The American Revolution in Unexpected Places

Jacqueline C. Reynoso is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Cornell University. Her work focuses on Canada during the American Revolution.

It is no secret that the American Revolution has enjoyed a long hold on the American psyche. For most Americans, the mere mention of it can easily bring to mind a slew of notable figures, events, and even regions, such as Boston and its harbor. It is not at all surprising, then, that the Revolutionary Era has also loomed large in the study of American history. In recent decades, however, historians have done much to move past more familiar understandings of the period, often focusing their studies on obscure individuals or settings. Yet, many of these lesser-known figures or locales fall within the boundaries of the thirteen British colonies that secured their independence from Britain in 1783—a set of colonies which most Americans know simply as “the thirteen colonies.”

The trouble is, at the time of the revolution, British America consisted of twenty-six colonies, not thirteen. The imperial connections that cut across their separate boundaries often kept individuals politically, commercially, and even personally tied to events and individuals throughout the empire. And although only thirteen colonies did eventually break away from the British Empire, neither their fate nor their number was ever predetermined. It was also not a struggle that was purely defined through colonial actors in colonial settings. Even as it took place, the American Revolution both shaped and was shaped by occurrences outside of those thirteen colonies. What’s more, the end of the Revolutionary War may have brought the united thirteen colonies new political realities, but it did so for Britain’s other thirteen colonies as well.

Moving past the thirteen colonies or focusing on individuals and organisms that could and did travel through, across, and beyond their boundaries helps us better understand not just what happened elsewhere in British America, but within the united thirteen colonies as well. The books in the list that follows provide alternative vantage points that help paint a richer, more regionally complex understanding of the American Revolution.

Places to Start

Published in 1995, Calloway’s The American Revolution in Indian Country remains both a pioneering study in the field of Early America as well as a call to arms. Through eight case studies, Calloway weaves together the history of the American Revolution with histories of Native peoples from the period, bearing witness to their interconnectedness despite the then-common tendency to separate the two. It is a great place to start for those interested in the role of Native peoples in the shaping, execution, and consequences of the revolution.

For anyone interested in the British Caribbean during the American Revolution, O’Shaughnessy’s An Empire Divided is the book to read. It reminds readers that Britain’s American Empire consisted of both mainland and West Indian colonies. O’Shaughnessy questions why these latter colonies chose to remain loyal to the British Empire while thirteen of their mainland counterparts did not. In the process, An Empire Divided inspires readers to discard any assumptions of the revolution’s inevitability, and reminds us that the consequences of the revolution were born by more than Britain and the nascent United States.

Digging In

Some of the most overlooked—or at least poorly understood—actors of the revolution are the Loyalists. Their “patriot” contemporaries habitually described them as traitors to both liberty and their fellow countrymen, while scholars have often treated them as a timeless, reactionary community which simply resisted the revolutionary changes of the period. In Liberty’s Exiles, however, Jasanoff restores much of their agency by underscoring the conscious thought and effort that went into their loyalism. More surprisingly, Jasanoff’s study presents its readers with Loyalist figures who ultimately do not look as different from their revolutionary counterparts as they may seem. Although choosing to remain British subjects, Loyalist refugees in all corners of the British Empire were some of the most vocal critics of imperial policy and drivers of political change.

Fenn’s Pox Americana is recommended reading for anyone interested in the ways non-human actors influenced historical events during the Revolutionary Era. This book, like the epidemic, is not limited to regions directly affected by the Revolutionary War, and is therefore a broader study of smallpox throughout much of North America (including, for instance, Quebec, Pensacola, and Mexico City). Yet, Fenn devotes a substantial section of her book to smallpox’s role in the American Revolutionary War. She demonstrates the way the virus and immunity shaped military outcomes, military strategy, and overall morale in the early years of the war. Moreover, Fenn’s broader geographic scope provides a way to look past the thirteen colonies, and even past the Revolution entirely.

New Moves

DuVal’s most recent study brings into focus regions, individuals, and even revolutionary struggles that are regularly obscured in histories of the period. She approaches the American Revolution from the Gulf Coast, and in doing so reminds her readers that most individuals participated in the War for Independence for reasons that were regionally or personally specific. By focusing on the Gulf Coast and the many individuals who inhabited the region, DuVal also depicts an imperial world that was made up of various forms of interdependence. Her book suggests that while one form of independence was secured in 1783, other forms were stamped out.

Like countless studies of the American Revolution, Saunt frames his book around the year 1776—the very year congressional delegates signed the Declaration of Independence. Yet, neither the signers of the declaration, nor the colonies they represented factor prominently in what Saunt describes “an uncommon history” of that year. Instead, West of the Revolution provides a window into histories of North America that have more to do with the Spanish and Russian empires, together with the Native peoples that often helped shape imperial relations. By situating himself on the periphery of more conventional histories of the period, Saunt masterfully succeeds at marginalizing that which seems to dominate any history of 1776. By doing so, he equips readers with a richer understanding of the North American interior and its significance for making sense of the Revolutionary Era.

Voices and Lives

This edited volume bears witness to a little-known fact of the Revolutionary War: French-speaking Canadian colonists played a key role in one of the Continental Army’s first major military offensives of the American Revolutionary War. For various reasons, both voluntary and involuntary, Canadian colonists helped bring about the Continental Army’s first successes in its Canadian Campaign of 1775-1776, and Quebec during the American Invasion provides a lens into some of their actions. Although the edited source base reflects the point of view of imperial agents in support of Quebec’s British colonial government, Gabriel’s edited volume provides a crucial window into a largely illiterate peasant agrarian populace. These sources complicate our understanding of happenings in British Canada and elsewhere in North America during the Revolutionary War.