Mapped: The Territorial Evolution of the U.S.
Mapped: The Territorial Evolution of the U.S.
The sun (almost) never sets on the American Empire.
The United States is the third largest country in the world, with a vast territory extending beyond the borders of the contiguous states. To be exact, the United States is made up of 50 states, nine uninhabited territories, five self-governing territories, one incorporated territory, and one federal district (Washington D.C.). The boundaries of the country haven’t changed much in recent years, but the lines on the map have shifted numerous times in history, through both negotiation and bloodshed.
Today’s above animation, by u/Golbwiki, is the perfect visual aid to understand how the United States evolved from the Thirteen Colonies to its current form.
Here are five of the largest expansion events in U.S. history.
1803: Louisiana Purchase
Napoléon Bonaparte didn’t just have a huge impact on Europe, he also altered the course of history in the New World as well. The French General was waging an expensive war in Europe, and began to view the Louisiana Territory as a burden – as well as a potential source of income. In 1803, he offered up all 828,000 square miles for the famously low price of $15 million.
This massive land purchase comprises nearly 25% of the current territory of the United States, stretching from New Orleans all the way up to Montana and North Dakota.
1819: Adams–Onís Treaty
Spanish explorers first established a presence in Florida as far back as 1565, but 250 years later, Spain had done little to cement its foothold in the region. The Spanish realized they were in poor position to defend Florida should the U.S. decide to seize it.
In 1819, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams negotiated the signing of the Florida Purchase Treaty, which officially transferred Florida to the United States after years of negotiations. There was no official cost of purchase, but the U.S. government agreed to assume approximately $5 million of claims by U.S. citizens against Spain.
1845: Texas Annexation
The newly created Republic of Texas, which broke away from Mexico in the Texas Revolution, was peacefully annexed by the United States in 1845. In one fell swoop, the U.S. acquired 389,000 square miles of former Mexican territory.
1848: Mexican Cession
Shortly after the Texas Annexation, tensions between Mexico and the U.S. flared up anew.
Congress declared war on Mexico over a boundary dispute in 1846, and after a relatively brief armed conflict – known as the Mexican–American War – the two countries signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.
The treaty recognized Texas as a U.S. state, and the United States took control of a huge parcel of land that includes the present-day states of California, Nevada, and Utah, as well as portions of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Mexico received $15 million in the arrangement, but saw the size of their territory halved.
1867: Alaska Purchase
In the aftermath of the Crimean War, Alexander II began exploring the possibility of selling Alaska. Similar to Spain’s foothold in Florida earlier in the century, the Russian Emperor recognized the possibility of American incursions into the territory, which they were not in a good position to defend against.
We must foresee that [the U.S.,] will take the afore-mentioned colonies from us and we shall not be able to regain them.
– Grand Duke Konstantin of Russia
After an all-night negotiation session on March 30, 1867, Alaska was sold to the United States for $7.2 million – the equivalent of $109 million in 2018. Alaska officially became a state in 1959.
Scratching the Surface
The examples above are only a brief overview of the complex evolution of shifting territorial claims in America.
For those who want to take a deep dive into the shifting borders of America, here is an extremely thorough animation, also by the same author:
Of course, colonial expansion in North America didn’t occur in a vacuum. For an Native American perspective on this topic, check out this animated map.
Mapped: European Colonial Shipping Lanes (1700‒1850)
This map plots the colonial shipping lanes used by the British, the French, the Spanish, and the Dutch in the 18th and 19th centuries.
European Colonial Shipping Lanes (1700‒1850)
Every year, thousands of ships ferry passengers and transport goods across the world’s oceans and seas.
200 years ago, the ships navigating these waters looked very different. Explorers and traders sailed from coast to coast to expand colonial empires, find personal riches, or both.
Before modern technology simplified bookkeeping, many ships kept detailed logbooks to navigate, tracking the winds, waves, and any remarkable weather. Recently, these handwritten logbooks were fully digitized into the CLIWOC database as part of a UN-funded project by the University of Madrid.
In this graphic, Adam Symington uses this database to visualize the British, French, Spanish, and Dutch shipping routes between 1700 and 1850.
Colonial Shipping Lanes
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the British, French, Spanish, and Dutch empires dominated global trade through their colonial shipping lanes.
All four nations sailed across the Atlantic Ocean with some frequency over that timeframe, but these fleets were also very active in the Pacific and Indian Oceans as well.
The table below reflects the record of days spent by digitized logbooks from each nation.
|Country||N. Atlantic||S. Atlantic||Indian Ocean||Pacific||All Oceans|
Does this mean that the Netherlands had the widest colonial reach at the time? Not at all, as researchers noted that there were thousands of logbooks from each country that weren’t able to be digitized, and thousands more that were lost to time. The days simply reflect the amount of data that was available to examine from each country.
But they can still give us an accurate look at critical shipping routes between European countries, their trade partners, and their colonies and territories.
Let’s now take a closer look at the colonial powers and their preferred routes.
The British shipping map shows a steady presence across the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. They utilized many of Europe’s ports for ease of trade, with strong pre-independence connections to the U.S., Canada, and India.
One of the most frequented shipping routes on the map seen is a triangular trade route that enabled the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This route facilitated the transportation of slaves from Africa to the Americas, raw materials such as sugar, tobacco, and cotton from the American colonies to Europe, and arms, textiles, and wine from Europe to the colonies.
During this period, Spanish maritime trade with its colonies was an essential economic component of the Kingdom of Spain (as with other colonial empires).
We can see the largest concentration of Spanish ships around Central and South America leading up to the Spanish American wars of independence, as those colonies were especially important suppliers of raw materials such as gold, silver, sugar, tobacco, and cotton. There are some lanes visible to Pacific colonies like the Philippines.
Of the four empires, France’s maritime logbooks were the most sparse. The records that were digitized show frequent travel and trade across the North Atlantic Ocean to Canada and the Caribbean.
The French empire at the time included colonies in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, and West Africa. Their trade routes were used to transport goods like sugar, coffee, rum, and spices, while also relying on the slave trade to maintain plantation economies. The French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) was one of the world’s wealthiest colonies in the late 18th century.
Dutch shipping routes from the time had the most detail and breadth of any country, reflective of the Dutch East India Trading Company’s position as the world’s dominant company and trade force.
These include massive traffic to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Cape Colony (now South Africa), and the Guianas in South America.
Interestingly, researchers from Leiden University found that the Dutch empire was a “string of pearls” consisting mostly of strategic trading hubs stretched along the edges of the continents and focused on maritime power.
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