Early United States history

There have been many historical epochs in the land now governed by the United States, starting with the pre-colonial times when Native Americans held sway. This article focuses on the history from the first European settlement, through the colonial era and American Revolution, up until the outbreak of civil war in 1861.

United States historical travel topics:
Indigenous nationsPre-Civil WarCivil WarOld WestIndustrializationPostwar
African-American historyMexican American historyPresidents


Contrary to popular belief in Europe and other parts of the world, the United States has existed longer as an independent country than most other countries in the world - the country declared independence in 1776 and was recognized by its mother country as independent in 1783. The current constitution entered into force in 1789 and the "Bill of Rights" was passed that same year, entering into force in 1793. The Bill of Rights is the second oldest declaration of civil and human rights ever to acquire force of law and the oldest one to still be in force unaltered and uninterrupted.

Colonial era[edit]

Following the Voyages of Columbus, the Spanish Empire and the Portuguese Empire were the first to claim land in the New World, with England, the Netherlands and France following up. Those empires rushed to colonize the islands of the Caribbean, which was seen as prime land for slave-based plantations. By AD 1600, European settlements in today's continental United States were few and far between. English colonization of North America began in earnest in the 17th century.

The American Revolution[edit]

The struggle for American independence began in the 1760s, and was finally achieved by 1791, with the 1776 Declaration of Independence seen as a defining moment and the birth of the nation.

Up to the Civil War, the federal government had little influence over the people, and there was not much of an American national identity. People primarily saw themselves as citizens of their respective states.


  • 13,000 BCE — First human settlement in North America
  • 1492 — First voyage of Christopher Columbus brings the existence of land to the west to the consciousness of most Europeans
  • 1513 — Saint Augustine, Florida is founded by the Spaniards; today, it is the oldest continuously-occupied Euro-American settlement in what's now the United States
  • 1583 — Newfoundland, now part of Canada, becomes the first British colony in North America. The founder dies during the voyage back to England and his brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, takes over.
  • 1586 — Raleigh tries to establish a British colony at Roanoke Island, in what would later become North Carolina; this is now known as the "lost colony". It is possible that the colonists may have joined the local Native American tribe, but no-one really knows why they disappeared without a trace
  • 1607 – Jamestown, Virginia founded by Raleigh, the first lasting British colony in what is now the US
  • 1607 – Santa Fe founded by the Spaniards in what is now New Mexico
  • 1620 – Pilgrims found the Plymouth Colony
  • 1625 – Nieuw Amsterdam, now New York City, is founded by the Dutch as part of New Netherland (Dutch: Nieuw-Nederland), which encompassed most of what's now New York State
  • 1626 – Founding of Salem, Massachusetts
  • 1630 – Boston and 10 other Massachusetts settlements founded by Puritans
  • 1634 – Lord Baltimore, turning away from his mostly unsuccessful investments in Newfoundland, starts the first colony in Maryland
  • 1664 – New Netherland was conquered by Britain, with both the colony and the city of New Amsterdam re-named New York after the Duke of York.
  • 1670 – Charles Town, now Charleston, South Carolina, is founded and quickly becomes a major port city in British America
  • 1675-1678 – First Indian War
  • 1682 – Philadelphia founded
  • 1688-1697 – Second Indian War
  • 1754-1763 – French and Indian War, the North American theater of the Seven Year's War - the French lose Quebec and other colonies in what is now Canada to Britain
    • 1755 - Braddock Expedition — A battle between Britain and France which saw the emergence of many of the future American independence heroes
    • 1755-1764 - The British expel French-speaking Acadians from Atlantic Canada; many go to Louisiana
  • 1775-1783 – American Revolutionary War - the US gains independence; also known as the "War of Independence"
  • 1776 – Declaration of Independence
Louisiana Purchase in white
  • 1803 – Louisiana Purchase; the US buys France's remaining colonies in North America
  • 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition
  • 1812-1815 – War of 1812 (US against Britain, mostly fought in Canada and the Eastern United States) - part of the Napoleonic Wars
  • 1822 – Liberia, the first overseas colonial possession of the United States, was founded in West Africa for the settlement of freed African-American slaves.
  • 1830 – The first scheduled passenger rail service departs Charleston (South Carolina) on 6 mi (9.7 km) of track under steam power; by 1869, a Last Spike will join East and West.
  • 1837 – The Panic of 1837 starts an economic depression which continues until 1843.
  • 1843 – A land rush sends settlers westward to Oregon's Willamette Valley
  • 1846-1848 – Mexican-American War
  • 1847 – Liberia declares independence
  • 1849 – California gold rush sends starry-eyed prospectors westward
  • 1850 – A nascent Underground Railroad proposes Canada as the promised land, after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act enables abduction and capture of runaway slaves - and in some cases even unlucky free blacks who couldn't prove their freedom - nationwide.
  • 1861-1865 – American Civil War
  • 1862 – The United States formally recognizes Liberian independence.


Map of Early United States history

Along the Atlantic coast were the Thirteen Colonies, part of the British Empire. Although many of the buildings have been torn down and replaced by new ones or railways and streets, some old towns, historic buildings and objects still remain, mostly in the following cities:

  • 1 Plymouth, Massachusetts. The place where the Puritan "Pilgrims" landed in 1620, and the site of the original Thanksgiving holiday. The oldest surviving colony in New England.
  • 2 Salem, Massachusetts. Among other things, known for the Salem Witch Trials.
  • 3 Boston, Massachusetts. Much of the prelude to the War of Independence happened here, such as the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre. The Freedom Trail will be of particular interest to Revolutionary War buffs.
  • 4 Concord (Massachusetts). One of the first battlefields of the War of Independence has been commemorated with the Minute Man National Historical Park.
  • 5 Gloucester (Massachusetts). The oldest seaport in the United States.
  • 6 Newport (Rhode Island). Long ago one of America's largest cities, its 19th-century decline had the fringe benefit of leaving its colonial character intact.
  • 7 New York, New York. Originally a Dutch colony, named Nieuw Amsterdam.
  • 8 Paterson, New Jersey. "The Silk City" was the nation's first planned industrial city.
  • 9 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Once the capital of the Union, and where the Declaration of Independence was drafted and signed.
  • 10 Baltimore, Maryland. During the War of 1812, Baltimore resisted a British attack. The battle was inspiration for The Star-Spangled Banner, the American National Anthem.
  • 11 Annapolis, Maryland. A colonial port city with many preserved buildings.
  • 12 Washington, D.C.. Founded in 1800, this city contains many artifacts from the Independence era
  • 13 Allegheny Portage Railroad, Pennsylvania (near Altoona). A railroad, operating 1834 to 1854, which became an early gateway between the Atlantic and the Midwest. Contains the first American railroad tunnel.
  • 14 Williamsburg, Virginia. Includes the Jamestown settlement, the first British colony to survive in what's now the United States; Colonial Williamsburg; and other preserved relics from the colonial and revolutionary periods.
  • 15 Hampton, Virginia. The Fort Monroe National Monument.
  • 16 Roanoke. Site of one of the earliest attempts at a British colony in North America.
  • 17 Charleston, South Carolina. This charming city has a neighborhood with a large number of well-preserved antebellum (that is, pre-Civil War) mansions. Many houses in other parts of town are elegant and of some age, too.
  • 18 Savannah, Georgia. Founded in 1733. Captured by the British during the Revolutionary War.
  • 19 St. Augustine, Florida. The oldest surviving European settlement in the United States.
  • 20 Santa Fe, New Mexico (off map). The capital of New Mexico has its Spanish Plaza at its center, featuring the 17th-century Palace of the Governors, with its history museum.
  • 21 The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas (off map). Considered to be hallowed ground and the Shrine of Texas Liberty, the Alamo is a former mission which was also the site of the Battle of the Alamo (1836). Admission is free, although donations are appreciated. Revenues from an adjacent gift shop fund the historic preservation efforts.

Indigenous heritage[edit]


See also[edit]

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