clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

America's key historical events, in one map

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

This 1946 map, made by Aaron Bohrod, shows some of the foundational American events for nearly every state, packed into a single map. There's plenty to quibble with, since some states share key events with their neighbors (and some of the placements on the map aren't quite perfect). But it still shows the often amazing, occasionally traumatic, and always fascinating events that made America what it is today.

You can hover to zoom or see a larger version of the map here. Every region's historical events are identified below, along with a bit about their significance. Your state probably has a notable event — and it might be a memory worth sharing once again.

Aaron Bohrod's map of American history. (Bohrod/Library of Congress)

The Northeast and Canada

Aaron Bohrod's map of American history. (Bohrod/Library of Congress)

Aaron Bohrod's map of American history. (Bohrod/Library of Congress)

Captain John Smith, 1608 (Virginia): Explorer John Smith led the Virginia Colony's settlement in Jamestown and became a notable figure of early English colonization in North America. The same year he arrived, he famously encountered Pocahontas's tribe.

Champlain's settlement of Canada, 1608 (Canada): Champlain was a French explorer who founded New France and Quebec City in 1608. He made important early maps of the coast.

The Mayflower, 1620 (Massachusetts): In the summer of 1620, the Pilgrims left Plymouth, England, for the New World, reaching Cape Cod in November that year. The journey became one of the most memorable symbols of early European colonization in the Americas.

Purchase of Manhattan, 1623 (New York): Though the story is much-debated today (even the date ranges from 1623 to 1626), Dutch national archives do show record of the Dutch having purchased rights to the island from someone (though what those rights were, how much they cost, and who they were purchased from is unclear).

Fort Frontenac, 1675 (Canada): This French trading post was key in the early fur trade along the Great Lakes. It was actually first built in 1673, but the map shows it in 1675, when the fort was rebuilt to be larger and stronger.

Salem witchcraft, 1692 (Massachusetts): During the Salem witchcraft trials, 20 people were executed for being witches. The trials were held in and around Salem and are considered an example of mass hysteria.

Benjamin Franklin, 1706–1790 (Pennsylvania): Though born near Boston, the statesman, publisher, scientist, and generally fascinating early American leader has become integral to Philadelphia and Pennsylvania's identity. His life there affected both the city and the country.

Battle of Quebec, 1759 (Canada): Though there are a few different battles of Quebec, this one refers to a battle during the Seven Years' War (a.k.a. the French and Indian War). During this one, the British and French fought just outside of Quebec City, which led to increased British engagement in Canada.

Boston Tea Party, 1773 (Massachusetts): A key event during the Revolutionary War, the "tea party" involved the destruction of a tea shipment to protest British tea taxes. It inspired the name of the modern Tea Party movement.

Declaration of Independence, 1776 (Pennsylvania): Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, which established the United States when delegates adopted it on July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia.

Valley Forge, 1778 (Pennsylvania): During the winter of 1777 to '78, George Washington and the American Continental Army camped at this site. It became a representation of the hardships suffered by American troops during the war, as well as their persistence.

Surrender at Yorktown, 1781 (Virginia): In this year, the British surrendered to the Americans during the Revolutionary War, effectively ending the war and leading to the 1783 Treaty of Paris that formally recognized the United States.

Fulton's Clermont, 1807 (New York): In 1807, Robert Fulton built the first commercially successful steamboat, the North River Steamboat, which traveled along the Hudson River. It was called the Clermont because of an erroneous note in a Fulton biography.

Underground Railroad, 1800s (from South to North): As many as 100,000 slaves escaped through this network of escape routes that ran across the country, though estimates are difficult to confirm. The Underground Railroad became a notable symbol of slavery resistance.

Battle of Lake Erie, 1813: This naval battle was fought during the War of 1812 between the British and Americans. The United States won and secured Lake Erie for the duration of the war. It proved to be a major victory.

Automobile, 1901 (Michigan): Though earlier versions of an automobile existed, this event marks the 1901 formation of the Henry Ford Company, when a legendary businessman and inventor began the company that would establish the automobile's dominance.

The Southeast

Aaron Bohrod's map of American history. (Bohrod/Library of Congress)

Aaron Bohrod's map of American history. (Bohrod/Library of Congress)

Columbus — Watling Island, 1492 (Bahamas): Today called San Salvador Island, this location is believed to be the first place Columbus saw and visited in 1492 after his voyage from Europe. Columbus's journey remains one of the most notable examples of early Europeans in the Americas.

Ponce de León, 1513 (Florida): Juan Ponce de León was a Spanish explorer who served as the first governor of Puerto Rico. He reached what we call Florida in 1513.

De Soto, 1541 (Missouri): In 1541, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto became the first European to cross the Mississippi River. He then proceeded to Arkansas.

La Salle, 1682 (Missouri): French explorer Robert de La Salle established Fort St. Louis, an outpost along the Mississippi River. His many settlements along the river established French roots in the region.

Daniel Boone, 1775 (Kentucky): The famous frontiersman accomplished a few things in his life, including service in the Revolutionary War. In 1775, he blazed a trail through the Cumberland Gap, a pass in the Cumberland Mountains, and founded Boonesborough, Kentucky, one of the first settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Jean and Pierre Lafitte, 1812 (Louisiana/Gulf of Mexico): The Lafittes were infamous pirates in the New Orleans area, and were captured in 1812. Of course, being pirates, they fled as soon as they were released.

Battle of New Orleans, 1815 (Louisiana): Part of the War of 1812, this series of battles ended with American success against the British in 1815. On land, the American effort was led by future President Andrew Jackson.

End of Seminole War, 1842 (Florida): The series of wars called the Seminole Wars, which lasted from 1816 to 1819, 1835 to 1842, and 1855 to 1858, represent the largest conflict between the United States and native tribes. It defined both Florida and federal–native tribe relations.

Battle of Bull Run, 1861 (Virginia): During the First Battle of Bull Run, the Confederates shocked the Union by winning; it set the tone for a Civil War that would be bloodier and longer than either side anticipated.

The Confederacy, 1861 (Alabama): Though Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy, the first temporary capital was in Montgomery, Alabama. The city was also where the Confederacy was formally established in February of the same year.

Monitor and Merrimack, 1862 (Virginia): The most notable naval battle of the Civil War, it was sparked by a Southern attempt to break the North's blockade. Along with its importance in the Civil War, it set a new standard for naval conflict because of its ironclad ships, which surpassed wooden-hulled ships in durability.

Battle of Vicksburg, 1863 (Mississippi): Considered one of the turning points of the Civil War, it marked a Union victory over the Confederacy and helped the United States secure another stretch of the Mississippi River.

General Sherman, 1864 (Georgia): This event chronicles Union General William Tecumseh Sherman's march from Atlanta to Savannah during the Civil War. He notably destroyed military and civilian targets in a brutal campaign that changed warfare and possibly broke the Confederate will to continue.

Ku Klux Klan, 1866 (Alabama/Georgia): Though the white supremacist organization had resurgences over many decades, 1866 was particularly notable as the KKK rose in the wake of the Civil War.

Explosion of the Maine, 1898 (Cuba): The explosion of this ship in Havana Harbor is widely seen as the catalyst for the Spanish-American War. It remains unclear today whether it was an accident, a strategic gambit, or something else entirely.

Wright Brothers, 1903 (North Carolina): Though states quarrel over where the Wright Brothers made their first flight, this map celebrates their first powered flight near Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. Because of this and other flights, they received credit as the inventors of the airplane.

The Midwest

Aaron Bohrod's map of American history. (Bohrod/Library of Congress)

Aaron Bohrod's map of American history. (Bohrod/Library of Congress)

Marquette and Joliet, 1673 (Wisconsin): The French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet became the first Europeans to map the Northern Mississippi. Motivated in part by the fur trade, the expedition helped the French better understand routes along the Mississippi and continue to establish their presence in the region.

Fort Dearborn, 1813 (Illinois): In August 1812, during the War of 1812, this fort was taken by Potawatomi Indians, who were British allies. The fort was burned to the ground, cutting off supplies to Chicago. In addition to being a notable American defeat in the war, it may have instigated more anti–Native American policies (the 1813 date on the map may refer to a related event or may be an error).

Scott's Purchase, 1832 (Iowa): This treaty, made by General Winfield Scott, went into effect in 1833 and established the first United States settlement in Iowa. The $640,000 purchase followed the Black Hawk War between the Sauk people and the United States, which the United States won.

John Brown's slave raids, 1856 (Kansas): Though he is perhaps more well-known today for the 1859 West Virginia raid of Harper's Ferry, abolitionist John Brown led anti-slavery forces in Kansas in the late 1850s. In 1856, he and his sympathizers battled pro-slavery soldiers for two months.

Lincoln-Douglas debates, 1858 (Illinois): The legendary seven Senate campaign debates between Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas focused on slavery. Though the debaters were trying to appeal to the Illinois state legislature, who elected senators at the time, their debate became a memorable example of public discourse.

Mark Twain's Mississippi, 1850s–1900s (along the Mississippi River): Twain spent time working on the Mississippi as a steamboat pilot, but his association with the river extends beyond that experience. His literature — and the country's concept of the river — was defined by life along the Mississippi's banks.

Sod-house frontier, 1856–1885 (Nebraska): Log cabins were an impractical option on a frontier prairie with little wood, so sod houses were popular. Made from buffalo grass, wiregrass, and other grasses, these houses represent the tenacity of prairie settlers.

Minnesota Sioux War, 1862 (Minnesota): Typically called the Dakota War today, this violent conflict between the Dakota people and the United States ended with the execution of 38 Native Americans. It also led to mass internment and relocation of Native Americans, which helped establish Minnesota as a state and heightened hostilities between the United States and native tribes.

Wild Bill Hickok, 1860s–1870s (South Dakota): The legendary gambler and gunslinger became an iconic figure of the Wild West (he probably got his name when he whipped out a gun).

The Great Chicago Fire, 1871 (Illinois): This historic fire took as many as 300 lives and destroyed more than three square miles of city. It also wrecked much of the tenement housing and forced the city to rebuild, which helped it grow.

Gold — Black Hills, 1874 (South Dakota): The Dakota Territory gold rush began in 1874 and brought thousands to the region in search of riches. It made the infamous Deadwood into a boomtown and furthered Western development.

The Southwest and Mexico

Aaron Bohrod's map of American history. (Bohrod/Library of Congress)

Aaron Bohrod's map of American history. (Bohrod/Library of Congress)

Cortéz in Mexico, 1521 (Mexico): Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés (sometimes spelled Cortéz, as in the map) was the face of European conquest in Mexico. In 1521, he led the siege of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, claiming Mexico for Spain and granting the Spanish access to both land and the Pacific Ocean.

Francis Drake, 1579 (the Pacific): In 1579, English explorer Francis Drake landed on the coast of California in June. He claimed the land for the English, naming it "Nova Albion" (New Britain) and possibly leaving behind a colony of men. More important than the visit itself is its legacy for early European exploration of California.

Franciscan missions, 1769 (California): Established throughout California between 1769 and 1833, these missions had both a religious and political purpose: they created Catholic roots in the region as well as Spanish ones (which were strengthened when Spain secularized the missions in the 1830s).

The Santa Fe Trail, 1822 (New Mexico): Established in the early 1820s, this trail helped settlers travel from Missouri to New Mexico and was a key transportation conduit before the rise of the railroad. It later became an important throughway in the Mexican-American war.

The Alamo, 1836 (Texas): This key battle in present-day San Antonio, Texas, marked a key point in the Texas Revolution. Though the United States lost against Santa Anna, the conflict spurred on volunteers and led Texans to victory at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836. The battle became a mythic story of American (and Texan) grit.

Pony Express, 1860 (Nevada): This short-lived mail service only operated for 18 months, but it represented what people love about the West —independence, heroism, and horses.

Chisholm Trail, 1884 (Texas): This livestock route closed in 1884, but during operation from 1867 to 1884 it provided a path for cattle and revived the Texan economy. It's estimated that 5 million livestock traveled the trail, making it one of the largest controlled animal migrations in history.

Geronimo, 1885 (Nevada): In 1885, the legendary Apache leader, who fought against United States expansion, escaped imprisonment to Mexico. That escape, like his other conflicts with the United States, symbolized the persistent opposition of the Apache to the ever-expanding boundaries of US territory.

Opening of Oklahoma Territory, 1889 (Oklahoma): In March 1889, Congress allowed for homesteading in the Oklahoma Territory. It created a giant land rush in April of that year, as settlers rushed across it to claim land.

The West and Canada

Aaron Bohrod's map of American history. (Bohrod/Library of Congress)

Aaron Bohrod's map of American history. (Bohrod/Library of Congress)

Captain George Vancouver, 1795 (Canada): English naval officer George Vancouver led early British exploration of Western Canada, returning to Britain in 1795 after circumnavigating the globe. He established British ties to the area, and the city of Vancouver continues to bear his name.

Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804–1806 (throughout the West): The journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark marked one of the earliest American explorations of the American West. It found new routes for American commerce, helped map the American West, and formed new legends like the relationship between Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea. It also came to represent American discovery (and the search for other things, like mastodons).

Fort Astoria, 1811 (Washington): The home base of the Pacific Fur Company, the outpost was the first American settlement on the Pacific Coast. It helped build trade in the region and serve as an early Oregon frontier station.

Fort Laramie Trading Post, 1837 (Wyoming): In the 1830s, Fort Laramie helped boost the fur trade and became a key point in Wyoming commerce. It was also a key stop on the Oregon Trail.

The Oregon Trail, 1845 (Oregon): The famous trail from the Midwest to the West brought thousands of settlers West in the mid-1800s and provided the foundation for migration to Oregon. It also helped populate other Western states like Montana and Idaho (and was recreated in a famous computer game more than 100 years later).

Mormon Settlements, 1847 (Utah): Brigham Young led Mormons' long and difficult Western migration to Utah. By July of that year, he had established a location for the Salt Lake Temple and, in doing so, laid the groundwork for Mormon prominence in the state.

Gold Discovered — Sutter's Mill, 1849 (California): The discovery of gold at this California mill spurred the state's gold rush. That brought some 300,000 people to California and was a formative event in its population boom.

Colorado Gold Rush, 1859 (Colorado): In one of the largest gold rushes in American history, an estimated 100,000 people came to what would become Colorado territory. Also referred to as the "Pike's Peak Gold Rush," it led to the creation of the Colorado territory in 1861.

Central and Union Pacific, 1869 (the West/Utah): The completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 finally connected the East to the West at Promontory Summit, in the Utah territory. It was both a result of the Western population boom and a stimulus for that migration to continue.

General Custer's Last Stand, 1876 (Montana): The Battle of Little Bighorn was a notable conflict between the United States and the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. Custer's defeat intensified the conflict and became an enduring representation of American and Native American conflict.

San Francisco earthquake and fire, 1906 (California): About 3,000 people died in the San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire, making it one of the worst natural disasters in American history. Rapid reconstruction formed the San Francisco residents know today.

What the map means

This map of foundational history paints a clear picture of the adventurous and often violent beginnings of the United States of America. The east-to-west progression is clear in the dates, as are the conflicts that allowed for American expansion. The United States of America was created through a series of battles and shifting borders, not a single discovery.

A few states may be left out, and the selection may reignite some of the controversies that happened when these events occurred. And, of course, what qualifies as a fundamental historical event will always be subjective. But Bohrod's map still shows, in gorgeous color and vivid illustration, many of the key moments that created America.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.