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West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776 by Claudio Saunt

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The year 1776 typically conjures up images of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and General George Washington crossing the Delaware. Yet, this week's featured book provides us with another view. West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776, by Claudio Saunt, examines events in North America outside of the rebelling thirteen American colonies including land speculation west of the Appalachians and Russian and Spanish excursions on the West Coast. In shifting our perspective, Saunt reveals the implications that these global events of 1776 had for the future development of the United States.

In the first excerpt, we learn about an ambitious, yet illegal under British law, land scheme to settle a “fourteenth colony.” The second excerpt introduces how the settlement of Spanish missions in California and Russian fur trading posts in Alaska landed a Kumeyaay Indian named Diego in jail.


A Fourteenth Colony

Three days after buying twenty-two million acres of land from the Cherokees, Richard Henderson set off to take possession of his prize. The forty-year-old North Carolinian had grandiose plans for the immense purchase, which lay ‘on the west side of the Mountains’ and extended over most of Kentucky and part of Tennessee. He dreamed of establishing a fourteenth colony, of erecting a ‘palladium,’ whose ‘height and magnificence;’ lay in the ‘womb of futurity.’

In March 1775, Henderson put together a team of free and enslaved men and set out for the [Cumberland Gap]. They cut a seventy-mile wagon road west to Martin's Station, a small stockade with a few crude log cabins that was the last fortified British settlement in southwestern Virginia. Clearing brush and uprooting trees, the laborers carved a path over rugged mountains and forded icy rivers.

They pushed on to Cumberland Gap, where Henderson received alarming news. Indians had ambushed and killed several people ‘on the road to the Cantuckee,’ setting off a general panic that spread ‘like wild-fire.’ In tears, Henderson contemplated the collapse of his momentous project to colonize the ‘western waters’—not the distant Columbia or Colorado, the great waterways on the opposite side of the continent that enter the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California, but the nearby Cumberland and Kentucky Rivers. At the crest of the Appalachians, he stood a mere 350 miles from the East Coast. In the nearly 170 years since the establishment of Jamestown, with enormous toil and sacrifice, the British had come as far as could be covered in a three-week journey.

Henderson's ambitious scheme was born of ignorance and avarice, a fertile combination that gave life to many a colonial venture west of the Appalachians. Conceived on the eve of the War of Independence, it was nourished by the radical rhetoric of the era and ultimately extinguished by better-connected revolutionaries such as Patrick Henry, Virginia's governor and firebrand orator, who championed rival investments in the region. As Richard Henderson stood on the crest of the Blue Ridge and looked west, his expansive and fantastical project came into focus: a realm of landed gentry and hereditary rule, stretching as far as the eye could see across ‘new land,’ a part of the world with no history of its own and no people of any consequence. The view–one that still haunts our historical narratives–is provincial yet imperial, and it exposes just how little the continental colonists knew about the continent in 1776.

The West Coast

Over two thousand miles west of the Cumberland Gap, on the southeastern shore of the San Francisco Bay, an extraordinary event occurred late in the afternoon of March 31, 1776. North of what is now known as Silicon Valley, a man was carrying a bundle of edible plants called morrén along the tree-lined banks of San Lorenzo Creek. Suddenly he stopped short. Some forty paces away, twenty strangers were approaching.

The strangers suspected that up to the encounter, he had not had ‘even a remote notice’ of any other people but his own kind—a moment of first contact that took place nearly three hundred years after Columbus had set foot in the Americas. Many of the original inhabitants along North America's East Coast had since died of disease, fled into the interior, or been killed by colonists. In the Boston area, which the British evacuated two weeks before the incident on San Lorenzo Creek, Indians had not been a significant presence for nearly a century.

The strangers had come to establish a colony across the bay on the banks of the ‘Stream of Sorrows,’ the first European settlement in what would become San Francisco.

Over four hundred miles down the Pacific Coast, a Kumeyaay, Indian named Diego sat in a Spanish prison overlooking the San Diego River, the bay, and the ocean beyond. When Diego was a boy growing up in the 1750s, the Spanish had yet to colonize his homeland. Now, in March 1776, a few dozen Spanish soldiers commanded a small wooden and adobe brick stockade that possessed two bronze cannons. One faced the harbor to fend off European rivals. The other pointed toward Diego's native village, at least until the Indian settlement was relocated. For a time, Franciscans had also administered a mission about six miles farther upriver, but in the early-morning hours of November 5, 1775, the Kumeyaays burned it to the ground and bludgeoned one of the padres to death. It was Diego's suspected involvement in the uprising that had landed him in jail.

While Diego wasted away in prison and the Spanish erected a temporary shelter in San Francisco, another remarkable story was unfolding deep in the western interior of the continent. A small party of Spanish explorers had recently set out on a fifteen-hundred-mile expedition through the Four Corners region. They became the first Europeans ever to venture into the vast area of the continent that lies between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. In late September 1776, shortly after the British had taken New York City from the Continental Army, the explorers reached the shores of Utah Lake, just south of the Great Salt Lake, where Ute villagers greeted them. A missionary explained the purpose of the five-month expedition: to seek the ‘salvation of their souls.’

Five thousand miles of open ocean separate San Francisco and San Diego from Siberia. It is another fifteen hundred miles overland from there to the dusty settlement of Kyakhta, located just south of Lake Baikal, the deepest freshwater lake in the world. Kyakhta sat on a treeless, denuded plain, across from the town of Maimaicheng.

Improbably, trade between Kyakhta and Maimaicheng set off a chain reaction, which ultimately led to the incident on San Lorenzo Creek, to Diego's imprisonment, and to the arrival of missionaries on the shores of Lake Utah in 1776. To appreciate how, we must strike out for the Aleutian Islands, the Alaskan archipelago that arcs across the North Pacific. There, in early summer 1775, seven Aleuts were preparing for a hazardous five-thousand-mile journey to explore the distant country responsible for the tumultuous changes sweeping over their island homelands. They were headed toward Kyakhta.

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