The American Revolution was a war waged by the 13 American Colonies to overthrow British rule and become an independent nation. Historians agree that it began with the “shot heard round the world” in the battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 and officially ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The end result was a new nation and a new form of government that inspired the creation of democracies around the world.
In the 1700s, the 13 American Colonies were under the control of Great Britain and obeyed the laws made by Parliament and the British King. From 1754-1763, there were many battles for control of the land in North America. Called the French and Indian War, these battles were part of the greater Seven Years war between France, England, and others. After the British were victorious, they claimed more land in North America, including the land west of the 13 Colonies to the Mississippi River. However, with Britain’s Proclamation of 1763, Parliament and King George III sought to keep the peace between their American colonists and the Native Americans who had been living there for thousands of years. The Proclamation stated that colonists couldn’t settle west of the original 13 colonies. Colonists like George Washington thought this was unfair and considered it their right to settle wherever they pleased. This created tension between Great Britain and the colonies over their desire for self-government.
For years, the colonies had been left alone to mostly govern themselves. They had enjoyed a rather laissez-faire, or hands off, approach by the British government because of their great distance. After the Seven Years War, Great Britain was in massive debt. To solve this problem, they instituted a series of taxes on the colonists. The Sugar Act of 1764, Quartering and Stamp Acts of 1765, and the Townshend Act of 1767 were met with resistance from the colonists, not only because of the economic strain they caused but because they were an example of “taxation without representation”. Colonists denounced the fact that they had no control over what laws were being imposed upon them because they did not have proper representation in British Parliament.
Tensions rose further March 5, 1770 when a riot broke out in Boston, MA in which British soldiers shot and killed 5 men, including Crispus Attucks. Considered the first casualties of the American Revolution, the event was used as a catalyst to stoke the rising feelings of resistance to Great Britain in the colonies. Silversmith Paul Revere made an engraving of the incident and called it “The Boston Massacre”.
After the Tea Act required colonists to only purchase tea from the British East India company, the “Sons of Liberty”, such as Sam Adams and John Hancock, in Boston engaged in a protest. They dumped 92,000 pounds of tea into Boston Harbor on Dec. 16, 1773. This was met with swift condemnation by the British government who closed Boston’s port and demanded that the cost of the lost merchandise be repaid. When the British occupying Boston learned that colonists had been storing munitions and supplies in Concord, General Gage sent his soldiers to march out to quell the insurrection. This resulted in the Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, which is considered the first battle of the Revolutionary war. Paul Revere made his famous midnight ride on April 18th to warn the colonists of their impending arrival. Even though he did not complete his ride, the warning he and his colleagues delivered helped the Patriots win their first victory.
In 1776, the American colonies formally declared their intent to form a new nation separate from Great Britain with the Declaration of Independence. It was written by Thomas Jefferson with help from Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Patriots believed that King George III was a tyrant who was not upholding their constitutional rights as British citizens. They felt the only course of action was to declare their independence and explain their reasoning to the world. Loyalists saw the document as traitorous.
George Washington's Continental Army, Navy, and Militias fought against King George. The British Forces were made up of Regulars, Hessians, Loyalists, Native Americans, and the great British Navy, which was considered the mightiest in the world. British victories in New York and New Jersey initially demoralized Washington and the Americans. Later, victories at Trenton emboldened the Americans and showed the British that they were a force to be reckoned with. Aid from countries like Spain, Germany, and France, with General Marquis de Lafayette, helped the Patriots against the formidable British Empire.
The war continued until the final battle at Yorktown, VA in 1781. With the help of the French, the Americans cut off any chance of retreat. General Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington, which marked the unofficial end to the war. Smaller battles continued along with two years of negotiations and the Treaty of Paris was finally signed on Sept. 3, 1783. Great Britain formally recognized the United States as an independent nation, bringing the American Revolution to a close after eight long years.
Some of the voices that are not always heard in the re-telling of the American Revolution are those of women, African Americans, and Native Americans who had their own perspectives and contributions to both the Loyalist and Patriot causes during the war.
Women helped on the home-front collecting funds to aid the war effort, boycotting British tea and other products by making their own, and sewing uniforms and blankets for the troops. Many were left to run farms or businesses as well as care for their children while husbands were away fighting. Some were left destitute when their homes and livelihoods were destroyed in battle.
Women also saw action on the battlefield. Some were nurses caring for the wounded, others took up arms themselves! Deborah Sampson dressed as a man and fought in several battles. Molly Pitcher took her husband’s place manning a cannon when he was wounded at the Battle of Monmouth.
Mercy Otis Warren used her skill as a writer to publish articles in support of the Patriots and against the injustices of Great Britain to help gain support for the war. Mary Katherine Goddard was a publisher and postmistress of the Baltimore Post Office from 1775 to 1789. She was the second printer to print the Declaration of Independence!
Women on both sides served as spies. Ann Bates infiltrated Washington's camp at White Plains, NY in 1778 pretending to be a peddler. She mapped out the camp, counted the men, weapons and supplies, and gave the intel to the British. Lydia Darragh and her Quaker family sided with the Patriots. She spied on British meetings when they occupied Philadelphia and gave valuable intel to the Patriots, even warning them that British General Howe planned a surprise attack on Washington and his army in 1777!
A half million enslaved African Americans lived in the colonies in 1776. The Revolution brought the hope of freedom for many as the British offered them a chance at freedom in exchange for running away from their enslavers and joining the British cause. At great risk, thousands of enslaved Africans ran away to serve the British as spies, soldiers, chefs, and other jobs in the hopes of freedom.
It is estimated that 5,000-8,000 African Americans fought for the Patriots as well. Peter Salem was born enslaved in Framingham, MA. With the promise of freedom, Salem became a Minuteman, joining the Patriot army and fighting heroically in the Battle of Lexington & Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill in Boston in 1775, among others. He served in the army until 1780.
Phyllis Wheatley, an enslaved woman in Boston, MA, was also an acclaimed writer who was one of the first enslaved authors to be published. One of her poems honored George Washington and was famous for inspiring Patriots not to lose hope in their cause.
African Americans served as spies as well. James Armistead was an enslaved man in Virginia who was offered by his enslaver to assist the Marquis de Lafayette as a spy. Working as a double-agent, Armistead gave valuable intel to the Americans about the British plans and misleading information to the British who trusted him. His information led to victory at the Battle of Yorktown. But Armistead was forced to return to slavery. He petitioned Congress for several years for his freedom. Finally, the Marquis de Lafayette wrote a letter to Congress on Armistead’s behalf and Armistead was granted freedom in 1787. Armistead formally included Lafayette in his name as gratitude, becoming James Armistead Lafayette.
The Indigenous peoples of North America had long faced conflict, death, and removal from their lands at the hands of the American colonists. When the Revolution broke out, many wanted to stay neutral, fearing they'd lost too much already. They did not understand the quarrels between the British government and her American subjects and did not want to get in the middle. But it was difficult to remain neutral. The British and Americans each vied for their aid while also at times decimating Native American villages taking food and supplies, causing widespread hunger and hardship.
Many Native Americans feared that an American victory would ensure the Colonists would settle westward, further encroaching on their lands. Because of this, most First Nations allied with the British. The Cherokees, Creeks, and others in the south, along with the Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee) in the north provided crucial aid to the British who were unfamiliar with the landscape. The war fractured the centuries old Great Peace of the Haudenosaunee with the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca allying with the British and the Oneida and Tuscarora aiding the Americans. Mohawk leaders Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea) and his sister Molly Brant (Degonwadonti) used their great influence to convince the Iroquois Confederacy to support the British and provided valuable aid. When the war was over, Joseph and Molly Brant fled to Canada and were granted pensions for their service to the Crown.
The Oneida and Tuscarora broke with the Iroquois Confederacy and supported the Americans, helping scout and conduct raids along with the Stockbridge of Massachusetts. Chief Guyashuta of the Ohio Senecas, Chief Cornstalk of the Shawnees, and Chief White Eyes of the Delawares tried to maintain peace with the Americans but their nations switched allegiances to support the British after American soldiers killed Chief Cornstalk in 1777, Chief White Eyes in 1778, and slaughtered a village of peaceful Moravian Delaware Native Americans without cause in 1782.
In 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed with the British, surrendering the 13 colonies as well as the land west to the Mississippi River and disregarding the Native Americans who lived there. Some Native Americans that aided th British fled to Canada while others remained and continued to fight to regain relations with the Americans and thus retain their land. The new United States continued to expand westward, taking Native American lands by treaty and by force regardless of who they had supported during the war.
Some of these lesson plans and activities are geared toward older students, but they can be a great reference for teachers, and activities can be adjusted for younger grades as desired.