Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: King George III’s decree limiting expansion past the Appalachians was one spark of the American Revolution

The map by Daniel Paterson from 1767 shows the boundary set by King George III where colonists were prohibited based on the Royal Proclamation of 1763.  (Library of Congress)
By Kevin Kipers For The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: Name one reason why the Americans declared independence from Britain.

The American Revolution receives so much attention in our primary and secondary education that most are familiar with, at least, a basic understanding of reasons colonists formally declared independence from Britain. These causes are numerous and most stemmed from the well-known tax measures the British Crown imposed, and they were extensive, especially after the country incurred massive debt following the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763.

Not only was colonist resentment tied to paying the taxes themselves, but it deepened the debate over whether this was an overreach of governance on Britain’s part.

Indeed, this broader question of how much authority was permissible for the Crown carried greater significance than how much money American colonists were obligated to pay. Yet, their issues with the Crown’s governing extended beyond tax laws. Most significant were laws regulating the territorial bounds within which colonists could settle. A passage within the Declaration of Independence, in fact, addresses this.

The conclusion of the Seven Years’ War resulted in British victory over French and Spanish rivals, with the Crown expanding its colonial domain in North America. In addition to financial debt, however, Britain’s leaders still faced a complex situation involving settlement patterns within and around their new territory. Tensions between colonist and Indigenous occupation remained rampant, with frequent disputes over land.

Still, the Crown was in no position to invest its depleted resources into a full-scale war with the tribal people and opted, instead, for efforts at maintaining amicable relations. Thus, King George III issued a decree in 1763, eight months after the Treaty of Paris brought the war to an end. This was the Royal Proclamation of 1763, meant as a formal agreement among British subjects and Indigenous people with regard to allotted territory.

Most significant, the proclamation imposed a line demarcating permitted settlement patterns between colonists and native populations. Under this measure, colonists were forbidden from any settlement west of the Appalachian Mountain range, which the Crown allocated to Indigenous people. Defiance of this law subjected colonists to risking loss of rights to which British citizens were entitled. Such entitlements included access to basic needs like food, as well as protections from potential tribal attacks. The proclamation was well-intentioned on the surface in attempts to appease all parties, but the Crown also confronted a challenging task of trying to resolve an issue surrounded by a seemingly irreconcilable solution.

On one hand, native populations retained heavy hostility over the fact colonists occupied land they had occupied and still believed to rightfully be their own. There was also the flip side of this coin concerning colonist desire for permanent settlement without massive roadblocks toward achieving it. Leaders of European nations had common motives for promoting colonization, including commodifying new resources for economic growth and extending their political influence via tactics like religious conversion of native peoples.

Colonists held their own set of causes for fleeing their homeland. Their motives were numerous, but one of the more significant was attaining land ownership at little to no cost, which often proved difficult in eighteenth-century Britain. Besides the threat of Indigenous attacks, a higher presence of land speculators, which often came with increased colonial settlement in claimed territories, jeopardized hopes of obtaining this goal.

For the colonists, the 1763 proclamation interfered with prospects of westward settlement if they came to a point when doing so seemed like a more viable solution to their ultimate mission. Furthermore, American colonists’ bitterness toward the Crown intensified over the idea of losing protections for unsanctioned resettlement across the assigned boundary line. Many colonists reacted by deliberately defying the order and crossing west of the Appalachians. This led to a series of disputes, including the notable Pontiac’s War from 1763 to 1766 in which tribes of the Great Lakes region initiated a coalition against British control with attempts at driving unwanted troops and settlers from the area.

Another noteworthy incident occurred in late 1763 around Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River when the colonist vigilante group called the Paxton Boys moved into tribal lands. Here, they openly raided with violent attacks on homes in Conestoga, a local tribal village, resulting in around 20 deaths. They claimed these attacks were in retaliation for alleged frequent Indigenous raids on their homes during Pontiac’s War. Additional attacks ensued on colonial government officials, believed to be sympathetic to tribal populations, and led to the Paxton Boys’ eventual arrest. In any case, events like these represented the immediate backlash against the proclamation line.

It is undeniable the Crown’s various tax acts played an important role in American colonists’ desire to secede from the British Empire.

What is probably less common knowledge is that the Royal Proclamation of 1763 fueled an already-tense territorial dispute between Indigenous people and colonists into a broader conflict among settlers and Britain.

Among many additional grievances expressed toward the Crown in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson asserted, “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

There is an extensive list of reasons Americans declared independence from Britain, but settlement patterns is one of the most significant, yet forgotten.

Kevin Kipers is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of History at Washington State University in Pullman. This article is part of a Spokesman Review partnership with the Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.