A peep into America’s past

By Parag Ranjan Dutta

Recently there is a wave of protests against the dark-skinned people in the US. Even the American President was no exception in joining the party. This is a humble attempt in my quest to find out how much American is America today.
It is certain that the peopling of North America began about 15,000 years ago when scores of people from northeastern Siberia crossed the Bering Land Bridge, a land corridor, known as Beringia to what is now known as Alaska probably on foot with their animals. The crossing over was undertaken at the end of Pleistocene, the last ice age period. Eventually they trekked to Columbia and Alberta of Canada and into the vast plains of what is now the USA.
Those were the natives of America who are known as American Indians or Amerindians. Though Columbus was credited with the discovery of America in reality he never landed in the mainland.
With the exception of the Spaniards most of the ethnic groups arrived in the US either for hunger or religious persecutions. The lure of gold and silver bought Spaniards to America. Hernan Cortes, a Spaniard, was the first European to land in America in 1519 and founded the Spanish city of Veracruz, a Mexican port city on the Gulf of Mexico. The oldest Spanish city was St Augustine, Florida. Eventually the Spaniards spread to the neighbouring US and occupied most of the southern part of the country. A number of mining towns developed in the western part of the country. After the minerals were exhausted they were eventually abandoned and came to be known as ‘ghost towns’.
To the west the Spanish influence in California was so strong that four major cities namely Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento came from Spanish words. For long, California was ruled by the Spanish settlers. Following the defeat of Mexico in the Mexican- American war and after a treaty, California was ceded to the US in 1948. The state of California itself got its name from Spanish ‘califa’- after a mythical island paradise.
In the early 16th century, the French wanted to explore the new world and in 1534, navigator Jacques Cartier claimed North America around the St Lawrence River and named it New France. They built forts and settlements like Detroit, St Louis and Wisconsin in the north and New Orleans and Baton Rouge in the south. At least five US states Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan and Louisiana were of French origin. Louisiana was named in honour of King Louis and Michigan has been derived from French ‘missikama’ meaning big/large water lake.
After the Spanish, the English were one of the earliest arrivers on American soil when the first colony of the British was built at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. The British colonised America for several reasons, mostly for a better market in Europe. Gradually the British expanded their colonies which were administered from London.
In 1775, America saw the rebellion by 13 colonies of Great Britain. After an eight-year-long battle, Britain was compelled to cede areas east of the Mississippi and south of the Great Lakes and St Lawrence river. A number of American states were named after the British Royals. In the north, New York was named in honour of Duke of York, while Maryland was named in honour of Henriyetta Maria, Queen of Charles I of England. Georgia was named after King George of England and Virginia was named after Queen Elizabeth I who was referred to as the ‘Virgin Queen’.
In 1790, a young Derbyshire man Samuel Slater, set foot in New York at the age of 21. He was an English-American industrialist who in 1790 built America’s first water powered cotton mill at Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The American President, Andrew Jackson, called him ‘Father of American Factory System’. At that point of time the British government did not allow any textile worker to leave the country so that the technology could be exported.
Slater who worked as an apprentice in a textile mill in England built the machinery from his own memory. For this he was called Slater the traitor in England. Gradually, Slater built up textile mills in Massachusetts and other northeastern states of America. The presence of British was so strong in extreme northeastern part of the USA that in 1616, an English explorer John Smith named this region ‘New England’, with the approval of king of England.
The six New England states today are Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Vermont has come from the French ‘vert mont,’ which means ‘green mountain’. Interestingly each northeastern state has a town called Warren named after Sir Peter Warren, an Irish officer in the British Royal Navy.
When slave trade flourished in Africa the Dutch traders brought some African slaves to Jamestown captured by the Portuguese from the shores of Northern Africa. The exact number of people forcibly shipped from the northern shores of Africa was unknown. Only a small fraction ended up in the US. Slavery was at random in the Mississippi Valley in the Southern States like Virginia, North and South Dakotas. These indentured labourers worked mainly to grow cash crops like tobacco, cotton and sugarcane. Gradually, the British expanded their territory and a series of colonies grew up but they did not want to cross the Appalachian Mountain to avoid tension with the Native Americans.
Prior to 1775, there were a number of British colonies in America, the oldest being Virginia. Local population was demanding more autonomy. The period saw a rebellion and a war broke out in April 1775.
There were waves of Irish immigration to the US between 1714-1750.They mostly settled in the Mid Atlantic Sea Board region in the eastern part of the country. In the first half of the 19th century Ireland was in great distress when the economic push factors was the main cause of the Irish migration to the US. Their staple food crop potato, the major source of food was destroyed by potato blight disease for consecutive years between 1845-49.
The ‘great famine’ coupled with religious persecution changed the countries demographic, cultural and political landscape. Starvation, poverty, and disease were visiting every Irish home and they the set out for America.
The largest ethnic groups who have entered America were the Germans followed by the Irish and the English. According to 1980 census of the US, about 26 per cent of the American population was of English ancestry. The revolution of 1848 in Germany saw a series of political refugees fleeing to America.
Nearly six million Germans immigrated to the US between 1820 and World War I. They migrated for more religious freedom as most of them were Lutherans who were persecuted by the Catholics. Many Germans arrived in the US seeking religious and political freedom. The first group, before 1850 were mainly farmers. Today a ‘German belt’ extends in the northern part of the country right from Pennsylvania in the east to Oregon to the west.
Although the Swedes and the Dutch were the first European settlers, interestingly it was an English man, William Penn, who founded a colony for religious freedom for Quakers and named it Pennsylvania. Penn named city of Philadelphia in honour of his father Admiral Sir William Penn. The German town of Philadelphia was founded in 1863.
Born of a German Scottish parentage, Donald Trump is a German American and his family chain could be traced back to Bobenheim am Berg, a village in Germany. His father Frederick Trump was born in Bronx, New York, who grew up in a German speaking environment. So Mr President, instead of building a wall along the Mexican border it is time for you to retrospect.

(The author is former head of the Department of Geography, St Edmund’s College)

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