When you think of North America, you probably focus on the three nations that currently occupy the continent — Canada, the United States, and Mexico — from top to bottom. And for the most part, these are the only official countries that have claimed a part of this landmass since explorers began venturing across the pond. But the reality is, many people called this continent home long before the first European scientist realized that the Earth was round and one’s ship wouldn’t fall off the side at the end of the ocean. Here are three former countries, or rather lands, that predate the current North American nations.
To be clear, while we’re highlighting countries that no longer exist, there’s a bit of ambiguity around the Cherokee Nation. The original Cherokee Nation that we’re discussing in this article references an autonomous tribal government that lived in what is now the American South before being moved to Northern Oklahoma and existed between 1794 and 1907. In addition to being composed of Cherokee Native Americans, the nation also included Cherokee freedmen (former slaves), people of the Qualla Boundary, and other Native Americans who relocated either voluntarily or were forced to because of the Trail of Tears.
After relocating to Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation relied on cattle ranching to maintain its economy and autonomy from the U.S. government. But federal interference and refusal to lease land to Cherokee cattlemen had a negative effect. This was part of an effort to undermine tribal infrastructure and dissolve the Cherokee claim to the land so that it would be ceded back to Oklahoma during their quest for statehood. Eventually, the original Cherokee Nation government was dissolved in 1906. However, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a new tribal government for the modern Cherokee Nation, which still exists today, was ratified in 1938 after the passing of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.
Long before the British, French, Portuguese, and Spanish empires laid claim to North America, the Vikings were braving the elements to explore beyond their original homelands in Scandinavia. While not a formal country, Vinland deserves recognition because it was a settlement spearheaded by the famous Viking Leif Erikson some time around 1000 CE. To be clear, even today archeologists and historians aren’t sure where exactly Vinland existed. Experts theorize that the settlement could have been located somewhere in Eastern Canada, including Newfoundland and areas flanking the St. Lawrence Seaway.
There are conflicting theories about exact locations, and a lot of that is because of the name Vinland. In Old Norse, it translates to “Wineland.” But in the case of Newfoundland, there aren’t — nor have there ever been — any grapes growing in that region. However, there’s better evidence to suggest that areas around the St. Lawrence Seaway such as Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick are more likely options because they have thriving grape crops. Still, Vinland was a short-lived Viking experiment as references to hostile locals and the extreme distance from their homeland caused the settlement to be abandoned 10 years after its founding.
Let’s move a bit south to Mexico and discuss one of the most influential Pre-Columbian cultures from the Mesoamerica period. Also known as the Toltec Kingdom, the Toltecs existed between 674 and 1122 CE. While the Toltecs don’t get a lot of attention in traditional world history classes, they impacted many of the surrounding Pre-Columbian cultures, not just in Mexico but in Central America. Most notably, many of the characteristics that we associate with Aztec culture were influenced by the Toltecs. And their architectural style of building pyramids can be found in some Mayan settlements.
The Toltecs were expert architects, weavers, metal workers and artisans. According to many historians, even their name “Toltec” came to be synonymous with “artisans.” Unfortunately, aside from the remaining ruins of their former cities like the capital of Tula (northwest of Mexico City) and artwork, little is known about the inner workings of the society. Like many cultures of this period, their writings were based on a hieroglyphic system that isn’t found on surviving buildings or artifacts.
Each of these cultures represent a fascinating aspect of North American history. And although western education tends to focus on the achievements of our European descendants, it’s important to remember the ancient cultures that came before.