Settling America – The Proprietary Colonies

By David Saville Muzzey, 1920

Proprietor Grants

Proprietor Grants

Of the 13 colonies which were later to unite to form the United States, all except Virginia and the New England settlements were founded as proprietorships. The Proprietorship was a sort of middle thing between the royal province and the self-governing colony. The king let the reins of government out of his own hands but did not give them into the hands of the colonists. Between the king and the settlers stood the proprietor, a man or a small group of men, generally courtiers, to whom the king had granted the province. The proprietors appointed the governors, established courts, collected a land taxes from the inhabitants, offered bonuses to settlers, and in general, managed their provinces like farms or any other business venture, subject always to the limitations imposed by the terms of their charter from the king and the opposition of their legislatures in the colonies.


In 1632, George Calvert, also known as Lord Baltimore, a Roman Catholic nobleman high in the favor of the court, obtained from King Charles I, the territory between the fortieth parallel of north latitude and the south bank of the Potomac River, with a very liberal charter.

The people of Maryland were to enjoy “all the privileges, franchises, and liberties” of English subjects; no tax was to be levied by the crown on persons or goods within the colony; and laws were to be made “by the proprietor, with the advice of the freemen of the colony.” George Calvert died before the king’s great seal was affixed to the charter, but his son, Cecilius Calvert, sent a colony in 1634 to St. Marys, on the shores of Chesapeake Bay.

Religious and civil liberties were established in Maryland in 1649, by James Barry, 1793.

Religious and civil liberties were established in Maryland in 1649, by James Barry, 1793.

The second Lord Baltimore needed all his tact, nobility, and courage to meet the difficulties with which he had to struggle. The tract of land granted to him by King Charles lay within the boundaries of the grant of King James to the Virginia Company. A Virginian fur trader named Claiborne was already established on Kent Island in Chesapeake Bay and refused either to retire or to give allegiance to the Catholic Lord Baltimore. It came to war with the Virginian Protestants before Claiborne was dislodged. Again, Lord Baltimore interpreted the words of his charter to mean that the proprietor was to frame the laws and the freemen to accept them; but the very first assembly of Maryland took the opposite view, insisting that the proprietor had only the right of approving or vetoing laws which they had passed. Baltimore tactfully yielded.

Religious strife also played an important part in the troubled history of the Maryland settlement. Lord Baltimore had founded his colony chiefly as an asylum for the persecuted Roman Catholics of England, who were regarded as idolaters by both the New England Puritans and the Virginia Episcopalians. To have Mass celebrated at St. Marys was, in the eyes of the intolerant Protestants, to pollute the soil of America. As Baltimore tolerated all Christian sects in his province, the Protestants simply flooded out the Catholics of Maryland by immigration from Virginia, New England, and old England. Eight years after the establishment of the colony, the Catholics formed less than 25%  of the inhabitants, and in 1649, the proprietor was obliged to protect his fellow religionists in Maryland by getting the assembly to pass the famous Toleration Act, providing that “no person in this province professing to believe in Jesus Christ shall be in any ways troubled, molested, or discountenanced for his or her religion . . . so that they be not unfaithful to the lord proprietary or molest or conspire against the civil government established.” Although this was the first act of religious toleration on the statute books of the American colonies, we should remember that Roger Williams, thirteen years earlier, had founded Rhode Island on principles of religious toleration more complete than those of the Maryland Act; for Jews or freethinkers would be excluded from Lord Baltimore’s domain. By 1658 the fierce strife between Catholic and Protestant had been allayed, and Maryland settled down to peaceful and prosperous development.


King Charles II, who took a great interest in the colonies in the early years of his reign, granted to a group of eight noblemen, in 1663, the huge tract of land between Virginia and the Spanish settlement of Florida, extending westward to the “South Sea” (Pacific Ocean). The charter gave the proprietors powers as ample as Lord Baltimore’s in Maryland. But, the board of proprietors was not equal to Lord Baltimore in tact, energy, and devotion to the interests of the colony. The initial mistake was the attempt to enforce a ridiculously elaborate constitution, the “Grand Model,” composed for the occasion by the celebrated English philosopher John Locke, and utterly unfit for a sparse and struggling settlement.

A community grew up on the Chowan River in 1670, founded by some malcontents from Virginia, and another on the shore of the Ashley River, 300 miles to the south. The latter settlement was transferred ten years later in 1680 to the site of the modern city of CharlestonSouth Carolina.

Colonial Days, James S. King, 1887

Colonial Days, James S. King, 1887

These two widely separated settlements developed gradually into North and South Carolina respectively. The names were used as early as 1691, but the colony was not officially divided and provided with separate governors until 1711. The history of the Carolinas is a story of inefficient government, of wrangling and discord between people and governors, governors and proprietors, and the proprietors and king. North Carolina was described as “a sanctuary of runaways,” where “everyone did what was right in his own eyes, paying tribute neither to God nor to Caesar.” The Spaniards incited the Indians to attack the colony from the south, and pirates swarmed in the harbors and creeks of the coast. Finally, the assembly of South Carolina, burdened by an enormous debt from the Spanish-Indian wars, offered the lands of the province for sale to settlers on its own terms. The proprietors vetoed this action, which invaded their chartered rights. Then the assembly renounced obedience to the proprietors’ magistrates and petitioned King George I to be taken under his protection as a royal province in 1719. It was the only case in our colonial history of a proprietary government overthrown by its own assembly. Ten years later the proprietors sold their rights and interests in both Carolinas to the crown for the paltry sum of £50,000. So, two more colonies were added to the growing list of royal provinces.

New York

Fort Amersterdam, New York

Fort Amsterdam, New York

While the Carolina proprietors were inviting settlers to their new domain, an English fleet sent out by King Charles’ brother, the Duke of York, sailed into New York Harbor and demanded the surrender of the feebly garrisoned Dutch fort on Manhattan Island in September 1664. The fort was commanded by Peter Stuyvesant, director general of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, which had been founded fifty years before and was governed by the Dutch West India Company. The company established fortified trading posts at New Amsterdam (New York City) and Fort Orange (near Albany), but they did not make a success of the colony, although they offered tracts of land eight miles deep along both sides of the river to rich proprietors, with feudal privileges of trade and government. In 1638, they abolished all monopolies, opening trade and settlement to all nations and making liberal offers of land, stock, and implements to tempt farmers. However, even the city of New Amsterdam, with its magnificent situation for commerce, reached a population of only 1,600 during the half century that it was under Dutch rule.

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