American History Events That Define the United States

The United States of America has had a long, complicated history, both before its official founding as a nation and after. America has achieved great highs and terrible lows. And often, some people were lifted up while others were pushed down. 

But what were some of the key events that are most important to the country’s history? Here is a brief timeline of United States history, with some of the most important American history events laid out.

Early European Settlers

Jamestown was founded in 1607, and Plymouth Colony was founded in 1620. These famous colonies laid the foundation for the British colonial era in America. Other European nations also colonized portions of the American coasts.

Indigenous Americans had mixed to poor relationships with the incoming Europeans. Entire tribes were often wiped out by warfare or disease as more Europeans came to the Americas. Also in these early years, the first slaves were brought to America from Africa, forming the beginnings of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

American War of Independence and War of 1812

By the late 1700s, the tensions between Britain and the American Colonies had reached a boiling point. The 13 colonies rebelled and started the War of American Independence, or the Revolutionary War.

The Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775 were the first battles of the American Revolution. These battles between American and British troops started what would become an eight-year war. George Washington led the Continental Army to eventual victory and was later elected the nation’s first President.

As the war exploded into a full-scale conflict, the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. This became known as Independence Day and is still celebrated today as the “official” date of the United States’ history as a nation.

Finally, in 1783 Great Britain and the US formally declared peace with the Treaty of Paris. The peace would not last for long, as the War of 1812 soon broke out between Britain and the United States.

There were many reasons for the war of 1812, including trade and expansion struggles (including the Louisiana Purchase). America declared war on Great Britain, and the two countries fought for two years. The United States did not fare well, and British troops attacked Washington, D.C., burning the capital and the White House.

The war officially ended in 1814, although some fights continued until 1815. Although the war itself did not end up with any major changes for either nation, it fostered a new era of American expansion and identity.

Louisiana Purchase

Between the two wars, the United States had already started its westward expansion. Thomas Jefferson, the country’s third President, negotiated the deal with Napoleonic France in 1803.

With this deal, the United States secured ownership of a huge swath of land west of the Mississippi River. The famous Lewis and Clark expedition set out to explore these lands. This was the first major start of America’s Westward expansion.

Mexican-American War

Spurred by Manifest Destiny, Americans had been expanding their territory. Through various wars, treaties, and in one of the saddest American history facts, the outright genocide of indigenous people, American settlers forced their way West. One of the regions they wanted to settle in was Texas.

In 1846, the United States and Mexico both sent troops to Texas to claim the disputed region. This sparked a war between the two nations as they fought for control of the region.

The war raged and expanded outside of Texas, engulfing Mexico and the United States. The US won the war and negotiated peace in 1848, although the war was overshadowed by the Civil War shortly after.

The Mexican-American war resulted in Texas becoming integrated into the United States. There were several other territories given to the US as well. These included what are now the states of California, Utah, Nevada, and some of Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Colorado.

American Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation

Unfortunately, the new territories simply accelerated the tensions around slavery. Many new states wanted slavery, which was fiercely opposed by the free states. This was not only seen as a moral issue but as a political one, as each side did not want the other having too much power.

By this point, there were approximately 4 million enslaved black people in the United States. Anti-slavery Abraham Lincoln became President in 1860, further heightening the tensions. Shortly thereafter, several Southern states declared their secession from the United States.

Several other states followed suit, and the war officially started in April of 1861 with the battle of Fort Sumter. It would be a long and bloody four years, finally ending in the Spring of 1865. 

World War I and the Roaring 20s

The First World War erupted in Europe in 1914 and soon engulfed practically the entire continent. The United States did not join for several years, but President Woodrow Wilson finally entered the war in 1917. This was partially spurred by German submarines sinking many merchant vessels and the results that had on trade and food in the US, as well as the infamous Zimmerman Telegram.

By war’s end, it had become the deadliest conflict in world history, with tens of millions of dead and wounded. However, the war and its aftermath brought about great social and technological change.

The 1920s became known as the “Roaring 20s” as the nation’s industry and culture rapidly expanded. Women gained the right to vote, modernization advanced at a rapid clip, and Prohibition banned the sale of alcohol in the United States.

Great Depression

The prospering nations came to a screeching halt with the arrival of the Great Depression. October 29, 1929, became known as Black Tuesday, when the American stock market saw its biggest crash in history.

As the United States’ economy collapsed, other countries’ economies fell with it. Some tried to separate themselves by enacting anti-trade policies. This furthered the effects, and soon the global economy had fallen to one-third of its previous height.

Throughout the 1930s, the United States and the rest of the world suffered, and their economies recovered very slowly.

The economic struggles created social upheaval and political change throughout the world. Many countries changed their forms of government entirely. Most importantly, Hitler rose to power in Germany in 1933, a first step towards the start of WWII.

World War II and Cold War

As Hitler expanded his reach and began conquering other nations, the United States remained neutral. They sent aid to Britain but tried hard to stay out of the war, still struggling from the effects of the Depression.

However, in December of 1941, Japanese planes attacked the Pearl Harbor base in Hawaii, and the United States entered the war. The US would help turn the tide, although it was several years before the war’s final conclusion in 1945.

The war rocketed the US out of the Depression, while also pushing many women into the workforce. At the war’s end, heightening tensions with the Soviet Union led to the Cold War. This resulted in many “proxy wars,” including Vietnam and Korea, but no major fighting between the US and the Soviet Union.

The Cold War eventually came to a close with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. However, the tensions and aftereffects are still felt to this day. Tension has not dissolved between the two superpowers.

Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights movement, aiming to give black Americans equal rights, started in 1954 and continued through the 1960s. The Supreme Court and Congress began banning discrimination in various parts of society.

Tensions heightened, and riots and murders increased dramatically, particularly in the South. Black Americans protested the restrictive laws and customs en masse, alongside many allies. But many white Americans pushed back, wishing to cling to the hierarchy that placed them at the top.

Legislation was passed to allow voting and fair housing for discriminated groups, and interracial marriage was legalized. The fight was slow, but black Americans gradually gained more rights in society. The effects of racist discrimination are still felt in America today, although less strongly than decades prior.

9/11 and the War on Terror

The events of September 11th, 2001 changed American history. Terrorists from al-Qaeda hijacked planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Thousands died, and tens of thousands more were injured.

As a result, the United States began the War on Terror. This involved fighting in predominantly Muslim countries against Islamic extremist groups. The “war” has encompassed several smaller wars, including fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria. 

In 2021, President Joe Biden elected to pull all remaining troops out of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, this led to the Taliban quickly reconquering the country. These changes are still ongoing, and nobody knows what the long-term effects of it all will be.

Learn More About American History Events!

While the United States certainly has an interesting history, this is only a brief glimpse at many of the fascinating events that went on throughout the centuries. There are many other important American history events to learn about and discuss, not to mention world history as a whole. 

If you’d like to learn any more about history, education, or anything else, we’d love to help! Feel free to check out the rest of our blog to find more great articles to keep you informed.

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