The British Colonies in America, circa 1775

The Present State of the British Colonies in America, also known as The Hillsborough Colonial Returns, is an important compilation of documents relating to individual American colonies from the British perspective. The twenty-two entries, here called returns, were copied from the original documents as they arrived in London between 1773-75, coinciding with the final days of English colonial rule and as tensions were rising in American in advance of the Declaration of Independence. The story of this remarkable manuscripts begin in July 1773 when Lord Dartmouth, the English First Lord of Trade (and namesake of the New Hampshire College) issued a long questionnaire to each of the appointed governors of England’s American colonies seeking economic, census, military, political, and historical information from their own perspectives. In the resulting 500 page manuscript readers today learn much about the reality of the political, economic, and military state of the colonies at this critical time and come to understand the underlying cultural attitudes of the colonists themselves as the English’s fragile system of rule began to break down and all out revolution was waged against them.

Dartmouth received twenty-two responses from the Caribbean to Canada including most of the North American colonies that became the United States as well as West Florida, a safe haven for loyalists during the war. This particular set of returns was prepared for the use of Lord Hillsborough, First Marquess of Downshire who had been the previous First Lord of Trade and Secretary of State to the Colonies and was a close advisor to Dartmouth, and Hillsborough, who lends his name to the manuscript, was likely one of the “Heads of Inquiry” to whom the returns are addressed. A note on the rarity of this work as a public auction offering is warranted here: as these documents were prepared for government use, the individual originals are scattered between official record offices in England with some in the Peter Force archives in the Library of Congress and, besides the Hillsborough Colonial Returns, we trace only one other assembled and bound compilation of the manuscripts. That set, which now permanently resides in the Clements Library, University of Michigan was prepared for Henry Strachey, a similarly high ranking official.

The Hillsborough Colonia Returns contains entries, most quite long, from the following colonies: Massachusetts-Bay, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Georgia, West Florida, Jamaica, Barbados, the Leeward Islands & Virgin Islands, Grenada, Curacao, Tobago, Dominica, St. Vincent, Bermuda, Bahamas, and Nova Scotia, St. John (now Prince Edward Island). The manuscript is bound in its original 18th century vellum with an elegant tooled border in gilt to the covers, the spine retaining its contemporary green morocco label starkly reading in gilt Present State of the British Colonies in America. The manuscript and its binding are in a remarkably fine state of preservation with only some minor soiling and signs of use or handling. The Hillsborough Colonial Returns is a magnificent and important item of historical Americana and the following paragraphs attempt to describe just some of its rich contents.

A major preoccupation of the most returns are descriptions of dealings with Native Americans, in which the distinguishing traits of various tribes are discussed in both a positive and negative light. While much of this content deals with the location of Indians and the security of the colonists against them, other entries focus on the effects of treaties and alliances made with them. In perhaps the longest entry in the manuscript, Governor Tryon’s fifty page return for New York, there are fine descriptions of the Hudson River, border disputes with neighboring colonies, a fascinating history of the English takeover from the Dutch a century earlier, and insight to the English perspective on the rights of Indians to sell their own land: “Purchases from the Indian Natives, as of their aboriginal right, have never been held to be a legal title in this Province, the maxim obtaining here as in England that the King is the fountain of all real property, and that from this source all titles are to be derived.” The New York return also contains a manuscript of the 1726 document Surrender by the Five Nations of their Beaver hunting Country, and containing an actual Surrender of the Castles or Habitations of the Senecas, Cayougas, and Oonandagas, replete with the copied marks of the representatives of the Five Nations.

This intense marginalization of the Indians is echoed in the poetic history of the Connecticut colony: “The original title to the lands on which the Colony was settled was, at the time the English came hither, in the Pequot Nation of Indians, who were numerous and warlike, their country extended from Narraganset to Hudson’s River and over all Long Island. Sasacus, their great Sagamore, had under him twenty-six Indians, he injuriously made war against the English … he with all his sachems and people were conquered and made tributaries to the English.”

The answers to Dartmouth’s questions are quite diverse as each colony faced its own challenges in each of areas of inquiry. The American colonies were a grand experiment in government as can been easily seen in the responses to Dartmouth’s questions concerning the charters and constitutions of each colony, as by 1773 the mainland of the North American continent possessed royal colonies such as Virginia, chartered colonies such as Connecticut, and the proprietary colony of Pennsylvania. While the colonies were purposefully kept disparate from one another, there were many tricky issues in regards to trade and currency, Indian treaties and alliances, border disputes, and control over illegal activity. The English colonies were also surrounded by the formidable strength of the Spanish in the south and the French in the north.  It is no surprise that a large scale conflict had already erupted on the territorial fringes of the North American colonies and in the Hillsborough Colonial Returns there is much contemporary account of the lands gained, shifted borders, and civil issues resulting from the recently terminated French and Indian War. For instance, consider the following comment from New Jersey governor William Franklin (son of Benjamin Franklin), who directs Dartmouth to read Samuel Smith’s 1765 history of the colony (The History of the Colony of Nova-Caesaria, or New-Jersey) and comments on the challenging nature of maintaining the population of the colony in the wake of that war: “The inhabitants I suppose to have increased upwards of 20,000 in the last ten years, though a great number have quitted the Colony and have migrated to Virginia, North Carolina, the Ohio, Mississippi, etc. The principal reason of their increase is there being plenty of land to be had, at a moderate price, by which they can easily procure a subsistence for a family, and consequently are encouraged to marry early in life.”

Militarily, the diaspora of colonists throughout the vast interior of the eastern portion of the continent becomes predicts the strength the Americans found in both their increased population and intimate knowledge of the landscape during the inland portions of the Revolution. Within the responses to Dartmouth’s inquiry regarding the state of militias in each colony we quickly learn of the vulnerability of the British in America as, surprisingly, most colonies report having very small or no standing militias. In fact, the manuscript contains numerous mentions of forts and defenses abandoned by the British at the close of the French and Indian War. William Franklin reports of New Jersey: “There are no forts or places of defense within the Colony. In the late war there were a few stockaded forts erected in the frontier to guard against the Incursions of the Indians, [but] there are no remains of them to be found at this time.” And in Pennsylvania: “No militia has ever been established in this government,” and that “since the conclusion of the last war no forts or places of defense have been kept up within the Government, but there is at present a stone fortification … in an island in the River Delaware, called Mud Island, about 10 miles below the city of Philadelphia, intended for the security & protection of the city against privateers & other small vessels of force, which might otherwise in time of war, without any difficulty or interruption pass up the river to the city & plunder & destroy it in a few days. But this fort is left unfinished for want of a sufficient fund…” The fort mentioned here became Fort Mifflin and was completed and possessed by the Americans in 1776. To Dartmouth, American colonists might have seemed a peaceable, spread out, and easily conquered people without any home-grown military strength.

The northern theater aside, in the returns from the Caribbean islands there is much discussion of the strength of the Spanish at Hispaniola and reports of piracy at sea which continuously threatens commerce, surely complicating the scene in Dartmouth’s mind.

Some of the most interesting content of the manuscript emerges from Georgia, the southernmost colony to become one of the thirteen states, and West Florida, made an English colony in a 1763 upon the conclusion of the French and Indian War and a future safe haven for Loyalists during the Revolution. The descriptions of the natural setting of Georgia is worthy of note as is a comment on the natives there: “The lands in general on the sea coast are low and flat and rise gradually as you go back into the country, but no remarkable hills till you get back westerly or west and by south about 160 miles from Savanah when you come to very hilly stoney ground. The nearest mountain is at Chote a Cherokee town about 45 miles above the Indian boundary line, settled at the congress held with the Cherokees and Creeks on the third of June last, and the blue Appalachee Mountains are supposed to be about 55 miles beyond Chote … I firmly believe many of them [the Indians] are very well disposed through inclination but chiefly through interest as they cannot now be supplied with arms, ammunition and goods from the French and Spaniards as formerly, and have no resource but the English … they see that we are increasing dayly and that it is now too late for them to do anything effectual against the white people … they are a treacherous people, and in whom you can have no confidence, I now speak chiefly of the Creeks. The Cherokees I think are half a century before the Creeks, they are much more civilized, and I believe better disposed, yet still they are savages.”

In commerce, Georgia’s trade with the West Indies is lauded, “But the northern trade is an injurious trade as they take but little of our produce and drain us of every trifle of gold and silver that is brought here, by giving a price of guineas, moidores, Johannes’s Pistols and dollars far above their real and intrinsic value, so that we can never keep any among us.”

In the partial return from West Florida, boundary confusion is an immediate topic and the report makes clear that the presupposed borders are “evidently a mistake in the geography, as both these lakes (Ponchatrain & Maurepas) are situated upon the south side of the province of West Florida … It is very remarkable that neither in the Royal Proclamation of the 17 Oct 1763 (by which the Province of West Florida was to extend…) nor in any of the Governors commissions, is there mention made of the River Ibberville  as a boundary of the province … there is evidently a very considerable chasm is this part of the boundaries for the Lake Maurepas is not contiguous to the Mississippi a great many leagues.” This is followed by discussion of its border with the French territory being a middle line in the Mississippi River excepting the city of New Orleans, which sits on island on the West Florida side. There is also mention of Dr. Daniel Coxe’s 1722 A Description of the English Province of Carolana.

Slavery is a major topic of the manuscript and the returns from the south and the Caribbean provide the greatest accounts of the slave trade at the time, although in New York it is mentioned that “There are a few vessels employed annually in the African trade. Their outward cargoes are chiefly rum & some British manufactures. The high price & ready sale they meet with for their slaves in the West Indies induce them always to dispose of their cargoes among the islands.” Jamaica, as a major plantation island, offers much information on the slave-trade: “The African or Guinea trade carried on the coast of Africa consists on the importation and sale of Negroes from the different British settlements on that coast and is carried on by vessels fitted out with cargoes for the purchase of their slaves from the different ports of Great Britain (chiefly from London, Liverpool, and Bristol) by merchants there in their own accounts and the slaves are sold here on commission … the importation has been double of what it had been some years before.”  Remarkably, Jamaica reported a population of 12,737 whites, 4093 free blacks, and a whopping 192,787 slaves with the assurance that there are certainly more slaves present than documented.

­­­­­­­­Clearly, the Hillsborough Colonial Returns provided a snapshot of the colonies that was as complicated to Lord Dartmouth as it is instructive to readers today. But Dartmouth, preoccupied with earning potential, controlling illegal trade, promoting population growth and getting a feel for the geographical details of the region pays little attention to the lived experience of the colonists, ultimately a costly ignorance. As the returns to his circular were arriving in London from late 1773-75, Dartmouth would learn of the Boston Tea Party, a monumental event in terms of the agitation of Americans over economic issues, and while Dartmouth usually sought conciliatory actions with the colonies, by 1774 he endorsed the Coercive Acts to suppress the rebellion. Unable to support all-out war against the colonies, Dartmouth resigned his post by the end of 1775. Lord Hillsborough had preceded Dartmouth in his role as First Lord of Trade and remained a close advisor during these early days of the war (Dartmouth’s appointment was celebrated in America as an acquiescence to complaints over Hillsborough’s harsh policies). Given his ties to the administration, it is not surprising that this manuscript would be possessed by Hillsborough, and perhaps as the threat of revolution became all-out war, and the economic growth of the colonies took a backseat to maintaining control the manuscript was set aside as a relic of the final days of English colonial domination in North America. Two hundred years later, the manuscript was discovered amongst the state papers held for generations by each succeeding Marquess of Downshire at their Easthampstead estate, and all of the papers found there were dispersed in a major auction in London in 1989, with the British Library securing the group of state papers known as the Trumbull Papers. This is the first time the manuscript has been offered publicly at auction in the United States and it is only appropriate that this document with so much important information on these American locations be accessible here.

A compilation of colonial manuscripts of this nature prepared for government use is rare in commerce, particularly with distinguished provenance and in such a well preserved state. Clearly worthy of institutional research, the description here barely touches the complete contents of this massive work.

See: Bradley D Bargar, Lord Dartmouth and the American  Revolution. Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 1965, pp. 59-60 (a copy of the book included in the lot).

For the text of Dartmouth’s circular, See: Samuel Hazard, Pennsylvania Archives, Vol. IV. Philadelphia: 1835, p. 464.

Rare Books, Autographs & Maps

The Present State of the British Colonies in America, also known as The Hillsborough Colonial Returns is a highlight of the Nov 23, 2016 auction of Rare Books, Autographs & Maps. View the lot.


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