Development of the United States of America

Many peoples have contributed to the development of the United States of America, a vast nation that arose from a scattering of British colonial outposts in the New World. The first humans to inhabit the North American continent were migrants from northeast Asia who established settlements in North America as early as 8000 BC and possibly much earlier (see NORTH AMERICAN ARCHAEOLOGY). By about AD 1500 the native peoples of the areas north of the Rio Grande had developed a variety of different cultures (see INDIANS, AMERICAN). The vast region stretching eastward from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean was relatively sparsely populated by tribes whose economies were generally based on hunting and gathering, fishing, and farming.

VIKINGS explored the North American mainland in the 10th and 11th centuries and settled there briefly (see VINLAND). Of more lasting importance, however, was the first voyage (1492-93) of Christopher COLUMBUS, which inaugurated an age of great European EXPLORATION of the Western Hemisphere. Various European states (including Spain, France, England, the Netherlands, and Portugal) and their trading companies sent out expeditions to explore the New World during the century and a half that followed.

The Spanish claimed vast areas, including Florida, Mexico, and the region west of the Mississippi River, although they concentrated their settlement south of the Rio Grande. The French explored much of the area that became Canada and established several settlements there. Of most significance, however, for the subsequent development of the United States, was the English colonization of the region along the Atlantic coast.


At the end of the period of turmoil associated with the Protestant Reformation in England, the English people became free to turn their attention to some other matters and to seek new opportunities outside their tiny island. Internal stability under Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603) and an expanding economy combined with a bold intellectual ferment to produce a soaring self-confidence. Ireland experienced the first impact: by the beginning of the 17th century it had been wholly subjugated by the English. Scottish and English Protestants were dispatched to "colonize" where the savage Irish, as they were called, had been expelled, especially in the northern provinces. Then, entrepreneurs began to look to North America, claimed by England on the basis of the voyages of discovery of John CABOT (1497-99).

The Chesapeake Colonies

The English had failed in their attempts in the 1580s to found a colony at ROANOKE on the Virginia coast. In 1606, however, the LONDON COMPANY, established to exploit North American resources, sent settlers to what in 1607 became JAMESTOWN, the first permanent English colony in the New World. The colonists suffered extreme hardships, and by 1622, of the more than 10,000 who had immigrated, only 2,000 remained alive. In 1624 control of the failing company passed to the crown, making Virginia a royal colony. Soon the tobacco trade was flourishing, the death rate had fallen, and with a legislature (the House of Burgesses, established in 1619) and an abundance of land, the colony entered a period of prosperity. Individual farms, available at low cost, were worked primarily by white indentured servants (laborers who were bound to work for a number of years to pay for their passage before receiving full freedom). The Chesapeake Bay area became a land of opportunity for poor English people.

In 1632, Maryland was granted to the CALVERT family as a personal possession, to serve as a refuge for Roman Catholics. Protestants, as well, flooded into the colony, and in 1649 the Toleration Act was issued, guaranteeing freedom of worship in Maryland to all Trinitarian Christians.

The New England Colonies

In 1620, Puritan Separatists, later called PILGRIMS, sailed on the MAYFLOWER to New England, establishing PLYMOUTH COLONY, the first permanent settlement there. They were followed in 1629 by other Puritans (see PURITANISM), under the auspices of the MASSACHUSETTS BAY COMPANY, who settled the area around Boston. During the Great Puritan Migration that followed (1629-42), about 16,000 settlers arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans set out to build a "city on a hill" intended to provide a model of godly living for the world. Strict Calvinists, strongly communal, and living in closely bound villages, they