US History Lesson

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License plates can read like a United States history textbook. Lincoln, Mt. Rushmore, the War of 1812…those any more many have been honored on plates all around the USA.


Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in North America. This plate depicts the arrival of a ship to the narrow peninsula in the James River which became the site of the settlement. Historical figures such as Pocahontas and John Smith derived from Jamestown.

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Connecticut’s nickname derives from the belief that the writing the Constitution of the United States were inspired by the first constitution of Connecticut. Delaware was the first of the original 13 colonies to ratify the United States Constitution. Pennsylvania honored the Constitution through a 1987 optional.

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Illinois has had “Land of Lincoln” printed on its license plates for more than 60 years, and in 2001 it added a graphic of one of the greatest presidents in the history of the United States.

Mt. Rushmore, located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, boasts sculptures of four great U.S. Presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Gutzon Borglum and his team carved on the granite face of the mountain from 1927 to 1941.

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George Rogers Clark (1752-1818) was a Revolutionary War commander who led a small force of frontiersmen through freezing waters to capture British-held Fort Sackville at Vincennes in February, 1779, an event captured on the 1980 base plate.

New Hampshire’s iconic state motto derived from a toast by General John Stark, an American Revolutionary War soldier, in 1809; in 1971, a state law mandated that the motto be present on all non-commercial license plates.

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The War of 1812 between America and Great Britain lasted nearly three years; the defense of Fort McHenry (pictured on the plate) in Baltimore inspired Francis Scott Key to write what became the national anthem: “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

In January 1815, British and American troops engaged in a bloody battle at New Orleans just weeks after a treaty had been signed in Belgium (news hadn’t yet reached American soil); future US President Andrew Jackson led a ragtag army to victory and prevented further British attacks.

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Lewis and Clark led an expedition from Missouri to the Pacific Ocean in present-day Oregon. Including the return trip, the pair traveled some 8,000 miles in what was then uncharted territory, helping to open up the American west.

The Oregon Trail is a historic wagon route and emigrant trail that connected the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon. It was formed in part by the Lewis and Clark expedition and served as the route for the first migrant wagon train, in 1836.

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Began in 1870, the Virginia and Truckee Railroad served as an important conduit to the Comstock Lode. The line prospered in the latter part of the 19th century into the 20th century. By the 1920’s, it had started to fade like so many others, but it’s legacy lived on. It was eventually turned into a “heritage railway,” meaning tourists could ride the train, sometimes with historical reenactments.

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Before Teddy Roosevelt became president, he was a 25-year-old New York Assemblyman who in 1884 lost both his wife and his mother. He retreated to the Badlands of the Dakota Territory, in what is now North Dakota, and reinvented himself as a rancher and cowboy. He would later serve as a commander of the Rough Riders, who fought in the Spanish-American War, and his time in the Badlands inspired his dedication to national parks.


Liberty State Park is located opposite the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Between 1886 and 1924, nearly 14 million immigrants entered the U.S. through New York. The Statue of Liberty stood as a symbol of freedom and hope, welcoming them to the harbor, after which they filed through the inspection station at Ellis Island.

Alaska’s Gold Rush Centennial plate recalls the Nome Gold Rush.

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In 1903, four miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright Brothers made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft.

Ohio has had a disagreement with North Carolina; though the Wright Brothers made their first successful flight in North Carolina, they were born in Ohio and it was there they constructed their aircraft. Ohio is also the birthplace of 24 astronauts, including John Glenn and Neil Armstrong.

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King Kamehameha (c. 1736? – 1819) was the founder and first ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

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On January 28, 1986, the Challenger space shuttle broke apart 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts aboard – among them was high school teacher Christa McAuliffe from New Hampshire; she was chosen to join the crew as part of the NASA Teacher in Space Project.

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In 1995, a bombing took place at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 168 people lost their lives, and many more were injured. This specialty provided funds for a relief fund, while a second plate was made solely for survivors and victims’ families. (Side note: if you ever are in OKC, I highly recommend a visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum; it was an unforgettable experience on my cross-country trip).

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9/11…The single deadliest terror attack in human history. On the morning of September 11th, 2001, the terrorist group Al-Qaeda carried out four separate, coordinated attacks against the U.S. by hijacking airplanes. Two flew into the World Trade Center in New York City, one into The Pentagon in Washington D.C., and a fourth, intended for the U.S. capitol, was impeded by the passengers and instead crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. In total, 2,977 people died, and scores more were injured or suffered long-term health consequences as a result.

Several states have issued specialty plates commemorating the event, or promoting patriotism in general.

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