Editor’s note: The year 2026 marks the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Today, Cardinal News embarks on a three-year project to tell the little-known stories of Virginia’s role in the march to independence. As part of this, I will be writing occasional columns about the politics of the era, written the same way I’d write them today.
This project is supported, in part, by a grant from the Virginia American Revolution 250 Commission. You can sign up to receive a free monthly newsletter with updates. Find all our stories from this project on the Cardinal 250 page.
Well, that’s a kick in the teeth.
Or, perhaps, some other part of the anatomy.
That’s the general sentiment sweeping across Virginia after news hit our shores about the proclamation issued by His Majesty King George III that forbids settlement west of a certain line — a line that may make sense to cartographers in London but which is wholly out of step with both the demographic and political realities of the colony.
Few things could have been better calculated to unite the political views of what are usually two very distinct and often differing groups in Virginia: the landed gentry of the east who have the wherewithal to engage in land speculation and the more common folk who would like to claim some of that land.
The conclusion of the late war (Editor’s note: What today we call the French and Indian War) had been greeted with both enthusiasm and some trepidation in Virginia — enthusiasm because the Treaty of Paris signed in February officially handed over much of North America from the French to the British, trepidation because many of us fretted that the gentry would profit from those new lands long before any actual settlers there did. Now it’s clear that the king doesn’t intend for either group to benefit from these new conquests, which raises the uncomfortable question of what were we actually fighting for these past years?
At the risk of offending His Royal Highness, it’s hard to avoid coming to the conclusion that the interests of the king on that side of the Atlantic and his subjects on this side of the Atlantic are no longer aligned the way they once were. Let us hope this breach can be repaired, because it is difficult to imagine a permanent rupture of the bonds between king and colony.
My view of things is influenced by living out here on the frontier, just barely on the royal side of the king’s proclamation line. Today, from my humble estate near Miller’s Mill in Augusta County (modern-day Fincastle in Botetourt County), I shall offer four observations about the king’s proclamation.
1. This breaks faith with veterans who were promised land for military service.
It has long been customary for the government to pay soldiers with land. This has been a beneficial arrangement for both sides: The government has had plenty of land to give away, and the main value of a man’s worth in today’s society is how much land he owns. The prospect of gaining new lands doubtless inspired many a man to risk his life in the late war. Indeed, the king himself recognizes this because his proclamation expressly tells the royal governor how much land he can allocate: 5,000 acres to every field officer, 3,000 acres to every captain, 2,000 acres to every staff officer, 200 acres to every non-commissioned officer and 50 acres to every “private man.” Let us set aside debate over the inherent inequities in these land allocations; those privates put their lives at jeopardy as much as every field officer. Instead, here’s the problem: Much of the land that war veterans have been eyeing is west of the line the king has just drawn. With one pen stroke, the king promises land. With another, he puts it out of reach. To be fair (and balanced), there is lots of land on the eastward sign of the king’s line, but much of the land that people want is west of it. These war veterans are not going to be happy to learn that they can’t redeem their land bounties in the territory they expected. I won’t say there’s not good land left east of the Alleghenies but the land just beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains is rapidly filling up. The number of horses and wagons I see on the Great Valley Road seems to increase by the day.
2. The crown has consented to land grants west of the line that are now rendered invalid.
Here in Virginia alone, two major companies of well-heeled land speculators have won government permission to acquire lands west of the Alleghenies.
In 1748, the great planters Thomas Lee and brothers Lawrence and Augustine Washington (all from Westmoreland County) formed the Ohio Company with the express purpose of settling the lands west of the Ohio River. The following year, His Majesty George II — grandsire of the current monarch — granted the Ohio Company 500,000 acres of that territory, some of it outright, some of it conditioned on the land being settled. It is true that these claims, which run counter to claims by the French and various native tribes to the same land, helped precipitate the late war, but the British victory should reinforce those claims, not invalidate them. The Ohio Company has expanded to include a who’s who of Virginians, many of them from the Northern Neck elite. Among them are the prominent planters Robert Carter of Northumberland County, Richard Lee of Westmoreland County, George Mason of Fairfax County and now George Washington of Fairfax County, the younger half-brother of the two founding Washingtons and, of late, a distinguished veteran of the recent war.
At the same time that the Ohio Company was being established, the House of Burgesses authorized the Loyal Land Company and awarded it 800,000 acres in Southwest Virginia and the “western waters” of the Ohio River watershed — all of which is now west of the king’s proclamation line. This company is founded by mostly western interests, but important men nonetheless, such as John Lewis of Staunton, Peter Jefferson of Albemarle County and Thomas Walker of Albemarle County. (Disclosure: Lewis is a relative of mine but we’ve never spoken.) Walker, aside from being a physician and a planter, is also renowned as an explorer and some years ago led an expedition through this land grant and discovered a great passage through the mountains that he named the Cumberland Gap in honor of the Duke of Cumberland.
None of these land speculators will want for meat on the table, but the king’s proclamation has just made them poorer; they are likely now just as displeased as all the war veterans.
3. The king already has subjects living in what are now considered forbidden lands.
Does he mean to eject them? This is what I mean by the king’s proclamation being out of touch with the demographic realities of the day. Can a mere piece of paper signed thousands of miles away really stop the human tide that is surging westward? There are already colonists who have established farmsteads west of the king’s line, whether they have the benefit of a formal land grant or not. By some estimates, there are hundreds of families already settled on land claimed by the Loyal Land Company in Southwest Virginia.
This is not some new, post-war phenomenon, either. When Walker made his famous western expedition in 1748 — some 15 years ago now — he reported that the German immigrant Samuel Stalnaker was already living along the Holston River (near present-day Chilhowie). Stalnaker has been widely acknowledged to be Virginia’s westernmost white colonist. Despite his remoteness, he seems to be making a good living by trading with the natives. You may recall that in 1753 Stalnaker figured in a political controversy — the Cherokee leader known as The Emperor petitioned Gov. Robert Dinwiddie to order Stalnaker to vacate his property because he was allegedly overcharging the natives. By then, Stalnaker had some white neighbors; one of them supported The Emperor’s petition, which suggests this dispute was more complicated than your usual conflicts between settlers and the indigenous people of the continent. The governor wound up concluding that Stalnaker’s prices were reasonable and eventually entrusted him with overseeing the construction of a road between his Holston River settlement and the salt lick on the Roanoke River (modern-day Roanoke).
The point being: The king’s line ignores the realities on the ground. Does the king mean to say he will not protect his own subjects? Or has he unilaterally declared them independent of the bonds that tie us to the crown? Southwest Virginia isn’t alone, either: We’ve already seen lots of scattered outposts in the Ohio territory; they may have been destroyed in the late war, but they’ll be back. The land there seems too rich. We’ve even heard reports of coal deposits and oil springs bubbling up out of the ground.
4. The proclamation line reveals the weakness of the British and the strength of the Native Americans.
The recent war, in which the British defeated the French both in North America and elsewhere in perhaps our first truly global conflict, appeared to leave Britain as the preeminent power on the planet. France saw its possessions greatly reduced — the Union Jack now flies over Quebec, the Spanish flag over Louisiana — and even Spain has ceded land to the British crown (although this appears to be mostly swampland in Florida, which probably won’t amount to anything). Rather than bestride the world like a newly empowered Colossus, the government in London seems more concerned about counting the shillings in the treasury. Having won all this land at the price of blood, Britain now worries that it will be too expensive to defend.
Make no mistake: Britain is not looking out for the indigenous peoples of the continent by declaring its lands between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi to be off-limits to settlement. It simply doesn’t want to pay for the cost of defending those settlers who would strike out into these lands. That also reflects a political reality we haven’t seen before: an unprecedented display of unity between the various and often-warring Native American tribes.
This unity may be fleeting, but it exists at the moment and that’s what counts. The Senecas of the Ohio country, under the leadership of Chief Pontiac, have been at the forefront of calling for a great Native American confederacy to resist colonial encroachment. Pontiac has already been successful at uniting the Ottawas, Ojibwas, Potawatomis and Hurons for a joint attack this past May on Fort Detroit on the Great Lakes (a former French fort that the British have now acquired). Pontiac and his allies never managed to take Fort Detroit but they did overrun five other British forts that lie west of the Alleghenies and south of the Great Lakes, from Fort Michilimackinac to Fort Presque Isle (from modern-day Mackinaw City, Michigan, to Erie, Pennsylvania). What we now call the French and Indian War may have ended, but the war between the colonists and the natives continues with what is now being called Pontiac’s War.
Pontiac, the most famous native leader of our day, is said to have told a war council of tribes that his goal is nothing less than pushing the British out of the trans-Allegheny: “It is important for us, my brothers, that we exterminate from our lands this nation which seeks only to destroy us. … Therefore, my brothers, we must all swear their destruction and wait no longer. Nothing prevents us; they are few in numbers, and we can accomplish it.” In the face of this, the greatest power on earth has decided to avoid a fight; that’s why it doesn’t want its people to settle these new lands because the crown doesn’t want to pay to defend them.
Can the natives forever hold onto what amounts to a buffer state between the British east of the Alleghenies and the Spanish who now own the formerly French lands west of the Mississippi? Doubtful — the tide of European settlement seems too strong — but for now all the native tribes have won a great victory in the form of the king’s proclamation. This was something that colonists didn’t expect when we took up arms in the late war, and certainly not something we expected when we heard about the many territorial concessions that Britain won in the Treaty of Paris. In his proclamation, the king refers to his “loving subjects.” If the king is serious about actually enforcing this royal order, he may find his colonial subjects are not so loving.