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United States of America

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The world's fourth largest country, comprising the central belt of North America together with Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and many small Pacific Ocean islands. Mainland USA is bounded by Canada on the north, generally along latitude 49° N and the Great Lakes, and by Mexico on the south, generally at about 32° N and along the Rio Grande.


The West Coast is a series of mountain ranges with attendant valleys and plateaux running roughly parallel to the Pacific coast. In the north, the Cascade Range is cut by the valley of the Columbia River. In California, the reverse slopes of the Coast Range descend to the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, which are fringed inland by the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada. From here the Great Basin of Nevada and parts of Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and California extend eastward to the Rocky Mountains. The Rockies are the ‘Great Divide’, the main watershed of the country. Out of their massive ranges in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico (the Mountain States), emerge the westward-running Snake and Colorado rivers, and the eastward-flowing tributaries of the Mississippi. The Great Plains, occupied by the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, are cut through by the eastward flows and have become a great prairie supporting cattle ranching and wheat cultivation. The prairies extend through the Middle West (including Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, and north-west Arkansas) to the basin of the Mississippi. In the southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia, the main crops are cotton, rice, tobacco, and sugarcane. In this region also there are oilfields which extend into the Gulf of Mexico. The south-eastern coastal plain, occupied by Virginia, the Carolinas, and eastern Georgia, is drained by the rivers of the Appalachian Mountains and supports much mixed farming. Mountainous New England, the north-eastern region, experiences harsh winters but contains rich pastures. Inland, the Great Lakes form a great transport artery and provide hydroelectric power for the northern states.


The US economy benefits from abundant natural resources and a large internal market. A free-trade treaty was signed with Canada in 1989, and in 1993 the North American Free Trade Agreement created a free-trade region comprising the USA, Canada, and Mexico. The economy is largely self-sufficient and comparatively unaffected by global economic trends. However, a surge in imports in the 1980s, particularly from Japan, and the uncompetitiveness of exports have caused a trade deficit which, together with the large federal budget deficit, has aroused worldwide concern. The USA has a wealth of mineral deposits, including coal, oil, and many metals. The main crops are maize and wheat, soya beans, cotton, and tobacco. Fishing, forestry, and livestock are also substantial.


The indigenous peoples of North America probably came from Asia across the Bering land bridge over 30,000 years ago. From the territory now occupied by Alaska, they spread out to populate the entire continent (and South America). By 1600 ad, it is estimated that there were around 1.5 million Native Americans in what are now Canada and the USA. European colonization of the eastern seaboard of North America began in the early 17th century, gaining momentum as the rival nations, most notably the British and French, struggled for control of the new territory. The Treaty of Paris (1763) marked the final triumph of Britain, but by that time the British colonies, stretching from New England in the north to Georgia in the south, had become accustomed to a considerable measure of independence. British attempts to reassert central authority produced first discontent and then open resistance. The First Continental Congress met in 1774 to consider action to regain lost rights, and the first armed encounters at Lexington and Concord in April 1775 led directly to full-scale revolt and to the formal proclamation of the separation of the Thirteen Colonies from Britain, as the United States of America, in the Declaration of Independence (4 July 1776). In the American War of Independence, which lasted until 1783, the American cause was assisted by France and Spain. The war ended with the Peace of Paris (1783), which recognized US independence.


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