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Early Settlement to Civil War

Published: 05.01.2012, Updated: 04.03.2017
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Columbus, Cowboys and Turkey

Over the years you have learned bits and pieces about American history. Most things from school – hopefully – but don’t underestimate the information you have picked up by watching films, news and TV series, listening to music and partaking on social media sites. As Norwegians we take some pride in Leiv Eriksson and his claimed discovery of America. However, we are constantly reminded that only Columbus is taken into account in this context. And did he really discover America? Didn’t he just meet a bunch of people that he mistakenly called Indians, since he thought he had arrived in India?


The event of Thanksgiving and turkey seem important to most Americans. Apart from thanking God, of course, isn’t this a way of thanking the Indians that they survived? Who were “they” – wasn’t there something about Pilgrims and the Mayflower? And speaking of traditions, don’t they celebrate July 4th as their Independence Day, independence from whom?


The Wild West, the handsome, tough cowboy, the villain (often a “Gringo”), and the lonely hero that protects “the law out there” – the sheriff, this is also familiar territory, isn’t it?
And you probably haven’t missed the part about the President that gave the slaves their freedom either, and that the issue of slavery almost tore the union between the North and the South apart, have you?


Ever heard the expression “ Wish I had a rich uncle in America”? Did you know that the likelihood that you have relatives in the USA is very high? They may be more remote than uncles, but more than 5 million Americans are of Norwegian origin. Whether they are rich is another matter…


Check your understanding of these words before you read the text. You’ll find a dictionary in the link collection.

exploitation, initiative, involved, constitution, expanded, federal, imposed, incident, reinforcement, undertaking, civil, decades, eventually, expansion, grant, impose, whereas


Early Settlement

Leiv Eriksson and the Vikings had been in North America already around the year 1000, and almost 500 years later, in1492, the famous explorer Christopher Columbus also sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to discover America. The adventurous Columbus and his crew sailed from Spain to find a new seaway to Asia. However, they
reacLakota WarriorLakota Warrior
Fotograf: Andy Clark
hed an island close to the coast of Florida instead.

Columbus’ undertaking was not really a discovery, since the American continent was already populated with around 18 million Native Americans. The estimated number in North America was 2.5 million. Columbus called them Indians, because he believed Guanahani to be an island off the coast of India. Living close to nature for 500 years or more, and hunting buffaloes to cover their basic needs, the natives had their own distinct culture. Their deep spiritual beliefs, together with the view of the earth as being a sacred place belonging to everybody, were quite different from those of the new settlers. As the idea of ownership of the land was unfamiliar to the Indians, the newcomers would freely claim large areas.

Compared to countries such as Britain and Norway and in terms of recorded history, the US is a young country. This is not to say that the people who lived in America before the European settlers did not have their own history; it simply means that these people never wrote anything down. Tales, myths and stories were passed down orally from one generation to the next. Unfortunately, a lot of this material has been lost. However, if you want to get an impression of this rich cultural heritage you should check out Native Americans - Ancestral Voices  

Jamestown 1607 and Plymouth 1620

Immigration from Spain and France began in the early 1600s. The Spaniards settled in the southwest (now Arizona and California) and the French in the area around the Mississippi and the Great Lakes. The earliest English settlement was in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. One of the settlers was Captain John Smith, whose life later is said to have been saved by Pocahontas.Colonial ClothingHistorical Interpreter in Colonial Clothing
Fotograf: Tim Wright
Even if Walt Disney’s film version of the lives and destinies of Pocahontas and John Smith is not 100% historically correct, you may recall this incident. If you want to get more reliable information about Captain John Smith, his journey from England to Jamestown and the founding of the settlement, you should watch this On the Trail of Captain John Smith.

In 1620, the first successful British colony, Plymouth, was established in Massachusetts Bay, in what is now New England. These settlers, a group of English Protestants escaping religious oppression in England, became known as the Pilgrims or the Pilgrim Fathers. The Pilgrims' story of seeking religious freedom has become a central theme of the history and culture of the United States. Their ship was called the Mayflower. The Mayflower has a famous place in American history as a symbol of early European colonization of the future United States. In 1621, the Pilgrims held a harvest feast at the Plymouth Plantation after a successful growing season and the modern Thanksgiving holiday traces its origins from this celebration.

The American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence 1776-1783

In the years between 1690 and 1770 the population of America increased tenfold. Thirteen English colonies were established, successfully developed and expanded. That is why if you count the stripes on the present flag, you’ll end up with the number 13 – a reminder of the first colonies along the Eastern coast. A local government in each of the colonies made the laws and managed the colony. After some time, the colonists began to find it unfair that England constantly imposed new taxes on them. The Stamp Act (1765) was particularly hard to swallow, and in the winter of 1773 the colonists rebelled against England. They dressed up as Indians and threw the valuable tea cargo ofWhat is The Boston Tea Party?The Boston Tea Party
Fotograf: akg-images
several ships overboard into Boston Harbor. This incident, called the Boston Tea Party, marked the beginning of the War of Independence and the American Revolution (1776–1783). On the fourth of July 1776, representatives from each of  the thirteen colonies proclaimed independence from Britain by signing the Declaration  of Independence. Finally in 1783, after a long and hard struggle with Britain and a rather surprising military victory, the colonists won their independence. The turning point came after the Paris Peace Treaty in the same year, when France had joined the Americans in their fight against Britain, thus providing much needed reinforcements. The colonists, under the command of George Washington, a rich landowner from Virginia, remained loyal to the cause during extreme hardship. The former colonies were united in a federal republic, the USA, under the American Constitution of 1787. Washington was elected the first president of the United States in 1789.

Manifest Destiny and the Westward Move 1840s-1890

The borderline between settled and wild areas in the new territories was called “the frontier”, and many say that he frontier was the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The settlers had to adjust and learn how to survive in their new surroundings. Long distances, harsh climates and unfamiliar landscapes challenged the settlers who went beyond this line. To survive, they had to develop qualities like determination, inventiveness and courage; they had to learn to collaborate with others. The pioneers on the Frontier tended to become self-reliant, individualistic and full of initiative. Can we recognize any of these qualities today? Is there a connection between the Americans of the past and those of the present?

When the frontier reached Illinois, forests ended and the prairie began. In the beginning, the settlers thought the treeless prairie had poor soil, and many of them traveled straight across it to go north and further west. Travel across the prairie and later expansion led to conflicts with the Indians. In 1848, gold was discovered in California and the westward migration John WayneJohn Wayne
Fotograf: AP
 increased. The Gold Rush of 1849 attracted many immigrants. Later in 1862, the Homestead Act gave as much as 160 acres of free land to settlers, and this attracted even more people. When the USA won Oregon from Britain, the Oregon Trail from Missouri to Oregon became a route westwards for the pioneers. In 1869, the transcontinental railroad made traveling easy for the newcomers. By 1880 most of the conflicts with the Indians had passed, and in 1890 the government declared the country settled and the "frontier" closed. It comes as a surprise to many people that the famous era of cowboys lasted for only about forty years, with the 1880s as its heyday.

The rapid expansion of America from the East and into the West is often referred to as America’s Manifest Destiny and has a prominent place in American history. The American character, the American spirit, the American way of thinking, can all better be understood by studying the advance of the frontier, the men who grew up under these conditions, and the political, economic, and social results of it.

The story of many of the settlers who came to America was one of success. For others who were pushed westward by the newcomers, moved, chased and massacred – like the Native Americans – the story was different. For them, it was one of suffering and injustice.

The famous movie, Dances with Wolves, is set on the Frontier. Watch the trailer to get an impression of time and place. What do you think is implied when the protagonist (played by Kevin Costner) states that he wants to see the Frontier “before it’s gone”?

The Civil War 1861-1865

There were conflicting interests between the nation’s southern and northern states both culturally, politically, and economically. The aristocratic South produced tobacco, rice, sugar and cotton on large plantations depending on the manpower of slaves, whereas in the north people survived by farming and fishing, and by trade and commerce. The Southeners often referred to the Northerners as Yankees. By the end of the 18th century the need for slave labor in the South was tremendous, and a conflict developed over the question of whether slavery should be allowed in the new territory or not. Northerners protested against this. Another conflicting interest was taxation.

Abraham Lincoln MemorialAbraham Lincoln Memorial
Fotograf: Åse Elin Langeland
The South, which was more dependent on import than the North, wanted free trade with Britain. The North, on the other hand, stressed financial independence and wanted to impose taxes on imported goods. These disagreements caused    the South to decide to break out of the Union and form their own confederation. The strong desire to keep the Union together made the Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, who took office in 1861, choose civil war.

The northern side eventually proved superior in   the war that followed, because of a larger population and better financial resources. The Yankees were also superior at sea and in the arms industry. General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate (southern) Army surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant in a Virginian village,   April 1865.

Halfway through the war, in 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed that the slaves were freed (the Emancipation Proclamation Act). However, it would take more than a century before all African Americans could enjoy the same civil liberties as their fellow white Americans.


Video Lecture

Khan Academy has made a video lecture giving an overview of major events in this period. Listen to the lecture, take notes and answer the multiple choice comprehension questions in the link collection.



US History Overview I
Forfatter: Khan Academy

Tasks and Activities



Early Settlement - Comprehension 



Early Settlement - Vocabulary 

Early Settlement – Synonyms and Antonyms 

Early Settlement to Civil War - Antonyms   



Early Settlement to Civil War - Tasks 



Further Reading

Native Americans - Ancestral Voices 

Abraham Lincoln - An Icon?  


Film Recommendations

Dances with Wolves

Trailer provided by Video Detective


Abraham Lincoln







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