Natural History

Six geographic regions can be identified in the United States, each of which helped to shape the growth of a distinctive local culture. Without the unifying political concept of "the union" these culture regions could easily have spun off into six or more separate countries, making the United States look more like the patchwork national map that is Europe than like the modern nation state it became. The six regions were (1) the narrow northeast coastal plain and northern Appalachian highlands; (2) the broad southern coastal plain between the Atlantic Ocean and the Appalachian Mountains, curving from the Chesapeake Bay all the way around the Gulf of Mexico to the Rio Grande; (3) on the western side of the Appalachians a vast central plain rising from east to west all the way to the western Cordillera range;

(4) the great Cordillera, with its eastern branch (the Rockies) and western branch (Cascades on the north and Sierra Nevada on the south);

(5) the great intermontane plateaus and basins lying between the two branches of the Cordillera; and (6) the narrow Pacific coastal rim.

Obviously, most states, which by definition are political units with geographic boundaries, do not fit into neat geographic categories. All of the "intermontane" states, for instance, have mountainous areas, and Pennsylvania could be two states geographically speaking, with its western, mountainous region more akin to the other Northeast states, and its eastern, rich agricultural lands closer in type to the Southeast. But these are the major categories, and by grouping the

In the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, the topography, altitudes, crops, and climate—especially the lack of rain—led to changes in a mode of settlement that had been essentially uniform from the Atlantic Coast through Kentucky, Ohio, and Missouri. The rectangular land surveys and quarter-section lots that were traditional before could not accommodate Great Plains conditions.

Source: Robert A. Divine,T. H. Breen, et al., America Past and Present, vol. 2, 6th ed. (NewYork: Longman, 2000). 490.

In the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, the topography, altitudes, crops, and climate—especially the lack of rain—led to changes in a mode of settlement that had been essentially uniform from the Atlantic Coast through Kentucky, Ohio, and Missouri. The rectangular land surveys and quarter-section lots that were traditional before could not accommodate Great Plains conditions.

Source: Robert A. Divine,T. H. Breen, et al., America Past and Present, vol. 2, 6th ed. (NewYork: Longman, 2000). 490.

states by their dominant geographic and climatic features one gains a better understanding of their local cultures and economies. Although all rules have exceptions, some characteristics stand out immediately: Most states in a particular region tend to be fairly comparable in size (in square miles); the oldest states in the Northeast are, as a group, the smallest in geographic area; as the nation moved westward, the size of states tended to increase, reflecting the vast tracts of new land being acquired. There seemed to be almost a self-limiting imperative at work in each region, regardless of natural geographic boundaries, with notable exceptions such as Texas and Virginia, which were shaped as much by historic forces as by geographic considerations. Another pattern emerging from a regional grouping of states and territories is that, judging by the slow growth of their populations and their resulting slow progress toward statehood, the territories of the intermontane and mountain regions were the least hospitable areas on the continent.

The Northeast in prehistory had been shaped by glaciation, which left low highlands (mountains, ridges, and hills) carved up by numerous valleys with many lakes and rivers. North of Pennsylvania and New York, farming was poor, but vast coniferous and hardwood forests provided a strong economic foundation. Likewise, the broad continental shelf lying off the Northeast coast made fishing a lucrative activity. A hardy, highly urbanized population lived here by the mid-19th century.

The Southeast consisted of the coastal tidewater rising gradually to the Piedmont (plateau) region before abutting the southern Appalachians. The fertile plain of the tidewater was divided from the Piedmont by the fall line, where the eastward-flowing rivers drop off abruptly from the Appalachian mountain range down to the Atlantic coastal plain, and the whole region was covered with extensive deciduous forests and transected by numerous rivers that tied the interior to the coastal region both economically and politically. Just off the

TABLE 1.2 GEOGRAPHIC GROUPINGS OF STATES AND TERRITORIES BY REGION, MID-NINETEENTH CENTURY

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