British colonization of the Americas

The British colonization of the Americas (including colonization by both the English and the Scots) began in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia, and reached its peak when colonies had been established throughout the Americas. The English, and later the British, were among the most important colonizers of the Americas, and their American empire came to rival the Spanish American colonies in military and economic might.

Three types of colonies were established in the English overseas possessions in America of the 17th century and continued into the British Empire at the height of its power in the 18th century. These were charter colonies, proprietary colonies, and royal colonies. A group of 13 British American colonies collectively broke from the British Empire in the 1770s through a successful revolution, establishing the modern United States. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15), the remaining British territories in North America were slowly granted more responsible government. In 1838 the Durham Report recommended full responsible government for Canada, but this was not fully implemented for another decade. Eventually, with the Confederation of Canada, the Canadian colonies were granted significant autonomy and became a self-governing Dominion in 1867. Other colonies in the Americas followed at a much slower pace. In this way, two countries in North America, ten in the Caribbean, and one in South America have received their independence from Great Britain or the later United Kingdom. All of these, except the United States, are members of the Commonwealth of Nations and nine are Commonwealth realms. The eight current British overseas territories in the Americas have varying degrees of self-government.

Great Britain in the Americas

North America

Pre-British colonization of North America

English colonies in North America

Plaque in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, commemorating Gilbert's founding of the British overseas Empire

A number of English colonies were established under a system of Proprietary Governors, who were appointed under mercantile charters to English joint stock companies to found and run settlements.

In 1664, England took over the Dutch colony of New Netherland (including its capital of New Amsterdam) which England renamed the Province of New York. With New Netherland, the English also came to control the former New Sweden (in what is now Delaware), which the Dutch had conquered earlier. This later became part of Pennsylvania after that was established in 1680.

Scottish colonies in North America

The Kingdom of Scotland tried unsuccessfully to establish a colony at Darién, and the Scottish colonization of Nova Scotia (New Scotland) lasted from 1629 to 1632. Thousands of Scotsmen also participated in English colonization before the two countries were united in 1707.

British colonies in North America

The Kingdom of Great Britain acquired the French colony of Acadia in 1713 and then Canada and the Spanish colony of Florida in 1763. After being renamed the Province of Quebec, the former French Canada was divided into two Provinces, the Canadas, consisting of the old settled country of Lower Canada (today Quebec) and the newly settled Upper Canada (today Ontario).

In the north, the Hudson's Bay Company actively traded for fur with the indigenous peoples, and had competed with French, Aboriginal, and Métis fur traders. The company came to control the entire drainage basin of Hudson Bay, called Rupert's Land. The small part of the Hudson Bay drainage south of the 49th parallel went to the United States in the Anglo-American Convention of 1818.

Thirteen of Great Britain's colonies rebelled in the American Revolutionary War, beginning in 1775, primarily over representation, local laws and tax issues, and established the United States of America, which was recognised internationally with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on 3 September 1783.

Great Britain also colonised the west coast of North America, indirectly via the Hudson's Bay Company licenses west of the Rocky Mountains: the Columbia District and New Caledonia fur district. Most of these were jointly claimed as the Oregon Country by the United States from 1818 until the 49th parallel was established as the international boundary west of the Rockies by the Oregon Treaty of 1846. The Colony of Vancouver Island, founded in 1849, and the Colony of British Columbia, founded in 1858, were combined in 1866 under the name Colony of British Columbia, and joined the Confederation in 1871. British Columbia was expanded with the inclusion of the Stikine Territory in 1863; and upon joining Confederation the Peace River Block, formerly part of Rupert's Land, was added.

In 1867, the colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the Province of Canada (the southern portion of modern-day Ontario and Quebec) combined to form a self-governing dominion, named Canada, within the British Empire (the term "kingdom" was avoided so as to not provoke the United States). Quebec (including what is now the southern portion of Ontario) and Nova Scotia (including what is now New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island) had been ceded to Britain by the French. The colonies of Prince Edward Island and British Columbia joined over the next six years, and Newfoundland joined in 1949. Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory were ceded to Canada in 1870. This area now consists of the provinces of Manitoba (admitted after negotiation between Canada and a Métis provisional government in 1870), Saskatchewan, and Alberta (both created in 1905), as well as the Northwest Territories, the Yukon Territory (created 1898, following the start of the Klondike Gold Rush), and Nunavut (created in 1999).

List of English and British colonies in North America (in rough chronological order)

The British Colonies in North America, 1763–1775
Fur traders in Canada, trading with Indians, 1777

Non-colonial British territories in North America

  • Rupert's Land, territory of the Hudson's Bay Company, founded in 1670 and transferred to the new Dominion of Canada in 1867 as the Northwest Territories
  • Columbia District, the trading district of the Columbia Department of the Hudson's Bay Company from 1821 to the Oregon Treaty of 1846, by which most of the Columbia District was formally annexed to the United States. HBC lands south of the 49th parallel were guaranteed by the Oregon Treaty but ownership and compensation issues were not fully resolved until 1861.
  • New Caledonia, fur district. First created in 1805 as part of North West Company for operations, administered by Hudson's Bay Company following the two companies' forced merger in 1821, until incorporated as the part of the Colony of British Columbia in 1858, by which time the term "New Caledonia" had come to refer to the whole of the British Columbia mainland, not just the original fur district in what is now its Central Interior.
  • Stikine Territory, also called Stickeen Territories, founded in 1862 in response to the Stikine Gold Rush to prevent an American takeover.
  • North-Western Territory, a Hudson's Bay Company trading area covering lands north and northwest of Rupert's Land and, after 1863, north of the Stikine Territory's original boundary at the 62nd parallel. Its remnant was incorporated at the Yukon Territory after the part of it south of the 60th parallel was amalgamated to British Columbia.
  • Nova Albion, never incorporated or settled, exact location unknown, claimed by Sir Francis Drake and one of the precedents for the British claims to the Pacific Northwest during the Oregon boundary dispute.
  • the southeastern Alaska Panhandle was leased from the Russian Empire, from 1839 to 1867, until the lease was ignored by both the Russians and Americans and, subsequently, by the Canadian and the British imperial governments, despite British Columbia's protests.
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