‘West of the Revolution’: America’s 1776, all over the map
Historian Claudio Saunt’s “West of the Revolution” is the seldom-told story of the year 1776 in America in the 94 percent of the North American continent not embroiled in the colonies’ revolt against the British.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776’
by Claudio Saunt
W.W. Norton, 264 pp., $27.95
We all know about Paul Revere’s ride, Washington’s crossing of the Delaware and other indelible events connected to the 13 American colonies’ revolt against Great Britain in 1776.
In fact, we know them so well that we assume they somehow applied to the entire North American continent.
But in his informative new book, Claudio Saunt, a professor in American history at the University of Georgia, begs to differ.
“Four digits — 1776 — are enough to evoke images of periwigs, quill pens, and yellowing copies of the Declaration of Independence,” he writes. “Yet the colonies ... made up only a tiny fraction of the actual continent — just under 4 percent.”
So what was happening in the other 96 percent?
“West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776” tells you, as it ranges from Russian Alaska to Spanish California to Indian-held territories west of the Appalachians, and emphasizes the simultaneity of histories unfolding in locales that were largely isolated from one another.
Saunt’s shapely essays about these places lend the book the feeling of a linked collection of stories, as one story triggers the next.
The Russian presence in the Aleutian chain, for instance, raised alarms in Spanish Mexico, 3,000 miles away. The result was the establishment of a Spanish toehold in San Diego in 1769, followed by an uprising against them on the part of the local Kumeyaays in 1776. 1776 was also the year the inhabitants of San Francisco Bay first contended with Spaniards trying to establish missions and military forts.
Written records survive from these encounters, and Saunt delivers vivid details on the players involved, both hubristic Europeans and canny indigenous peoples who have the odds stacked against them. He’s sharp not just on the cultural clashes and conquests, but environmental depredations introduced by the colonizers. The arrival of grazing cattle and pigs in the Bay Area, for instance, devastated scarce plant-life resources the locals depended on for survival. European diseases also decimated local populations. 1776, in short, marked the start of disaster.
Elsewhere, native peoples held their own. Saunt is savvy on how European diplomats’ divisions of a continent they scarcely understood had unintended consequences. The Osage, in what’s now Arkansas, benefited from a power vacuum when the Treaty of Paris in 1863 led to the French ceding their lands west of the Mississippi to the Spanish (who had trouble just getting up the river).
The Creeks east of the Mississippi, however, got stuck with the stingy British as their sole trading partners, inspiring them to reach out to the Spanish in Havana. “They understood,” Saunt writes, “that their nation had no viable future without engaging in the regional and Atlantic economy.”
Saunt’s prose can be droll (he describes the beaver-fur trade as a “centuries-long undertaking to turn the semiaquatic rodents into hats”), and he peppers his narratives with bulletins of what was happening Back East when, say, the Lakota were expanding their territorial reach into the Black Hills.
He closes on a note of perfect symmetry, when he cites a Russian’s wry complaint to a British mariner about the violently independent-minded Aleuts: “By this you will see that efforts for liberty are not confined totally to the east side of the continent.” There were, it seems, many 1776s — and Saunt does a brilliant job in bringing them to light.
Michael Upchurch is an arts reporter for The Seattle Times.