Portrait of the usa

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Portrait of the USA
Executive Editor—
George Clack
Managing Editor—
Rosalie Targonski
Dennis Drabelle
Barbara Long
Web Art Director—
Min-Chih Yao
Photo Research—
Maggie Johnson Sliker Internet Editor—
Suzanne Dawkins
Contributing Editors—
Maura Christopher,
Anne Cusack,
Michael Cusack,
Fredric A. Emmert,
David Goddy,
Holly Hughes,
Norman Lunger,
John Nickerson,
Bruce Oatman,
Shelley Orenstein,
Richard Pawelek,
Ira Peck,
Jonathan Rose

1. (People): One From Many
2. (Geography): From Sea to Shining Sea
3. (History): Toward the City on a Hill
4. (Government): A Responsive Government
5. (Business): The Business of America
6. (Education): A Diverse Educational System
7. (Science & Medicine): A Republic of Science
8. (Religion): Separating Church and State
9. (Social Services): The Social Safety Net
10. (The Arts): Distinctively American Arts
11. (Sports & Entertainment): Exporting Popular Culture
12. (The Media): The Media and Their Messages
Holidays: National Celebrations

Chapter One

Immigration patterns and ethnic composition

The Statue of Liberty

The story of the American people is a story of immigration and diversity. The United States has welcomed more immigrants than any other country -- more than 50 million in all -- and still admits between 500,000 and 1 million persons a year. In the past many American writers emphasized the idea of the melting pot, an image that suggested newcomers would discard their old customs and adopt American ways. Typically, for example, the children of immigrants learned English but not their parents' first language. Recently, however, Americans have placed greater value on diversity, ethnic groups have renewed and celebrated their heritage, and the children of immigrants often grow up being bilingual.


The first American immigrants, beginning more than 20,000 years ago, were intercontinental wanderers: hunters and their families following animal herds from Asia to America, across a land bridge where the Bering Strait is today. When Spain's Christopher Columbus "discovered" the New World in 1492, about 1.5 million Native Americans lived in what is now the continental United States, although estimates of the number vary greatly. Mistaking the place where he landed -- San Salvador in the Bahamas -- for the Indies, Columbus called the Native Americans "Indians."

During the next 200 years, people from several European countries followed Columbus across the Atlantic Ocean to explore America and set up trading posts and colonies. Native Americans suffered greatly from the influx of Europeans. The transfer of land from Indian to European -- and later American -- hands was accomplished through treaties, wars, and coercion, with Indians constantly giving way as the newcomers moved west. In the 19th century, the government's preferred solution to the Indian "problem" was to force tribes to inhabit specific plots of land called reservations. Some tribes fought to keep from giving up land they had traditionally used. In many cases the reservation land was of poor quality, and Indians came to depend on government assistance. Poverty and joblessness among Native Americans still exist today.

The territorial wars, along with Old World diseases to which Indians had no built-up immunity, sent their population plummeting, to a low of 350,000 in 1920. Some tribes disappeared altogether; among them were the Mandans of North Dakota, who had helped Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in exploring America's unsettled northwestern wilderness in 1804-06. Other tribes lost their languages and most of their culture. Nonetheless, Native Americans have proved to be resilient. Today they number almost 3 million (0.9 percent of the total U.S. population), and only about one-third of Native Americans still live on reservations.

Countless American place-names derive from Indian words, including the states of Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, and Idaho. Indians taught Europeans how to cultivate crops that are now staples throughout the world: corn, tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco. Canoes, snowshoes, and moccasins are among the Indians' many inventions.


The English were the dominant ethnic group among early settlers of what became the United States, and English became the prevalent American language. But people of other nationalities were not long in following. In 1776 Thomas Paine, a spokesman for the revolutionary cause in the colonies and himself a native of England, wrote that "Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America." These words described the settlers who came not only from Great Britain, but also from other European countries, including Spain, Portugal, France, Holland, Germany, and Sweden. Nonetheless, in 1780 three out of every four Americans were of English or Irish descent.

Between 1840 and 1860, the United States received its first great wave of immigrants. In Europe as a whole, famine, poor harvests, rising populations, and political unrest caused an estimated 5 million people to leave their homelands each year. In Ireland, a blight attacked the potato crop, and upwards of 750,000 people starved to death. Many of the survivors emigrated. In one year alone, 1847, the number of Irish immigrants to the United States reached 118,120. Today there are about 39 million Americans of Irish descent.

The failure of the German Confederation's Revolution of 1848-49 led many of its people to emigrate. During the American Civil War (1861-65), the federal government helped fill its roster of troops by encouraging emigration from Europe, especially from the German states. In return for service in the Union army, immigrants were offered grants of land. By 1865, about one in five Union soldiers was a wartime immigrant. Today, 22 percent of Americans have German ancestry.

Jews came to the United States in large numbers beginning about 1880, a decade in which they suffered fierce pogroms in eastern Europe. Over the next 45 years, 2 million Jews moved to the United States; the Jewish-American population is now more than 6 million.

During the late 19th century, so many people were entering the United States that the government operated a special port of entry on Ellis Island in the harbor of New York City. Between 1892, when it opened, and 1954, when it closed, Ellis Island was the doorway to America for 12 million people. It is now preserved as part of Statue of Liberty National Monument.

The Statue of Liberty, which was a gift from France to the people of America in 1886, stands on an island in New York harbor, near Ellis Island. The statue became many immigrants' first sight of their homeland-to-be. These inspiring words by the poet Emma Lazarus are etched on a plaque at Liberty's base: "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"


Among the flood of immigrants to North America, one group came unwillingly. These were Africans, 500,000 of whom were brought over as slaves between 1619 and 1808, when importing slaves into the United States became illegal. The practice of owning slaves and their descendants continued, however, particularly in the agrarian South, where many laborers were needed to work the fields.

The process of ending slavery began in April 1861 with the outbreak of the American Civil War between the free states of the North and the slave states of the South, 11 of which had left the Union. On January 1, 1863, midway through the war, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery in those states that had seceded. Slavery was abolished throughout the United States with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the country's Constitution in 1865.

Even after the end of slavery, however, American blacks were hampered by segregation and inferior education. In search of opportunity, African Americans formed an internal wave of immigration, moving from the rural South to the urban North. But many urban blacks were unable to find work; by law and custom they had to live apart from whites, in run-down neighborhoods called ghettos.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, African Americans, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., used boycotts, marches, and other forms of nonviolent protest to demand equal treatment under the law and an end to racial prejudice.

A high point of this civil rights movement came on August 28, 1963, when more than 200,000 people of all races gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to hear King say: "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveholders will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood....I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Not long afterwards the U.S. Congress passed laws prohibiting discrimination in voting, education, employment, housing, and public accommodations.

Today, African Americans constitute 12.3 percent of the total U.S. population. In recent decades blacks have made great strides, and the black middle class has grown substantially. In 2001, 38 percent of employed blacks held "white-collar" jobs -- managerial, professional, and administrative positions rather than service jobs or those requiring manual labor. That same year 56 percent of black high school graduates were enrolled in college, compared to 38 percent in 1983. The average income of blacks is lower than that of whites, however, and unemployment of blacks -- particularly of young men -- remains higher than that of whites. And many black Americans are still trapped by poverty in urban neighborhoods plagued by drug use and crime.

In recent years the focus of the civil rights debate has shifted. With antidiscrimination laws in effect and blacks moving steadily into the middle class, the question has become whether or not the effects of past discrimination require the government to take certain remedial steps. Called "affirmative action," these steps may include hiring a certain number of blacks (or members of other minorities) in the workplace, admitting a certain number of minority students to a school, or drawing the boundaries of a congressional district so as to make the election of a minority representative more likely. The public debate over the need, effectiveness, and fairness of such programs became more intense in the 1990s.

In any case, perhaps the greatest change in the past few decades has been in the attitudes of America's white citizens. More than a generation has come of age since King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Younger Americans in particular exhibit a new respect for all races, and there is an increasing acceptance of blacks by whites in all walks of life and social situations.


It is not uncommon to walk down the streets of an American city today and hear Spanish spoken. In 1950 fewer than 4 million U.S. residents were from Spanish-speaking countries. Today that number is about 35 million. About 50 percent of Hispanics in the United States have origins in Mexico. The other 50 percent come from a variety of countries, including El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Colombia. Thirty-two percent of the Hispanics in the United States live in California. Several other states have large Hispanic populations, including Texas, New York, Illinois, and Florida, where hundreds of thousands of Cubans fleeing the Castro regime have settled. There are so many Cuban Americans in Miami that the Miami Herald, the city's largest newspaper, publishes separate editions in English and Spanish.

The widespread use of Spanish in American cities has generated a public debate over language. Some English speakers point to Canada, where the existence of two languages (English and French) has been accompanied by a secessionist movement. To head off such a development in the United States, some citizens are calling for a law declaring English the official American language.

Others consider such a law unnecessary and likely to cause harm. They point to differences between America and Canada (in Canada, for example, most speakers of French live in one locale, the province of Quebec, whereas speakers of Spanish are dispersed throughout much of the United States) and cite Switzerland as a place where the existence of multiple languages does not undermine national unity. Recognition of English as the official language, they argue, would stigmatize speakers of other languages and make it difficult for them to live their daily lives.


The Statue of Liberty began lighting the way for new arrivals at a time when many native-born Americans began to worry that the country was admitting too many immigrants. Some citizens feared that their culture was being threatened or that they would lose jobs to newcomers willing to accept low wages.

In 1924 Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act. For the first time, the United States set limits on how many people from each country it would admit. The number of people allowed to emigrate from a given country each year was based on the number of people from that country already living in the United States. As a result, immigration patterns over the next 40 years reflected the existing immigrant population, mostly Europeans and North Americans.

Prior to 1924, U.S. laws specifically excluded Asian immigrants. People in the American West feared that the Chinese and other Asians would take away jobs, and racial prejudice against people with Asian features was widespread. The law that kept out Chinese immigrants was repealed in 1943, and legislation passed in 1952 allows people of all races to become U.S. citizens.

Today Asian Americans are one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the country. About 10 million people of Asian descent live in the United States. Although most of them have arrived here recently, they are among the most successful of all immigrant groups. They have a higher income than many other ethnic groups, and large numbers of their children study at the best American universities.


The year 1965 brought a shakeup of the old immigration patterns. The United States began to grant immigrant visas according to who applied first; national quotas were replaced with hemispheric ones. And preference was given to relatives of U.S. citizens and immigrants with job skills in short supply in the United States. In 1978, Congress abandoned hemispheric quotas and established a worldwide ceiling, opening the doors even wider. In 2000, for example, the top 10 points of origin for immigrants were Mexico (173,900), China (45,700), the Philippines (42,500), India (42,000), Vietnam (26,700), Nicaragua (24,000), El Salvador (22,600), Haiti (22,400), Cuba (20,800), and the Dominican Republic (17,500).

The United States continues to accept more immigrants than any other country; in 2000, its population included more than 28 million foreign-born persons. The revised immigration law of 1990 created a flexible cap of 675,000 immigrants each year, with certain categories of people exempted from the limit. That law attempts to attract more skilled workers and professionals to the United States and to draw immigrants from countries that have supplied relatively few Americans in recent years. It does this by providing "diversity" visas. In 2000 some 50,000 people entered the country under one of three laws intended to diversify immigration.


The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that some 5 million people are living in the United States without permission, and the number is growing by about 275,000 a year. Native-born Americans and legal immigrants worry about the problem of illegal immigration. Many believe that illegal immigrants (also called "illegal aliens") take jobs from citizens, especially from young people and members of minority groups. Moreover, illegal aliens can place a heavy burden on tax-supported social services.

In 1986 Congress revised immigration law to deal with illegal aliens. Many of those who had been in the country since 1982 became eligible to apply for legal residency that would eventually permit them to stay in the country permanently. In 1990, nearly 900,000 people took advantage of this law to obtain legal status. The law also provided strong measures to combat further illegal immigration and imposed penalties on businesses that knowingly employ illegal aliens.


The steady stream of people coming to America's shores has had a profound effect on the American character. It takes courage and flexibility to leave your homeland and come to a new country. The American people have been noted for their willingness to take risks and try new things, for their independence and optimism. If Americans whose families have been here longer tend to take their material comfort and political freedoms for granted, immigrants are at hand to remind them how important those privileges are.

Immigrants also enrich American communities by bringing aspects of their native cultures with them. Many black Americans now celebrate both Christmas and Kwanzaa, a festival drawn from African rituals. Hispanic Americans celebrate their traditions with street fairs and other festivities on Cinco de Mayo (May 5). Ethnic restaurants abound in many American cities. President John F. Kennedy, himself the grandson of Irish immigrants, summed up this blend of the old and the new when he called America "a society of immigrants, each of whom had begun life anew, on an equal footing. This is the secret of America: a nation of people with the fresh memory of old traditions who dare to explore new frontiers...."

Chapter Two

Geography and regional characteristics

The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss has written of the "mental click" he feels when arriving in the United States: an adjustment to the enormous landscapes and skylines. The so-called lower 48 states (all but Alaska and Hawaii) sprawl across 4,500 kilometers and four time zones. A car trip from coast to coast typically takes a minimum of five days -- and that's with almost no stops to look around. It is not unusual for the gap between the warmest and coldest high temperatures on a given day in the United States to reach 70 degrees Fahrenheit (about 40 degrees Celsius).

The United States owes much of its national character -- and its wealth -- to its good fortune in having such a large and varied landmass to inhabit and cultivate. Yet the country still exhibits marks of regional identity, and one way Americans cope with the size of their country is to think of themselves as linked geographically by certain traits, such as New England self-reliance, southern hospitality, midwestern wholesomeness, western mellowness.

This chapter examines American geography, history, and customs through the filters of six main regions:

  • New England, made up of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

  • The Middle Atlantic, comprising New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland.

  • The South, which runs from Virginia south to Florida and west as far as central Texas. This region also includes West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and parts of Missouri and Oklahoma.

  • The Midwest, a broad collection of states sweeping westward from Ohio to Nebraska and including Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, parts of Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, and eastern Colorado.

  • The Southwest, made up of western Texas, portions of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and the southern interior part of California.

  • The West, comprising Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, California, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii.

Note that there is nothing official about these regions; many other lineups are possible. These groupings are offered simply as a way to begin the otherwise daunting task of getting acquainted with the United States.


How much sense does it make to talk about American regions when practically all Americans can watch the same television shows and go to the same fast-food restaurants for dinner? One way to answer the question is by giving examples of lingering regional differences.

Consider the food Americans eat. Most of it is standard wherever you go. A person can buy packages of frozen peas bearing the same label in Idaho, Missouri, and Virginia. Cereals, candy bars, and many other items also come in identical packages from Alaska to Florida. Generally, the quality of fresh fruits and vegetables does not vary much from one state to the next. On the other hand, it would be unusual to be served hush puppies (a kind of fried dough) or grits (boiled and ground corn prepared in a variety of ways) in Massachusetts or Illinois, but normal to get them in Georgia. Other regions have similar favorites that are hard to find elsewhere.

While American English is generally standard, American speech often differs according to what part of the country you are in. Southerners tend to speak slowly, in what is referred to as a "Southern drawl." Midwesterners use "flat" a's (as in "bad" or "cat"), and the New York City patois features a number of Yiddish words ("schlepp," "nosh," "nebbish") contributed by the city's large Jewish population.

Regional differences also make themselves felt in less tangible ways, such as attitudes and outlooks. An example is the attention paid to foreign events in newspapers. In the East, where people look out across the Atlantic Ocean, papers tend to show greatest concern with what is happening in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and western Asia. On the West Coast, news editors give more attention to events in East Asia and Australia.

To understand regional differences more fully, let's take a closer look at the regions themselves.


The smallest region, New England has not been blessed with large expanses of rich farmland or a mild climate. Yet it played a dominant role in American development. From the 17th century until well into the 19th, New England was the country's cultural and economic center.

The earliest European settlers of New England were English Protestants of firm and settled doctrine. Many of them came in search of religious liberty. They gave the region its distinctive political format -- the town meeting (an outgrowth of meetings held by church elders) in which citizens gathered to discuss issues of the day. Only men of property could vote. Nonetheless, town meetings afforded New Englanders an unusually high level of participation in government. Such meetings still function in many New England communities today.

New Englanders found it difficult to farm the land in large lots, as was common in the South. By 1750, many settlers had turned to other pursuits. The mainstays of the region became shipbuilding, fishing, and trade. In their business dealings, New Englanders gained a reputation for hard work, shrewdness, thrift, and ingenuity.

These traits came in handy as the Industrial Revolution reached America in the first half of the 19th century. In Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, new factories sprang up to manufacture such goods as clothing, rifles, and clocks. Most of the money to run these businesses came from Boston, which was the financial heart of the nation.

New England also supported a vibrant cultural life. The critic Van Wyck Brooks called the creation of a distinctive American literature in the first half of the 19th century "the flowering of New England." Education is another of the region's strongest legacies. Its cluster of top-ranking universities and colleges -- including Harvard, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, Wellesley, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Williams, Amherst, and Wesleyan -- is unequaled by any other region.

As some of the original New England settlers migrated westward, immigrants from Canada, Ireland, Italy, and eastern Europe moved into the region. Despite a changing population, much of the original spirit of New England remains. It can be seen in the simple, woodframe houses and white church steeples that are features of many small towns, and in the traditional lighthouses that dot the Atlantic coast.

In the 20th century, most of New England's traditional industries have relocated to states or foreign countries where goods can be made more cheaply. In more than a few factory towns, skilled workers have been left without jobs. The gap has been partly filled by the microelectronics and computer industries.


If New England provided the brains and dollars for 19th-century American expansion, the Middle Atlantic states provided the muscle. The region's largest states, New York and Pennsylvania, became centers of heavy industry (iron, glass, and steel).

The Middle Atlantic region was settled by a wider range of people than New England. Dutch immigrants moved into the lower Hudson River Valley in what is now New York State. Swedes went to Delaware. English Catholics founded Maryland, and an English Protestant sect, the Friends (Quakers), settled Pennsylvania. In time, all these settlements fell under English control, but the region continued to be a magnet for people of diverse nationalities.

Early settlers were mostly farmers and traders, and the region served as a bridge between North and South. Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania, midway between the northern and southern colonies, was home to the Continental Congress, the convention of delegates from the original colonies that organized the American Revolution. The same city was the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the U.S. Constitution in 1787.

As heavy industry spread throughout the region, rivers such as the Hudson and Delaware were transformed into vital shipping lanes. Cities on waterways -- New York on the Hudson, Philadelphia on the Delaware, Baltimore on Chesapeake Bay -- grew dramatically. New York is still the nation's largest city, its financial hub, and its cultural center.

Like New England, the Middle Atlantic region has seen much of its heavy industry relocate elsewhere. Other industries, such as drug manufacturing and communications, have taken up the slack.


The South is perhaps the most distinctive and colorful American region. The American Civil War (1861-65) devastated the South socially and economically. Nevertheless, it retained its unmistakable identity.

Like New England, the South was first settled by English Protestants. But whereas New Englanders tended to stress their differences from the old country, Southerners tended to emulate the English. Even so, Southerners were prominent among the leaders of the American Revolution, and four of America's first five presidents were Virginians. After 1800, however, the interests of the manufacturing North and the agrarian South began to diverge.

Especially in coastal areas, southern settlers grew wealthy by raising and selling cotton and tobacco. The most economical way to raise these crops was on large farms, called plantations, which required the work of many laborers. To supply this need, plantation owners relied on slaves brought from Africa, and slavery spread throughout the South.

Slavery was the most contentious issue dividing North and South. To northerners it was immoral; to southerners it was integral to their way of life. In 1860, 11 southern states left the Union intending to form a separate nation, the Confederate States of America. This rupture led to the Civil War, the Confederacy's defeat, and the end of slavery. (For more on the Civil War, see chapter 3.) The scars left by the war took decades to heal. The abolition of slavery failed to provide African Americans with political or economic equality: Southern towns and cities legalized and refined the practice of racial segregation.

It took a long, concerted effort by African Americans and their supporters to end segregation. In the meantime, however, the South could point with pride to a 20th-century regional outpouring of literature by, among others, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Robert Penn Warren, Katherine Anne Porter, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O'Connor.

As southerners, black and white, shook off the effects of slavery and racial division, a new regional pride expressed itself under the banner of "the New South" and in such events as the annual Spoleto Music Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, and the 1996 summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Today the South has evolved into a manufacturing region, and high-rise buildings crowd the skylines of such cities as Atlanta and Little Rock, Arkansas. Owing to its mild weather, the South has become a mecca for retirees from other U.S. regions and from Canada.


The Midwest is a cultural crossroads. Starting in the early 1800s easterners moved there in search of better farmland, and soon Europeans bypassed the East Coast to migrate directly to the interior: Germans to eastern Missouri, Swedes and Norwegians to Wisconsin and Minnesota. The region's fertile soil made it possible for farmers to produce abundant harvests of cereal crops such as wheat, oats, and corn. The region was soon known as the nation's "breadbasket."

Most of the Midwest is flat. The Mississippi River has acted as a regional lifeline, moving settlers to new homes and foodstuffs to market. The river inspired two classic American books, both written by a native Missourian, Samuel Clemens, who took the pseudonym Mark Twain: Life on the Mississippi and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Midwesterners are praised as being open, friendly, and straightforward. Their politics tend to be cautious, but the caution is sometimes peppered with protest. The Midwest gave birth to one of America's two major political parties, the Republican Party, which was formed in the 1850s to oppose the spread of slavery into new states. At the turn of the century, the region also spawned the Progressive Movement, which largely consisted of farmers and merchants intent on making government less corrupt and more receptive to the will of the people. Perhaps because of their geographic location, many midwesterners have been strong adherents of isolationism, the belief that Americans should not concern themselves with foreign wars and problems.

The region's hub is Chicago, Illinois, the nation's third largest city. This major Great Lakes port is a connecting point for rail lines and air traffic to far-flung parts of the nation and the world. At its heart stands the Sears Tower, at 447 meters, the world's tallest building.


The Southwest differs from the adjoining Midwest in weather (drier), population (less dense), and ethnicity (strong Spanish-American and Native-American components). Outside the cities, the region is a land of open spaces, much of which is desert. The magnificent Grand Canyon is located in this region, as is Monument Valley, the starkly beautiful backdrop for many western movies. Monument Valley is within the Navajo Reservation, home of the most populous American Indian tribe. To the south and east lie dozens of other Indian reservations, including those of the Hopi, Zuni, and Apache tribes.

Parts of the Southwest once belonged to Mexico. The United States obtained this land following the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. Its Mexican heritage continues to exert a strong influence on the region, which is a convenient place to settle for immigrants (legal or illegal) from farther south. The regional population is growing rapidly, with Arizona in particular rivaling the southern states as a destination for retired Americans in search of a warm climate.

Population growth in the hot, arid Southwest has depended on two human artifacts: the dam and the air conditioner. Dams on the Colorado and other rivers and aqueducts such as those of the Central Arizona Project have brought water to once-small towns such as Las Vegas, Nevada; Phoenix, Arizona; and Albuquerque, New Mexico, allowing them to become metropolises. Las Vegas is renowned as one of the world's centers for gambling, while Santa Fe, New Mexico, is famous as a center for the arts, especially painting, sculpture, and opera. Another system of dams and irrigation projects waters the Central Valley of California, which is noted for producing large harvests of fruits and vegetables.


Americans have long regarded the West as the last frontier. Yet California has a history of European settlement older than that of most midwestern states. Spanish priests founded missions along the California coast a few years before the outbreak of the American Revolution. In the 19th century, California and Oregon entered the Union ahead of many states to the east.

The West is a region of scenic beauty on a grand scale. All of its 11 states are partly mountainous, and the ranges are the sources of startling contrasts. To the west of the peaks, winds from the Pacific Ocean carry enough moisture to keep the land well-watered. To the east, however, the land is very dry. Parts of western Washington State, for example, receive 20 times the amount of rain that falls on the eastern side of the state's Cascade Range.

In much of the West the population is sparse, and the federal government owns and manages millions of hectares of undeveloped land. Americans use these areas for recreational and commercial activities, such as fishing, camping, hiking, boating, grazing, lumbering, and mining. In recent years some local residents who earn their livelihoods on federal land have come into conflict with the land's managers, who are required to keep land use within environmentally acceptable limits.

Alaska, the northernmost state in the Union, is a vast land of few, but hardy, people and great stretches of wilderness, protected in national parks and wildlife refuges. Hawaii is the only state in the union in which Asian Americans outnumber residents of European stock. Beginning in the 1980s large numbers of Asians have also settled in California, mainly around Los Angeles.

Los Angeles -- and Southern California as a whole -- bears the stamp of its large Mexican-American population. Now the second largest city in the nation, Los Angeles is best known as the home of the Hollywood film industry. Fueled by the growth of Los Angeles and the "Silicon Valley" area near San Jose, California has become the most populous of all the states.

Western cities are known for their tolerance. Perhaps because so many westerners have moved there from other regions to make a new start, as a rule interpersonal relations are marked by a live-and-let-live attitude. The western economy is varied. California, for example, is both an agricultural state and a high-technology manufacturing state.


One final American region deserves mention. It is not a fixed place but a moving zone, as well as a state of mind: the border between settlements and wilderness known as the frontier. Writing in the 1890s, historian Frederick Jackson Turner claimed that the availability of vacant land throughout much of the nation's history has shaped American attitudes and institutions. "This perennial rebirth," he wrote, "this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character."

Numerous present-day American values and attitudes can be traced to the frontier past: self-reliance, resourcefulness, comradeship, a strong sense of equality. After the Civil War a large number of black Americans moved west in search of equal opportunities, and many of them gained some fame and fortune as cowboys, miners, and prairie settlers. In 1869 the western territory of Wyoming became the first place that allowed women to vote and to hold elected office.

Because the resources of the West seemed limitless, people developed wasteful attitudes and practices. The great herds of buffalo (American bison) were slaughtered until only fragments remained, and many other species were driven to the brink of extinction. Rivers were dammed and their natural communities disrupted. Forests were destroyed by excess logging, and landscapes were scarred by careless mining.

A counterweight to the abuse of natural resources took form in the American conservation movement, which owes much of its success to Americans' reluctance to see frontier conditions disappear entirely from the landscape. Conservationists were instrumental in establishing the first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872, and the first national forests in the 1890s. More recently, the Endangered Species Act has helped stem the tide of extinctions.

Environmental programs can be controversial; for example, some critics believe that the Endangered Species Act hampers economic progress. But, overall, the movement to preserve America's natural endowment continues to gain strength. Its replication in many other countries around the world is a tribute to the lasting influence of the American frontier.

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