History of the Region

Although Christopher Columbus is often credited with “discovering” America, it is critical to understand that the landmass was inhabited long before Europeans made contact. With many areas having complex cultures and civilizations. Most likely, early migrants to the Americas traveled from Asia through the Beringia land bridge that once connected Siberia and Alaska over 10,000 years ago. These indigenous peoples, known as First Nations in Canada or Native Americans in the United States, were divided into several different groups, some consisting only of a few small families and others encompassing vast territories and empires. Some groups practiced hunting and gathering, but many practiced settled agriculture. Before European contact, an estimated 50 million indigenous people were living in North and South America.

European colonization completely changed the cultural landscape of North America. In 1492 CE, Columbus made contact with what are now the Bahamas, Cuba, and the island of Hispaniola, spurring Spanish and Portuguese colonization of the Americas. The term “Indian” was initially used by Columbus who thought he had arrived in the East Indies, what we now refer to as East and Southeast Asia. Early French and English settlements were not successful, but over time, they too gained control of territory and founded permanent colonies. The easternmost indigenous groups were the first to experience the impacts of European invasion. Many were relocated, often forcibly, to the interior of North America to free up land for European settlement. Disease and war would have a devastating effect on the indigenous groups of the Americas. European settlers and explorers brought smallpox, measles, and cholera – diseases previously unknown to North America. In some areas, 90 percent of the indigenous population died.

In 1619, the first twenty African slaves were brought to an English colony in Virginia. Over the next 400 years, nearly every aspect of American history would be influenced by slavery. In August 2019, the New York Times recently released The 1619 Project, with a goal to bring to light the original slaves brought the new Americas and the dark 400 years into the future it brought to the region as a new nation was founded on the backs of slavery.

By the early 1700s, France, the United Kingdom, and Spain had established formal colonies in the Americas and the population geography of North America today is primarily rooted in the colonial developments during this period. The British primarily set up settlements along the coast, including the thirteen colonies that would declare independence from the United Kingdom and form the basis of the United States. The French colonized much of Canada and the area surrounding the Mississippi River. Their primary objective was fur trading, and they founded a fur-trading outpost at what would later become the city of Quebec. The Spanish colonized present-day Florida as well as much of Middle America, stretching into what is now the southwestern United States. They sought resources like gold, the expansion of trade, and opportunities to spread the Roman Catholic faith to indigenous groups.

The early British colonies had highly specialized economies, not unlike the patterns seen in present-day North America. The New England colonies, around the Massachusetts Bay area, were centers of commerce. The Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia and Maryland had many tobacco plantations. In the Middle Atlantic, around New York, New Jersey, and eastern Pennsylvania, were a number of small, independent-farmer colonies. Further south, the Carolinas were home to vast plantations cultivating crops like cotton.

These massive plantations relied on slave labor, a dark legacy that would last for 250 years in North America. Initially, colonists partnered with indentured servants. These laborers paid to their passage to North America by agreeing to work for an employer under contract for a set number of years. These indentured servants often worked on farms, and once their contract expired, they were free to work on their own. Over half of all European immigrants to the Americas before the American Revolution were indentured servants.

As indentured servants gradually earned their freedom, the system of indentured servitude was replaced with slavery. The Portuguese were the first to bring slaves from Africa to the Americas during the 1500s. England, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands would all later join in the transatlantic slave trade, with England dominating the slave trade by the late 17th century. The vast majority of slaves were destined for sugar colonies in the Caribbean and Brazil. Less than 10 percent would be brought to the North American colonies, but this number still represented hundreds of thousands of people. It is estimated that a total of 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World as slaves.

During British colonization, slaves worked as house servants or laborers in the northern colonies and farmworkers in the south. Britain formally abolished slavery in 1833, but slavery was so entrenched in the economies of the southern United States that it would take a civil war to end the practice. In their secession statement, Mississippi explained its reasoning for leaving the union: “In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course. Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.”

When we think about the Civil War, it is essential to understand the geographical differences between the north and south and to remember that the northern states profited from slavery in the south. Just as geographers can divide the world into core and peripheral countries today, the early United States can similarly be analyzed in terms of its core and periphery. The southern states were indeed peripheral in terms of their economic development. Slavery provided the southern states with the maximum profit for their commodities and the notion of “othering,” the idea that people who look different from you are definitively not you, combined to create an institution that was deeply a part of the southern culture and economy. Even after slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865 with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the legacy of slavery and the tendency to consider African Americans as “other” remained. It would be another 100 years before laws were passed in the United States that would bar discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Even still, racial and ethnic prejudices continue to be a significant social issue.

The Europeans, mainly the Spanish, French, and British, left a strong imprint on their North American colonies. The oldest colonial city in North America is St. Augustine, Florida (1565), founded by Spain when Florida was a remote portion of the Spanish Americas. Spain also had outposts in what are now California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The forms of settlement characteristic of those areas were similar to the Spanish colonies of Central America. While Spain governed what is now the southern United States, France ruled Canada and much of the interior of the North American continent. The French first came to Canada in the late 1500s to engage in fishing in the North Atlantic and soon expanded their reach by creating a fur trade in the area surrounding the Great Lakes and throughout the Mississippi River system.

Although there were fewer settlers from France than from other European countries, especially in what became the United States, this French era left behind place names (Baton Rouge and Detroit), patterns of land use, and a French-speaking population in Canada. Despite the early influence of Spain and France in North America, most North Americans speak English as their native language as a result of Britain’s colonial dominance in the United States and Canada. The earliest permanent British colony, Jamestown, was founded in 1607 in what became Virginia. The British built up a prosperous empire in the New World. Their thirteen American colonies became populous, economically robust, and militarily strong enough to gain independence in 1776. Canada functions as an independent country but remains part of the British Commonwealth.


Early Development and Globalization of the United States

With abundant resources and opportunity, the original thirteen colonies prospered and expanded into what became the fifty US states. The political geography of this nation was a product of various treaties and acquisitions that eventually resulted in the country extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Fueling the expansion was the concept of Manifest Destiny: the belief of some Americans that the new nation was divinely predestined to expand across the continent. The United States negotiated with France for the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, acquiring millions of acres in the central United States. Florida was acquired from Spain in 1819, and Texas was annexed in 1845. The British sold portions of the Pacific Northwest to the United States, and the exact northern boundary between the United States and Canada was settled in 1846. Through conflicts with Mexico, large portions of the West were ceded to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Alaska was purchased from the Russians in 1867 for only $7.2 million. Alaska and Hawaii were the last two possessions to enter into statehood, which they did in 1959.

Manifest Destiny

The concept of Manifest Destiny came from the works of John O’Sullivan in 1839. O’Sullivan wrote,

“The far-reaching, the boundless future will be the era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of many nations is determined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles; to establish on earth the noblest temple ever dedicated to the worship of the Most High – the Sacred and the True. Its floor shall be a hemisphere – its roof the firmament of the star-studded heavens, and its congregation an Union of many Republics, comprising hundreds of happy millions, calling, owning no man master, but governed by God’s natural and moral law of equality, the law of brotherhood – of “peace and good will among men.”

As the United States developed, it acquired external colonial possessions. With the victory over Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898, the U.S. government gained control of the Phillippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and various Pacific islands. Cuba and the Philippines later became independent countries, but Puerto Rico and Guam continue to be part of the United States. The U.S. Virgin Islands were purchased from Denmark in 1918 after World War I as a location to provide strategic military support to protect the shipping lanes through the Caribbean and the Panama Canal.

Westward Settlement Patterns and European Immigration

The thirteen original colonies are often grouped into three regions, each with its own economic and cultural patterns. These three areas, New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South, are considered culture hearths, or places where culture formed and from which it spread. The three regions were source areas for westward migration, and migrants from these regions carried with them the cultural traditions of their culture hearths. New England was characterized by poor soils, subsistence agriculture, and fishing communities and was the birthplace of North America’s Industrial Revolution. Its largest city was Boston. Settlers from New England traveled west across New York State and into the upper Midwest and the Great Lakes region. The Mid-Atlantic region, focused on Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was known for its fertile soils, prosperous small-scale agriculture, and a multinational population. Prosperous farming led to a vibrant economy and a robust network of towns and cities. People who wanted to migrate west from this region traveled down the Great Valley into the Appalachian Mountains and across the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky, or they crossed Pennsylvania and traveled west via the Ohio River valley. The heart of the South was Virginia, a region oriented around plantation agriculture. The South was overwhelmingly rural, and in time the bulk of its agricultural workforce consisted of slaves brought to the United States from Subsaharan Africa.

Westward migration was spurred along by the gold boom in California (1849) and by the completion of the transcontinental railroad (1869). The settlement frontier pushed westward during the nineteenth century and was declared “closed” by the Bureau of the Census in 1890. This did not mean that settlers were spread uniformly across the continent by 1890; indeed, vast areas of the Great Plains and the mountain west remained sparsely populated by Europeans at that time. The Homestead Act of 1862 also encouraged westward migration by offering 160 acres of free land to households willing to move west. The continental United States had been organized into official states by the end of the nineteenth century, except Oklahoma (1907), Arizona (1912), and New Mexico (1912).

Most US residents at its founding in 1776 had roots in Great Britain, with large numbers from other northern and western European countries and many others from Africa (most of whom were slaves in the South). During the nineteenth century, migrants continued to immigrate to the United States as its economy grew, especially after the 1830s. Germans and Irish began arriving in large numbers, joining others from Britain and other countries, predominantly those in western Europe. As the century progressed, others from southern and eastern Europe, from countries such as Italy, Russia, and Austria, became the most significant stream of immigrants to the United States. The new arrivals were different from the early British immigrants: they practiced Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christianity (not Protestantism), they primarily moved to urban areas, and they found work in the new manufacturing sector growing rapidly in the Northeast and around the Great Lakes. Very few immigrants came from Latin America or Asia at that time.

Industrial Development

As the Industrial Revolution began in the United Kingdom in the mid-1700s and spread across Europe, the United States was still primarily based on agriculture and natural resource production. Some of the early innovations in industry were thus based on these raw resources, such as the cotton mill and textile factories. Hydropower was the critical source of energy for these early manufacturing plants, and thus they were located almost exclusively in the northeastern United States, the only area with fast-moving rivers. After the Civil War in the 1860s, steam power manufacturing spread through the United States, allowing the southern states to industrialize. The manufacturing core region, called the Manufacturing Belt, had high concentrations of industrial output. Eventually, as the United States continued to industrialize, they overtook the United Kingdom by the early 20th century as the global leader in industry.

The geography of North America shaped industrial development and regional specializations. In the Pittsburgh-Lake Erie region, for example, abundant deposits of iron fueled steel manufacturing, inspiring the name of Pittsburgh’s professional football team. In the south, textile manufacturing developed and remains a regional specialty in many areas still today. Coal from Appalachia fueled industrial development in the Mid-Atlantic States. These regional specializations, and the fact that the southern states continued to rely on agricultural production for some time, further exacerbated economic differences between the north and south. Manufacturing took place in the cities and towns of the Manufacturing Belt. Not until the second half of the twentieth century did manufacturing move to rural areas; until then, it was almost entirely an urban activity. As the United States went through its Industrial Revolution, its population shifted from being almost entirely rural to being mostly urban. In 1790, only about 5 percent of the US population lived in urban areas; by 1920, about 50 percent lived in cities. As the rural to urban shift took place, the function and form of US cities also changed.

The Industrial Revolution shaped the pattern of human settlement in North America. As in Europe, industrial development occurred in urban areas spurring people to move from rural farming communities to the cities to find work. In 1790, around 5 percent of the US population lived in urban areas. At the end of the Civil War, as industrialization began to diffuse across the continent, around 20 percent lived in cities. The invention of the electric streetcar (1888) allowed cities to increase in size. People could live farther from their place of employment as long as they lived within walking distance of a streetcar line. Streetcar suburbs grew up along streetcar lines, and these neighborhoods were often segregated by ethnicity and race. Fewer people lived in downtowns, which became dedicated to retail and manufacturing. Cities remained oriented around a central business district (CBD), which was often located near the railway station. Factories needed to be near modes of transportation for both shipping in parts and shipping out completed products and so that workers could quickly get to work. By 1920, more people lived in cities than in rural areas. Today, over 80 percent of people in the US live in cities.

Large numbers of middle-class Americans began acquiring automobiles after about 1920; this eventually led to a complete rethinking of the spatial layout of the city. Automobile suburbs sprang up outside the traditional city limits as people were able to buy homes far from streetcar lines or railway stations. Cities became increasingly decentralized: people could go shopping in suburban malls instead of downtown department stores, factories could spring up at highway interchanges and not only near rivers and the railroad, and people could live in one suburb and work in another instead of living in the suburbs and working downtown. Neighborhoods became even more racially and economically segregated than they had in the past as middle-class whites moved into the new automobile suburbs and left the more impoverished African Americans behind in the cities.

By the late twentieth century, the automobile had led to a new urban form called edge cities. Edge cities are areas of dense urban development outside the boundaries of the traditional city. They often form at the intersection of major interstate highways and contain shopping malls, office complexes, high-rise apartment buildings, industrial parks, restaurants, and hotels. Sometimes edge cities are called suburban downtowns. Edge cities have supplanted the CBD as the destination of choice for Americans, whether they are heading to work or to play.

Also, industrial development spurred large-scale migration, particularly from the peripheral regions of Eastern Europe, as people moved to the US to find work. Between 1865 and 1918, 27.5 million people migrated to the US. Conditions for many of these workers were dismal, and child labor would not end until 1930. Asians primarily migrated to the western United States where they were often met with strong anti-immigrant sentiment. The legislation limited immigration from China and Japan at the turn of the 20th century. Improvements in rail transportation further diffused both industrial development and the population of workers.

For the past several decades, manufacturing has been declining in the United States as people have shifted to jobs in service industries, like retail and finance. Still, the US remains the world’s second-largest manufacturer behind China. This process is referred to as deindustrialization and is accompanied by both social and economic changes as a country shifts from heavy industry to a more service-oriented economy.

Inequity in North America

While both Canada and the United States have relatively strong economies, income inequality persists. In the United States, in particular, around 12 percent of people live below the poverty line. Some argue, however, that the traditional definition of “living below the poverty line” has not kept up with rising living costs and inflation and that the actual percentage of Americans living in or near poverty is far higher. This income inequality is geographical, with the states in the south having significantly higher concentrations of people in poverty that the rest of the country. These regional differences are connected to historical differences in development. Just as the northern areas were the first to industrialize, they were the first areas to transition to more higher-income service industries. Although areas like Silicon Valley in California and the Austin-San Antonio region of Texas have had an influx of high-tech industries, some areas of the south have been slow to transition from primarily agricultural and natural resource-based economies.

Canada’s poverty rate is lower than the United States at around 10 percent. In general, Canada has stronger social welfare programs than the US. All provinces of Canada provide universal, publicly funded healthcare, for example, and a monthly income is provided to those in extreme poverty.

However, in both the United States and Canada, income inequality is closely tied to ethnicity and race. For Canada’s First Nations, however, poverty and homelessness rates are much higher than the national average. Half of all indigenous children in Canada live in poverty. In some areas, like Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the number is over 60 percent. In the US, the poverty rate among non-Hispanic whites was just over 10 percent in 2014. For black Americans, the poverty rate was 26 percent. By some measures, the US has the highest degree of income inequality among the advanced economies of the world. In Canada, the richest 10 percent own 57.4 percent of the country’s wealth. In the United States, the wealthiest 10 percent own over 75 percent of the wealth in the country, the highest of the twenty most developed countries in the world.

Globalization and Americanism

North America continues to have a significant role in global trade and influence. Both Canada and the United States are members of the Group of Eight (G8), a political forum of the world’s leading industrialized countries that also includes France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. Both are also members of the World Trade Organization (WTO), an intergovernmental organization that collectively regulates international trade.

Within North America, trade has been governed under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Canada, Mexico, and the United States. This agreement was established in 1994 to increase economic cooperation between the three countries. Before NAFTA, although the US and Canada engaged in free trade, goods bought and sold between Mexico and the US were subject to tariffs, or additional taxes. In 2020, NAFTA was replaced by the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA) as a result of a renegotiation of NAFTA sought by US President Donald Trump.

NAFTA has had generally positive impacts on the economies of the region. Canada’s manufacturing output held steady despite global decreases in productivity. Mexico’s maquiladoras, manufacturing plants that take components of products and assemble them for export, have become a fixture of its landscape, especially along the border. The United States also saw a modest economic boost from the agreement.

After the Cold War, the United States retained its position as a global superpower. It has the largest economy of any other country, including the combined output of the European Union, accounting for 25 percent of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP). It leads the world in military expenditures, and by many measures, is the most influential country in the world. However, it also has the largest prison population and has a much higher infant mortality rate than most other industrialized countries with strong regional concentrations of high infant mortality. Some wonder if the US will retain its global dominance in the coming decades, or if it will become one country among many influential world leaders.

Both Canada and the United States continue to attract immigrants, drawn to these countries by the hope of good jobs and political freedoms. Each country has dealt with the influx of immigration in very different ways. Over 200,000 people immigrate to Canada every year, and the Canadian immigration system gives preference to immigrants for skilled professions. Around 20 percent of Canada’s population is foreign-born, the highest of the G8 countries. Canada’s immigrants have shaped its cultural landscape and have created a rich cultural mosaic. In contrast, immigrants to the United States have generally been expected to assimilate, creating a relatively homogeneous cultural landscape rather than retaining individual ethnic identities. This notion of mixing cultural groups to create a more homogeneous national culture is metaphorically termed a melting pot.

Canada and the United States’ reactions to refugees have also been markedly different. The United States set a goal of accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees, but immigration from Syria has been contentious politically with some fearing the potential for terrorist attacks by migrants. Several state governors outright refused to accept Syrian refugees. The Canadian government, in contrast, agreed to resettle 25,000 Syrians in 2016. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greeted the first plane of refugees, offering winter clothing and stuffed animals and saying, “Welcome home.” Throughout history, Canada has welcomed the world’s displaced peoples, accepting 1.2 million refugees since World War II.

Undocumented, or illegal, immigration to the United States continues to be another significant political issue. Around 11 million undocumented migrants currently live in the US. Just over 50 percent are from Mexico. As drug crime worsened in Central America, undocumented migration from those countries surged, and many now make a long and dangerous trek from Central America through Mexico in the hope of reaching US soil. Undocumented and unaccompanied child migrants, in particular, have increased dramatically in recent years. As countries experience an economic decline, political turmoil, and often dangerous living conditions, migrants will likely continue to flock to Canada and the US in search of a better life.

The freedom of personal expression in the United States has supported individual ingenuity and creative ambition to create the largest economy in the world. US citizens have pushed American corporations to become a major force in the world markets. Products and franchises from the United States are being distributed throughout the world. Items such as fast food, computers, news networks, and Hollywood movies have become the products of choice in countries across the globe. The English language dominates the Internet, which has been heavily influenced by US corporations. The power of the American Dream, the idea that through hard work anyone can achieve upward mobility and financial success, as it is portrayed in the US media holds sway in the minds of people both in the United States and abroad.

The size of the US population (more than 310 million as of 2010) and the country’s vast resource base have allowed it to become a world military superpower. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States became the most powerful military force in the world. The United States has also dominated the world’s economy and its communications networks. The advancements of multinational corporations have, in essence, enabled the sale of America to the rest of the world. The selling of American products and the broad consumer market in the United States have provided the profits that have fueled global economic markets.

The United States has become a worldwide franchise of its own. Corporate colonialism has advanced the American brand to a level that is now synonymous with consumerism, success, and power worldwide. Media advancements have promoted the concept of the American Dream across the seven seas. The reaction of the global community includes both admiration and disdain. Many view Americanism as interchangeable with globalization. Some welcome it; others reject it. The country of Iran is an example of this dichotomy. Young people in Iran wearing blue jeans gather in secret to watch American television programming from a hidden illegal satellite dish, while at the same time the anti-American forces in their government condemn America as decadent, immoral, and imperialistic.

Corporate colonialism has become a dominant force impacting the global cultural fabric. Supporters appreciate access to American goods and services, while opponents claim that the English language and the American corporate franchise system are destroying the culture and heritage of untold millions who see their unique traditional ways of life being overshadowed and destroyed.

Some argue that American television advertisements exemplify a trend that supports conformity and uniformity in American culture. They contend that America’s unique cultural diversity, which historically has provided ingenuity and creativity, is being eroded by the franchising of similar retail products, fast food, professional sports, and Hollywood entertainment that stifle the creative will of the American people. Others continue to see opportunities to pursue the American Dream and believe that innovation and ideas continue to emerge despite these trends.

Many people worry about the future of the American Dream. American culture continues to evolve as people face changing economic and social conditions. Throughout their history, Americans have faced both challenging and prosperous times, and now the future of this vibrant country is in the hands of the current generation. The United States has developed into one of the most powerful countries on the planet.


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Introduction to World Regional Geography Copyright © 2019 by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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