Mapped: The Territorial Evolution of the United States
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Mapped: The Territorial Evolution of the U.S.

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evolution of american territorial expansion

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.

us territorial expansion map

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:

expansion of U.S. territory

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.

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Misc

Mapped: Second Primary Languages Around the World

This fascinating map highlights the second most commonly spoken primary language in almost nearly every country.

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Second Languages Around the World Shareable

Mapped: Second Primary Languages Around the World

After the primary language, what second languages are used as native tongues in your country?

The answer reveals a lot about history and location. Whether through immigration, colonization, or local culture, a primary language can either spread around the world or remain rooted in place.

This map from MoveHub shows the second most commonly spoken primary language in most countries, using data from the CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia as of February 2021.

The Difference Between Primary and Secondary Languages

First, it’s important to differentiate between primary languages and secondary languages.

A primary language—also known as a first or native language—is the language we use most frequently to communicate. These are languages we are usually born with, have a lot of exposure to, and use at home.

On the other hand, a secondary language is one we learn or pick up after our primary language. In many countries, English is the most commonly learned, with close to 1 billion speakers.

But a map of common second languages can simply show just how many countries prioritize learning English, the de-facto international language in many organizations. Instead, this map highlights the movement of people by showing the second-most common primary language.

The Second Most Common Primary Languages by Country

Even when filtering by primary language use, however, English and other Indo-European languages dominate the world.

With 55 countries speaking it as the second-most common primary language, English came out on top.

Top 10 Most Popular Second Primary LanguagesNumber of Countries
English55
French14
Russian13
Spanish8
Creole8
Arabic6
Kurdish4
Portugese4
Italian3
Quechua3

The use of English as a second primary language was primarily concentrated in Western Europe, Northern Africa, and Southeast Asia and Oceania.

Similarly to second-place French with 14 countries and third-place Russian with 13 countries, English was most common in proximity to English-speaking countries or where there was a history of immigration.

Other second-most common primary languages highlighted different cultures within countries, such as China’s second-most common language Cantonese. Alternatively, they showed the primary indigenous language before colonization, such as the Quechua languages in South America.

What other interesting or surprising language patterns can you spot in the map above?

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Mapped: Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

This detailed map looks at where humans have (and haven’t) modified Earth’s terrestrial environment. See human impact in incredible detail.

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human impact on earths surface

Mapped: Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

With human population on Earth approaching 8 billion (we’ll likely hit that milestone in 2023), our impact on the planet is becoming harder to ignore with each passing year.

Our cities, infrastructure, agriculture, and pollution are all forms of stress we place on the natural world. This map, by David M. Theobald et al., shows just how much of the planet we’ve now modified. The researchers estimate that 14.6% or 18.5 million km² of land area has been modified – an area greater than Russia.

Defining Human Impact

Human impact on the Earth’s surface can take a number of different forms, and researchers took a nuanced approach to classifying the “modifications” we’ve made. In the end, 10 main stressors were used to create this map:

  1. Built-Up Areas: All of our cities and towns
  2. Agriculture: Areas devoted to crops and pastures
  3. Energy and extractive resources: Primarily locations where oil and gas are extracted
  4. Mines and quarries: Other ground-based natural resource extraction, excluding oil and gas
  5. Power plants: Areas where energy is produced – both renewable and non-renewable
  6. Transportation and service corridors: Primarily roads and railways
  7. Logging: This measures commodity-based forest loss (excludes factors like wildfire and urbanization)
  8. Human intrusion: Typically areas adjacent to population centers and roads that humans access
  9. Natural systems modification: Primarily modifications to water flow, including reservoir creation
  10. Pollution: Phenomenon such as acid rain and fog caused by air pollution

The classification descriptions above are simplified. See the methodology for full descriptions and calculations.

A Closer Look at Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

To help better understand the level of impact humans can have on the planet, we’ll take a closer look three regions, and see how the situation on the ground relates to these maps.

Land Use Contrasts: Egypt

Almost all of Egypt’s population lives along the Nile and its delta, making it an interesting place to examine land use and human impact.

egypt land use impact zone

The towns and high intensity agricultural land following the river stand out clearly on the human modification map, while the nearby desert shows much less impact.

Intensive Modification: Netherlands

The Netherlands has some of the heavily modified landscapes on Earth, so the way it looks on this map will come as no surprise.

netherlands land use impact zone

The area shown above, Rotterdam’s distinctive port and surround area, renders almost entirely in colors at the top of the human modification scale.

Resource Extraction: West Virginia

It isn’t just cities and towns that show up clearly on this map, it’s also the areas we extract our raw materials from as well. This mountainous region of West Virginia, in the United States, offers a very clear visual example.

west virginia land use impact zone

The mountaintop removal method of mining—which involves blasting mountains in order to retrieve seams of bituminous coal—is common in this region, and mine sites show up clearly in the map.

You can explore the interactive version of this map yourself to view any area on the globe. What surprises you about these patterns of human impact?

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