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A Bigger Picture: Claudio Saunt’s More Complete View of America in 1776

I just happened across an impressive interactive time map showing the loss of native American land year by year since 1776. It’s enthralling to stop the rapid progression and check it out year by year. The map led me to Claudio Saunt, author of the well-researched and compelling narrative, West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776. 

1776: There was a lot going on. The division of the continent along the Mississippi River at the end of the Seven Years’ War (1763) allowed some tribes to increase trade, while many who straddled the divide were crushed. Saunt pulls together everything from the Hudson Bay Company’s policies that led to the near extinction of numerous animals to the Lakotas’ discovery of the fertile Black Hills to the conflicts at the western edge of the country between Aleuts and Russians. Saunt’s main accomplishment is probably summarized best by what he notes early on:

Between the continent’s far edge and the Appalachians stood thousands of towns and villages, whose millions of residents spoke diverse languages and belonged to a multitude of nations.”

The Piazza at Havana by Dominic Serres the Elder. The Piazza in central Havana in 1762. A depiction of an episode from the last major operation of the Seven Years War, 1756-63. Image in public domain. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Piazza at Havana by Dominic Serres the Elder. The Piazza in central Havana in 1762. A depiction of an episode from the last major operation of the Seven Years War, 1756-63. (Wikimedia Commons)

Though popular accounts of the Revolutionary period have typically obscured the West, Saunt’s prologue underscores that the Revolution was basically about what was going to happen west.

In fact as my family and I prepare to move to Missionary Ridge, the interactive map came alive. I watched in slow-mo the cumulative and insidious progress of encroachment. It may be more complex than that. It may be that  this is what human civilizations have always done, but by January 1, 1836 all the land in the eastern Tennessee had been taken over–with the final act of the unbelievable Trail of Tears. Saunt’s history prepares us for the scene.

Did you know that after the conclusion of the French and Indian War, King George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which established a dividing line between British and Native American territories? British subjects in the colonies were not to settle west of the Appalachian Mountains, and were barred from purchasing lands from Indian nations.

In spite or perhaps because of that, Richard Henderson of North Carolina negotiated with three Cherokee leaders and acquired the deed to an enormous 22 million-acre tract that covered most of present-day Kentucky and part of Tennessee. Does the price even matter? Eventually, North Carolina and Virginia nullified the deed, but did leave Henderson with 200,000 acres for his “trouble and expense.”

1776: Thomas Paine published Common Sense, the Continental Congress declared independence, and Washington crossed the Delaware. This much we’ve been taught for decades. But the famous “shot heard round the world” that began the American Revolution was only “heard” by 4% of the entire population on the North American continent.

1776: The Spanish established the first European colony in San Francisco and set off a cataclysm for the region’s native residents. While imperial officials in Europe maneuvered to control lands they knew almost nothing about, America’s indigenous peoples did what they could. Creek Indians navigated the Caribbean to explore trade with Cuba. The Osages expanded their dominion west of the Mississippi River, overwhelming the small Spanish outposts in the area. And the Sioux advanced across the Dakotas.

1776: The year the Sioux first seized the Black Hills, the territory they now consider their sacred homeland.

Two nations were born that year.”

 

 

The native one would win one final victory at the Battle of Little Bighorn one hundred years later.

This is history as a welcome and necessary addition to the American story. Rather than understanding indigenous peoples as subordinate, we get a clearer picture and a more comprehensive perspective–one that leads to empathy.

Isn’t that the point of history?

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