IN THE BEGINNING
Birth of a Continent
There is something totally appropriate about the fact that North America, the continent that would someday contain the United States, was born in a cataclysm so violent, it ripped apart a gigantic supercontinent.
A little more than two hundred million years ago, the continent we know as North America did not exist. From space, our planet looked nothing like earth of the 21st century. At that distant time in our planet’s history, all the continents that exist today were joined together into one giant landmass scientists call “Pangaea”.
Then, on the 4th of July, 200,000,000 BCE (Before the Common Era) an immense earthquake hammered Pangaea. From the extreme northernmost point to the southern end, a deep fault in the earth split open and a huge chunk of Pangaea began to separate from the rest of the supercontinent. At first, the separation was only a few inches, but North America was born at that moment. A small piece of the scar from that cataclysm can be seen in a 20-mile line of cliffs called the Hudson River Palisades that run along the west side of the lower Hudson River near New York City.
The date is highly imaginary of course. With no humans around to invent calendars, we can’t possibly know the exact date North America was born, but that date fits perfectly.
Scientists believe that Pangaea broke apart because the solid surface we live on isn’t actually solid. It is made up of continent-sized plates that float upon what geophysicists call the “mantle”, a hot, molten rocky layer, about 1,800 miles thick that lies deep beneath our feet. The movement of these plates is called “plate tectonics” and the different conditions and effects they generate is responsible for earthquakes, volcanoes and the creation of mountains.
Slowly, very slowly, through long eons, moving just centimeters per year, the gap between the newborn continent and what was left of old Pangaea widened as America moved west, the gap filling with salt water from the great ocean that covered most of the planet. That gap eventually become a sea, then an ocean more than two thousand miles wide we call the Atlantic.
That slow journey continues to this day and will it do so for millennia. Someday, eons from now, people sitting on a beach near Seattle will be able to wave greetings to folks in China.
In some places, that hot mantle pushes its way through cracks or fault lines, where it can show up as volcanoes and other features such as hot springs, geysers, steam vents and lava flows. They are called “hot spots”. One well-known hot spot lying out in the Pacific Ocean is the State of Hawaii, a volcanic chain of islands almost 4,000 miles long. Another is America’s first national park, Yellowstone, a hot spot that has been around for about 15,000,000 years. The entire Yellowstone system has been described as a super volcano with the potential to erupt with enough force to destroy much of the United States and Canada and significantly damage the entire planet. It last erupted 640,000 years ago and geophysicists enjoy informing anyone who will listen that we are long overdue for another deadly eruption.
It is from that westward movement of the North American plate that the continent gets its unique physical appearance. Where the North American and Pacific Plates meet, the Pacific Plate can be forced down into the mantle under North America, where it pushes up against the North American Plate, slowly bending parts of the plate upward. If the the plates actually collide, large sections of the moving plates can be thrust upward or folded. These upward-thrust or folded masses of the crust aren’t minor ridges or tiny ripples in the earth’s surface. It took many millions of years, but it was the collision of those plates that built the system of mountain ranges called the American Cordillera that dominates western North America from Alaska to Mexico, branches of which include the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada and the Cascade Range.
This is the same process that formed the Appalachian Mountains and the Canadian Shield, many millions of years earlier than the North American Cordillera. Like the great mountains to the west, the Appalachians and the Canadian Shield were once towering peaks as high or even higher than the Rockies, but millions upon millions of years of erosion from rain, wind and the ice ages have worn them down to the relatively low mountains we see today.
From the moment America was born 200 million years ago to the present day, those two opposing forces have been competing with each other. As tectonic forces work to build mountains and volcanoes, the forces of erosion such as glaciers, wind and rain work to wear down what the tectonic forces are trying to build, each trying to put its own stamp on what America should look like. But it was that earthquake 200 million years ago and the movement of those continent-sized plates that wrote the first pages in the story of America.
An Ancient Gift for a Young Nation
As far back as 300 million years ago, in a geological period known as the Triassic, extensive swampy areas and a warm, moist climate fostered the growth of super-sized plants that spread across continent-sized regions. With the passage of time, great forests would rise and fall and rise again, laying down deep beds of dead vegetation that sank into the ancient swamps. High acid content in the water that covered the fallen plants, and the mud and silt washed into the swamps by storms or by tectonic events, buried the vegetation and cut off the oxygen. Slowly, the mixture of partly decayed vegetation turned to a peat. As the layers deepened, the weight and pressure on the peat increased. After millions of years, the pressure would change the peat into a soft coal called “lignite”. Often, heat from deep inside the earth, and the continuous buildup of additional layers of material on the surface would work together to compress the peat and lignite, causing both physical and chemical changes, which slowly turned the peat and lignite into bituminous or anthracite coal.
The same processes that transformed plant and sometimes animal matter into coal, also created stores of gas and petroleum. Over long ages, great stores of that dirty black rock packed with energy and vital chemical fuels would accumulate, so that millions of years in the future all that stored-up energy would be available to help a struggling young nation jump-start its economy, build its industrial strength and fuel America’s rise into a world power.
An End and a Beginning: The Last Days of the Dinosaurs
Down the long centuries and millennia and vast ages, North America continued its westward journey. On board the new continent and sailing slowly west with it, were the plants and animals of the late Triassic and early Jurassic periods.
As the eons passed, the creatures of the Jurassic evolved into the remarkable creatures of the Cretaceous, but perhaps the most important biological development during the Cretaceous was the emergence of the flowering plants, without which, many, if not most of our food crops would not exist. At about the same time flowering plants were evolving, many insects were also beginning to change and evolve. Ants, termites, butterflies, aphids, grasshoppers and wasps began to appear and among them, perhaps the most important insect of them all made its first appearance: the highly social bee, a development that was vital to the evolution of the flowering plants and, in the far distant future, American farms and orchards.
But it is the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous that are among the most well-known and beloved of all the life forms that ever evolved in earth’s long history. Their names alone evoke wonder: Tyrannosaurs Rex, at 40 feet long, one of the largest land-based carnivores that ever lived; Triceratops a plant eating dinosaur, thirty feet long and weighing up to 12 tons with its unmistakable three-horned head that took up almost a third of its body length; Ankylosaurus, about the size of a modern elephant, but covered with large plates of bony armor; Pteranodon, a flying reptile with a 20 foot wingspan, and countless other giants. They were amazing creatures and if nature hadn’t created them, no human imagination could have done so. Had these wonderful creatures lived to the present day, the United States of America, as we know it, could not exist because the human beings who created it almost certainly could not have evolved. Our primate ancestors, if they had evolved at all, would have been little more than dinosaur snacks.
Living almost unnoticeable among the dinosaurs were a number of much lesser creatures – the mammals. They were tiny animals compared to the dinosaurs. They gave birth to live young, but they were insignificant, furry little things and had the dinosaurs survived, it is highly unlikely that mammals, including humans, would have risen to dominant the world. In what amounts to a geological instant that not only made America, but the entire world, the dinosaurs disappeared.
The theory as to what drove the dinosaurs to extinction was first proposed by a famous Nobel Prize physicist and amateur paleontologist, Luis Alvarez. His son Walter, a geologist, had been studying a strange layer of clay at the boundary between the Cretaceous and the Tertiary periods, also known as the K-T boundary, the layer that seemed to mark the moment in geological time when the dinosaurs went extinct. Paleontologists noticed that no dinosaur fossil has ever been found above that boundary.
Luis and Walter enlisted the aid of nuclear chemists Frank Asaro and Helen Michel from the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. The chemists discovered that the strange clay contained an extremely high level of a substance known as iridium, a mineral that is rare on the earth, but present in the countless micrometeorites that arrive from space and dust the planet’s surface. Eventually, they also determined that the same clay from other locations around the world contained the same high iridium levels. There could only be one explanation: that iridium did not originate on earth. It came from outer space!
In 1980, Luis and Walter Alvarez, and the two chemists published the paper proposing that the Cretaceous extinction was caused by an extraterrestrial impact. It was greeted with skepticism at first, but is now the most widely accepted explanation of what killed off the dinosaurs.
Although there is controversy as to whether or not a single event caused the extinction of as much as three quarters of the life on earth, most paleontologists agree that an extraterrestrial impact played a key role in their demise. A number also suggest that dinosaurs were already in trouble from disease, and from the Indian Deccan Trap volcanic eruptions that occurred at roughly the same time. Whether it was the singular deathblow from space or the final nail in the Cretaceous coffin, there is little question that 65 million years ago a mountain-sized asteroid smashed into the earth near what is now the town of Chicxulub on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
The asteroid impact is believed to have set off world wide volcanic eruptions, forest fires, widespread, major earthquakes and horrific storms that sent ash and dust high into the atmosphere where it blocked the sun's light for years, perhaps for centuries. The devastation plunged the entire world into what today would be described as “nuclear winter”. As the effects of that catastrophic collision erupted across the globe, those awe-inspiring creatures that would someday be loved by children everywhere, began to die. The irony is that had the dinosaurs survived, it is almost certain that none of those children would have ever been born.
That anything was left alive anywhere was a miracle. As it was, the impact and its aftermath is believed to have wiped out up to seventy-five percent of all species on earth. Fortunately for humans, one class of animals that managed to survive, was the one to which we humans belong: the mammals.
As time passed, the planet slowly recovered. Mammals began to thrive and to fill the niche left by the dinosaurs. They have since spread to nearly every environment on the planet. Had the asteroid not wiped out the dinosaurs, it is very likely that mammals would have been unable to compete with their oversized, hungry neighbors and we humans would never have evolved. Without humans there would be no America. Unlikely as it may seem, a big chunk of rock from outer space helped make America.
Ages of Ice
If the view of our planet from space 200 million years ago was far different than it is today, the Earth as seen from space 12,000 years ago was just as surprising. Although North America would have been recognizable, its appearance would have been shocking. Stretching from the Arctic across all of what is now Canada and into the United States, lay a vast sheet of ice, as much as 4 kilometers thick, and as far south as 45 degrees north latitude. Scientists call this ice sheet the “Wisconsin Glaciation”. It was only the latest of several such periods that stretch back possibly as far as 2.4 billion years ago.
What causes them, is open to speculation, but variations in the distance of the Earth from the sun, solar energy output, ocean current circulation, composition of the atmosphere are all candidates. What does seem clear is that at some point, one or more of those possibilities works to push the planet over some crucial threshold and at that moment, an ice age becomes inevitable.
When it arrived, the ice sheet didn't just sit there, it began to move. Like a giant bulldozer, it was working, ripping away soil and topsoil from what would one day be Canada, depositing all that fertile soil onto what would later be the United States. Enormous amounts of valuable Canadian topsoil, rock and gravel rode with the ice sheets as they moved. Some of the richest farmland in the United States Midwest and Northeast arrived in this way. Windstorms helped move tremendous amounts of this soil far from where the glacier left it, to settle out of the sky as a layer of fertile soil in the Mississippi and Missouri valleys, Washington, Oregon, Oklahoma, and Texas.
The ice changed America. The Great Lakes were carved by ice gouging its way through existing valleys, carving them even deeper. Across most of the northern part of the continent, the glaciers gouged out depressions that filled with water as the glaciers melted. Many river systems were reshaped or created including the Mississippi River that formed when the water from the melting ice sheet collected in what is now Wisconsin and Minnesota, then carved its way to the Gulf of Mexico. And on the border between the Province of Ontario in Canada and the State of New York, the water from the melting ice ran into a 700 square mile limestone formation called the Niagara Escarpment and created Niagara Falls. The countless lakes in northern Canada can be attributed almost entirely to the action of the ice. And as the ice retreated, the land, once weighted down by the ice, rebounded and continues to reshape the Great Lakes and other areas formerly lying under the weight of the ice.
Highly significant in the making of America was the fact that from about 12,000 to 17,000 years ago, a land corridor linked Eurasia to Alaska across what is now the Bering Strait. During the last ice age, water from the oceans locked up in the ice sheets, helped lower the global sea level by about 100 meters, allowing land-bridges between land masses such as the one across the Bering Strait, thus providing an access route into North America for animals and for people. America was now open and ready for human occupation.
According to archeologists, the first Americans arrived on the continent between 12,000 and 50,000 years ago. The figures represent a significant range, but both estimates are possibly correct in that the migration to the American continent probably went on, intermittently, for millennia. There is also controversy about the route some early Americans used. A few historians have suggested that stone age Europeans crossed the Atlantic by skirting the ice sheets during the last ice age, living off fish, seals and sea birds, or that Southeast Asians crossed the Pacific to get here, which means that America ten thousand years ago was almost as much of a “melting pot” as it is today. However, where they came from originally doesn’t change what these first pioneers contributed to the to making of America.
The most likely route for the migrations was via the land bridge across the Bering Strait. There is no way of knowing why these Asian pilgrims made the move. Were there legends about a vast land to the east that inspired the more adventurous among them? Were there conflicts, famines or natural crises that spurred them to leave their homes and head east to an unknown destination? Or were they merely doing what nomadic peoples have always done: following the animals that were their food supply.
Did they have any inkling of the fact that they had arrived on an immense, rich, new continent, virtually empty of fellow humans? Perhaps none of these things mattered. It’s just as likely that the driving force was the compulsion that seems to be built into our human genetic code: the uncontrollable desire to see what lies over the next hill, beyond the next mountain. Whatever the reasons were that drove them to this continent, some long ago day, one of our human ancestors took a step out of Asia and became the first human being to set foot on the North American continent, thereby making that moment one of those that profoundly helped make America.
By the time Europeans arrived, the people they mistakenly called “Indians” and even more mistakenly called “savages”, occupied every region on the continent from tropical rainforests to the Arctic, and they thrived there.
Those earliest pioneers earned the epithet savage, largely because they weren’t Christian. Ironically, the name savage was given to them by people who, for centuries, had happily butchered countless thousands of their neighbors because they couldn’t agree on how religion should be practiced or how their deity should be worshipped. It is highly possible that until the European invasion, no so-called “savage” in North America had committed murder in the name of God.
Though the population figures are controversial, America was not an empty land when those first Europeans arrived. The Native American population estimates range from a low of about two million to more than twenty million. By the time European diseases and ill treatment had taken their toll, the population had plummeted to just a few hundred thousand. The question as to the size of the population prior to the arrival of Columbus points to a more fundamental question: was the influx of Europeans in America a great advance in the history of civilization or was it a catastrophe? That arrival almost exterminated a large and flourishing native population. There is no good answer. The near genocide of a people can never be justified for any reason, not even if a result of that genocide is the creation of a great and powerful nation built on a philosophy of equality, freedom and personal worth. One can only hope that the end result makes up, in some small way, for what it took to get there.
Despite the horrific tribulations they suffered at the hands of Europeans, the presence in America of those first Americans has added enormous depth to the nation’s history, culture, mindset, traditions and heritage. Without them, the nation we know today would be unrecognizable.
A Matter of Timing
Vital to the making of America was the timing of those early European arrivals. The Iroquois League, later the Iroquois Confederacy, was a union of five powerful Indian tribes: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca tribes. Their territory extended across what is today Ontario, Quebec, and upper New York state. In 1722 the Tuscarora joined the Confederacy making it a union of Six Nations that still exists today. Their name for themselves was “Haudenosaunee”, People of the Long House. The name “Iroquois” was given to them by the French who had been settling in many of the regions occupied by the Haudenosaunee.
A number of archeologist and anthropologists place the date of the league’s formation in the middle of the 1500’s, but some research hints at a much earlier date, even as far back as the middle of the 12th century. Although many historians credit the formation of the League as a response to the growing presence of Europeans, it is more likely that what really inspired the league was the desire on the part of the Iroquois to control and dominate the entire eastern region of the continent. Eventually, they managed to reach as far south as Kentucky and as far west as the Mississippi. More than one historian has described the Iroquois as an expansionist society, determined to unite tribes across much of North America. Those tribes they couldn’t persuade peacefully, they persuaded by force.
The Iroquois were a people bent on nationhood. Not nationhood in European terms, but nationhood in terms of power. Had Europeans arrived 100 years later, it is doubtful that the newcomers would have been strong enough to control the Iroquois Confederacy and their allies. A century later, Iroquois power might have extended as far South as Florida. With that extra century to develop their imperialist goals, Europeans might have been greeted by a large, politically sophisticated, united and powerful Iroquois nation connected with what might have been an overwhelming number of allies, making European encroachment and settlement in large regions of America impossible. Had even a portion of the Native American population been able to unite against the European invasion, American history would have been very different.
The only thing that stopped their expansionist agenda was the untimely arrival of Europeans, which created a new set of problems for all indigenous peoples. It should be noted, however, that it wasn’t superiority of European weapons or tactics and it certainly wasn’t superior intellect that devastated the native population. It was the diseases carried by Europeans, diseases from which the earliest Americans had little or no immunity. Smallpox, influenza, typhoid fever, even measles wiped out many thousand, possibly millions. Some estimates place the death toll from European diseases at 90 percent. Without a sufficiently large force to oppose them, Europeans were able to establish those first crucial footholds and for better or for worse made America what it is today.
Contributions of the First Americans
The contribution of the original Americans to the world and especially to the making of America is profound. Indian guides made the exploration of America easier. Ancient Indian trails, often marked the routes used by white pioneers as they journeyed west. Eventually, these trails became roads and railroads. Indian villages, at the invitation of their occupants, were often used as trading posts, and some have grown into cities such as Albany, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Chicago.
The fact that the powerful Iroquois allied themselves with the English during the Seven Years War between England and France was decisive to the English victory in the struggle for supremacy in North America. The North American portion of this multi nation struggle was called the “French and Indian War”.
What we now call “American English” has adopted hundreds of Indian words and phrases making the American version of the language more colorful and uniquely American. Words such as canoe, caribou, chipmunk, mackinaw, maize, moccasin, moose, Klondike, opossum, powwow, toboggan, tomahawk, totem, wampum, wigwam, woodchuck, all entered the American English directly from various Indian languages. The word tobacco comes from the Caribbean. It is from an Arawak Indian word that essentially means “a roll of leaves”.
Countless North American place names are Native American in origin. From “Alaska”, (an Aleut word “alaxsxaq” – the place where the sea goes) to “Wyoming”, (“xwé:wamənk," at the big river") the names of more than half of the States are derived from Native American words or phrases. A favorite is the unchanged “Mississippi” - the great water or big river. New York State alone has more than a hundred place names taken directly from Native American languages. An exact tally of all place names of Native American origin in the United States is nearly impossible, but their existence has added wonderful poetry and color to American geography.
According to estimates from a variety of sources, more than half of the agricultural production of the United States comes from plants or animals domesticated by Native Americans. A short list includes corn, a dozen or more varieties of beans, cranberries, pumpkins and squash, maple syrup, potatoes, turkeys, peanuts, tomatoes and tobacco.
Indian art, music, games and sports, ideas about conservation and agriculture permeates American culture. Even sign language, which was a system of hand signals used to assist trade and communicate between different tribal groups and later with traders and trappers, was developed by Native Americans. The same type of system is used today for communicating with the deaf. The very concept of government as practiced in the United States, in which certain powers are held by a central government, and all other powers reserved to the states, was borrowed from the system of government employed by the Iroquois League. In 1988 the United States Congress passed a resolution to recognize the influence of the Iroquois League upon the Constitution and Bill of Rights. There is no question that these First Americans contributed enormously to the making of the nation we know as America.