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Native Americans and European settlers[edit]

The indigenous peoples of the territory that now constitutes the U.S. mainland, including Alaska, migrated from Asia. They began arriving at least 12,000 and as many as 40,000 years ago.[1] Several indigenous communities in the pre-Columbian era developed advanced agriculture, grand architecture, and state-level societies. European explorer Christopher Columbus arrived at Puerto Rico on November 19, 1493, making first contact with the Native Americans. In the years that followed, the majority of the Native American population was killed by epidemics of Eurasian diseases.[2]

The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, by William Halsall, 1882. The Mayflower transported Pilgrims to the New World in 1620.

Spaniards established the earliest European colonies on the mainland, in the area they named Florida; of these, only St. Augustine, founded in 1565, remains. Later Spanish settlements in the present-day southwestern United States drew thousands through Mexico. French fur traders established outposts of New France around the Great Lakes; France eventually claimed much of the North American interior as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. The first successful British settlements were the Virginia Colony in Jamestown in 1607 and the Pilgrims' Plymouth Colony in 1620. The 1628 chartering of the Massachusetts Bay Colony resulted in a wave of migration; by 1634, New England had been settled by some 10,000 Puritans. Between the late 1610s and the revolution, the British shipped an estimated 50,000 convicts to its American colonies.[3] Beginning in 1614, the Dutch established settlements along the lower Hudson River, including New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island. The small settlement of New Sweden, founded along the Delaware River in 1638, was taken over by the Dutch in 1655

In the French and Indian War, the colonial extension of the Seven Years War, Britain seized Canada from the French, but the francophone population remained politically isolated from the southern colonies. By 1674, the British had won the former Dutch colonies in the Anglo-Dutch Wars; the province of New Netherland was renamed New York. With the 1729 division of the Carolinas and the 1732 colonization of Georgia, the thirteen British colonies that would become the United States of America were established. All had active local and colonial governments with elections open to most free men, with a growing devotion to the ancient rights of Englishmen and a sense of self government that stimulated support for republicanism. All had legalized the African slave trade. With high birth rates, low death rates, and steady immigration, the colonies doubled in population every twenty-five years. The revivalist movement of the 1730s and 1740s known as the Great Awakening fueled interest in both religion and religious liberty. By 1770, the colonies had an increasingly Anglicized population of three million, approximately half that of Britain itself. Though subject to British taxation, they were given no representation in the Parliament of Great Britain.

Independence and expansion[edit]

Tensions between American colonials and the British during the revolutionary period of the 1760s and early 1770s led to the American Revolutionary War, fought from 1775 through 1781. On June 14, 1775, the Continental Congress, convening in Philadelphia, established a Continental Army under the command of George Washington. Proclaiming that "all men are created equal" and endowed with "certain unalienable Rights," the Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, drafted largely by Thomas Jefferson, on July 4, 1776. In 1777, the Articles of Confederation were adopted, uniting the states under a weak federal government that operated until 1788. Some 70,000–80,000 loyalists to the British Crown fled the rebellious states, many to Nova Scotia and the new British holdings in Canada.[4] Native Americans, with divided allegiances, fought on both sides of the war's western front.

U.S. growth by date of statehood and ratification of the Constitution

After the British army's defeat by American forces, who were assisted by the French, Great Britain recognized the sovereignty of the thirteen states in 1783. A constitutional convention was organized in 1787 by those who wished to establish a strong national government with power over the states. By June 1788, nine states had ratified the United States Constitution, sufficient to establish the new government; the republic's first Senate, House of Representatives, and president, George Washington, took office in 1789. New York City was the federal capital for a year, before the government relocated to Philadelphia. In 1791, the states ratified the Bill of Rights, ten amendments to the Constitution forbidding federal restriction of personal freedoms and guaranteeing a range of legal protections. Attitudes toward slavery were shifting; a clause in the Constitution protected the African slave trade only until 1808. The Northern states abolished slavery between 1780 and 1804, leaving the slave states of the South as defenders of the "peculiar institution." In 1800, the federal government moved to the newly founded Washington, D.C. The Second Great Awakening made evangelicalism a force behind various social reform movements.

Territorial acquisitions by date

Americans' eagerness to expand westward began a cycle of Indian Wars that stretched to the end of the nineteenth century, as Native Americans were stripped of their land. The Louisiana Purchase of French-claimed territory under President Thomas Jefferson in 1803 virtually doubled the nation's size. The War of 1812, declared against Britain over various grievances and fought to a draw, strengthened American nationalism. A series of U.S. military incursions into Florida led Spain to cede it and other Gulf Coast territory in 1819. The country annexed the Republic of Texas in 1845. The concept of Manifest Destiny was popularized during this time.[5] The 1846 Oregon Treaty with Britain led to U.S. control of the present-day American Northwest. The U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War resulted in the 1848 cession of California and much of the present-day American Southwest. The California Gold Rush of 1848–1849 further spurred western migration. New railways made relocation much less arduous for settlers and increased conflicts with Native Americans. Over a half-century, up to 40 million American bison, commonly called buffalo, were slaughtered for skins and meat and to ease the railways' spread. The loss of the bison, a primary economic resource for the plains Indians, was an existential blow to many native cultures.

Civil War and industrialization[edit]

Battle of Gettysburg, lithograph by Currier & Ives, ca. 1863

Tensions between slave and free states mounted with increasing disagreements over the relationship between the state and federal governments and violent conflicts over the expansion of slavery into new states. Abraham Lincoln, candidate of the largely antislavery Republican Party, was elected president in 1860. Before he took office, seven slave states declared their secession from the U.S., forming the Confederate States of America. The federal government maintained secession was illegal, and with the Confederate attack upon Fort Sumter, the American Civil War began and four more slave states joined the Confederacy. The Union freed Confederate slaves as its army advanced through the South. Following the Union victory in 1865, three amendments to the U.S. Constitution ensured freedom for the nearly four million African Americans who had been slaves,[6] made them citizens, and gave them voting rights. The war and its resolution led to a substantial increase in federal power.[7]

Immigrants landing at Ellis Island, New York, 1902

After the war, the assassination of President Lincoln radicalized Republican Reconstruction policies aimed at reintegrating and rebuilding the Southern states while ensuring the rights of the newly freed slaves. The disputed 1876 presidential election resolved by the Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction; Jim Crow laws soon disenfranchised many African Americans. In the North, urbanization and an unprecedented influx of immigrants hastened the country's industrialization. The wave of immigration, which lasted until 1929, provided labor for U.S. businesses and transformed American culture. High tariff protections, national infrastructure building, and new banking regulations encouraged industrial growth. The 1867 Alaska purchase from Russia completed the country's mainland expansion. The Wounded Knee massacre in 1890 was the last major armed conflict of the Indian Wars. In 1893, the indigenous monarchy of the Pacific Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown in a coup led by American residents; the archipelago was annexed by the U.S. in 1898. Victory in the Spanish-American War that same year demonstrated that the United States was a major world power and resulted in the annexation of Puerto Rico and the Philippines.[8] The Philippines gained independence a half-century later; Puerto Rico remains a commonwealth of the United States.

World War I, Great Depression, and World War II[edit]

An abandoned farm in South Dakota during the Dust Bowl, 1936

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the United States remained neutral. Americans sympathized with the British and French, although many citizens, mostly Irish and German, opposed intervention.[9] In 1917, the U.S. joined the Allies, turning the tide against the Central Powers. Reluctant to be involved in European affairs, the Senate did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles, which established the League of Nations. The country pursued a policy of unilateralism, verging on isolationism.[10] In 1920, the women's rights movement won passage of a constitutional amendment granting women's suffrage. In part due to the service of many in the war, Native Americans gained U.S. citizenship in the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.

During most of the 1920s, the United States enjoyed a period of unbalanced prosperity as farm profits fell while industrial profits grew. A rise in debt and an inflated stock market culminated in the 1929 crash that triggered the Great Depression. After his election as president in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded with the New Deal, a range of policies increasing government intervention in the economy. The Dust Bowl of the mid-1930s impoverished many farming communities and spurred a new wave of western migration. The nation would not fully recover from the economic depression until the industrial mobilization spurred by its entrance into World War II. The United States, effectively neutral during the war's early stages after the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, began supplying materiel to the Allies in March 1941 through the Lend-Lease program.

On December 7, 1941, the United States joined the Allies against the Axis Powers after a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan. World War II cost far more money than any other war in American history,[11] but it boosted the economy by providing capital investment and jobs, while bringing many women into the labor market. Allied conferences at Bretton Woods and Yalta outlined a new system of intergovernmental organizations that placed the United States and Soviet Union at the center of world affairs. As victory was achieved in Europe, a 1945 international conference held in San Francisco produced the United Nations Charter, which became active after the war.[12] The United States, having developed the first nuclear weapons, used them on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August. Japan surrendered on September 2, ending the war.[13]


Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech, 1963

The United States and Soviet Union jockeyed for power after World War II during the Cold War, dominating the military affairs of Europe through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact. The United States promoted liberal democracy and capitalism, while the Soviet Union promoted communism and a centrally planned economy. The Soviet Union supported dictatorships, as did the United States on occasion, and both engaged in proxy wars. United States troops fought Communist Chinese forces in the Korean War of 1950–53. Anti-communist sentiment in the United States led to the rise of Joseph McCarthy and investigations by the House Committee on Un-American Activities into suspected communist subversion.

U.S. Air Force jets flying above the remnants of Kuwaiti oil fields in the Gulf War, 1991

The Soviet Union launched the first manned spacecraft in 1961, prompting U.S. efforts to raise proficiency in mathematics and science and President John F. Kennedy's call for the country to be first to land "a man on the moon," achieved in 1969.[14] Kennedy also faced a tense nuclear showdown with Soviet forces in Cuba. Meanwhile, America experienced sustained economic expansion. A growing civil rights movement headed by prominent African Americans, such as Martin Luther King Jr., fought segregation and discrimination, leading to the abolition of Jim Crow laws and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[15] Following Kennedy's assassination in 1963, his successors expanded a proxy war in Southeast Asia into the unsuccessful Vietnam War. As a result of the Watergate scandal, in 1974 Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign, rather than be impeached on charges including obstruction of justice and abuse of power. The election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980 marked a significant rightward shift in American politics. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Soviet Union's power diminished, leading to its collapse. The leadership role taken by the United States and its allies in the United Nations–sanctioned Gulf War and the Yugoslav wars helped to preserve its position as the world's last remaining superpower.

On September 11, 2001, terrorists struck the World Trade Center in New York City and The Pentagon near Washington, D.C., killing nearly three thousand people. In the aftermath, President George W. Bush launched the War on Terrorism under a military philosophy stressing preemptive war now known as the Bush Doctrine. In late 2001, U.S. forces led a NATO invasion of Afghanistan, removing the Taliban government and al-Qaeda terrorist training camps. Taliban insurgents continue to fight a guerrilla war against the NATO-led force. In late 2002, the Bush administration, began to press for regime change in Iraq on controversial grounds. Lacking the support of NATO, Bush formed a Coalition of the Willing and invaded Iraq in 2003, removing President Saddam Hussein. Although facing both external[16] and internal[17] pressure to withdraw, the United States maintains its military presence in Iraq.


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  2. ^ Mann, Charles C. (2005). 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. New York: Knopf. ISBN 140004006X.
  3. ^ Butler, James Davie (October 1896). "British Convicts Shipped to American Colonies". American Historical Review 2. Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History. Retrieved 2007-06-21. 
  4. ^ "The United Empire Loyalists—An Overview" (PDF). Learn Quebec. Retrieved 2007-06-19. 
  5. ^ Morrison, Michael A. (1999). Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, pp. 13–21. ISBN 0807847968.
  6. ^ "1860 Census" (PDF). U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved 2007-06-10.  Page 7 lists a total slave population of 3,953,760.
  7. ^ De Rosa, Marshall L. (1997). The Politics of Dissolution: The Quest for a National Identity and the American Civil War. Edison, NJ: Transaction, p. 266. ISBN 1560003499.
  8. ^ Spielvogel, Jackson J. (2005). Western Civilization: Volume II: Since 1500. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, p. 708. ISBN 0534646042.
  9. ^ Foner, Eric, and John A. Garraty (1991). The Reader's Companion to American History. New York: Houghton Mifflin, p. 576. ISBN 0395513723.
  10. ^ McDuffie, Jerome, Gary Wayne Piggrem, and Steven E. Woodworth (2005). U.S. History Super Review. Piscataway, NJ: Research & Education Association, p. 418. ISBN 0738600709.
  11. ^ "World War II By The Numbers". National WWII Museum.  Francis, David R. (2005-08-29). "More Costly than "The War to End All Wars"". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 2006-10-24.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  12. ^ "The United States and the Founding of the United Nations, August 1941–October 1945". U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Office of the Historian. October 2005. Retrieved 2007-06-11. 
  13. ^ Pacific War Research Society (2006). Japan's Longest Day. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 4770028873.
  14. ^ Rudolph, John L. (2002). Scientists in the Classroom: The Cold War Reconstruction of American Science Education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 1. ISBN 0312295715.
  15. ^ Klarman, Michael J. (2006). From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 552. ISBN 0195310187.
  16. ^ Semple, Kirk (2007-05-12). "Majority of Iraq Lawmakers Seek Timetable for U.S. Exit". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-05-13.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  17. ^ Rogers, David (2007-05-09). "Democrats Push for Vote On Revised Iraq War Bill". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2007-05-13.  Check date values in: |date= (help)