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W.Va. and the Proclamation of 1763

While West Virginians have been celebrating the sesquicentennial, another notable day, the 250th anniversary of the Proclamation of 1763, has nearly gotten by us unremarked.

What? You don't recall that day in fifth grade when we learned about it? It's OK. You may borrow my notes.

At the end of the French and Indian War, the English and their colonists beat the French and their Native American allies. England gained a lot of territory north and west of the 13 American colonies, territory that colonists were eager to settle.

So imagine their surprise when King George III forbade them from doing so. He wanted things to cool off in the backwoods. The last thing he wanted were formidable native tribes taking forts and creating expensive military headaches for him.

On Oct. 7, 1763, in just the third year of his reign, he issued a proclamation setting a line along the top of the Appalachian Mountains. Settlers were not to try to buy land or settle beyond that line on pain of His Majesty's Displeasure. From the tops of our mountains west to the Mississippi River extending far into what is now Canada he reserved for Native Americans as their hunting grounds.

Maps differ, but for what is now West Virginia, the line passed west of Moorefield, south along the ridges and out somewhere in the vicinity of Monroe County. That was my first encounter with the Royal Proclamation, sitting in Valley View Elementary School in Berkeley County, peering westward. I sat on the English side of the line, barely. The rest of Virginia, just beyond those mountains on the western horizon, was Indian territory. Exciting!

From that year to this I never thought much about the Proclamation line except as a handy demarcation of the differences between the area where I grew up compared to where I have lived my adult life. At the risk of sounding like an American prat, unaware of anything outside her own borders, I would have supposed the document today must be as passé as a powdered wig or smoothbore musket.

But a chance reference in some Canadian history taught me differently this anniversary year.

The Proclamation did more than just chafe land-greedy colonists (and contribute to the American Revolution). Of course, it ceased to operate in what became the United States. But in Canada, it continues to set a pattern for negotiating treaties with native people. Canadians call it the "Indian Magna Carta." Native people say the document is the first time a European power recognized aboriginal title to ancestral land. The Proclamation is cited in the Canadian Constitution.

Earlier this month, at the 250th anniversary, leaders of the First Nations, as they say in Canada, marked the event on both sides of the Atlantic with speeches and ceremonies.

One hundred fifty years ago, West Virginia broke from the state of Virginia for reasons still prominent in our collective consciousness. But just 100 years before that, a distant king tried to fix and formalize our Western border. Events have long since overtaken his dusty proclamation in our part of the woods. But this shared anniversary gives us as good an occasion as any to look a little further back.

Like many readers, I like to think about forces of the past still at work on us in the present. And I am always pleasantly surprised when I trip over some tendril of history hidden in plain sight.Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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