‘Our Father, the President’

Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago/Art Resource
John James Barralet: Apotheosis of Washington, showing Lady Liberty and an Indian figure mourning as George Washington ascends to heaven, circa 1802

“The greatest Estates we have in this Colony,” George Washington reminded an impoverished Virginia neighbor in 1767, “were made…by taking up and purchasing at very low rates the rich back Lands which were thought nothing of in those days, but are now the most valuable Lands we possess.” From the earliest days, the British colonization of North America was a pell-mell land rush. Settlers, squatters, and speculators pushed unstoppably and aggressively west, all seeking land, whether by acquiring it cheaply or by grant or simply by grabbing it. But whose land was it? As far as the colonists were concerned, it was theirs, and as far as Native Americans were concerned, it was theirs and had been for centuries.

After Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War in 1763 and France’s cession to Britain of all its land east of the Mississippi, the British government faced the challenge of incorporating into its empire the territories it had acquired along with the Indian tribes that lived in them. It decided on a grand Solomonic stroke that it hoped would put an end to the land disputes between Indians and settlers and restore order on the frontier. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 placed a boundary down the spine of the Appalachian range. The vast lands west of the line—from the Appalachians north to the Great Lakes, west to the Mississippi River, and south to the Gulf of Mexico—were to remain Indian territory. Only the tribes could choose to sell their land and only the king and his representatives could purchase it. All private individuals were prohibited from buying “any Lands reserved to the said Indians.”

For his part, Washington viewed Britain’s move to close off that entire western region as merely “a temporary expedient to quiet the Minds of the Indians.” (Washington did not mention that the unspoken motive of British officials was to contain the American colonists east of the Appalachians in order to maintain imperial control.) Given the land hunger of men like himself who had made fortunes in speculation, he predicted that the Proclamation “must fall of course in a few years.” The royal governor of the colony of Virginia, the Earl of Dunmore, who had made a fortune of his own in real estate when he served as governor of New York, concurred, grasping what the London government did not: that no proclamation could curb “the emigrating Spirit of the Americans.”

In The Indian World of George Washington, Colin Calloway, an eminent scholar of Native American history, links 1763 to 1776, arguing that the Proclamation of 1763 marked the first step in the colonists’ alienation from the British Empire and their march toward independence. Driving…

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