Two hundred and thirty-eight years ago, delegates to the Continental Congress put their signatures on a document that, in Abraham Lincoln’s enduring words, brought forth a new nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
As we celebrate the Declaration of Independence this July 4, it is worth remembering that those Colonists were not the only ones making history in North America in 1776. The Thirteen Colonies made up only a tiny fraction of the land that we now call the United States. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, myriad indigenous nations and a growing number of newcomers from Europe and Africa were engaged in their own formative struggles that same year.
While Tom Paine rallied Colonists against Britain and George Washington strategized to keep the Continental Army alive, Spanish soldiers and missionaries were establishing the first permanent European colonies on North America’s Pacific Coast. (Native Americans, who observed Spanish schooners emerge on the horizon as if rising from the depths, called the newcomers “people from under the water.”) Further north, Russians were seizing control of the Aleutian Islands and would soon push into the Alaskan mainland—territory they would not relinquish until 1867. In the heart of the continent, Native Americans—who were as numerous as the Colonists then in revolution—sought to exploit the economic and geopolitical tumult engendered by European colonization on the coasts.
These events might be less familiar than the iconic moments we usually associate with 1776, but they were crucial in shaping the nation we live in today. Everywhere, Americans contended with emerging infectious diseases, rapid environmental change, and unpredictable shifts in global trade. Those forces remade the continent in the 18th century and continue to resonate powerfully in 2014.
The map below highlights six North American places undergoing revolutions of their own in 1776, reminding us that a multiplicity of distinct yet interconnected histories formed the diverse country whose birth we celebrate today.
DATA: Boston Public Library; Claudio Saunt, Russell Professor of American History at the University of Georgia
Chiqui Esteban / Globe Staff