How we got 50 states. It’s weirder than you think.

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How did the U.S. get 50 states? It’s a weirder story than you may think.

Most of us know that the country started with the first 13 colonies, which became the first states to join the union.i

When the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War in 1783, our borders expanded to the Mississippi,ii giving us land that would become several states in the South and the Midwest.

In 1803, the U.S. paid $15 million to Napoleon’s France for the Louisiana Purchase, giving us all or part of 15 states between the Mississippi and the Rockies (even though President Jefferson thought the purchase might be unconstitutional).iii

In 1846, the U.S. signed the Oregon Treaty with Britain, giving us Oregon, Washington, and Idaho (along with parts of Montana and Wyoming).iv

In 1848, the U.S. concluded its war with Mexico by signing the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, through which we acquired most of the Southwest, including California.v

The rest of the states have more eccentric origins — like those that broke off from other states.

Kentucky was originally part of Virginia but separated into its own state in 1792.vi

Maine broke away from Massachusetts in 1820 — partially because Massachusetts failed to defend Maine’s territory during the War of 1812.vii

And West Virginia separated from Virginia in the 1860s over West Virginia’s decision to remain in the Union during the Civil War.viii

A few states were once independent countries.

Vermont considered itself an independent republic for 14 years before joining the union in 1791.ix

After winning its independence from Mexico, Texas functioned as its own country from 1836 to 1846.x

And Hawaii was an independent kingdom until the monarchy was overthrown in 1893. (The U.S. annexed the islands five years later.)xi

A couple of other states were just bought outright.

The U.S. purchased Florida from Spain in 1819 after General Andrew Jackson occupied the territory,xii though historians still debate whether Jackson actually had the authority to do so.xiii

And America bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, a move that was criticized as a waste of money — until gold was discovered there in the 1890s.xiv

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:

  1. After the original 13 colonies, most American states came out of one of four events: the Treaty of Paris, the Louisiana Purchase, the Oregon Treaty, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
  2. Kentucky, Maine, and West Virginia are all states that were formed out of other states.
  3. Vermont, Texas, and Hawaii are all states that were once independent countries.

SOURCES

  1. The Day the Constitution Was Ratified — National Constitution Center 
  2. American Revolutionary War and Its Impact on the West — State Historical Society of Iowa
  3. Louisiana Purchase — U.S. Department of State
  4. Treaty of Oregon — Northwest Power and Conservation Council
  5. Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo — U.S. National Archives
  6. Kentucky History — Kentucky Department of Tourism
  7. Maine Statehood: The Mexit From Massachusetts in 1820 — New England Historical Society 
  8. “West Virginia: The State That Said No” (Preston Williams) — Washington Post
  9. “Going Its Own Way: When Vermont Was an Independent Republic” (Isaac Fornarola) — Burlington Free Press
  10. A Guide to the United States’ History of Recognition, Diplomatic, and Consular Relations, by Country, Since 1776: Texas — U.S. Department of State
  11. “Hawaii’s Long Road to Statehood” (Jessie Kratz) — U.S. National Archives
  12. Andrew Jackson in Pensacola, Florida — National Park Service
  13. Jackson Launched Controversial First Seminole War in Florida in 1818 — Sarasota Herald-Tribune
  14. Purchase of Alaska — U.S. Department of State