Settlement Patterns

United States Geography

Although it is impossible to state precisely how many people entered what is now the United States from Europe and, to a lesser extent, from Africa, a reasonable estimate would place the figure at close to 60 million.

Most early immigrants came from northwestern Europe. At the time of the first national census of the United States in 1790, more than two-thirds of the white population was of British origin, with Germans and Dutch next in importance.

Emigration to North America slowed between 1760 and 1815. This was a time of intermittent warfare in Europe and North America, as well as on the Atlantic Ocean. Between about 1815 and the start of World War I in 1914, immigration tended to increase with each passing decade.

For the first half of the 1815-1913 period, most migrants continued to come from northwestern Europe. They were followed in subsequent decades by streams of people from southern and eastern Europe. By 1913, well over four-fifths of all immigrants were from these areas of Europe, especially Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Russia.

The reasons for this shift are based on the impact of the Industrial Revolution. Beginning in the British Isles and the Low Countries in the 18th century, it spread southeastward during the following 150 years or so. With industrialization came a rapid rise in population as mortality declined. The economy shifted to manufacturing, urbanization increased, and there was a proportional decline in the agricultural population. The growth in the demand for urban labor did not match the increase in the potential labor force, and thus there were many willing emigrants.

It has been suggested repeatedly that migrants to the United States chose areas that were environmentally similar to their European homes. The substantial Scandinavian settlement in Minnesota and the Dakotas is indicated as a case in point. There may be some small truth in this, but it was more important that those states represented the principal settlement frontier at the time of major Scandinavian immigration. For the most part, the mosaic of ethnic patterns in America is the result of a movement toward opportunity--opportunity first found most often on the agricultural settlement frontier and then in the cities.

The major exception to the immigrant settlement pattern was black settlement in the American South. Forced to move as slave labor for the region's plantations, this was a small part of the large movement of Africans to the Caribbean Basin, the northeast coast of South America, and the American Southeast. Next to the European exodus, this was probably the second largest long-distance movement in human history. Perhaps 20 million left Africa. It is believed that fewer than 500,000 blacks came into the United States. Most probably arrived from the Caribbean rather than coming directly from Africa. The 1790 census indicated that 20 percent of the American population was of African origin. There was little African immigration after that date, and the percentage of the population that was black declined.

The United States passed its first major legislation to restrict immigration in the 1920s. This limitation, coupled with the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II in the 1940s, cut immigration to a fraction of its annual high in 1913. Since 1945, the number of arrivals has increased somewhat. Far more liberal immigration laws were passed in the 1960s. In the late 1980s, Mexico, the Philippines, and the West Indies provided the greatest number of migrants to the United States. Today, the United States typically receives roughly 700,000 legal immigrants annually. About 275,000 illegal aliens also enter the country each year.

The first immigrant settlements were small, clinging to the ocean and looking more toward Europe than toward the land that crowded in about them. When settlement pushed tentatively away from the oceans, it still followed the waterways, for they offered trade pathways to the coast and an important link to Europe. Thus, the British settled the indented coastline of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, and they spread a thin band of settlement along the rugged coastline of New England. The Dutch moved up the Hudson River from New Amsterdam (New York), and the French gradually settled the banks of the upper St. Lawrence River.

During the first 150 years after the beginnings of permanent European settlement--until about 1765--Europeans moved westward only as far as the eastern flanks of the Appalachian Mountains. Within a century after that, the frontier reached the Pacific Ocean, and by 1890, the U.S. Bureau of the Census was able to announce that the American settlement frontier was gone entirely.

This increasingly rapid settlement expansion resulted from a reorientation in attitude away from Europe. By the early 19th century, an increasing number of Americans viewed the occupation of the continent as their manifest destiny. The land laws of the country became increasingly pro-expansionist. Also, as the population grew, there were more people who hoped to improve their lot by moving westward.

In the eastern half of the United States, about as far west as Kansas and Nebraska, settlement expanded westward in a generally orderly fashion. To be sure, advances were more rapid along certain transportation routes, such as the Ohio River, and slower in other places.

Settlement moved rapidly westward onto the interior grasslands. The Mississippi River and its many tributaries offered easy routes to the interior, and settlers found an expanse of excellent agricultural land with a generally good climate for crop production that stretched from the western margins of the Appalachians well into the Great Plains.

From the Rocky Mountains westward and in Alaska, however, an even pattern of settlement expansion did not occur. Much of this broad area was either too dry, too hot, or too cold for farming. Rugged topography hampered transportation and further limited agricultural development. Settlement congregated in areas that offered an identifiable economic potential. The result was a pattern of point settlement scattered across an otherwise nearly unpopulated landscape.

In 1990, the United States had a population approaching 250 million, with a density of roughly 235 people per square kilometer. Three principal zones of population can be identified. First, a primary zone fills a quadrant defined approximately by the cities of Boston (Massachusetts), Chicago (Illinois), St. Louis (Missouri), and Washington, D.C.: 7 of the 12 most populous U.S. states are here. It is the area of earliest growth and long the country's most advanced section economically. Fine natural routes and many excellent harbors along the Atlantic shore have been augmented by a dense transportation net. Some of the country's best agricultural lands plus rich mineral resources are either within the region or nearby.

Wrapping around the southern and western margins of the primary zone and extending westward to the eastern sections of the Great Plains, there is a secondary zone of population. Much of America's best agricultural land is in this zone, and the greatest part of its potential agricultural lands are farmed. Most of the area is populated, although densities are generally much lower than those found in the core. Cities are spaced more widely and more evenly in this zone than in the core, and they are primarily service and manufacturing centers for the region.

Finally, a peripheral population zone fills the land from the central Great Plains westward. A pattern of population and economic growth at locations of special potential in an otherwise limited region continues to dominate. Although some areas are now densely populated--notably California's San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles Basin, as well as the Puget Sound Lowland in Washington State--most of the land remains sparsely populated.

The mobility history of the United States can be divided into three periods. First came the period of east to west movement, then one from rural to urban areas, and, finally, the present period, when most long-distance movement is between metropolitan areas. If the country's population has moved westward with every decade, it has urbanized in an equally unvarying fashion. Whereas less than 10 percent of the population could even loosely be defined as urban in 1790, over three-quarters was urbanized by 1990.

These statistics reflect not only a relative decline in rural population, but also an absolute decline in farm population. Between 1960 and 1987, for example, the farm population fell from more than 15 million to under 6 million.

The movements from east to west and from rural to urban America were both clearly in response to the perception of economic opportunity. First, more and more farmlands became available as the settlement frontier pushed westward. Then there was a tremendous surge in urban employment generated by the Industrial Revolution. Once Americans were predominantly urbanites and economic opportunities were also urban based, variations in these opportunities ensured that most subsequent population migration would occur between metropolitan areas.

U.S. population statistics for the 1970s and 1980s suggest that a fourth major mobility period is at hand. Areas that had long experienced no change or even declining population size are growing. Much of the South is a prime example.

Many observers have suggested that the United States has become a post-industrial country. That is, the major growth areas are in occupations that provide services and that manipulate and create information. The number of Americans employed in manufacturing has increased only slightly during the past two decades, whereas tertiary and quaternary employment has boomed. Much of what increase there has been in manufacturing employment has been in the production of high-value, lightweight products, such as electronic components, which can presumably be located almost anywhere. Thus, more and more people can live where they want.

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Source: U.S. Department of State