West of the Revolution by Claudio Saunt, review by Carl Caton
When Americans think of the year 1776, we typically think of what was happening along the eastern seaboard in the colonies rebelling against English rule. We think of the Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, and the beginnings of the Revolutionary War. What does not come to mind is what was happening in the rest of the vast continental area that would eventually become the United States. Who was out there, west of the Appalachians, and what were they doing?
Claudio Saunt has given us some answers to those questions, and others, in West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776. At the time John Hancock and the others were signing the Declaration of Independence, the Spanish were long established in Mexico and had extended their reach well into California with a series of missions along the coast reaching as far north as San Francisco. Ostensibly aimed at bringing the Catholic faith to the native populations, the missions served as well to secure land and resources for the Spanish empire. Struggling to supply and maintain their west coast missions by sea, Spain attempted to create a land supply route from its other long established base at Santa Fe. The story of the Spanish expedition in 1776 attempting to reach San Francisco from Santa Fe is a little known but harrowing saga of misery and survival in the mountains and deserts of the Great basin region.
At the same time, natives of the Aleutian Islands, in what is now Alaska, had made a dangerous journey eastward to Siberia, thereby initiating what would become a global trade network for furs that would extend to St. Petersburg, London, New York, and Hudson’s Bay.
Meanwhile, with growing pressures from colonial expansion in the east and the Great Lakes regions, native tribes migrated further west, coming into conflict with other tribes already living in the northern Great Plains and Mississippi Valley. Saunt details two of those stories, one in which the Lakota Sioux migrated from Minnesota to the Black Hills, and another involving the Osage tribe in Arkansas. The Lakota migration resulted in the creation myth of the the Black Hills as the original home of the Lakota, a development which would play out a century later at the Little Big Horn. The story of the Osages relates the inevitable conflict that arose among established native peoples and the empires of England, France, and Spain along the Mississippi. The Treaty of Paris which ended the 7 Years’ War, created the Mississippi as an ill-defined and fluid boundary that separated the possessions of England, Spain, and France, resulting in years of conflict in the Mississippi valley among the natives, the colonists, and the Spanish and French.
Saunt’s engaging account of the other continental events in 1776 serve to illustrate that the colonists’ revolt in the east was only one of a number of dramatic developments that would have long reaching consequences for all involved.