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What is a Proprietary Colony?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A proprietary colony is a colony overseen by private individuals who are provided with the same powers normally reserved for the government. England notably used this system for some of its colonies established in the 1600s and the French also followed suit with several colonies of their own during the same time period. However, there were a number of disadvantages with the proprietary colony model that led nations to abandon it in preference of systems that would more effectively centralize power. No such colonies exist today.

In a proprietary colony, the government granted a charter to one or more proprietors, sometimes called Lords Proprietors. These individuals were not merely given grants of land, but also the right to govern the land. They could collect rents, levy taxes, make laws, create settlements, and organize militias to protect their lands. From the point of view of the government, the goal was to get a colony well established and thriving under the supervision of authorities who would have an interest in seeing it succeed. People who might have been hesitant to settle could see the obvious appeal in essentially running their own sovereign nations and were willing to take the plunge to get a proprietary colony established.

The major flaw with the proprietary colony model was that it invested people with tremendous amounts of power. While officially colonies of the parent nation, such colonies developed highly independent attitudes. As a result, the home nation began demanding that the Lords Proprietors cede some of the rights given to them by the government. Although there was resistance to that, eventually the government had its way.

Several early colonies in the Americas were proprietary colonies including Maryland, Virginia, Nova Scotia, North Carolina, and Barbados. In what later became the United States, some of these colonies were among the founding states of the fledgling nation. Today, the original charters under which these states were founded can be seen in archival facilities and they are studied by historians interested in colonialism, United States history, and various models that have been used for colonization.

Governments have long struggled with the balance between providing colonies with enough independence for them to thrive and keeping their colonies under control. As seen in the series of wars for independence that rocked colonies all over the world, many colonies later grew to resent their home governments and resisted any form of external government, sometimes quite violently.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Acracadabra — On Aug 12, 2011

@yumdelish - As far as I remember from school, these opportunities fell to favored folk. They probably paid a token or made a symbolic gesture of payment. Perhaps also agreeing to a cut of anything mined or grown in the area.

It's a fascinating topic for sure, and this article has inspired me to do more research on American history. I don't think we can really understand the present without looking to the past.

By yumdelish — On Aug 12, 2011

I find it interesting that the British government created these situations, or monsters could be a good word, and then got worried about their own position in it all and took the power away!

At no point did they care about the effect of all this power in the hands of a few on the people being 'governed' in this way.

Human nature being what it is I'm not surprised that some of those those who acquired a proprietary colony went power crazy. It's almost inevitable.

What I would like to know is how they got their position in the first place. Did they pay for the right to do this?

By sweetPeas — On Aug 12, 2011

I would love to find out how the various colonies worked as proprietary colonies, like Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. I wonder if these proprietary colonies were actually ruled entirely by a group from England and if these rulers had complete control over the colonists who settled there? I would think that the English government still had some hold on these colonies.

It's amazing to me that colonialism lasted as long it did. I would think that most of the colonies in the world would have protested wildly to the dominance other countries had over them.

By lovealot — On Aug 11, 2011

I guess I missed school on the day they talked about proprietary colonies under England and other countries.

I guess the offer of vast land holdings and the opportunity to set up laws, economic policies, collect taxes and other money, had a big enough appeal that the individuals would choose to leave their home country to live in a place with far from pleasant living conditions.

It's not surprising that governments finally decided that these colonies were getting much too strong and had pulled too far away from the home country.

And that was the end of that. The government took back control.

By shell4life — On Aug 11, 2011

I can understand the desire of proprietary colonies to rule themselves. They were separated from their home government by an ocean, and as the saying goes, out of sight, out of mind.

When you build your own home, raise your own food, and conquer the natives without any help from the government, you feel a sense of entitlement. You did all the work to develop your settlement, so why would you feel like you owe the authorities anything?

The laws brought about by the Lords Proprietors and the taxes they demanded were likely seen as unjustifiable by the colonists. They felt a strong sense of self-reliance, and thus, the rebellion was born.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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