The United States of America – I

This article deals with the history of the USA from its founding up to the end of the 20th century. Other articles deal with Colonial America and with the History on the USA in the 20th century.

The growth of the United States was a geographical and economic phenomenon without parallel in world history, and paved the way for the country’s re-eminence in the 20th century.

The American Revolution


The Great War for the Empire, 1754-1763 (otherwise known as the French and Indian War, or in Britain as the Seven Years’ War) eliminated French power from North America and extended British power to all territories east of the Mississippi river.

Ironically, the completeness of the British victory set the scene for the elimination of British power from what would become the USA a mere two decades later.

In the years following the end of the war, tensions rose between Britain and her colonial subjects in North America. The complete removal of France as a threat to the American colonists freed them from a need to look to Britain for their defense. At the same time, Britain’s attempts to get the colonials to bear a greater share of the financial cost of defense created widespread resentment amongst Americans. It emphasized the fact for them that they had no members of the British Parliament representing their interests in London, and led to calls for “No Taxation without Representation.”

The colonials were also angered by the British government’s prohibition on settlement west of the Appalachian mountains, which was to be kept for the Native Americans.

In 1773 a group of American colonists in Boston, a seaport in Massachusetts, expressed their anger at a new tax imposed by the British government on the colonies on imports of tea by dumping cases of tea into Boston harbor. This event was known as the “Boston Tea Party”.

The British government’s response to this was to take away Massachusetts’ long-established powers of self-government. This sent a shockwave throughout the colonies, and in 1774 all but one of the colonies sent delegates to a meeting in Philadelphia (the First Continental Congress) to co-ordinate their responses to these punitive measures. These involved a boycott of British goods coming into the colonies.

The War of American Independence

With the British government refusing to give ground, the next year a Second Continental Congress was called. This time all 13 colonies sent delegates. By this time, desultory harbor had broken out between American “Patriots” and British troops stationed in the colonies. Congress was therefore forced to assume responsibility for co-ordinating a war against the British.

In 1776, the Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence, and the following year it passed the Articles of Confederation establishing a “League of Free and Independent States”. Although these Articles were not ratified by all the states until 1781, they served as the legal basis for Congress’ direction of the war against the British. These two acts effectively brought the United States of America into being as a sovereign nation.

Congress established a central army – the Continental Army – and appointed George Washington as its commander.

Each side experienced initial setbacks and successes, but in 1778 France, thirsting for revenge for its defeat in the Seven Years’ War, came into the war as an ally of the Americans. Spain joined the war as an ally of France a year later. These developments tilted the balance of power away from the British and led to a temporary loss of British naval dominance in North American waters in 1781. This allowed the Americans and French to score a decisive victory against the British at Yorktown, in October 1781.

In 1782 the British Parliament voted to end the fighting in North America (it continued against the French and Spanish for another year), and in 1783, at the Treaty of Paris, Britain recognized the USA’s independence.

The Constitution

Over the next few years the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation became apparent as a basis for governing a country like the USA. The individual States began going their own way, even to the extent of making treaties with other countries and erecting trade barriers against each others’ goods. North African pirates seized American merchant ships – and there was no American navy to stop them. There was no army to speak of. The Continental Congress’ funding was highly precarious, as it depended on the willingness of the state governments to pay their dues  – which most did not, either in whole or in part. With little money, Congress could not even repay the loans it had incurred to fight the war.

These problems led to the Philadelphia convention in 1787, which drafted a constitution for the new nation; this was ratified by Congress in 1788 and came into force in 1789.

This set up a central (federal) government for the nation, with three branches, each acting as a check on the power of the others. A law-making (or “legislative”) branch was embodied in Congress, with two houses: a senate, consisting of representatives from the individual states, and a House of Representatives, elected directly by the voters; executive power (command of the army and head of the administrative apparatus) was vested in a President. elected every four years; and judicial responsibility was given to a system of federal courts headed by a Supreme Court. Thus was given the task of ensuring that the checks and balances embodied in the Constitution were enforced.

George Washington was elected the first president of the USA in 1789.

The Constitution also provided for amendments, and since its introduction there have been 27 amendments. Almost immediately, ten amendments were enacted, which are collectively known as the Bill of Rights. These guaranteed the personal rights and freedoms of US citizens.

In 1790 Congress decided on the establishment of a seat of federal government, located in an area which did not form a part of any state. The resulting city was named after the first president, Washington, and the area in which it was located was called the District of Columbia. It was sufficiently completed to serve as the nation’s capital in 1800.

The United States Expands

The enactment of the Constitution was timely, as the new nation was no sooner created than it began expanding strongly. The Constitution allowed this process to go forward with some semblance of order, as it provided for newly settled areas to be administered as territories, under the jurisdiction of the President and his officials, before being admitted as new states into the Union.

Across the Appalachians

With the British prohibition on settlement of the lands west of the Appalachian mountains (see above) no longer in place, the frontier of American settlement was beginning to roll westward again. This was aided by the development of several routes through the Appalachian mountains, which greatly eased the passage of migrants seeking new lands in the west; and the breaking of the power of Native American Iroquois Confederation (allies of the British) during the War of Independence.

The Treaty of Paris had given the new nation responsibility for all the territory east of the Mississippi. The exception was Florida and the southern half of Alabama (then known as West Florida), which the British had been forced to cede to Spain by the Treaty.

Populations rapidly increased in the region to the west of the central Appalachians, in the western extensions of Virginia and North Carolina. These soon became the new states of Kentucky (1792) and Tennessee (1796) respectively. To the south, the western extension of Georgia, up to the Mississippi river, was organized as the territory of Mississippi.

The Northwest Territory

To the north, a huge area was organized as the Northwest Territory. This comprised the later states Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin, plus eastern Minnesota. When Ohio achieved statehood in 1800, the rest of the Northwest Territory (later Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and part of Wisconsin) was renamed Indiana Territory.

Further reorganizations occurred as the region became more and more settled: Michigan Territory was separated from Indiana Territory, 1805, and Illinois Territory in 1809. Indiana was admitted as a State 1816, and Illinois in 1818.

The Louisiana Purchase

Meanwhile, a vast extension of the country had been achieved in the south and west.

Before the end of the Seven Years’ War, France had ceded its claims to the regions beyond the Mississippi to Spain. Then, in 1800, under pressure from its bullying ally, Napoleon, Spain reluctantly handed these regions, called “Western Louisiana”, back to France. From here it is possible that Napoleon planned to conquer a new empire in the Americas, but the expenses of his aggressive wars in Europe put him in dire need of money. As a result, he sold these claims (along with the city of New Orleans and an area of comparatively dense settlement around it) to the USA, at that time (1803) under President Jefferson.

This transaction doubled the area of the USA and comprised the later states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, western Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, most of Montana and Wyoming and eastern Colorado. It was organized as the territories of Orleans, to the south (which covered the city of New Orleans and the populated area around it), and (confusingly) Louisiana to the north, which included the rest, made up largely of unknown lands.

In 1804, the US government dispatched an army expedition to survey this huge area, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clarke. The Lewis and Clarke expedition completed its mission two years later and filed its report to the government. This was undoubtedly the most famous exploration project in US history.

Just as in the north west, the vast region was reorganized as it received settlers. Orleans Territory became a state in 1812, and was renamed Louisiana (it included the area of the modern state plus that portion of West Florida, which recently had rebelled against Spanish rule). To avoid confusion, what had up to now been called Louisiana Territory was renamed Missouri Territory. The Territory of Arkansas (which included the area of modern Oklahoma) was carved out of Missouri Territory in 1819.

Mississippi, Alabama and Florida

To the east of the Mississippi river, the western part of the Territory of Mississippi was admitted into the Union as the state of Mississippi in 1817, while the eastern portion became the Territory of Alabama. This received statehood in 1819.

To the southeast, Spanish-ruled Florida, experiencing regular incursions by the US army in their war with the Seminole Indians, had increasingly become a nuisance to the Spanish authorities. They were therefore willing to sell the province to the USA in 1819. This took effect in 1821, and Florida was incorporated into the USA as a territory.

The War of 1812

In 1812, a second war with Britain broke out. This was primarily over the British navy’s practice of stopping and boarding American ships and impressing American sailors. At that time Britain was fighting for its life against Napoleon, and needed all the men it could get to man its warships; however, to the Americans it was tantamount to piracy.

The war was noted for some brilliant frigate actions on the part of the young US navy,  several abortive US raids into British-held Canada, the burning of the White House by British troops, and an unsuccessful British attack on New Orleans. The war ended in 1815 with neither side able to claim a victory.

Expansion, Tension and Compromise

The Expansion of Slavery

The early decades of the USA were characterized by partisan politics within Congress. The ending of the War of 1812, however, ushered in a period of political quiescence known as the “Era of Good Feeling”. This was achieved largely by leaving contentious issues alone. There was one issue which simply could not be ignored for long, however: slavery.

The southern states were deeply attached to the institution of slavery. Southern states were dominated, socially and politically, by a class of slave-owners whose plantations relied on slave labor. The northern states, however, housed probably the most egalitarian society in the world. their leaders were merchants, lawyers, and men who had made their own way in the world from humble beginnings. Furthermore, the Great Awakenings of the 1730s and 40s, and of the 1800s, had led to evangelical Christianity being particularly strong in the USA, but especially so in the north. One major by-product of this was that there had arisen a fervent anti-slavery movement in the northern states.

The whole issue was exacerbated by mutual incomprehension, contempt even: the northerners saw little to admire in the privileged, effete southern gentlemen they met, who in turn despised the rough manners and thrusting (or as they saw them, dishonest) ways of northerners.

The US Constitution enshrined the sovereignty of the individual states, and so had left the issue of slavery to them. In fact, at the time when the Constitution was being drafted there was a widespread feeling, even amongst slave owners, that slavery was in decline, and would sooner or later die out naturally.

However, in 1793, Eli Whitney had invented the cotton gin, which made cotton growing a very profitable proposition; and cotton was an ideal crop in the climate of the southern states  (where the tobacco crop had previously been dominant but was now in decline).

The end of the War of 1812 coincided with the ending of the long-running Napoleonic Wars in Europe. As a result, the next few years saw a huge rise in demand for cotton, particularly from the increasing number of textile mills in northern England (there was also a growing demand from the nascent textile industry of New England).

Cotton plantations multiplied and spread to the new southern territories west of the Appalachians, as far as the Mississippi. This development appalled the northern Abolitionists, and their calls for an end to slavery reached a new pitch. Southern leaders responded by saying that whether a state permitted slavery or not was no one else’s business: states were sovereign and could do what they liked.

The Missouri Compromise

As questions to do with slavery and states’ rights gained traction with ordinary Americans, so too did they become a major political issue: should Congress abolish slavery? Expand it? Or perhaps it had no rights to any say on this issue?

In any case, the number of “slave” versus “free” states had implications for the Federal government. Seats in the senate were allocated two per state, and this meant that the balance of power in Congress between pro-slave and anti-slave politicians was directly linked to the number of states which were “slave” or “free”.

By 1819, there were twenty states in all: exactly half were “slave”, and half ”free”. In that year, Missouri Territory applied for statehood. As Missouri was a “slave” state, this would upset the balance in the south’s favor. A compromise was therefore hammered out in Congress: while Missouri would be admitted into statehood, so would Maine, which since the 17th century had been an adjunct of Massachusetts. This maintained the balance of “slave” and “free” seats in Congress.

It was also agreed that, as the territories which made up the lands of the Louisiana Purchase were admitted to statehood, those to the south of an imaginary line at the 36º30’ parallel would be “slave”, and those to the north would be “free” (Missouri was above this, but was exempt from this provision by the Compromise).

The Missouri Compromise had resolved a particularly tense political issue, but it had done nothing to calm passions on either side. Indeed, the growing efficiency of the transport network made southerners and northers increasingly familiar with each others’ way of life, and therefore more and more opposed to each others’ values. Moreover, the growth of evangelical Christianity brought about by the continuing religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening (1800-1840) led to a rising clamor for the abolition of slavery. This of course aroused the anger of southerners, and the two great “sections” of American society were growing further and further apart.

Further Expansion

The 1820s and 30s saw strong geographical, economic and democratic expansion in the country. There was a remarkable transportation revolution, with turnpikes, canals, steamboats and (after 1828) railroads coming into use. Probably the single most significant development in transport was the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. This connected the Atlantic coast with the Great Lakes by a navigable waterway, and made the journey to the mid-west for immigrants much shorter and easier than before. It also allowed goods to be transported from the prairies to the east coast, and hence to Europe and the world, much more cheaply – thus greatly boosting the economic potential of these regions.

The 1820s, 30s and 40s also saw the continued growth of cotton-growing as a major economic activity. These decades saw cotton become the major export of the country, accounting for  60% of all exports.

The demographic growth of the former British North American colonies continued after independence. From under 3 million in 1780, it had risen to more than 5 million by 1800. By 1830 it was almost 13 million, and twenty years later another 10 million had been added.  These rates of growth were the result, not only of natural increase, but of high rates of immigration from Europe. This was leading to the spectacular growth of cities, particularly in the commercial and industrial centers of the north. The opening of the Erie canal in particular opened up the midwest to mass immigration.

This economic and demographic expansion greatly strengthened the self-confidence of the nation as a whole.  This was exemplified in the doctrine enunciated by president Monroe in 1823, that the USA would oppose any European country which tried to meddle in the affairs of any independent country in North or South America.

Internally, it saw a political shift in power to the ordinary farmers, the “common man”, above all the growing number of those in the midwest who saw the political elites of the east coast states, who had dominated American politics since Colonial times, as not representing their interests. This led to the rise of the Jacksonian Democrats, a wide-ranging political movement which brought Andrew Jackson to the presidency in 1828. It remained the dominant political force into the 1840s.

The “Indian Question”

The growth of the population of European descent, and its expansion westward, had a huge impact on the Native American peoples. Where possible, the federal government attempted to purchase Native American land, and make treaties with them. However, conflict between the two groups was more or less endemic in the frontier zone, mostly low level but sometime flaring up into significant warfare. The struggle was by no means totally one-sided, with indigenous warriors scoring some notable victories; however, such was the disparity in numbers and technology that, in hindsight, the end result was never in doubt.

In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act. By the terms of this act, Native Americans were offered the choice, either of giving up tribal membership and assimilating into White American society, or of being relocated to Federal-controlled lands further west, designated Indian Territory.

Under this act, numerous removal treaties were signed, with most Native Americans reluctantly agreeing to give up their ancestral homes. Those that chose to comply were escorted to their new homes by US troops. They travelled by foot, sometimes in harsh conditions. It has been estimated that some 70,000 Native Americans were relocated, of whom 18,000 died from disease, hunger and cold on the way. These forced relocations came to be known as the “Trail of Tears”.

The transplanted tribes often experienced further hardships in adapting to their new homelands, which possessed quite different climates and terrain from their former territories.

Some groups resisted relocation fiercely. The most notably of these were the Seminole of Florida. A long war (1835-42) led to their confinement in the swamps of southern Florida.

The Path to War

Meanwhile the United States continued to expand. Arkansas achieved statehood in 1836, as, to the north, did Michigan in 1837; Iowa was organized as a territory in 1838 and achieved statehood in 1846; Wisconsin was organized as a territory in 1836, and became a state in 1848.

The North West and Pacific

The Pacific north west was claimed by both Britain and the US, but it had begun to be settled by Americans early in the 19th century with the arrival of mission stations and trading posts. After 1812 the famous Oregon trail began to be developed by traders, and settlement began in earnest in Oregon in the 1830s, and in Washington and Montana in the 1840s. In 1848 Britain and the USA agreed on the 49th Parallel as being the dividing line between their claims, and Oregon Country, the Pacific northwest, became part of the USA.

In 1848 the region was organized as Oregon Territory, covering the present-day states of  Oregon, Washington, Idaho and part of Montana. Oregon and Washington became territories in their own right in 1853, and states in 1859.

To the east, Minnesota Territory was organized in 1849, and achieved statehood in 1858.


The more eventful expansion, however, was further south. Mexico, having achieved independence from Spain in 1821, took over from the Spanish empire the government of – or claims to – a huge swathe of territory far to the north of the present-day Mexican border.

This territory was sparsely populated, and in an effort to develop it, the Mexican government opened the area of Texas to colonization from America. This worked well, and thousands of Americans moved into the area; however, when Mexico fell under the rule of the dictatorial Santa Ana, the democratically-inclined settlers from the north were decidedly unimpressed.

Tensions between the Texan settlers and the Santa Ana junta led to the former declaring their independence from Mexico in 1836. There followed the heroic siege of the Alamo, in which all the American defenders perished; and then victory for the Texans at the San Jacinto river, in which Santa Ana was captured. The independent Republic of Texas was established.

The republic lasted almost ten years, but by then its vulnerability to raids from Mexico had become apparent, fueling a widespread wish to become part of the United States. Texas’ annexation to the USA was finally approved by the Texan and US governments in 1845, and took place in 1846.

The Mexican War and After

Tensions between the Mexican and US governments were already running high, and the annexation of Texas to the US only fueled this. War broke out between the two nations in 1847. The superior US land and naval forces soon overwhelmed the Mexicans, and the war ended the following year with Mexico’s complete defeat.  Mexico ceded a huge area – about the size of western Europe and covering all or most of the present-day states of New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado, and parts of Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming – to the USA.

The new acquisition was known as the Mexican Cession. and was almost completely unorganized territory, so far as the United States was concerned. Apart from a scattering of mission stations, trading posts and ranches, there were no settlements of people of European descent in all this vast area, with one notable exception. In the present-day state of Utah, a religious group had arrived in 1847, fleeing persecution in the east. These were the Mormons, and they set up a theocratic community whose tight discipline allowed them to survive in the harsh Utah landscape.

Very soon there were other settlers streaming west. The discovery of gold in northern California, in 1848, led to the first great Gold Rush of American history. The newcomers arrived in wagon trains from the east, or on ships round South America. San Francisco, the port serving northern California, emerged as a large town practically overnight.

The huge territorial gains in the 1830s and 40s enhanced American’s belief in their “Manifest Destiny” to settle the North American continent from ocean to ocean, but it also intensified debate over slavery, as we have seen. In Congress, the potential affiliation of new states into the Union raised the specter, for both sides, of the balance of representation in Congress shifting decisively against them.

The Compromise of 1850

Finally, after four years of stalemate, a series of measures were hammered out. These were known collectively as the Compromise of 1850, and admitted California into the Union as a “free” state, and organized the territories of New Mexico (which included Arizona and some of Nevada), and Utah (which included the rest of Nevada), whose voters would decide for themselves whether or not they wanted slavery within their borders when they achieved statehood.

The Compromise also tightened rules on runaway slaves, to be applied throughout the nation, even in “Free” states.

Soon, the construction of railroads to the west were being considered, and this prospect too became embroiled in the issue of slavery. As things stood after the Mexican War, no good potential rail routes could reach the West from the southern states, and this (it was felt) would benefit the north. In 1853, therefore, the US government purchased an area to the south of the border in California and New Mexico from Mexico, which offered better terrain for such an east-west route. This was known as the Gadsden purchase, after the US ambassador to Mexico.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 created Kansas Territory and Nebraska Territory out of the northern bulk of Indian Territory. The Nebraska Territory included, beside today’s Nebraska, the northern, hitherto unorganized regions of the Louisiana Purchase lands: present-day Colorado, Dakota, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

The organization of Kansas Territory sparked another, and this time bloody, round in the slavery debate. The Kansas-Nebraska act, like the 1850 Compromise had done, passed the decision of whether the Kansas should be “slave” or “free” down to the local population. As a result, a systematic attempt by both southerners and northerners to settle the territory got underway, leading to some lethal clashes between the two groups. In the years up to 1859, 56 people are thought to have been killed in “Bleeding Kansas”.

The violence enflamed passions on both sides in Congress, and weakened the mood for compromise between the northern and southern politicians. The bulk of the new lands coming under United States sovereignty were – or clearly would be – “free”, and the defenders of the southern way of life were increasingly on the defensive. They fought bitterly, not only to preserve slavery, but to expand it; and the Kansas-Nebraska Act made this expansion a possibility by its emphasis on the right of states to decide their own position on the issue. Kansas was north of the 36º30’ parallel, set as the northern limit of slavery by the Missouri Compromise.

The Civil War and After

The War Arrives

The descent of Kansas into violence was matched in national politics by the entrenchment of the Democratic Party as the party of the South and of slavery, and the rise of a new, largely anti-slavery Republican Party, with its support base in the North. The election of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860, sparked the secession of thirteen southern states from the Union, to form the Confederate States of America. One of these states was Virginia, but its western part were largely anti-slavery in sentiment. This broke away from the rest of Virginia, joining the Union as a separate state, West Virginia, in 1863.

The Federal government regarded the secessions as illegal, and the Civil War resulted (1861-5).

The War

The war brought successes and failures to both sides until the sheer weight of numbers and industrial strength tipped the balance decisively in the Union’s favor.

Well over 600,000 American soldiers were killed, making it by far the worst conflict in US history. The South’s economy was ruined. Slavery was abolished (outlawed in the North in 1863 by the Emancipation Proclamation, and throughout the country on the North’s victory in 1865 by the 13th Amendment of the Constitution; two further amendments, the 14th and 15th, gave former slaves citizenship and the vote ). Almost four million slaves were freed.

Just as victory was being celebrated in Washington, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

The Reconstruction of the South

The southern states, though defeated, still had their self-government, and their legislatures reacted to the abolition of slavery by enacting “Black Codes”, which aimed at ensuring that the former slaves continued to labour on the plantations as before, and at keeping them in a subordinate place in society and politics.

This angered many people in the North, and in 1867 Congress, now dominated by Radical Republicans, asserted control over the Reconstruction of the South. It sent the army in the occupy the region, and it remained a presence there for many years. New elections, in which freed slaves could vote and former Confederate leaders could not, brought Republican administrations to power made up of freed slaves, “carpet-baggers” (Northerners who had recently arrived in the South) and “scalawags” (Southern whites, widely seen as traitors by their fellow Southerners). Former slaves were also elected to Congress, and as state governors.

The state governments embarked on a program to make good the damage done during the war. They set about constructing schools and railroads. However, their rule was widely seen as an imposition of Northern control on the South, and an angry reaction set in. Violence toward blacks and whites who supported the Republican administrations became widespread, much of it carried out by a secret organization known as the Ku Klux Klan.

This violence led to the federal government imposing criminal codes which protected the rights of former slaves to vote and hold office. However, the Democratic Party, the party of the South, progressively regained control of the southern State governments. In the 1870s economic depression in the North also led to Democratic gains there as well, and to Congress falling to Democratic control. The down-turn also weakened the North’s appetite for interference in the South.

In 1877, the last troops were pulled out of the South. In the following years, Democratic-dominated state governments in the South enacted the “Jim Crow” laws, institutionalizing racial segregation in society and politics. They again disenfranchised blacks, and turned them, not into slaves, but certainly into second-class citizens.

Continuing Westward Expansion

Meanwhile, through the Civil War and after, the expansion westward had not paused. Now, though, it was more a case of filling in the mid-Western lands than reaching further west.

The frontier areas of the Mid-West and West had been brought more in touch with the East by the inauguration of stage coach services in 1858, and by the Pony Express mail service in 1860. Close on the heels of this came the first transcontinental telegraph service in 1861.

Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862, which aimed to encourage settlement in the West by granting 160 acres free to each settler who improved the land for five years; and the same year the Pacific Railway Act laid down the principles for acquiring land for a transcontinental railroad, and to encourage settlement near the railroad to keep it in business.

Kansas entered the Union as a Free State in 1861. To the west, a gold rush in 1859 led to Nevada becoming a territory in 1861; it became a state in 1864.

By the terms of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, Nebraska Territory had originally included present-day Colorado, Dakota, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Gold rushes in Colorado (1859) and Idaho (1860) led to these two areas being organized as separate territories (1861 and 1863 respectively). Dakota was hived off as a territory in 1861, as was Montana in 1864. Parts of Dakota, Idaho and Utah territories were put together to form Wyoming Territory, in 1868.

The borders of Nebraska Territory had been reduced to the area of the present state. Continued settlement resulted in Nebraska achieving statehood in 1867 and Colorado in 1876.

The post-Civil War period also saw a dramatic extension of US territory outside the primary theatre for expansion, when Alaska, which had seen Russian fur traders establishing settlements since the late 18th century, was purchased by the USA from Russia in 1867. It was placed under military governors.

The Later 19th Century

Renewed Economic Expansion

By the late 1870s, the country – and in particular the North – was moving into a phase of dramatic economic expansion. The first transcontinental railroad line was opened in 1869, and more followed in succeeding years. This development opened up vast new lands for exploitation, with grain and meat now being shipped cheaply from the mid-West to East, and beyond to Europe. The demand for steel and coal soared, and the industrialization of such sectors as agriculture and textiles proceeded apace. These developments went hand-in-hand with the rise of banking and finance. This provided the financial capital for economic expansion, and for the creation of huge new companies, employing thousands, even tens of thousands, of workers.

The labor force for such expansion was met be unprecedented levels of immigration, largely from eastern and southern Europe. This changed the culture of much of American society, particularly in the big industrial cities. All over America, towns and cities grew enormously, and a new urban working class emerged.

City life was transformed by the spread of, first gas, then electric lighting. Telegraphic networks allowed for instantaneous communication across the country. By the end of the period new transport and communication technologies were being developed, above all the telephone and automobile.

The West

The first transcontinental railroad opened in 1869. Five more followed in the 1870s and 80s. These cut coast-to-coast journey times from several months by wagon train, stage coach or ship, to as many days.

Wherever these railroads went, towns and farmsteads sprouted up. In the 1870s and 1880s the railway companies actively promoted settlements of their lands by advertising in Europe, mainly Germany and Scandinavia, and by offering incentives (including cheap travel and easy credit) to settlers. These efforts drew hundreds of thousands of European settlers to the West. Communities made up of different national groups – Finns, Swedes, Norwegians, Irish, Volga Germans and German Jews – appeared in such territories as Minnesota, Michigan, Dakota and Oregon.

Gold Rushes

Gold rushes drew in other nationalities – Chinese, Mexicans and former slaves. California gained a large Japanese community. Less dramatically, the opening of silver and copper mines in mountain regions created a demand for miners. Moreover, the construction of the railroads themselves required a huge workforce, much of which came from China. The Chinese workmen mostly returned to their homeland after their contracts had ended, but a few stayed on to form the Chinatowns of Western cities, most famously San Francisco.

Indian Territory

Meanwhile, the process of the dismemberment of the Indian Territory (see above), already confined to the area of today’s Oklahoma, was completed. Cattle trails, White settlers and railroad company buy-ups swamped the area. The western half of Indian Territory was swiftly and systematically settled by Whites in the years after 1889, and designated Oklahoma Territory. This would be united with what remained of Indian Territory to form the new state of Oklahoma in 1907.

Also in 1889, the expansion of settlement in the West was marked by the achievement of statehood by North Dakota, South Dakota. Montana and Washington. Wyoming and Idaho became states the following year (Wyoming with the first constitution in the world to grant full voting rights to women) and Utah achieved statehood in 1896. By the end of the century, of the states in the continental United States only Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona remained to be formed.

The Indian Wars of the Late 19th Century

Unsurprisingly, the sudden mass migration of White settlers into the West led to a series of clashes with the Native American peoples who lived there. The Apache Wars (1863-4), the Colorado War (1863-5), the Snake War (1864-8), Red Cloud’s War (1868), the Comanche Campaign (1875),  The Great Sioux War (1876) and the Nex Perce War (1877) were only the most famous of these. As in earlier times, indigenous warriors were sometimes victorious – most strikingly at the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876), in which the 7th Cavalry under General Custer suffered a devastating defeat.

However, the US army’s strategy of establishing forts as bases from which to control localities, the logistical support it was able to provide its troops and later the speed with which troops could be brought to trouble spots by road and railroads all told against the indigenous peoples. By the end of the 19th century the Native Americans were all effectively confined to reservations.

The Cowboy

The coming of the railroad enabled the produce of the region to be marketed back east, and indeed internationally. The main produce was wheat and, in more arid regions, cattle.

The post-Civil War era was the period when the cowboy became the archetypical figure of the American West. Huge herds of cattle were reared on the plains where buffalo had once grazed. They were then herded northward to railheads in Kansas in huge droves. From there they were transported to ports on the Great Lakes such as Chicago and St Louis, where they were slaughtered. Their meat was then shipped to the cities in the east, or to Europe.

From the 1860s to the 1880s the West was a frontier society – a region of turbulent towns and untamed wilderness where law-enforcement was weak and lawlessness went largely unchecked. In the 1880s and 1890s, however, effective institutions of local government were established. In the countryside, vast areas of land were progressively fenced off into huge cattle farms.

From this time the West began to become less lawless and more settled. At the same time, the Native American wars came to an end: the last war bands under the Apache chief Geronimo surrendered to US troops in 1886. The final decades of the 19th century marked the end of the American frontier.

The Progressive Era

This dynamic era was symbolized by the emergence of such tycoons as Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and JP Morgan, and it came to be known as the “Gilded Age” (c. 1870-1900). However, with this dramatic expansion came increased social tension. Industrial workers organized themselves into unions, and company bosses resorted to violence to keep them in check. These clashes were reported to the nation by a rapidly expanding press, as was what was seen as the increasing corruption of government and its subordination to moneyed interests.

This helped to usher in a new phase of reform called the “Progressive Era”, beginning in the late 1880s. The large industrial conglomerates (“trusts”) came under fire for their monopolistic tendencies and harsh treatment of workers, and the first anti-Trusts laws, aimed at limiting their economic and social power, were enacted in 1890. Other reforms sought to address government corruption and social problems, such as poor housing conditions in the new cities. This era of reform would last well into the 20th century, culminating in the universal enfranchisement of women in 1920.

Overseas Expansion

By this time, the United States was the wealthiest country in the world, both in terms of total wealth and of wealth per person. It took its place amongst the leading nations of the period by joining in the scramble for colonies which the great powers of Europe were indulging in at that time.

War with the Spain in 1898 resulted in the USA gaining control of the former Spanish colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, the Philippines in South East Asia and Guam in the Pacific. Cuba soon reverted to independent rule, though under considerable American influence.

In that same year, 1898, Hawaii, a mid-Pacific archipelago which had until recently been ruled by a line of kings but had become a republic a few years before, was annexed by the United States in 1898. Its people received a measure of self-government when it became a territory in 1900.

The United States arrived at the 20th century as the wealthiest and one of the most powerful nations on Earth.


Go here for the history of the United States in the 20th century