The U.S. is barely even an adolescent compared to many other countries around the world. Yet it ranks third, behind China and India, in population. How did the country go, in a little over 200 years, from 6.1 people per square mile in 1800 to 93 per square mile today? We’ve previously featured maps of how the real estate came on the market. And we’ve brought you a map that tells the locations and stories of the peoples who used to live there. The map above takes a different approach, showing population density growth from 1790 to 2010, in numbers based on Census records.
Originally appearing on Vivid Maps, the animated timeline contains no information about the how, who, or why of things. But we know that since it only accounts for those who were counted, the numbers of people actually living within the borders is often much higher. “Not only did the population boom as a result of births and immigrants,” writes Jeff Desjardins at the site Visual Capitalist, “but the borders of the country kept changing as well.” This change, and the fact that indigenous people were not recorded, leads to an interesting visualization of westward expansion from the point of view of the settlers.
As Desjardins notes, the state of Oklahoma appears as an “empty gap” on the map in the late-1800s, lightly shaded while its borders are surrounded by dark brown. This is because “the area was originally designated as Indian Territory…. However, in 1889, the land was opened up to a massive land rush, and approximately 50,000 pioneers lined up to grab a piece of the two million acres opened for settlement.” Thousands of the people living there had already, of course, been pushed off their land during the decades-long “Trail of Tears.” The question of who “exactly is counted as a whole person?” comes up in the comments on Visual Capitalist post, another key consideration for understanding this data in its proper context.
The ways people have been categorized are products of contemporary biases, political attitudes, and legal and social discriminations. These attitudes are not incidental to the populating of the country, but materially integral. As we see the massive, yet hugely uneven, spread of people across the expanding country, we might be given the impression that it constitutes a unified surge of expansion and development, when the historical reality, of course, is anything but. Of the many questions we can ask of this data, “who fully counted as an American during each of these periods and why or why not?” might be one of the most relevant, in 1790 and today. Or, if you’d rather just watch the map fill up with sepia and burnt umber pixels, to the tune of some martial-sounding drum & bass, watch the video above.