The U.S. Economy: A Brief History

United States Economy

The modern American economy traces its roots to the quest of European settlers for economic gain in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. The New World then progressed from a marginally successful colonial economy to a small, independent farming economy and, eventually, to a highly complex industrial economy. During this evolution, the United States developed ever more complex institutions to match its growth. And while government involvement in the economy has been a consistent theme, the extent of that involvement generally has increased.
     North America's first inhabitants were Native Americans -- indigenous peoples who are believed to have traveled to America about 20,000 years earlier across a land bridge from Asia, where the Bering Strait is today. (They were mistakenly called "Indians" by European explorers, who thought they had reached India when first landing in the Americas.) These native peoples were organized in tribes and, in some cases, confederations of tribes. While they traded among themselves, they had little contact with peoples on other continents, even with other native peoples in South America, before European settlers began arriving. What economic systems they did develop were destroyed by the Europeans who settled their lands.
     Vikings were the first Europeans to "discover" America. But the event, which occurred around the year 1000, went largely unnoticed; at the time, most of European society was still firmly based on agriculture and land ownership. Commerce had not yet assumed the importance that would provide an impetus to the further exploration and settlement of North America.
     In 1492, Christopher Columbus, an Italian sailing under the Spanish flag, set out to find a southwest passage to Asia and discovered a "New World." For the next 100 years, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and French explorers sailed from Europe for the New World, looking for gold, riches, honor, and glory.
     But the North American wilderness offered early explorers little glory and less gold, so most did not stay. The people who eventually did settle North America arrived later. In 1607, a band of Englishmen built the first permanent settlement in what was to become the United States. The settlement, Jamestown, was located in the present-day state of Virginia.

The New Nation's Economy
Movement South and Westward
Industrial Growth
Inventions, Development and Tycoons
Government Involvement
The Postwar Economy: 1945-1960
Years of Change: The 1960s and 1970s
The Economy in the 1980s
The 1990s and Beyond

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Department of State