Archaeological research proves that the first inhabitants of the Americas came to Alaska from Siberia via the Bering Strait during the Ice Age between 30,000 and 10,000 years ago and spread across the continent. Their descendants – the Eskimos and Indians – created a wide variety of societies and cultures. E.g. their dwellings were very different from each other: see the stone villages of the Pueblo Indians in the southwest, the Iroquois bark wigwams or the richly decorated wooden buildings of the Indians of the northwest coast.
Probably the first Europeans to reach the Americas were the Vikings. There is evidence that the navigator Lei Ericsson from Greenland settled with others around the year 1000 in a land named Vinland, somewhere between Labrador and New Jersey. The Caribbean region was discovered 500 years later by Christopher Columbus (1451–1512), and he mistakenly called it the Back Indies and its inhabitants Indians. It soon became clear that this country is not Asia, but a new continent named after Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512), one of the navigators who followed Columbus. Vespucci published a widely known account of his discoveries.
According to Animalerts, the first settlers were the Spanish and the Portuguese. The first English settlement, Jamestown, was also established in Virginia in 1607 after several futile attempts by Sir Walter Raleigh (1552–1618) in the Roanoke area of later Virginia. The first colony in New England, Plymouth, was founded in 1620 by the so-called Pilgrim Fathers, apostates from the Church of England who wanted to establish an ideal society, unencumbered by politics. But more puritanical settlers built the large Massachusetts Bay Colony nearby. Their other settlements included Maine and New Hampshire, while New Haven and Rhode Island were founded by opponents of the strict Puritan regime. In turn, Maryland was colonized by Roman Catholics from the 1730s.
Meanwhile, in 1624, the Dutch established the prosperous colony of New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island. In 1664 it was occupied by the British and renamed New York. In 1665, the region of New Jersey broke away from it. In many ways, the most successful of the early colonies was Pennsylvania, founded in 1628 by the moderate English Quaker William Penn (1644–1718). The Pennsylvania settlers maintained friendly relations with the local population until Penn’s son acquired a large portion of their territory by tricking the Delaware Indians. This part of Pennsylvania later became the Delaware Colony. Already before that in 1663, North and South Carolina were founded. Georgia was established in 1732 as an alternative to debtors’ prison.
The existence of these colonies was still closely linked to Britain in the 18th century. The colonies also had a mutual need to defend themselves against both the French and the Indians, into whose territory the colonists were encroaching. After 1763, when the French were finally defeated, the independence movement began to rise. At first the colonies refused to pay taxes to Britain. The prohibition of the British government to penetrate into the Indian areas beyond the Appalachian Mountains, together with the economic sanctions, provoked criticism, which in turn led to intensified measures on the part of the British authorities. Incidents such as the Boston Massacre in 1770, in which five people were killed by British troops, only strengthened the American push for independence. In 1776, after two so-called continental congresses of colonists, the Declaration of Independence was announcedand a confederation of 13 colonies under the name United States of America.
In the following war for independence, troops of American volunteers faced British units, in which mainly German mercenaries fought. Poorly armed American forces often escaped heavy defeat only through the skill and courage of officers such as George Washington (1732–1799). A turning point in the war occurred in 1778, when France began to provide military and financial aid to the rebels. It also disrupted transatlantic lines transporting supplies. The surrender of British forces under Lord Cornwallis (1738–1805) at Yorktown in 1781 marked the end of British rule over the US, although the war did not definitively end until the Peace of Paris in 1783. The American victory was marked by cruel repression against forces loyal to the British, most of whom found refuge in British Canada. In 1787, the American Bourgeois Revolution was consummated with the adoption of the Federal Constitution, enacting a republican system of government.
The great expansion of the Americans continued in the last years of the war. Over the next few years, Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio joined the Union. In 1803, France sold Louisiana, a sparsely populated area in the center of the continent, to the United States. A year later, President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) sent an expedition led by Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838) to explore new territories in the west. The expedition proceeded up the Missouri River, crossed the Rocky Mountains, and reached the Pacific coast. Returning to Saint Louis in 1806, news of her journey spurred further settlement of the “Wild West.”
In 1812–14, the US waged another war against the British in Canada. Despite America’s military successes, the war meant weakening. Britain eventually retreated and the US strengthened its position in the north. There was a period of consolidation, rapid growth of cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Charleston (South Carolina).
In 1819, Spain was forced to sell Florida, and the westward expansion continued. Texas was annexed in 1848, and California, Arizona, and New Mexico were annexed after the subsequent Mexican–American War of 1846–48. Further territorial gains were brought by the Gadsden Treaty in 1853. In 1867, Alaska was bought from Russia .
Already from the 1930s, the abolitionist movement was flourishing in the North, seeking to abolish slavery, on which plantation agriculture was based in the more backward South. The political struggle for supremacy in Congress also continued, and the South more defied the centralist tendencies of the industrial North. Despite some compromises, in 1860 under President Abraham Lincoln (1809–65), 12 southern states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy. In the Civil War (1861–65), despite initial successes, the South was ultimately defeated and economically devastated. Slavery was abolished, the economy of the South was reconstructed, but discrimination against blacks continued for another century.
The colonization of the west was accelerated by the construction of railroads and the influx of new immigrants from Europe. The vision of a free life, new lands and gold deposits contributed to the settlement of the western regions. Although the reality of life in the harsh nature often meant great disillusionment, many legends were created about the Wild West. The dark side of this period of American history was the almost complete extermination of the original Native American population. Economic development in the Northeast continued, and industrialization gave birth to the first industrial magnates, such as John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937) or Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919). On the other hand, it caused a boom in the labor movement.
As early as in 1823, the USA declared itself the dominant power in the area of the American continent with the announcement of the so-called More Doctrine and rejected any interference by Europe in the affairs of the states of the New World. The US supported the national liberation revolutions in the Latin American colonies and later the revolution in Cuba, for whose benefit they invaded the island. This led to the 1898 War with Spain, in which the US gained Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam in the Pacific. The same year saw the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands.
In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) declared the Western Hemisphere the US sphere of influence.
When World War I broke out in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) declared US neutrality, but in 1917 German U-boat actions against the US fleet forced him to enter the war. Strong isolationism continued even after the end of the war and led to the refusal of the US to join the League of Nations – an international organization created to protect the territorial integrity of member countries.
With the passage of the Volstead Act in 1920, the sale of alcohol was prohibited. However, the Prohibition era fostered an unprecedented rise in organized crime. The economic boom of the 1920s was ended by the crash of the New York Stock Exchange in 1929, which was followed by a great economic crisis and a social storm of the unemployed. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) was elected president, and he announced a plan of economic recovery measures. However, his “New Deal” had only limited success and prosperity was not restored until World War II.
Political developments in Europe in the 1930s again supported isolationist tendencies, and the USA declared its neutrality in 1935. When World War 2 broke out, the US was only supplying Britain and France with weapons. Disputes about participation in the war dragged on until the end of 1941, when Japan attacked the military base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, destroyed the Pacific Fleet and thus dragged the USA into the war. American industry contributed greatly to the final victory in Europe and the Pacific, which culminated in the use of the first atomic bomb against Japan and its subsequent surrender.
In the post-war era, the USA led the Western countries in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Financial and economic aid programs, such as the famous Marshall Plan, helped reconstruct Western Europe and Japan and create a counterbalance to communist expansion (the creation of the NATO pact in 1949). As Cold War tensions escalated and the threat of World War III arose in connection with the Korean War, the US also felt the threat of communism. This led to political purges in the early 1950s under Senator Joseph McCarthy (1909–57).
The following period of economic prosperity paved the way for the liberal concepts of President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963). However, in foreign policy, Kennedy approved the plan for the failed invasion of Cuba and prevented the Soviet Union from installing nuclear weapons on the island. He also committed the US to protecting South Vietnam from a communist invasion from the north. After Kennedy’s assassination, the conflict in Indochina resulted in the protracted Vietnam War, which ended in the political defeat of the US and the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam in 1974.
Nevertheless, during this period, the US was at the forefront of world science and technology, as evidenced by its space program and the moon landing in 1969. This period also saw the height of the struggle for human rights of American blacks, led by Martin Luther King (1929–68 ). The corruption scandal that was revealed during the Watergate affair led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon (1913–94) in 1974 and marked a large-scale social crisis.
In the 1970s, America’s position was shaken by an economic recession that arose mainly as a result of the oil crisis in the Middle East. Successful restructuring led to the economic recovery of the 1980s, which at the end was again replaced by a global crisis and another conflict in the Middle East. In 1990, after Kuwait was invaded by Iraq, the US began military operations in the Middle East. In early 1999, the Senate debated the possible impeachment of President Clinton, accused of abuse of office and lying under oath during an investigation into a private affair.