This is a great question! After all, Americans mostly speak English. We’ve all heard about the original 13 colonies and how the British came to set up shop in the new continent. But the story goes a little deeper than that. Let’s look at some of the powers that had their hands in the American pie.
To start, there were a bunch of failed colonies along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts by the English, Spanish, and French early on (include Scandinavian Vikings if we really want to go back). The Portuguese and the Basques were also frequent visitors along the Atlantic in the 1500s and before, though they didn’t stop to settle.
- the first to establish permanent colonies in the U.S. (not the continent, though)
- had two main original settlements that grew and expanded out of New England and Chesapeake Bay
- at first, were mostly groups like the Puritans seeking more religious freedom, or poor servants and farmers mostly from England
- some colonies got lots of Irish-Scots settlers and expanded west into Native American territory, others got many more diverse settlers
- we all know about the Atlantic slave trade
The main thing to think about with the British is that their culture, language, and society were the most influential early on in American history which is why the states maintained the English language and other cultural influences from the British after so long.
- established some of the first settlements still inhabited in the U.S., including the oldest at St. Augustine, FL
- owned huge expanses of land in North America, including a portion of the Deep South and the whole western half of the current United States (mostly Luisiana or Alta California), even some areas of Canada, not to mention some territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands
- they either lost or gave up a lot of this land to England or the U.S. over the centuries
- states Oregon, Montana, Nevada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, and Florida names all come from Spanish words, literature, or colonies
Spain had a pretty big cultural impact on the Gulf Coast and the American Southwest. Many place names (Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Antonio, Santa Fe, etc.), lots of architecture, and cultural events come from Spanish and Mexican traditions.
- had lots of colonies spread out through the central U.S. and east Canada
- had lots of fights against England and confusing conflicts and alliances with Native Americans, they later gave up most their land to the English or Americans
France also had a big impact on place names (New Orleans, Des Moines, St. Louis, Eau Claire, Vermont) and cultural events, such as Mardi Gras and Cajun culture in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.
- set up colonies mostly in present-day New York and New Jersey
- the British took over their main city, New Amsterdam, and changed it to New York, but Dutch culture stuck around in those rural areas for centuries after
The Dutch paved the initial way for America’s biggest and most iconic city. Some of its boroughs and surrounding towns are even named in honor of the Dutch (Brooklyn or Breuckelen, Staten Island or Staaten Eylandt, Harlem or Haarlem).
- made a small colony that only lasted 17 years before being sucked into New Netherland
- the Bronx (after Bronck’s River) is named after a Swedish captain
Sweden’s colony was short-lived, but they introduced the first log cabins and some of the oldest churches to the future nation.
Also, let’s not forget Russia who colonized Alaska. The U.S. later purchased it, though, and most of the Russians left.
As you can see, there were a lot more European powers that settled the U.S. other than the English. Despite the obvious impact of the British here in the States, we also had a few other countries reaching in for a chance to colonize the future U.S.A.
P.S. I know that the Native Americans were already on the continent, and the colonial powers took these lands away from them. This includes First Nations in Alaska and Polynesians in Hawaii, among others. This answer is just to focus on the aspect of European colonial and cultural influence in the U.S., not to focus on the destructive aspect of their settlement in the region.
Check out these resources and other articles here on CultSurf!
Colonial History of the United States: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colonial_history_of_the_United_States#Russian_colonies
First Arrivals of Europeans to Settle the U.S.: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/amerbegin/settlement/text1/text1read.htm
Origins of New York City Borough Names: https://www.amny.com/news/nyc-boroughs-names-1-32096222/
Reading this was just lovely 🙂
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