“The Proclamation of 1763.” It sounds so official. So formal. In fact, it’s so important that we only have to refer to it as the Proclamation of 1763 to know what we’re talking about. That’s pretty impressive.
But what was this “Royal Proclamation of 1763?” Why was it so important?
What was the Proclamation of 1763?
This Proclamation was a decree from Parliament, issued by King George III on October 7, 1763, that forbade the settlement of territory west of the Appalachian Mountains — a range of peaks that stretches from Maine in the Northeast all the way to Alabama and Georgia in the Southeast. This was the same territory Great Britain had acquired from France as part of the Treaty of Paris, signed to end the Seven Years’ War.
There were reasons for issuing such a decree, but American colonists interpreted this proclamation as an overstep by the king into colonial affairs and an unfair response to the colonial effort during the war with France.
In this sense, it stimulated rebellious sentiment in the colonies. It reminded colonists that their best interests were not the same as those of the king and Parliament; it reminded them that the American colonies existed to benefit the Crown — a sobering, and potentially very dangerous, fact.
Over time, most especially during the 13 years after King George III issued the Proclamation, this would become even more apparent, eventually driving the colonists to declare their independence and fight for it in the American Revolution.
How’s that for important?
What Did the Proclamation of 1763 Do?
This Proclamation established a temporary western boundary line barring colonists from settling west of the Appalachian Mountains.
Interestingly, the official language of the proclamation stated that all the lands with rivers flowing into the Atlantic belonged to the colonists and all lands with rivers flowing into the Mississippi belonged to the Native Americans. A somewhat strange way of distinguishing between territory. But what works, works.
Why Was the Proclamation of 1763 Issued?
It was passed after the Treaty of Paris was agreed to between France and Britain, ending the Seven Years’ War. This conflict had started in North America but quickly became a global one, with Spain entering the fray to fight Great Britain in the late 1750s.
The victory gave the British control over a large expanse of territory that included the Northwest Territory as well as the territory of Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee. In addition, the British took over French North American territories, which extended from Nova Scotia in the East and past what is now the city of Ottawa to the West.
King George issued the proclamation so as to better organize this new territory and establish a system for administering what had suddenly become a massive overseas empire.
Yet the Proclamation angered most American colonists, as it dramatically hindered the space that they had to expand. What’s more, many people already had land grants in the territory they were now forbidden from settling on.
Many colonists who had fought in the French and Indian War saw these lands as part of the prize for their sacrifice and being forbidden from settling disrespected their service.
The French and Indian War and its European theater, the Seven Years’ War, ended with the 1763 Treaty of Paris. Under the treaty, all French colonial territory west of the Mississippi River was ceded to Spain, while all French colonial territory east of the Mississippi River and south of Rupert’s Land (save Saint Pierre and Miquelon, which France kept) was ceded to Great Britain. Both Spain and Britain received some French islands in the Caribbean, while France kept Haiti and Guadeloupe.
The Proclamation of 1763 dealt with the management of former French territories in North America that Britain acquired following its victory over France in the French and Indian War, as well as regulating colonial settlers’ expansion. It established new governments for several areas: the province of Quebec, the new colonies of West Florida and East Florida, and a group of Caribbean islands, Grenada, Tobago, Saint Vincent, and Dominica, collectively referred to as the British Ceded Islands.
Any land that resided west of the Appalachian Mountains, from the southern area of the Hudson Bay to the region north of Florida were to be preserved for American Indian lands.
All of this caused the colonists to take the Proclamation as an insult. A reminder that the king did not recognize them as independent governing bodies but rather as pawns in a massive chess game designed to increase his wealth and power.
But the boundary line was not supposed to be permanent. Instead, it was designed to slow westward expansion of the colonies, which the Crown had found difficult to regulate due to the vastness of the territory, and also because of the near-constant threat of attack from Native Americans.
As a result, the proclamation was intended to help bring order to the settlement of this new territory. But in doing this, the British government instead created considerable disorder in the Thirteen Colonies, and this helped set the wheels in motion for the movement that would lead to the American Revolution.
Many colonists disregarded the proclamation line and settled west which created tension between them and the Native Americans. Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763–1766) was a war involving Native American tribes, primarily from the Great Lakes region, the Illinois Country, and Ohio Country who were dissatisfied with British postwar policies in the Great Lakes region after the end of the Seven Years’ War.
The Proclamation Line of 1763
The Proclamation Line of 1763 is similar to the Eastern Continental Divide’s path running northwards from Georgia to the Pennsylvania–New York border and north-eastwards past the drainage divide on the St. Lawrence Divide from there northwards through New England.
The language of the original Proclamation of 1763 (October, 7, 1763) used the directional flow of rivers to establish a territory line, which is much more complicated than it needs to be in the 21st century.
So, here’s something a bit more visual and specific:
However, as mentioned, this initial line was not intended to be permanent. And, as colonists who had a problem with the line raised issues within the legal system of the British Empire, it was gradually pushed west.
By 1768, the Treaty of Fort Stanwix and the Treaty of Hard Labor opened this territory up considerably to settlement by the American colonists, and in 1770, the Treaty of Lochaber went even further to allow settlement of the territory that would eventually become Kentucky and West Virginia.
Here’s a map of how the line changed in the years after the Proclamation:
So, in the end, the colonists may have jumped the gun getting so angry at the King for the proclamation. It took five years to get a new treaty, and seven to fully extend the scope of the available territory.
This is a long time, and while people were waiting for this issue to be resolved, the king was getting even more involved in colonial affairs and making the idea of revolution and independence that much more appetizing.
A Starting Point
The Proclamation line was not the “straw that broke the camel’s back” leading up to the American Revolution. Instead, it was more like one of the first straws. An initial straw. The camel started to slowly tire after the proclamation, only to collapse thirteen years later.
As a result, the Proclamation really does deserve its all-important status, for it helped set in motion one of the most influential movements in human history: the United States’ struggle for independence.