In the fifth installment of this series, I will focus on the origins of the United States and the geographical elements that were critical in defining American politics, strategy and culture. In particular, three geographical features defined the English colonies and helped shape the United States into the country it is today.
The first was the long Atlantic coast. Both the Jamestown and Plymouth colonies were funded by British investors who sought to profit from primarily agricultural goods produced along the coast that could be shipped to Britain. Over time, the long coastline allowed for more extensive settlement, the development of a North American shipping industry and an orientation to Europe. The colonies were therefore an extension of Britain not only politically but also economically.
The second defining feature was the flow of major rivers in the colonies. In the south, the west-east flow of most rivers from the Appalachians to the Atlantic meant that north-south transportation, and even communication, was difficult. As a result, the southern colonies were isolated from the northern colonies and from each other. They saw themselves as distinct because of the lack of river transport and the lack of a road system, which would have been expensive to build. The northern colonies were less fractured. The rivers there ran north-south, the area was much smaller, overland transportation was much easier and the colonies were less distant and distinct.
The third and, by far, most important geographic feature was the Appalachian Mountains. The Appalachians were extraordinarily rugged, not because of their heights but because of their vegetation. The mountains were steep in places, and the vegetation made the area almost impassable except at a few points. It wasn’t until after the American Revolution that passages along the mountain range were forged by men like Daniel Boone. The Appalachians were, until then, the western boundary of both the northern and southern colonies.
One of the most important characteristics of the Appalachians is the curve toward the coast as they stretch north of Maryland. It’s here that the terrain of the mountain range becomes much hillier and rockier compared to the south. South of Maryland, the Appalachians are a couple of hundred miles from the coast, and a large, relatively flat plain emerges between them and the Atlantic.
Thus, the south, unlike the north, provides perfect conditions for large agricultural undertakings, including plantations. This geographic distinction led to the primordial divide in the colonies. Plantation farming requires low-cost labor. In Europe, this was provided, prior to the Industrial Revolution, by a social system that created a large class of serfs legally bound to the land. But in the colonies, such a system did not exist, and migrants from Europe weren’t willing to take on such a role. The alternative solution was the importation of African slaves.
But this solution was applied only in the south. In the north, there was no slavery because the economy couldn’t support it. The economy there was built around small farms, shipbuilding, crafts and finance. The roots of the Civil War were shaped by this geography. The question of slavery was embedded in the different economic and social structures that evolved in the colonies.
But before the Civil War, there was the American Revolution, which also turned on the Appalachians. The French, allied with indigenous nations, controlled much of the area west of the Appalachians but didn’t settle there as export of massive agricultural products would have been impossible. They instead traded primarily with indigenous groups for furs. During the Seven Years’ War, called the French and Indian War in the United States, the French sought to cross east, over the Appalachians and into the British colonies. They were stopped by the rugged mountains and also by American militias. British forces, trained for battle on the North European Plain, could not manage combat in the Appalachians, though they held the colonial troops in contempt for the way they fought while also suffering disastrous defeats themselves.
That was the moment that the concept of America as a distinct nation was forged. Americans like George Washington realized that the defense of the colonies depended on them and that the British were of little help and much annoyance. At the same time, they knew an economic break with Britain was impossible but, if it did occur, it could not be on British terms. They also knew they couldn’t protect the long Atlantic coast against the British navy. To have any chance of survival, they had to build many roads running north to south so they could mass a defense along the length of the colonies.
Geography has thus defined much of America’s history – both during and after the colonial era. The story I laid out here is obviously incomplete; it’s not intended to be the definitive history of the colonies by any means. But it is intended to begin to show geography’s effect on history. As always, this is just a fragment of the full story.