Royal Proclamation of 1763, British proclamation that established boundaries and governments for the American colonies that Britain acquired from France and Spain after the French and Indian War (1754-1763). These colonies included Québec, Florida, and Grenada. The proclamation also set aside a vast area of territory west of the Appalachian Mountains for the indigenous peoples, historically known as Indians. The establishment of this Indian territory angered people in Britain’s 13 colonies, which later became the United States, and helped spark the American Revolution (1775-1783). In what became Canada the proclamation had a lasting impact because it recognized a legal basis for indigenous peoples owning land throughout the country. It also committed Britain, and later Canada, to negotiating treaties with the indigenous peoples to acquire the land. (see Indian Treaties in Canada)
While it was necessary for King George III of England to establish boundaries and governments for Britain’s new colonies, Britain also sought to appease the Indians by setting aside land for them through the proclamation. During the French and Indian War many Indian nations fought on the French side, and months after defeating France, Britain faced an armed Indian resistance led by Ottawa chief Pontiac south of the Great Lakes. Pontiac organized attacks on British forts in the region to drive the British from their frontier possessions and to reestablish Indian autonomy. The British were unable to crush the uprising until 1765, after some 2,000 British soldiers, traders, and settlers had been killed.
In the proclamation, the king reserved the land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River for the Indian groups. The Indian territory was bounded on the south by West Florida and on the west and north by Rupert’s Land, a territory encompassing the vast watershed of Hudson’s Bay, which the British had granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company. The proclamation reduced the size of Québec dramatically. During French rule, the colony had stretched from the St. Lawrence Valley west and south, reaching fur trade lands south of the Great Lakes. Through the proclamation, the British made Québec a narrow parallelogram along the St. Lawrence Valley. The former Spanish colony of Florida was divided into two new ones, East Florida and West Florida. Although the proclamation called for assemblies in the new colonies, a governor appointed by the king held most of the power in each.
The proclamation required settlers to withdraw from the newly established Indian territory and barred traders from entering the region unless they first obtained a license from the governor of one of the colonies. The king also heavily restricted purchases of land in the Indian territory. He stated in the decree, “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.” If any Indian group wished to sell some of these lands, “the same shall be purchased only for Us, in our Name, at some public meeting or assembly of the said Indians, to be held for the purposes by the Governor.”
The colonial governors relayed the proclamation’s terms to the settlers. At a 1764 conference on the Niagara River in New York, an official from the imperial Indian Department informed 2,000 chiefs from many Indian nations about the terms of the proclamation.
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In the short term, the proclamation caused widespread dismay in the 13 colonies and Québec, and it failed to protect the Indian territory it had created. In the 13 colonies, settlers resented Britain’s effort to restrict their freedom to trade and to settle in the North American interior. In Québec the proclamation shrank the colony and failed to resolve the competing interests of the British newcomers and the French-speaking majority. Finally, there were too few imperial forces to protect the Indian territory and to stop colonists from moving westward onto the lands. In 1774 the Royal Proclamation was largely replaced by the Québec Act.
After the American Revolution, Americans disregarded British imperial documents such as the proclamation. However, Canada never revolted against Britain, and the proclamation has continued to influence Canadian law. Although the Québec Act replaced many of the proclamation’s provisions, the one that recognized indigenous peoples’ ownership of the land they occupied remained valid. After the United States became independent in 1783, many British Loyalists fled to Québec. Although Québec needed to find land for these settlers, it did not forcibly seize indigenous groups’ land. Instead the colonial government there and later in Upper Canada (Ontario) negotiated for it, as the proclamation dictated. After the Confederation of Canada in 1867, the Canadian government adhered to the same approach in the western Prairie provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta) and the Northwest Territories.
Courts in Britain and Canada—in the Calder case (1973) and the Delgamuukw case (1997)—have used the proclamation to construct a doctrine that legally recognizes aboriginal title to land in situations in which Indians never surrendered land through treaty. In these cases, indigenous groups in British Columbia were able to point to the proclamation as evidence that they possessed land and other rights that the provincial and federal governments had to recognize. The proclamation is even cited in the Constitution Act of 1982. The proclamation has been so important for indigenous groups’ interests in Canada that it is often described as the Indian Magna Carta.