1763 Proclamation Act Disrupted the Tidewater Virginia Oligopoly

The first of a series of post-French and Indian War British legislation most affected the course of Virginia, its leadership and its non-elites, and started in motion the colony’s drift to Independence: the 1763 Proclamation Act. Simply put, that had more direct impact on both Virginia’s elites and its western county masses , than it did in other states, excepting possibly Pennsylvania. Succinctly, the Proclamation Act was regarded in London as a temporary fix to the realities of its new North American colonial empire. It was to be replaced by the 1774 Quebec Act, but in the interim.it set back Virginia’s plan to settle the western trans-Appalachian lands, today’s Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. The immediate trigger for the Act was the start of Pontiac’s War in 1763–a Native American reaction to the peace treaty just signed. Pontiac’s War exposed a decided lack of Indian trust in its new post-French hegemon. Accordingly, t intent behind the Act’ intent was to secure some level of cooperation from Native Americans, and signal to them that London was aware of their needs and demands. The hope was the Act would buy some level of peace on the American frontier, which from Britain’s perspective extended through to the Mississippi River, and of course, into Canada [1a].

The Act implied a recognition of Indian land ownership (title) to western lands. It formally limited, to the point of stopping, white American settlement, as it forbade land grants to individuals in excess of 1,000 acres–and implied that past state-issued land grants in excess of that would no longer be valid. Verbiage in the Act acknowledged the gross and ill effects of previous land speculation on Native American interests–without any efforts to redress such actions. Essentially the Act was distrusted by all sides. Just as bad, it simply lacked precision as boundaries were never sufficiently specific as to make clear who owned what. Moreover, the British Army in North America, 7,000 soldiers in total, never had the capacity, and arguably the willingness, to make a commitment to enforce the Act’s provisions. Whatever authority the Act implied, Britain did not have control over the “site”.

A series of small scale clashes between the Army and squatters did occur over the next few years, but in 1768 General Gates, the commander-in-chief publicly informed the King and Privy Council that he could not stop colonial squatting, and that the only effective remedy to it was Native American vigilante action [1]. Native Americans sparsely settled much of these lands, and since chronic colonial squatter intrusions never stopped, even iff tolerated Native American action would only generate a reciprocal reaction from the horde of potential settlers in residence at the border’s periphery. As we shall see in our discussion of George Washington in a future module, the Proclamation did not stop speculative land speculation by Tidewater plantation elites– but did frustrate the implementation of such plans, as successful land sales required a legal title, and with the Proclamation Act in place that was not forthcoming. When the Quebec Act was finally passed it was forbidden. Moreover in between British politicians flirted with setting up a new colony, a colony tied to Canada by the Mississippi and Great Lakes.

It was meant to be a “time-out” in western migration What followed was an object lesson in a government’s inability to formulate a coherent policy. It could not decide whether it wanted settlers pouring into the transmontane West“. Debate ranged within London decision-making bodies as to whether to facilitate trans-Appalachian settlement and expansion, while others feared that settlement would be beyond the effective control of London’s administration, inviting unwanted autonomy, Indian troubles, and general instability. Still others argued the Ohio Valley was not the location for settlement, Canadian settlement was in London’s best interests. “The result of all this was chaos[2].

The fourth option, the most disturbing to Virginians like Washington, was that Britain should establish proprietary colonies (through large land grants to land companies such as had been to Penn’s Pennsylvania, Calvert’s Maryland, and Jamestown’s Virginia). The areas of today’s West Virginia and Kentucky were the prime candidates. That was the direction London was incrementally heading when the drift to Independence turned to War in 1774-5. With creation of a proprietary colony, Virginia’s extensive trans-Appalachian land claims (as would Maryland’s and Pennsylvania) would be voided, and any land grands (Dinwiddie’s to veterans, Ohio/Loyal Land Companies) would be null and void. A new proprietary colony would have its own colonial government with interests/constituencies of its own.

Washington, a land developer with ties to each of these, clearly had a “dog” in this fight against this option–and by 1773-4 that option would be an existential threat to his western land development vision, effectively limit Virginia to its present day boundaries, and set up rival colonies on its borders. Whatever the mere declaration of a Proclamation Line was in 1763, by 1774 the vacuum it had created and the incremental evolution of potential British final policy greatly affected, negatively, the future of the Virginia planter elite in its efforts to both diversity its economic base, and evolve beyond tobacco-based plantation agriculture. In essence, the Proclamation Act fractured what ought to have been its most loyal colony, a colony settled by Royalists who sought to preserve the manor way of life in the new land. It also imposed a futile and easily penetrated barrier to western ethnic settler-squatters who defied the non-existent British authority and the erratic raids of its Indian owners.

The inevitable effect by the early 1770’s was an explosion of land schemes, and multiple petitions from investors and land companies to London decision-makers for favorable action (Washington among them). The most famous of these schemes was Franklin’s (he was Pennsylvania’s ambassador to London) advocacy of the “Grand Ohio Company”, which needless to say unhinged competitors from the other colonies. Royal colonial officials such as William Johnson, William Tyron, and Virginia’s governor Fauquier were on both sides of the issue–personally and professionally. Not surprisingly, all this was very apparent to Native Americans, and raids, warfare, and tribal non-cooperation made the frontier a bloody hellhole. The Ohio area was bad enough, but Kentucky/Tennessee was much more troubled. Indeed, Dragging Canoe, a Shawnee who actively resisted white intrusion warned whites that any further intrusion would result in their deaths as Kentucky as “a bloody ground and would be dark and difficult to settle“.

The reality on the ground by the 1770’s was that settlement, legal title of land, land development, Indian-fighting and resistance, and frustration with British policy-making conflated in one unholy mess. That migration into these western colony borders did not desist, but if anything increased. Colonial settlers on their own following trails, and passages along the Wagon Road and Warrior’s path diffused into small-scale settlements across the length of the border from Virginia on down. By 1774-75 with a War of Independence in the offing (the First Continental Congress met in October 1774) the chaos, opportunism, tit-for-tat reprisals, informal settlements established, open warfare (Lord Dunsmore War, and the Cherokee War) erupted, and in 1775 infused the newly started Revolutionary War made the trans-Appalachian east of the Mississippi a war, of all, against all. “By 1775 the British Empire had lost all credibility and influence in the Ohio Valley. Imperial authority [in the West] shrank into a few small forts scattered around the Great Lakes” [3].

Virginia’s Reaction

As a time-out it made considerable sense in London, but from the perspective of a considerable number of influential Virginians it made little sense. The “Line” itself was never precisely surveyed or determined, and it remained unclear where colony borders ended and the Line started. Worse, it conflicted head-on with the various land development schemes, including the Ohio Land Company’s ongoing, hugely expensive initiative to settle the area. The Ohio Company in particular, but also the Loyal Company, were crippled in their efforts to pick up the pieces of their schemes and past land grants after the French and Indian War. More unfortunate from the land development point of view, the entire issue/question of Ohio land development in particular had run afoul of mainstream Tidewater politics which feared the costs inherent in western settlement (war, roads, new populations), and even worse than that, pro-western settlement Governor Dinwiddie resigned in 1758. His successor, a remarkable and in many ways “enlightened”, new Governor, Francis Fauquier, was steadfastly opposed to any violation of the Proclamation Act.

In any case the French and Indian War had disrupted Tidewater politics considerably. Pro-western settlement, Dinwiddie was controversial from the start. An early tax on land sales intended to pay his salary ( and free him from Burgesses) set him at war with the Council of State and Burgesses. That rupture never healed during his tenure. One could also make the case, with only slight exaggeration, that Dinwiddie, an investor in the Ohio Land Company, and a visceral supporter of Virginia’s aggressive Ohio Valley expansion post-1751, was the main reason France got nervous about Britain-Virginia’s Ohio Valley intentions, and correspondingly sent a military and Indian force into Ohio and western Pennsylvania. It was Dinwiddie’s young negotiator, a fellow named George Washington whose brother was a founder of the Ohio Land Company, that started the war.

During Dinwiddie’s administration (with Dinwiddie as an investor) the Ohio Land Company desperately attempted to satisfy and comply with the stipulations required by the terms of its land grant, by setting up forts, building roads, and attracting settlers into the southern Ohio Valley. Virginia, the state government, in formal partnership with the Ohio Land Company had entered into troubled waters, and it was hard to separate private self-interest and profit from legitimate, if controversial, western expansion. But the escalation of that initiative into a major world war was obviously not going to be seen in a positive light by anyone. When the French countered Dinwiddie’s and the Ohio Land Company’s settlement of the Ohio Valley, it further irritated many non-Northern Neck planter oligopoly and land speculators by raising not only the specter of war with France, but a hostile reaction of Native Americans along the entire Virginia frontier. The Loyal Company was also, without Dinwiddie’s involvement, trying to establish its own settlement of lands in Kentucky and beyond. When Dinwiddie sent Lord Fairfax’s young twenty-one year old surveyor (and whose brothers were principals in the Ohio Land Company) as the military leader and negotiator to iron out differences with the French, and that initial effort failed and soon escalated into surrender at Fort Necessity and the onset of the French and Indian War, the fears of most Virginia oligopoly and land developers were realized.

Virginia and the General Assembly was dragged into a war that the majority of its leadership and the planter oligopoly did not want. The war went badly at first, and even when the tide turned and victory was achieved, Virginia was left in serious debt. The war also brought about a tobacco recession, which led to a major scandal in the colony’s fiscal administration that critically hurt a good number of its planter oligopoly, and it also triggered an immensely polarizing battle with the Anglican ministers over their pay–a battle that in 1758 launched the career of Virginia young populist, and new Burgesses member, Patrick Henry.

The fiscal scandal proved to be the most disruptive. It was a considerable source of embarrassment for all, not dissimilar to our Watergate in its political consequences. The scandal demolished in its wake several prominent Council of State landowners, many Burgesses landowners, and hit disproportionately on the older generation of Virginia oligopoly, which discredited them in the eyes of many of the younger generation of leadership that assumed office for the first time in 1758–the year Dinwiddie resigned, and was replaced by Fauquier. The lessons learned from the scandal and the ensuing cover-up-corruption by the younger generation left overtones which will play out during the drift to Independence, the writing of Virginia’s revolutionary war state constitution, and on the political thought of a twenty year old Thomas Jefferson–who would quickly become a protégé of the newly arrived governor that replaced Dinwiddie.

Fauquier proved a capable and even popular governor in the most troubled period of the drift to Independence. A well-educated university trained–his father was an associate of Sir Isaac Newton–intellectually inclined, a professional in the field of public finance, a founder of London’s first public hospital, and a strong proponent of British mercantilism from which his personal wealth was derived (as director of the South Sea Company). Fauquier waded through the recession, the fight with the Anglican Church, the struggles to equip, pay for, and wage the French and Indian War, and the scandals in which he provided a level of support to the embarrassed General Assembly and the planter oligopoly. Fauquier inherited much of Dinwiddie’s dirty laundry of close associations, war, recession and scandals. He did a remarkable job in navigating through the mess, and establishing sound policy and almost popular support with much of the oligopoly.

Fauquier’s involvement with the faculty of William and Mary in Williamsburg allowed him to meet, and profoundly and positively impact, the students, Jefferson being one, who would later be revolutionary war leaders. Fauquier was an enlightenment thinker, elected to the Royal Society of London in 1753, and a Corresponding member of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce–an international think tank and the closest thing previous to 1800 to the International Economic Development Council-Brookings and Cato Institute. In many ways, he exposes how the Enlightenment thought and practice permeated into mainstream Virginia and its politics and economics. Ill, in 1758, Fauquier prepared his will that was remarkable not only in its treatment of his slaves, but in making very clear Fauquier’s serious uncomfortably with slavery and his role in it. Many of the sons (and daughters) of the Tidewater oligopoly had sent their children to school in England, where they resided in full view of the philosophic, economic, social and political evolution of the Mother Country. Richard Henry Lee was not atypical in having spent five years in college, European travel, and residence in England before his return to Virginia in 1754. Marriage and intermarriage with English elites exported and imported young British elites into Virginia evolving culture.

With the discredit of its General Assembly, a fractured, embarrassed and fragmented planter oligopoly, the wreck that was Virginia’s finance and fiscal systems, its troubled relations with the Anglican Church and the tobacco recession all combining in a war with French and Indians, this was without doubt the lowest point in Virginia’s Tidewater-dominated government since Bacon’s Rebellion, nearly a hundred years past. To add into the mix a generational succession that separated father from son, families from family members, and intensified the different economic development strategies of individual factions of the oligopoly, it was clear the Virginia planter oligopoly no longer presented a united front against change, and was vulnerable to shifting majorities reshaped by highly controversial and polarizing legislation from London.

More to the point, Fauquier did not support the Ohio Land Company, nor its involvement in the Ohio Valley–which by the middle 1760’s had attracted interest from other colonies such as Maryland, Pennsylvania and even Massachusetts. [Ohio’s first permanent settlement, Marietta, was settled by residents from Ipswich Massachusetts]. When the Proclamation Act restricted land sales and settlement of these hinterland territories by colonial land speculators and settlers, Fauquier clamped down hard, and refused to defend or lobby for changes in the Act. Lacking any real on-the-ground authority within these contested territories, Fauquier’s opposition and legislation had no practical effect on Virginia land development activities, or migratory settlement, which continued unabashedly. Fauquier sickened during 1767, and died in 1768–replaced, after a short tenure by Lord Botetourt who also quickly died, by John Murray, Earl of Dunsmore, i.e. Lord Dunsmore a Scot in 1771. Murray (Dunsmore) would be the last royal governor of Virginia.

If Fauquier and Botetourt were consistent and honest, Dunsmore was pretty much the opposite. Considered by historians as a “rogue” governor, Dunsmore followed his own instincts, and all too often personal self-interest In his defense, he attempted to follow what he perceived as the King’s true interests in preserving the King’s hold over the colonies. To the extent possible that meant overpowering/shutting down, and dividing up legislatures and popular movements actively involved in asserting colony-state sovereignty/demanding formal negotiation with Britain on British policies and proclamations. Dunsmore arrived on the scene too late , and his relations with Burgesses quickly broke down; he suspended the Burgesses, which did little to stop its resistance. The Legislature simply headed for the nearest bar and set itself up as the “states” de facto legislature–a clear assertion of it its authority. At this juncture, the Crown itself further confused matters with the Quebec Act which drove man to the breaking point of independence, Virginia especially.

The Quebec Act supported Canadian development into the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers thereby limiting American colonial western settlement. Further the Act allowed small acreage land sales to individuals–a direct attack on the various land development companies schemes then abounding. It is this period (1773-4) that Richard Henderson (Anti-North Carolina Regulator War) and Daniel Boone built the Cumberland Road, and late in the year settled in Boonesborough Kentucky. Events on the frontier spiraling, propelled by chronic and sustain migrations that dumped more and more residents in the peripheries of each colony. These western counties were for all practical purposes in a political limbo, where no power could exercise consistent authority. Dunsmore’s position on Virginia western expansion, from which he hoped for personal profit, differed radically from Crown policy.

To some extent Dunsmore attempted to separate the western settlers from their coastal counterparts, by taking their side in the expansion/settlement issue against the Indians. If so, he was making himself liable for numerous independent settlement schemes from Ohio to the Kentucky border. Individual and collective expansion into these troubled territories aggravate the Indians and several clusters of small-scale Indian wars erupted, with raids and slaughters on both sides only adding fuel. Mobilizing the Virginia militia, Dunsmore defended the colonial position and launched several military campaigns against tribes, whether or not they were then in active resistance.

Known as Lord Dunsmore War (1774), the Indians suffered a serious defeat at the Battle of Point Pleasant (Oct, 1774) and the subsequent Treaty of Camp Charlotte at least formally set the official boundary of Indian-titled lands at the Ohio River. That dissident tribes and war leaders continued the Native American resistance after the battle and treaty, only was further testimony to the anarchy that characterized the western hinterland of Virginia/Ohio/Kentucky/Tennessee. From this point on, little appreciated by historians, the southwestern frontier became the most brutal Native-American-western American settler war; it lasted well into the 1790’s. Even that war, with all its horrors, did not stop western expansion into Indian territory.

From Dunmore’s perspective, the situation worsened in 1775 when colonial western settlers, and the Virginia Company (Virginia’s professional militia regiment) joined with the Independence movement. Separate from the opposition movement led by Burgesses, western populists joined forces with Piedmont-based populist radicals like Patrick Henry, and the dissident wing of coastal Tidewater planter oligopoly. In Virginia, as with the other colonies (as we shall see in future modules) the War of Independence was a “populist” movement in which American elites, displaced by the King and his governors, were thrust into an alliance against a more powerful elite in England–the King and Parliament. Arrayed with the displaced colonial elites were dissident factions within Virginia’s core policy system (a Northern Neck western land development group, a young generation of Enlightenment-influenced Piedmont plantation owners, and a motley group of ethnic Tidewater-resident populists) and western county ethnic settlers, newly-arrived from England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany/Switzerland, and France. Virginia Loyalists were always in the minority and Dunsmore’s capital soon became his cabin on a British Navy frigate, moored off of Norfolk–that story is told in our next module.



[1a] Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, the Age of Federalism: the Early American Republic, 1788-1800 (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 39

[1] Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: a Continental History, 1750-1804 (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016), pp. 72-5

[2] John E Ferling, The First of Men (University of Tennessee Press, 1988), p. 70

[3] Alan Taylor, American Revolutions, p. 82