The United States Through Time

American historical geography offers an amazing trip through the corridors of time. It is a journey replete with mystery, adventure, and incredible good fortune. It also chronicles occasional obstacles, detours, and hardships. This chapter investigates the country's past. Geographer Erhard Rostlund once observed that “the present is the fruit of the past and contains the seeds of the future.” Just as an adult person is a composite of family genetic material, parenting, education, peer group influences, and so forth, a country is a product of past influences and events.


Many questions remain unanswered in regard to the first Americans. About all that is known for certain is that they came from elsewhere and are primarily of Asiatic (Mongoloid) physical stock. For seven decades, archaeologists (scientists who study early peoples) believed that the Americas were settled by Asians whose pursuit of big-game animals drew them to this vast unsettled land. Supposedly, they wandered across Beringia, the Bering Strait “land bridge” that linked Siberia and present-day Alaska. This corridor was exposed by the drop in global sea level during the ice age. (Because so much ocean water was locked up on land in the form of glacial ice, sea level dropped an estimated 400 feet, or 122 meters.) On entering North America, these people supposedly passed through an ice-free corridor that formed between two huge masses of glacial ice. Finally, they reached the area of Clovis, New Mexico, where their unique projectile points, which date back about 13,000 years, were found.

Today, however, the origin of the first Americans has become one of the most intriguing mysteries that face social scientists. A few scholars have long questioned whether early peoples could have withstood the extremely cold conditions of Beringia and a narrow passageway between two towering masses of glacial ice. Rather than representing a single biological stock, Amerindians (American Indians) appear to be a rather diverse group. This suggests the possibility of multiple migrations into the Americas, perhaps involving different routes at different times. A growing number of scientists now believe that the earliest arrivals may have followed a coastal route. They could have walked along the broad continental shelf that was exposed by the lower sea level, perhaps rafting around barriers such as river mouths or glaciers flowing into the sea. Even the time of their arrival is now in doubt. Some hotly contested evidence from South America suggests that humans may have occupied the area most distant from Beringia more than 30,000 years ago! It seems probable that what is now the United States has been home to humans for perhaps 15,000 to 20,000 years.


Native people of the United States recognize themselves by many names. Indian is a misnomer. First, the term comes from one of history's great geographical blunders: Columbus's belief that he had reached Southeast Asia's “East Indies.” Second, not all native peoples are of Indian heritage. In Alaska, there are Inuit (Eskimo) and Aleut peoples, as well as Athabascan and other native groups. Many Hawaiians are of Polynesian ancestry. Finally, many native peoples prefer to be called First Americans, Native Americans, First Nations, Amerindians, indigenous peoples, or some other more sensitive designation.

Unlike the lingering mysteries surrounding the arrival of the earliest residents of the United States, a number of things are quite well established in regard to them. There is no doubt, for example, that when Europeans “discovered” the “New World,” they reached a land that already had been settled thousands of years earlier. Further, most native peoples showed physical features that tied them to a geographic origin somewhere in East Asia. The aboriginal population at the time of European contact remains in doubt. Estimates range widely, but it is probable that they numbered about 2 to 3 million.

What is known is that soon after Europeans arrived, warfare and European diseases (against which native peoples had no natural immunity) decimated native populations. Finally, it was a very diverse population. Native cultures varied greatly from place to place, as did their levels of cultural attainment. In the United States alone, native peoples spoke as many as 200 different languages in 17 different linguistic families. This fact suggests multiple origins and migrations, perhaps spread out over a span of many millennia.

Originally, all early peoples practiced a hunting-gathering (and, in some areas, fishing) subsistence economy. Populations were small, material possessions were meager, and most groups moved frequently in search of a more bountiful environment. Perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, the idea of farming, along with crops such as maize (corn), several types of beans, and squash (including the pumpkin), spread northward from Mexico. This allowed some peoples in the desert Southwest to settle in one place, near a stream or spring, and to grow crops using irrigation. They included the Pueblo people, who built massive adobe structures, many of which remain today as reminders of these advanced early cultures.

The idea of farming, along with the crops, gradually spread to more humid lands in the eastern United States. Here, woodland peoples added crop raising to hunting of game animals and birds and fishing the region's lakes and streams. A large and reliable food supply supported remarkable cultural growth that is well documented by early European accounts of the people. Groups such as the Iroquois in the Northeast and Cherokee in the Southeast had large populations, lived in settled communities, and had high levels of social organization and cultural attainment that are associated with high civilizations.

Many cultures that lived near the Pacific or Arctic Ocean depended largely on marine resources for their food supply. They were skilled boatbuilders and fishermen. Watercraft varied from dugout canoes to kayaks and outriggers. Some people, such as native tribes in the Pacific Northwest, depended on salmon taken from the Columbia and other rivers. Fishing techniques varied greatly, as did the means of preserving the catch. Whether in Hawaii, an Alaskan Arctic village, or the Pacific Northwest, though, each tribe had developed a successful strategy for providing an adequate supply of marine resources.

In the country's interior, millions of American bison (“buffalo”) roamed the vast plains, where they grazed on the steppe and prairie grasses. Here, 20 different tribal groups became skilled hunters who depended on these huge animals for much of their material culture. From the bison, they obtained food, clothing (hides and sinew used as thread), material for housing, and many of their tools and weapons (bone and horn). Settlement was temporary and material possessions were few, often little more than tools, weapons, and clothing. To avoid overgrazing, bison migrated constantly; hence, the Plains Indians followed a seasonal round as they pursued the herds. The lowest populations and most meager level of material and nonmaterial culture occurred in a region that roughly coincides with the Great Basin and most of present-day California.

Here, wandering tribes depended largely on seed gathering, hunting, and, in some locations, fishing.

Special mention must be made of two amazing cultures — the Inuit (Eskimo) of Alaska and the Polynesians of Hawaii. The Inuit thrived in one of the world's harshest environments. They developed a level of material culture that was one of the most advanced among the world's Mesolithic (preagricultural) peoples. Their houses—variously made of wooden frame, sod, animal skins, and, of course, snow (the well-known igloo)—were warm and sturdy. As hunters and fishermen, they were exceptionally skilled. The Inuit harpoon has been called the most effective hunting tool ever developed by a traditional culture. Their small kayak watercraft were so well designed that they are in popular use today far beyond their arctic home. During the frigid winter months, dogsleds provided the means of transportation.

This tradition continues today in Alaska's famous Iditarod race. Finally, their clothing (body, headgear, footwear, and gloves) is so well designed that it became the model for modern coldweather gear. In the Pacific, Polynesian peoples—voyaging more than 2,000 years before Magellan and other Europeans —sailed throughout most of the Pacific Basin in small but sturdy outrigger craft. By the dawn of the Christian era, they had discovered and settled most if not all inhabitable islands in the vast Pacific.

Through time, as European settlement and other influences spread, so did the negative impact of European diseases and other elements that severely disrupted (and often terminated) Amerindian populations and their cultures. In some areas, native populations were completely destroyed. Nearly everywhere, their land was taken, often forcefully, and in many instances they were removed to distant and strange locations. The destruction of Amerindian peoples and their culture is one of the saddest chapters in American history.


Little is known about the first Europeans to set foot on what is now the United States. Could it have been Vikings from Scandinavia, as some historical geographers believe? Perhaps an Irish monk? Or possibly Portuguese or Spanish fishermen blown off course who sailed to the rich fishing grounds of Newfoundland's Grand Banks? These are just some of the groups that may have reached American shores well before the first documented landings. What is known is that, in 1492, Christopher Columbus reached a land that he believed to be the spice-rich East Indies. His discovery sparked what became a several-century search for an all-water route through or around the Americas to the Pacific Ocean and the distant riches of Asia.

The first known European to reach the shores of the United States may have been Giovanni Caboto (known in English as John Cabot). Although this is questioned by many, some scholars believe that he reached the coast of Maine in 1497. (Seven years would pass before Columbus made landfall on the continental landmass in 1504.) In 1524, the king of France sent Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano on a voyage to the New World in search of wealth and a route to Asia. Verrazzano reached the coast of present-day North Carolina and continued northward. He is believed to have been the first European to follow the coast of present-day New England. His epic voyage is memorialized by the spectacular Verrazano-Narrows Bridge that spans the mouth of the Hudson River in New York City. Surprisingly, the lure of finding a water route to Asia was so strong that more than a century passed before northwest Europeans began to settle the newly found land! Not until 1607 did the first north Europeans—the British at Jamestown, Virginia—begin to permanently settle the land.

American history often carries a strong north European bias. In reality, much of what is now the United States was first explored, claimed, and settled by Spaniards. In 1540, for example, long before the English or French penetrated the country's interior, Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado explored much of the southwestern United States. In his search for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold, his men explored an area that extended from Arizona eastward into Kansas. In 1565, 42 years before the Jamestown settlement was established, a Spanish foothold was built at St. Augustine (Florida). In the Southwest, the Spanish established a regional capital in Santa Fe (New Mexico) in 1610, a full decade before the Pilgrims settled at Plymouth, Massachusetts.


Early European settlement in what is now the United States shows distinct regional differences in political and cultural dominance. These patterns resulted from the various economic (and, of course, political) emphases placed on the land and resources by the different European colonists. North Europeans first settled along the mid-Atlantic and New England coasts. There, they harvested timber (which was very scarce in Europe), fished, and cleared land on which to settle and farm. Cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were established around protected harbors. They served as a doorway for trade between the new settlements and the homelands that lay across the Atlantic.

Inland, throughout the Great Lakes region and Mississippi Valley westward to the Rockies, French trappers pursued valuable fur-bearing animals, particularly beavers. Spaniards lay claim to an area that extended from Florida westward to the Pacific Coast and included much of the interior West. They sought to protect their Caribbean and Atlantic trade routes, expand their territory northward, discover gold, and convert native peoples to the Roman Catholic faith. The cultural influence of these early settlers is still evident in many Spanish, British, French, and other European language place names that dot the American landscape.

By the eighteenth century, the United States was on the brink of history's greatest mass migration. During the next 250 years, 45 million Europeans migrated to America. They came for many reasons: Land was plentiful, and they were free to practice their religious, social, political, and other cultural beliefs without oppression. Many simply wanted to “reinvent” themselves in a new land that offered many attractive opportunities. Others, sadly, came unwillingly as slaves. Through the process of relocation diffusion, each group arrived with its own cultural baggage—language, customs, religion, diet, and other well-established ways of living. Europe is a region of great cultural diversity and a long history of ethnic conflicts. Given this historical reality, what occurred in America borders on a miracle—one unparalleled in all of history. Within a span of several generations, most ethnic ties to the homeland vanished. British, Dutch, Germans, Scandinavians, French, and many others simply blended into a cultural “melting pot” to become “Americans.” By the mid-1700s, all lands between the Atlantic Coast and the Appalachians were under British control. A short quarter-century later, despite their varied ethnic backgrounds, the 13 original colonies would free themselves from British political domination. On July 4, 1776, a new country was born: the United States of America.


Regardless of their place of origin, Europeans came from temperate midlatitude lands in which subtropical crops could not be grown. The American South, in contrast, offered a humid subtropical climate with ample year-round moisture and a long, hot growing season. Conditions were ideal for the growing of plantation crops such as cotton, indigo, tobacco, and rice. During the eighteenth century, a plantation-based economy boomed in the South.

Northwestern Europeans (primarily from the British Isles) were unaccustomed to sweltering heat and humidity. As a result, they were unable (or unwilling) to perform hard physical labor on the plantations. At first, they turned to Amerindians as a labor source. From the very beginning of settlement, however, some Europeans had brought African slaves to America. The Africans were well adapted to working in hot, humid weather conditions and proved to be excellent laborers in the plantation fields. Sadly, for more than 150 years, the Southern plantation economy depended on and thrived because of African slave labor. Ultimately, slavery was a key issue in the bloody conflict between the Northern and Southern states—a war that sharply divided the country and took 600,000 to 700,000 lives. In the United States, the slave trade was outlawed in 1808, although the practice itself continued until 1865. An estimated 400,000 Africans were unwillingly brought to British Colonial America. Certainly the institution of slavery and the devastating war to which it contributed ranks as the lowest point in U.S. history.


By the early 1800s, what had begun as a mere trickle of movement westward from the Atlantic coastal plain became a surging flood of humanity following in the footsteps of Daniel Boone and other hardy early pioneers. Like grains of sand passing through an hourglass, land-hungry frontiersmen from the eastern seaboard flowed toward narrow water gaps ( east-west valleys cut through mountain ridges) and spilled across the Appalachians into the Ohio Valley and beyond. Hundreds of thousands of people sought a new life and opportunity in the fertile lands that lay in the interior valleys and plains located west of the mountains. Many Europeans, particularly those of Scandinavian and German ancestry, were skilled woodsmen. They knew how to clear land, remove stumps, and build sturdy log homes, fences, and outbuildings. Gradually, following the Ohio River, the Great Lakes, and other routes of easy access, they continued westward. In their wake, canals and railroads followed. These transportation linkages helped to maintain ties between the expanding western frontier and the rapidly expanding population and economic development along the East Coast.

During the mid-nineteenth century, two nearly simultaneous events served as magnets to draw fortune seekers across the country's rugged interior to the West Coast. On January 24, 1848, James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's Mill, located on the American River near present-day Coloma, a small community at the western foot of the Sierra Nevada in present-day central California. His discovery started a rush that ultimately brought tens of thousands of gold-hungry prospectors (and others)—the “49ers”—to the “Golden State.”

With the populations and economies of San Francisco, Sacramento, and nearby areas booming as a result of the gold rush, the need for safe and speedy transportation links with the East became apparent. At the time, several dangerous and time-consuming options for making the journey between the coasts existed. One could travel by water around the tip of South America, a voyage of 15,000 miles that took our to eight months. Many people, however, preferred to sail to Panama, cross the narrow isthmus by land, and then catch another ship to California. This route was 7,000 miles and took up to three months. The tropical land crossing also exposed travelers to malaria and yellow fever. Finally, one could cross the continent by land, an often-treacherous 2,500-to-3,000-mile trek by wagon that could take up to seven months. Shorter trips west of the Missouri River—in those limited areas where service was available—were made by horseback, stagecoach, or riverboat (along the Missouri and several of its larger tributaries).

Clearly, something had to be done. By midcentury, a fairly extensive network of railroads existed in the eastern United States, but none extended far beyond the Missouri River. That, however, was about to change. In 1862, Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act, which authorized the Union Pacific Railroad to begin building westward from Omaha, Nebraska, and the Central Pacific Railroad to start building eastward from Sacramento, California. Nearly seven years later, on May 10, 1869, the tracks joined at Promontory Summit, in present-day Utah, and a golden spike was driven to commemorate the occasion. Later that year, the rails were extended from Sacramento westward to San Francisco, thereby spanning the continent.

After the end of the Civil War in 1865, the United States entered a period of growth and prosperity: Most of the country was linked by both transportation and communication (telegraph) networks. The Industrial Revolution, which had begun in Great Britain a century earlier, was now fully established in the eastern United States. Both the population and the economy were booming, as industries, businesses, and agriculture thrived. Millions of immigrants, most of whom came from Europe, swelled the population and contributed to economic growth. As the country faced the dawn of the twentieth century, it did so with great optimism. America was coming into its own as an emerging global power, and the country as a whole was prospering. Storm clouds were forming on the horizon, however.


The first half of the twentieth century was an era of turbulence for the United States. Racial and ethnic discrimination were widespread. Between 1914 and 1918, much of Europe was engaged in World War I, a conflict that the United States entered in 1917. U.S. troops played a very significant role in bringing the war to an end in 1918, but not before the country lost an estimated 110,000 to 120,000 service personnel. Soon after the war was over, in 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act (Prohibition), which prohibited the manufacture, distribution, sale, or consumption of alcoholic beverages. By the time the act was repealed in 1933, organized crime had gained a strong foothold in the country, providing “bootleg” liquor and engaging in other illegal activities.

During the 1930s, the United States reached what many believe to have been its all-time low point. On October 24, 1929, the New York stock market crashed. Within one week, investors lost 40 percent of their capital. By 1932, the market had lost 89 percent of its value, and the U.S. economy entered the Great Depression. The economic hard times would last for nearly two decades and affect nearly all Americans. The 1930s also brought environmental devastation to much of the Great Plains region from Texas to the Canadian border and westward to the Rocky Mountains. Year after year, rain was scarce, and moisture-starved crops and livestock herds suffered. Soils were stripped from the land, creating violent dust storms that turned day into night. During this “dust bowl” era, nearly half a million people left their land and migrated. Most of them moved westward to California or elsewhere. It would take decades before the region—America's wheat-and-livestockproducing agricultural heartland—would return to its former level of productivity.

No sooner had the country begun a slow recovery from the Great Depression and dust bowl era than storm clouds once again started to form. In 1939, war began in Europe and soon spread like wildfire as it engaged Allied (friendly) or Axis (hostile) forces. It even spread to eastern Asia. For a time, the United States watched from the sidelines. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed the U.S. military base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The American response was swift and decisive. By the war's end in 1945, U.S. military forces had played a leading role in securing the victory for itself and its allies. An estimated 72 million people died in the war, including perhaps 420,000 Americans.


After World War II, it became apparent that the United States had emerged as the world's leading economic and military power. The latter position, of course, was challenged by the Soviet Union during the “cold war” period, which lasted from 1947 until the USSR politically disintegrated in 1991. During this period, the two countries challenged one another ideologically, politically, militarily, and in many other ways—including in the race to outer space. Ultimately, in 1991, the Soviet Union and its Communist government collapsed, leaving the United States as the world's lone powerhouse. At the dawn of the new millennium, the country faces many challenges, but there are numerous reasons for optimism as you will learn in the next three chapters, which discuss the country's people and culture, government and political system, and economy.