For American history buffs, 1776 is the ne plus ultra of significant years. Thomas Paine published Common Sense, the Continental Congress declared independence from England, and George Washington crossed the Delaware River to attack the British Army.
Few people, however, could say what was happening in the rest of the North America that year. Historian Claudio Saunt aims to cure such historical myopathy. In his latest book, West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776, Saunt describes in intricate detail scenes that were unfolding across North America and explains how they helped shape the future of a young U.S.A.
Saunt’s panoramic view of North America allows the reader to see the continent, along with the Native Americans who were there first, as a whole. He starts with the Aleuts in Alaska and, chapter by chapter, works his way east until he concludes with the Creeks in Florida. Each chapter is basically a narrative of the clash of cultures between Native Americans and Old World powers. Often these conflicts arose due to changing trade networks and far-off imperial dictates.
Exhaustively researched and dramatically rendered, Saunt’s book is rife with fascinating facts that will no doubt expand the average American’s image of U.S. history. Did you know that Creek Indians regularly sailed from Tampa Bay to Havana in 1776? Or that, in the 18th century, it took nearly five months to travel up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis?
On the downside, as is often the case in such sweeping historical narratives, Saunt’s characters sometimes get lost. After 208 pages of North American panorama, the reader has trouble investing in a single character. They are merely pawns in the service of a much larger story and, as such, come and go without any emotional resonance—which is probably just as well considering that most meet a pitiful end, like the Spanish commandant at Arkansas Post whose “corpse reeked so badly that it was hastily buried without ceremony.” Not for the faint was the frontier life.
If you want a soap opera, go watch one of those tricked-out dramas on the History Channel. Saunt’s wide-ranging story of North American history does not deal in emotions. Instead the author attempts to paint a more complete picture of what the continent looked like at a time when Great Britain, France, Spain, the American colonies and a wide variety of Native American tribes were all vying for the same land.
As Saunt demonstrates in West of the Revolution, history is forged out of a multitude of complex global forces—distant markets, climate change, political upheaval and disease, among others. American independence and the nation’s eventual expansion westward depended upon the outcome of overlooked conflicts far from the East Coast. The Chinese nobility’s desire for otter pelts caused Russian traders to cross the Bering Strait, which alarmed the Spanish, forcing them to expand north up the California coast and to establish what is now San Francisco.
So really, we have the Chinese to thank for San Francisco—and Claudio Saunt to thank for this expanded view of America’s birth year.
West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776, by Claudio Saunt, W. W. Norton & Company, June 16.