrisons did stimulate additional Native Ameriocan resistance on the frontier until the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, after “Mad Anthony” Wayne defeated the tribes at the Battle of Fallen Timbers.

Virginia did cede control over the Northwest Territory in 1781 to the Continental Congress, and Virginia officials were deeply involved in the establishment of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 that guided creation of new states from that territory.

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