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Early U.S. History: How Did We Get Where We Are?

Posted on August 08 2021

Early U.S. History:  How Did We Get Where We Are?

Dear Educators,

With school returning as early as August, U.S. history courses will begin the year with a focus on the colonists. Educators and historians recognize that the best way to understand what is happening now, in the world today, is to examine the past, and early U.S. history is extremely relevant to events unfolding daily. Currently, America is grappling with issues of governance as both parties try to address the problems the entire nation faces. The Supreme Court continues to try to determine what the Founders meant in the U.S. Constitution—the document that is the legal foundation of our country. Federal power versus state power is played out as states grapple with a global pandemic, and the federal government, including the executive and legislative branches (president and Congress, respectively), tries to determine its role, if any, in facing this crisis. 

How to address these contemporary issues has roots in early American history and the founding of the country. This week, we will take a look at content in the Maps101 subscription service that focuses on this important era of the history of the United States. With a better understanding of how we got here, maybe we can all better analyze the present.

Field Trip

First, let’s focus on the original English colonies in America. This Field Trip is an interactive tour with images and text that are linked to a map. Topics include: Provincetown, New England Colonies, Middle Colonies, Southern Colonies, trade, food and life in the colonies, social order, and more. Before we can understand the roots of American government, we have to examine the Thirteen Colonies that gave rise to the United States.

Geography News Network

We are taking a quick detour to a GNN article that may surprise you and your students: The Fourteenth Colony. Some colonists settled to the north, on land that later became Canada. For a time, there were four colonies in this area. Nova Scotia had the most in common with the Thirteen Colonies that we know today. In fact, many think of Nova Scotia as the Fourteenth Colony. Find out more about it in this featured GNN article.

Lesson Map

At the core of understanding how the government is set up today is understanding the roots of our governance. Although the colonies were established by the British crown, early on, with the Mayflower Compact, the colonists’ independent spirit was front and center. They realized they needed a system of governance. Learn more about how the colonists began that process and the formative ideas that the Founders eventually put together when they created the U.S. Constitution.

Lesson Map

Americans were unhappy with British rule and, being thousands of miles away, they were geographically separate from their home country. Most felt less and less like British citizens and more and more like colonists of their particular area, such as Massachusetts. They worked hard together, which created cultural bonds, and they began seeing themselves as separate from Britain. It was only a matter of time before the colonists would in fact revolt and seek independence. Read about the seeds of the American Revolution in this important Lesson Map. 

SEL Activity


Explain to students that surviving and thriving in the colonies required a strong commitment because life was very difficult, especially at first. Many of the people who colonized were independent minded to start with. Remind students that to emigrate from a known world, Britain, to one that was unknown, and originally without towns or any other familiar aspects of European culture, required immense conviction and strength of will. Recall that those living in America when the colonists arrived, the indigenous people, had a completely different way of life. The colonists did not assimilate into the pre-existing Native American culture. Instead, they turned the land into familiar towns and changed the culture into one that they recognized.

To bring European culture to the Americas required colonists with a strong desire for success, in order to face the many challenges. Most were freedom fighters (for religion in particular), opportunists for economic gains, forward thinkers, or perhaps even renegades, who did not want to be told what to do by the British. After all, the British did not know what colonists’ lives were like, considering they were far removed from the New World. Many colonists wondered, what right did the British have to make laws and taxes in the colonies? It is hardly surprising that the colonists wanted independence. 


Making Connections to Now Discuss how students would characterize Americans today. Use any of the following prompts to explore this topic. Do any of the characterizations of the colonists, stated above, resonate with people in our time? If so, how? Ask students for specific examples of characteristics of Americans then and now. What advantages and challenges does having an individualistic, independent mindset have on our culture? How can people maintain their sense of individuality while living in a society full of other individuals, many of whom may have completely different points of view?  Or conversely, how can individuals come together for the betterment of society as a whole, despite having different points of view? What role should the federal government play when considering all of these different points of view? 

Explain that these are the types of questions the Founders pondered as they created the Constitution. These questions still are at the foundation of America’s challenges. Interested students may want to further investigate these concepts using specific examples from current events, such as America’s response to COVID-19, the bipartisan politics of today, foreign policy, etc. Learning to understand what motivated people in America’s past and what characteristics they had can help us understand why we are the way we are today in America.

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