Text and photos courtesy of Michelle Mock and Stephanie Wong

The 19th Century

The face of North America changed considerably during the 19th Century as countries formed. The Europeans began to lose their territories as colonists fought for, and won, independence. The following is a brief introduction to these new countries.

The United States of America

After declaring independence from Britain in 1776, the United State established itself as a nation. At the end of the American Revolution, which was the war between the United States and Britain, the new country was made up of thirteen states. As the century progressed, the new country would expand, at the expense of the Native Americans. By the end of the 19th century, there would be a total of 45 states, but about midway through the century, the Union was almost destroyed by a Civil War.

The 19th Century was an era of expansion for the fledgling country. At the turn of the century, Spain had transferred the Spanish colony of Louisiana back to France. Soon after learning of this, Thomas Jefferson began negotiations to purchase this area from France. In 1803, the U.S. purchased the more than 500 million acres of land, then known as Louisiana. The Louisiana Purchase included most of the land west of the Mississippi River, east of the Rocky Mountains and north of the Gulf of Mexico. The borders were actually not very well defined at all. President Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on an expedition to explore these new territories and to find a waterway to the West. It wasn’t until 1818 that the northern border was established, separating the United States and southern North American territories from the Canadian Territories.

Through the 1830s, United States settlers would move west, driving out the Native American people who lived there. In 1835, war broke out in Texas (then part of Mexico) with rebels fighting for independence. Rebels were massacred at the Alamo mission station, but by the end of the war, the Texans had driven the Mexicans out and Texas became an independent republic.

Between 1846 and 1848, the United States and Mexico were at war over boundaries. Eventually, Mexico lost the territory that would become the states of California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. In 1848, gold was discovered in California and many migrated west in search of wealth (few found it).

The American Civil War began in 1861 and would continue through 1865. Brothers fought against brothers, friends against friends. Johnny Reb and Billy Yank were the nicknames given to southern and northern soldiers. The southerners fought with fierce loyalty to their State. The northerners had the same loyalty to their country. In the end, some 635,000 Americans were dead. A side effect of the war was the end of slavery, but the war itself was about much more.

In 1867, the United States continued to expand by purchasing Alaska from Russia for $7 million dollars (less than what some celebrity homes cost today). The first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869.

The Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890, was the final uprising of Native Americans in the U.S.A. The Sioux were defeated and their weapons taken away.

In 1898, the Spanish American War gave Cuba independence under temporary American control.


Mexico established its independence from Spain in 1821. Mexico found itself at war off and on through the 19th century. In 1835, Mexico warred with Texan rebels. Between 1846 and 1848, Mexico was at war with the United States over the western territories north of present day Mexico. In 1857, Mexico was embroiled in a Civil War.

Central America

The formation of the United Provinces of Central America in 1823, paved the way for El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Costa Rica to become independent republics (1839-1840).


Fur traders continued to explore west through what is known today as Canada. In 1811, exploring for the North West Company, David Thompson claimed the country around the mouth of the Snake River for Britain.

The British and the Americans were at war again in the War of 1812, although the battles were fought mainly on the borders of the United States and the Canadas. The Americans thought it would be easy to capture British North America, given that many of the habitants of Upper Canada were American and the French Canadians in Lower Canada would be anti-British, but the war actually consolidated their Canadian identity. The British, Loyalists (the Americans who supported Britain), French and the native peoples fought together, which would become seed for the formation of a united Canada. Despite ending in a stalemate, the War of 1812 is considered an important milestone in Canadian history as the potential loss of the war (which was close at hand) would have likely resulted in its absorption into the US.

In both Upper and Lower Canada, there grew a discontent between the common peoples and the British ruling class. Eventually, independent rebellions resulted in 1837. In 1840, Upper and Lower Canada united. Concluding that the rebellions were "racial" conflicts between the French and the English, Britain proclaimed the Act of Union (1841), which united the two colonies into the self governing United Province of Canada, in the hope to assimilate the French. The two regions were now called Canada West (English) and Canada East (French).

There increased a greater desire for the unification of all the British North America colonies (Canada and the colonies to the east). The first serious discussions began at the Charlottetown Conference (1864) which eventually led to the British North America Act of 1867. The BNA Act resulted in the creation of the Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867, making Canada an independent self-governing nation. It consisted of the provinces of Ontario (Canada West), Québec (Canada East), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Canada's first Prime Minister was John A. Macdonald.

The Hudson's Bay Company owned the regions of Rupert's Land and North-Western Territory. Canada bought these lands and encouraged westward settlement. This did not bode well for the Métis (descendants of European and native marriages), who feared the loss of their way of life. Louis Riel led the Red River Rebellion (1869-1870) and negotiated acceptable terms which would lead to the creation of the province of Manitoba in 1870. British Columbia joined Canada in 1871, followed by Prince Edward Island in 1873. 1873 saw the formation of a national police forced called the North-West Mounted Police (later Royal Canadian Mounted Police). Exiled after the last rebellion, Louis Riel came back to lead the North-West Rebellion against the increasing infringement of European settlement and the Canadian Pacific Railway. He failed and was executed for treason in 1885. Gold was found 1867 in Yukon, leading to the Klondike Gold Rush. Hundreds of thousands of people trekked up to Dawson City in search of fortune. Yukon shortly became a territory.

World  North America


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