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The history & society of the USA

Early American History

The earliest settlement in America dates back to over 12,000 years ago and by the time the first Europeans arrived the native population numbered about 2 million.

The first Europeans are believed to have been the Norse, who traveled from Greenland in 985.  It took another 500 years for other Europeans to reach North America, and another 100 years for permanent settlement.  The first explorers came searching for a sea passage to Asia, while the others – chiefly British, Dutch, French and Spanish – came later to claim the lands and riches of the ‘New World’.  It was the British however who colonised America.

Colonial Period

The 1600s saw the influx of settlers to the British colonies.  Most were English but others came from Holland, Germany, France, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  Black Africans were sold into slavery and arrived in shackles.  Relations between the settlers and the Native American Indians were mixed, growing strained as the settlers took more land.

Road to Independence

The British imposed many rules on the colonies including taxes on luxury goods, like coffee, silk, and wine, and made it illegal to import rum. The printing of paper money was prohibited in the colonies and they were forced to provide food and housing for royal troops.  Another law required the purchase of royal stamps for all legal documents, newspapers, licenses, and leases.  The colonists had a growing sense of frustration and anger over British encroachment on their rights.


Tension between British and Americans finally came to a head in 1775 when fighting broke out between the two parties in Massachusetts and on 4 July 1776 the Declaration of Independence was adopted. The 4th of July has since been celebrated as America's Independence Day.  However declaring independence did not make America free and fighting continued for the next eight years.  A peace treaty was finally signed in Paris on April 15, 1783, after continued support from the French.

Formation of a National Government

The 13 American colonies became the 13 United States of America in 1783, following their war for independence from Britain.  The colonies still operated independently – until the emergence of the Constitution, uniting the colonies under one government.  The Bill of Rights was also written to address the rights of individuals.

Civil war and reconstruction

In the North, the movement to abolish slavery was vocal and grew increasingly powerful. In the South, the belief in white supremacy and in maintaining the economic status quo was equally vocal and powerful.  When Abraham Lincoln won the presidency on an anti-slave platform the South began war with the North.  The year was April 1861.  The war only ended in 1865 with the surrender of the South.
The divisions and hatreds that had led to the Civil War did not disappear after the fighting stopped. As Southern whites regained political power, Southern blacks suffered. They had gained their freedom but were prevented from enjoying it by local laws denying them access to many public facilities. They had gained the right to vote but were intimidated at the polls. It would be almost 100 years before African Americans would have equal rights.

Two world wars

Millions of American troops were involved in the two world wars – 1.75 million troops alone in defeat of Germany in WWI.  WWII was, for America, characterised by the attack by Japan on Peal Harbour, Hawaii.  In retaliation a number of years later the American dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It wasn’t until later that the implications of nuclear weapons would be realised.
20th century

In the mid-1960s, the United States sent troops to defend South Vietnam against a Communist insurgency based in North Vietnam. American involvement escalated greatly but was not enough to prevent the South from collapsing in 1975. The war cost hundreds of thousands of lives. It also caused bitter divisions at home, making Americans wary of further foreign entanglements.

Recent history is increasingly political.  The terrorist attacks on the twin towers of September 11 meant great changes not only in the US, but also around the world.

Society and culture

The culture of the United States – music, cinema, dance, architecture, literature, poetry, cuisine and the visual arts has infiltrated through many countries of the world through TV, cinema, radio, magazines and to a great extent, the internet.  Singers such as Michael Jackson, Madonna and Britney Spears are known-world wide, as well as actors like Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks, and sports figures like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Venus Williams.

The complete opposite was true in the early days of the American republic when the country was generally seen as agricultural backwater with little to offer the culturally advanced world centers of Europe and Asia.  These days nearly every major US city offers classical and popular music; historical, scientific and art research centers and museums; dance performances, musicals and plays, outdoor art projects and architecture. 


The US is a melting pot of different ethnic groups – European, African, Asian, American Indian, Alaska native, native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders.  Therefore, there are also many different religions represented – the majority are from a Christian denominations; Protestant 51.3%, Roman Catholic 23.9%, Mormon 1.7%, other Christian 1.6%, Jewish 1.7%, Buddhist 0.7%, Muslim 0.6%

*The small print
We’ve tried to make this destination guide as accurate as possible but please double check the essentials like visas, health and safety, airport information etc with the relevant authorities before you travel.  STA Travel takes no responsibility for loss, injury or inconvenience caused as a result of this guide.  All prices listed are in the currency of the destination, unless otherwise stated.

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