The United States of America is the world's third largest country in size and nearly the third largest in terms of population. Located in North America, the country is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean and to the east by the Atlantic Ocean. Along the northern border is Canada and the southern border is Mexico. There are 50 states and the District of Columbia.
More than twice the size of the European Union, the United States has high mountains in the West and a vast central plain. The lowest point in the country is in Death Valley which is at -282 feet (-86 meters) and the highest peak is Denali (Mt. McKinley) at 20,320 feet (6,198 meters).
Map created by National Geographic Maps
PEOPLE & CULTURE
Throughout its history, the United States has been a nation of immigrants. The population is diverse with people from all over the world seeking refuge and a better way of life.
The country is divided into six regions: New England, the mid-Atlantic, the South, the Midwest, the Southwest, and the West. European settlers came to New England in search of religious freedom. These states are Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
The mid-Atlantic region includes Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and the city of Washington, D.C. These industrial areas attracted millions of European immigrants and gave rise to some of the East Coast's largest cities: New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.
The South includes Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, all of which struggled after the Civil War, which lasted from 1860-1865.
The Midwest is home to the country's agricultural base and is called the "nation's breadbasket." The region comprises the states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
The Southwest is a beautiful stark landscape of prairie and desert. The states of Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas are considered the Southwest and are home to some of the world's great natural marvels, including the Grand Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns.
The American West, home of rolling plains and the cowboy, is a symbol of the pioneering spirit of the United States. The West is diverse, ranging from endless wilderness to barren desert, coral reefs to Arctic tundra, Hollywood to Yellowstone. The states of the West include Alaska, Colorado, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.
The landscape varies across the large country from tropical beaches in Florida to peaks in the Rocky Mountains, from rolling prairie lands and barren deserts in the West to dense wilderness areas in the Northeast and Northwest. Interspersed throughout are the Great Lakes, the Grand Canyon, the majestic Yosemite Valley, and the mighty Mississippi River.
The wildlife is as diverse as the landscape. Mammals such as bison once roamed freely across the plains, but now live only in preserves. Black bears, grizzlies, and polar bears are the largest carnivores. There are over 20,000 flower species and most came from Europe. There are more than 400 areas which are protected and maintained by the National Park Service, and many other parks in each state.
The bald eagle is the national bird and symbol of the United States and is a protected species.
GOVERNMENT & ECONOMY
Citizens over the age of 18 years old vote to elect the President and Vice President of United States every four years. The president lives in the White House in the capital city of Washington, D.C.
There are two houses of Congress: the Senate and the House of Representatives. There are 100 senators, two from each of the 50 states and each serves a six-year term. There are 435 representatives who must be elected every two years.
The Supreme Court is made up of nine justices who are picked by the president and must be approved by Congress.
Advances in the past hundred years have established America as a world leader economically, militarily, and technologically. America has the largest coal reserves in the world.
For centuries native peoples lived across the vast expanse that would become the United States. Starting in the 16th century, settlers moved from Europe to the New World, established colonies, and displaced these native peoples.
Explorers arrived from Spain in 1565 at St. Augustine, Florida, and the British landed in 1587 to establish a colony in Roanoke, in present-day Virginia. In 1606 another British colony was established in what would become Jamestown, Virginia. From there, the French founded Quebec in 1608, then the Dutch started a colony in 1609 in present-day New York. Europeans continued to settle in the New World in ever-increasing numbers throughout the next couple of centuries.
Conflict with the Native Americans
While Native Americans resisted European efforts to gain land and power, they were often outnumbered and didn’t have as powerful of weapons. The settlers also brought diseases that the native peoples had not faced before, and these illnesses sometimes had horrible effects. A 1616 epidemic killed an estimated 75 percent of the Native Americans in the New England region of North America.
During this time, fights between the settlers and Native Americans erupted often, particularly as more people claimed land where the Native Americans lived. The U.S. government signed nearly 400 peace treaties between the mid-18th century and the mid-19th century to try to show they wanted peace with the Indigenous tribes. But the government did not honor most of these treaties, and even sent military units to forcibly remove Native Americans from their lands.
For example, in 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which granted land west of the Mississippi River to Native American tribes who agreed to give up their lands. But this broke with other treaties he had signed with Native American tribes in the Southeast. The removal was supposed to be voluntary, but Jackson used legal and military action to remove several tribes from their homelands and ended nearly 70 treaties during his presidency.
By the mid-19th century, most Native American tribes had been wiped out or moved to live on much smaller portions of land in the Midwest.
In 1776, colonists living in the New England area of the New World drafted the Declaration of Independence, a document that stated that the American colonies were tired of being ruled by Great Britain (now called the United Kingdom). The settlers fought for—and won—their independence and formed a union of states based on a new constitution. But despite stating that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, the new country was home to millions of enslaved people.
Slavery in the United States
Enslaved Africans were brought to North America by boat as early as 1619. The trans-Atlantic slave trade saw more than 12.5 million people kidnapped from Africa and sold at ports throughout the Americas over the next couple of centuries.
By 1860, nearly four million enslaved people lived in the country. Most worked in the South, where their free labor allowed the sugar, cotton, and tobacco industries to flourish. Enslaved people even built the White House and the U.S. Capitol.
When Abraham Lincoln became president in 1861, the nation had been arguing for more than a hundred years about enslaving people and each state’s right to allow it. Lincoln wanted to end slavery. Many people in the northern states agreed with him; some people in the southern states, however, relied on enslaved people to farm their crops and did not want slavery to end. Eventually, 11 southern states formed the Confederate States of America to oppose the 23 northern states that remained in the Union. The Civil War began on April 12, 1861.
The Civil War was fought between abolitionists, or people who wanted to end slavery, and the pro-slavery Confederacy. Enslaved people weren’t freed until Lincoln delivered his famous Emancipation Proclamation speech in 1863, midway through the war. Two years later, the Civil War ended with a Union victory.
That same year, the passage of the 13th Amendment officially abolished the practice of slavery and ended nearly 250 years of slavery in the country. But it did not end racism. Former enslaved people—as well as their descendants—struggled with discrimination, and African American heroes today are still fighting for equality.
Progress (and Wars) in the 20th Century
After the Civil War, the United States continued to expand westward until 1890, when the U.S. government declared the West fully explored. During this time of expansion, the population grew from about five million people in 1800 to nearly 80 million people in 1900.
The early 1900s were a time of progress in the United States. This in part was because of the number of immigrants coming to the country looking for opportunity. Between 1900 and 1915, 15 million immigrants arrived in the United States from countries such as Italy, Russia, and Poland. The new citizens worked in places such as gold mines and garment factories, and helped construct railroads and canals. These immigrants brought new ideas and culture to the young country.
The 20th century was also a time of industrial advancement. The development of the automobile and the airplane lead to an increase in factory jobs and marked a shift in more people moving to live and work in big cities instead of farming in small towns.
But there were tough times, too. The United States fought alongside Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, and Japan against Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire (now the country of Turkey) in World War I, before the country suffered through what became known as the Great Depression, a time of economic crisis during the 1930s.
In the 1940s, then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt steered the country out of the Depression before leading the country during the Second World War, alongside allies France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union (now Russia), against Germany, Italy, and Japan.
The United States’ reputation as a progressive country took hold after the two World Wars and the Great Depression. The ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s were a time of innovation in the nation. In 1958, NASA—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—started exploring the possibility of space flight. By 1969, the agency landed the first human on the moon.
Throughout these three decades, the fight for civil rights in the country continued with Americans of all backgrounds fighting for equal rights for their fellow citizens. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is perhaps the most famous speech associated with the civil rights movement. Historic firsts for people of color during these decades include Dalip Singh Saund becoming the first Asian American elected to the Congress in 1957; Thurgood Marshall becomingthe first African American justice to serve on the Supreme Court in 1967; and Shirley Chisholm becoming the first African American female elected to Congress in 1968.
The late 1900s saw the U.S. government get involved in several wars on different fronts, including the Vietnam War, a war between what was then the two separate countries of North and South Vietnam, in which the United States sided with South Vietnam; the Cold War, a long period of non-violent tensions between the United States and the former Soviet Union, now Russia; and the Gulf War, a war waged by 30-plus nations lead by the United States against the country of Iraq.
An Attack on America
Although the country was still a relatively young nation at the beginning of the 21st century, the United States had established itself as a global power. Some people saw this power as a threat.
On September 11, 2001, 19 terrorists who disagreed with the United States’ involvement in world affairs hijacked four planes. Two of the planes were flown into the two 110-story skyscrapers that made up New York City’s World Trade Center. Another crashed into the Pentagon outside of Washington, D.C. The fourth plane went down in a Pennsylvania field. Nearly 3,000 people died that day.
Then-president George W. Bush sent troops to Afghanistan after the events of 9/11. He hoped to capture those responsible for the attacks, including al Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Bush also sent troops to Iraq in 2003, after rumors started that the country was hiding dangerous weapons that the president wanted to find and destroy.
While bin Laden was eventually located and killed in 2011, the United States is still fighting what’s called “the war on terrorism” today.
Historic Firsts—Plus, a Pandemic
The 21st century marked more progress for the United States, particularly at its highest levels of government. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected president of the United States. In 2020, Kamala Harris became the first Black and Indian American person and the first woman elected vice president.
The early 2000s also saw the elections of Donald Trump, the first U.S. president to be impeached twice, in 2016; and Joe Biden, the oldest person to be elected president, in 2020. The United States—along with the rest of the world—also endured the coronavirus pandemic that began in 2020.