The Royal Colonies in North America: England, France, Netherlands & Sweden

English: This is a map of the Province of Mass...
Map of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Boundary disputes between colonies not involving Massachusetts are not shown.

Royal Colonies were established in North America by England, France, Netherlands and Sweden.  Spain launched earlier settlements and claimed lands south of the present Canadian border clear to the Pacific Ocean, but only established outposts and missionaries, particularly in Florida, which they maintained until 1763 when British took control.

Different nations claimed many of the same lands throughout the 17th century. These countries’ rulers offered grants to individual companies made up of a contingency of wealthy investors to charter a colony. This was the case when, in 1606, the London and the Plymouth companies both applied for a grant from King James I for lands extending from Nova Scotia down to North Carolina. Also the Massachusetts Bay Colony applied for a charter in 1628 claiming Nova Scotia to Connecticut. By 1614, some of these lands overlapped regions claimed by France and the Dutch chartered New Netherlands which ran from Connecticut to south of Delaware. The Swedes, in 1638, claimed the Delaware River Valley from the Bay to present Philadelphia. War and treaties sorted out many of these early claims leaving England in control of most of the eastern seaboard to which the expanding settlements were granted English charters for colonization.

1685 reprint of 1650 map showing Virginia, New Netherlands & New England

Though most colonies started out as private ventures, (New Hampshire the only royal colony from its inception), the governance of many were later claimed by the monarchy, usually through revoked or time-limited charters decades prior to the Revolutionary era.  For example, the Carolinas were begun under eight proprietorships that were later claimed by the monarchy after years of threats from the French, Spanish and Native Americans.  Georgia belonged to the trustees of the Carolinas, and after its royal charter ran out in 1752 it became a royal colony. Virginia was chartered under the Virginia Company but became a royal colony in 1624 after the charter’s revocation. The King claimed rule over Massachusetts in 1685.  New Jersey fell under the crown’s influence in 1702 upon recommendation by the Board of Trade which was comprised of eight paid commissioners who promoted trade in the American Plantations.

Peter Stuyvesant. Governor of New Netherlands 1647-1664.

These royal colonies became, to the crown, similar to that of a medieval fiefdom; their primary function was to benefit the crown.  The King named a governor for each colony, and in the case of England, a council was appointed to assist the governor.  The Crown appointed colonial judges and controlled all unsold public lands.

English: This is a painting of Simon Bradstree...
Painting of Simon Bradstreet, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1679 to 1686.

His Excellency, the Governor, was granted general executive powers to call a locally elected assembly by the freeholders and planters of the colony. The governor’s council, besides advising the governor, would sit as an upper house when the assembly was in session; sort of a localized House of Lords. The governor was granted absolute veto and could dissolve the assembly whenever he felt justified.

As head of the council and assembly, the Crown expected the governor to forcefully advance its interests. That commitment caused the governor to walk a tight rope, trying to compromise between carrying out royal instructions while serving local provincial concerns.  Personal documents of the time reveal the dilemma: “…he must either fall a victim to the unjust rage of those men for what is right or to his Majesty’s just displeasure for doing what is wrong…”, wrote Sir Thomas Robinson in 1747, at his recall as governor of Barbados;  or as Governor Christopher Codrington Jr. wrote in 1701 of his tenure on the Leeward Islands, “as if I were walking between red hot irons.”

William Burnet. Royal governor of New York & New Jersey 1720-1728.

By the 1750’s, eight of the thirteen mainland colonies were royal:  Georgia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

Forces beyond the control of many governors, including the ever increasing power of local colonial assemblies, led to the overall decline of the governor’s power.  Some officials, as in the case of Lord Dunmore of Virginia, raised troops to confront the provincials directly.  Others tried to retain their authority remotely, like Governor Tryon of New York, who retired to a ship anchored in New York Bay.  Most, like Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts, left the colonies for exile in England.



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 “Royal Colonies,” American Eras.  1997. Encyclopedia 3 Sep. 2012

 Labaree, Leonard Woods.  Royal Government in America: A Study of the British Colonial System Before 1783.  2nd ed. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1964.

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