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1776: Not just the Revolution

We forget that across a continent, the future United States was being shaped in other ways

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.

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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.

Aleutian Islands
Hawaii
San Francisco
Santa Fe
The Black Hills
Cherokee Country
Aleutian Islands
In 1776, Russian traders in pursuit of sea otter pelts were moving up the Aleutian archipelago. In a few years, they would reach the mainland. The Russian presence in Alaska prompted Spain to colonize the California coast as a defensive measure -- and gave imperial Russia a domain in North America that it would retain until 1867, when US Secretary of State William Seward purchased the immense territory.
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Hawaii
On July 12, 1776, the Resolution, commanded by James Cook, weighed anchor and slipped from the Thames into the English Channel. A year and a half later, Cook and his crew made landfall on Hawaii, the first outsiders to do so in more than six centuries. Though the islanders killed Cook when he circled back to the archipelago on a second visit, they could not escape the Europeans who followed in his wake -- or their diseases, which killed off half the island's population within 50 years. The arrival of New England missionaries and the growth of American sugar plantations ultimately led to US annexation in 1898.
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San Francisco
In June 1776, the Spanish established a mission and a military base here to lay claim to the strategically important bay on the Pacific coast. Their presence set off a demographic cataclysm that radiated across the land, wiping out the closest Indian villages first and then destroying those situated farther away. By the time California entered the union in 1850, the region and its population had already been fundamentally transformed by decades of Spanish colonization.
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Santa Fe
In July 1776, the Spanish launched a 1,700-mile expedition from Santa Fe through the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. The explorers, led by two intrepid friars, Francisco Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and Francisco Atanasio Domínguez, became the first Europeans to enter the vast region between the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas, opening it up to colonization. The expedition produced an influential map that captured the imagination of the nation born that same year in Philadelphia. By charting two mythical rivers that led from the Rockies to the Pacific, the map seemed to confirm the westward destiny of the young republic. Not until 1843 did the explorer John C. Frémont finally put to rest the myth of the westward-coursing rivers.
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The Black Hills
According to one traditional Lakota history, the Lakota (Sioux) Indians discovered the Black Hills in 1775-1776, establishing a new homeland just as American Colonists on the East Coast were carving out their own. A hundred years later, the two nations born that year would meet in battle at Wounded Knee, and soon after the United States would seize the Black Hills from the Lakota, breaking a solemn promise to reserve the land "for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians." To this day the Lakota are fighting to regain the land from the United States.
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Cherokee Country
The year 1776 marked the onset of US expansion across the continent. That September, as part of a cynical scheme by North Carolina investors to acquire title to lands west of the Appalachians, 6,000 patriot troops invaded Cherokee country and razed 36 towns. The attack -- which secured some 35,000 square miles, including most of Kentucky, for the new United States -- initiated a land grab that drew to a close only after the United States had extended its borders to the Pacific Ocean and nearly eliminated the Native American land base.
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DATA: Boston Public Library; Claudio Saunt, Russell Professor of American History at the University of Georgia

Chiqui Esteban / Globe Staff

Claudio Saunt teaches at the University of Georgia and is the author of “West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776.”

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