I am reading about Cresap's War. I do not fully understand why colonies within the British Empire had wars with one another. Did the British Colonies in America have independent rules, like the Colony of Pennsylvania and the Colony of Maryland? And if so, which British Colonies in America did not, i.e. were directly under the British Throne.

Also, were the Dutch, Spanish and French Colonies in America around 1730 in the same way independent colonies or were they different?

3 Answers 3


@ClintEastwood is correct, but I think understates the problem. The fundamental problem is that the Crown relies on colonial Governors for all executive functions. At one point (sorry - cannot locate source), the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania was claimed by Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. Each of those colonies claimed to have the right to collect taxes there.

The English colonial system had no way to resolve that conflict; the Governors were the agents of the Crown. Theoretically they could have appealed directly to the crown, but (a) while the appeal was in processes, they would each have been trying to assert their rights, (b) the Crown had no agents other than the Colonial government on site. On what basis would the Crown make a decision? All three Governors would assert that they were correct and the other two in error. (c) in general terms, it is always better to enforce your rights than to appeal to a higher power; the higher power may decide that your inability to enforce your rights means that the rights do not in fact exist.

Although in law, the Governors were subject to the Crown, in practice they were independent. It was more rational and more prudent for colonial Governors to enforce their own rights. Remember that the British colonial system was not planned - it evolved.

I don't have any information on colonial policy of non-British countries.

Note: I'm aware that I've provided no sources; I shall look for some, but I'm not sure where.


The colonies had governors/owners but all of their governing rights came from the king. Officially, colonies were not permitted to go to war but the governors/owners still occasionally participated in low level squabbles with each other.

Maryland was owned by Lord Baltimore (Calvert) and Pennsylvania was originally owned by William Penn (not sure who owned it at the time of this conflict). Because of practical limitations, the owners didn't have absolute control over the behavior of the people in the colonies.

Basically two farmers have a dispute. One turns to the Pennsylvania authorities but the other doesn't like their decision so he turns to the Maryland authorities. What we get is a squabble between two groups of farmers that we call a "war." The "militia" is comprised of local farmers.


Although they were all British colonies and under the overall authority of the British government (until 1776), that does not mean they were one entity or cooperated all the time. Furthermore, since the maps of North America were less than perfect, borders between colonies were hard to define.

Each colony was established through a charter which was provided by a king to some entity (person, corporation, religious group, etc.) and gave that entity the exclusive right to govern the area defined in the charter. However, maps of the North American coast were pretty rough during the early colonial days, and I doubt maps of the interior were much more than estimates and guesswork. Because of this, whoever was making the charters thought they were giving precise border definitions, which more often than not overlapped or conflicted with other borders. The king that approved them obviously had more important things to do than analyze the geography and cartography used, and just approved them.

To use your example, Pennsylvania's charter was granted in 1681 (unrelated, but I just learned Sweden was there first!), and the charter specified that its southern border was bounded by a twelve mile circle around the town of New Castle in Delaware, and by the 40th degree latitude to give its full southern border. However, it turns out New Castle was 25 miles away from that latitude rather than 12. Maryland thus claimed that it should get everything south of the 40 degree latitude line, Pennsylvania claimed the line should be moved down. It would have taken months/years for a king to receive this info and respond, assuming the king cared or was even the one that made the charter. Even if they felt like waiting, they wouldn't want to tell a king his original decree was wrong.

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