AMS 100: Introduction To American Identity and Culture


II. American Identity

   A. Place

         1. Geographic Regions


The United States is part of the physical geography of North America with 49 of its states. Hawaii is part of Oceania with its unique volcanic formation. The physical characteristics of North America are viewed in a number of ways, initially with topographic or relief maps.The USGS (United States Geologic Survey) maps are the standard in science and planning since they include topographic contour lines and British survey grids. Another way to view physical regions is by bioregions or ecoregions which are fundamentally grounded in plant communities (flora) that reflect geology, climate and interrelated fauna. These regions range from 5-9 and can be subdivided in numerous ways.

Geographic/Eco Regions

Sub Regions

Principle Plant Communities

I.     The Great North
Tundra (no trees)/Sea Ice
Taiga/ Boreal Forest
II.    Great Lakes   Birch/ Beech Forest
III.   Appalachians   Deciduous/ Hardwood Forest
IV.   Southeast   S. Pine/ Cypress Swamp
V.    The Great Prairie   Grasslands (Native Gamma and Buffalo Grass
VI.   The Rockies   Mountain Forest and Meadow
VII.  Deserts of the West   Juniper/Sagebrush Scrub; Creosote Scrub
VIII. The Pacific Coast
Northwest Coast
Cedar/Redwood Temperate Rainforest
Riparian Oak/Chaparral
IX.    Islands of the Pacific/Hawaii   Volcanic floor/tropics

     2. Resources

Within the physical regions are a what are referred to as 'naturals resources'. These include air, water, and land with their various ecosystems based upon the plant communities listed above and the animals. Beyond the 'natural resources' are humans and all that results from the occupation of the land, which is generally referred to as 'cultural resources'.

America and specifically North America was occupied by Native People and waves of non-Native People, mostly European. The wholesale destruction of the natural resources began in the late 1500s and by the 1800s reached the point where 90% of the original forests were burned or cut down. In the United States emerged a number of programs to protect or conserve some of the natural resources. The F.V. Hayden Expedition with photographer William Henry Jackson  led to the creation of Yellowstone National Park, our first. Later, under President T. R. Roosevelt and the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Gifford Pinchot additional parkland and forests were set aside. Pinchot advocated a multi-use policy and felt the land should be used for hunting, fishing, lumber and mining. The first head of the Sierra Club, John Muir was idealistic and felt the land should preserved untouched. In the early 1900s there were numerous conflicts over usage policies with Pinchot and Muir usually in opposition and Roosevelt in the middle. The most dramatic conflict was over the damning of a river in Yosemite National Park called Hetch Hetchy. John Muir had been implemental in convincing T.R. Roosevelt in establishing Yosemite National Park in 1906 but the need for water to protect the city of San Francisco after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake led to a showdown over the use of the Hetch Hetchy Valley. The result was the loss of the valley, but National Parks were forever left alone while National Forests remained multi-use. These policies and changes were part of the American Conservation Movement and at least it resulted in the National Park and National Forest Systems. Today similar controversies about our lands and resource use continue.

B. People

     1. Indigenous People

The indigenous or Native American cultures included the Arctic people known today as Inuit (Eskimo), Yupik and Aleut; and American Indians from the Sub Arctic to the tip of South America. The Arctic people came from Asia 7,000-9,000 years ago, while American Indians came anywhere from 20,000- 40,000 years ago. This time depth gave plenty of time for physical adaptation and intimate cultural tuning into the various geographic regions of the Americas. in the northwestern regions of North America and extreme southern reaches of South American people were foragers based upon the ecosystems such as Far North, or Far West. From the Southwest to the Andes Indian people employed various forms of farming top include maize, beans, squash, potato, peanuts, tomato, sunflower, cacao, etc. this farming cultures developed rich civilizations such as the Mimbres of the Southwest, the Maya of Chiapas and Guatemala and the Inca of the Andes.

     2. Nation of Immigrants

The Native American world was invaded by Europeans beginning with Spanish and Columbus in 1492 and in North America at St. Augustine 1565.

In North America the English first successfully established a colonial foothold at Jamestown in 1607 and the French finally established Quebec in 1608. The colonial period of 1607-1788 saw a mild influx of immigrants into the area that we call the United States today. The 13 colonies were English but they were threatened by various European powers.

Immigrant Groups 1607-1788 Estimated numbers* Notes
English 300,000  
Scot-Irish/Irish/Scot 250,000 Scot-Irish=Ulster Scots
German 200,000 Palatinate/Wurttemberg
African 650,000 mostly slaves
French Huguenots   15,000 Can - US
Dutch     6,000 New York
Swedes      1,500 Delaware
Portuguese          500 NE Whaling

  The Napoleonic Wars slowed down immigration, including the slave trade between 1790-1815. During the time of the 'Young Republic' immigration continuously increased with 37 million coming in 1820 - 1930. Many came in Ellis Island (1892-1954). The first group 1820-1880 tended to come from Northern and Central Europe; while the second group 1880-1930 tended to come mainly from Southern and Eastern Europe.  

 Immigrant Groups 1820-1880 Estimated numbers Notes
German 14 million  
French    2 million  
Belgium     1 million  
Irish   2.5 million 1850 main potato blight
Welsh       100,000  
Scandinavian    2.15 million  
Chinese    3 million 1882 Chinese Exclusion
 Immigrant Groups 1880-1930 Estimated numbers Notes
Austro-Hungary   7 million  
Italy   14 million  
Baltic States    4 million  
Irish    2 million  
Russia     3.5 million some included 'Odessa German'
Japanese      110,000  
Filipino       120,000 Oriental Exclusion Act 1924
Indian (India)          10,000  
Middle East        110,000   

 During the depression and the rise of Nazi Germany new waves of immigrants came and continued into WWII.

Immigrant Groups 1930-1946 Estimated numbers Notes
Polish    4 million  
German    2 million  
Italian    2 million  
Mexican   1.2 million Bracero Program 1942-1964

Finally,  after World War II the Cold War and post colonialism. This included the Korean War, Cuban Conflict and the Vietnam War. After 1989, the breakup of the soviet Union and the Middle East generated other immigrant groups to come to America.

Immigrant Groups 1947-1989 Estimated numbers Notes
Eastern Europe    1.2 million  
Korean       800,000 Korean War
Cuban        200,000  
Vietnamese         218,000 Vietnam War + 50,000 illegal
Other S.E. Asian          160,000  
Immigrant Groups 1989- Estimated numbers Notes
Central America    1.2 million El Salvador and Panama +2 m illegal
Mexico     3.5 million +8 m illegal
Iran        338,000 +1 m illegal
Soviet States     1.8 million Slovenia, Boznia;+ 2.5 illegally
Somalia       43,000  
Haiti        500,000 +1m illegal
Oceania (Samoa, Guam, etc)        30,000   
Other Africa      5.2 million  +1.5 illegal
Other Asia       3.8 million  +2.2 m illegal

 We truly are a 'Nation of Immigrants', but we have been mixed in our acceptance of immigrant groups. As the whims of our economic situation generated a need for workers or labor, our prejudices have created a kind of two-faced stance as to how to integrate everyone and what is an American.

* (All estimated numbers are approximations and are not the growth population reflected in the US Census. The numbers usually mean persons born in that foreign country. )

3. Cultural Regions

When studying  the US the Physical Geographic Regions and topographic Maps lay the foundation to human habitation which is the domain of anthropology, history and cultural geography. Initially the Native Americans are the first to occupy the land and established themselves in specific culture areas( see above)  from ~ 15, 000 BCE - CE 1500. When, after CE 1500, various immigrant groups settled the Americas with the Spanish, French, English and Portuguese dominating and renaming areas. After 1600 the English colonized the Eastern Seaboard and established a 'frontier' line at the Appalachian Mountains. Initially everything beyond the Appalachian mountains was called the 'West'. This 'frontier' began to rapidly move west and reached the  Pacific Coast by 1890. Some historians argue that the frontier continued into the Pacific Rim through the 1950s. The West later was defined as everything west of the Mississippi and later west of the 98th Meridian. The various patterns of immigration established culture and ethnic regions that continued to shift through time.

Current cultural regions of the United States were standardized by the U.S. Census Bureau and include the following:

Regional divisions used by the United States Census Bureau
  • Region 1 Northeast
    • Division 1 (New England)
    • Division 2 (Middle Atlantic)
  • Region 2 (Midwest)
    • Division 3 (East North Central)
    • Division 4 (West North Central)
  • Region 3 (South)
    • Division 5 (South Atlantic)
    • Division 6 (East South Central)
    • Division 7 (West North Central)
  • Region 4 (West)
    • Division 8 (Mountain)
    • Division 9 (Pacific)

These regions have developed various cultural traits such as food cuisines and icons that originate in each of these areas, but have spread throughout the United States. In our handout on Cultural Regions of the United States we will go over some of the foods and icon that are common knowledge connected to each of these areas.


C. Images

      1. Nation/State

In the Americas there are numerous nation states that generate images and identities for its citizens. Each country, like the U.S., Canada, Costa Rica, Chile has a character based on the environment, people, history, government and relationships to the rest of the world. Some scholars called this a 'National Character', but today we might use the term 'Shared National Identity', which the shared component of any people. This changes overtime and various forces and events shape peoples images and identity at any given time. In 1832 a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to the U.S. to see what kind of nation we had become. In 1835 he published Democracy In America. He noted that individuality was our most cherished value along with get rich quick, work ethic, desire for fair play, no limits, informality and corrupt politics. In 1893 Fredrick Jackson Turner, a Wisconsin historian conclude that the American Frontier was our common and most influential experience. This was called the 'Frontier Thesis', while flawed at many levels it nevertheless revealed an important aspect of the American experience. At various times in our history, usually traumatic, we attempt to reassess who we are and where are we going. Most recently the Kennedy assassination, American Bicentennial 1976 and 9/11 have prompted Americans to reassess their identity and future.

One way to generate what might influence your own 'Shared National Identity', is to evaluate shared images such as the flag, shrines or landscape.



American Flag/ Stars and Stripes; Current 13 stripes, 50 stars
United States National Anthem: "The Star-Spangled Banner" (Official 1916/1931)

Presidential Seal/Seal of the United States; Bald Eagle Shield

Bald Eagle
Iwo Jima Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, D.C.
US Capital, Washington D.C.

Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C. 
Statue of Liberty, New York City, NY
National Parks: Yellowstone
                          Grand Canyon, etc.

   2. Local/Cultural

The images generated by a local cultural context vary with state, county, town, neighborhood, ethnic group and family. The greater time one has in a region and the integrity of the family will determine how strong images might be. Other social institutions besides ones family can be influential, such as a church, clubs, and local political or economic organizations. If you are from California, San Diego County and Oceanside, you have certain images that connect you to that context. Sometimes sports teams maybe important. Ones family might be nuclear or extended and be a focus of a persons life, especially if rooted in a particular town or region.

California California state flag with the extinct California grizzly
San Diego County San Diego Harbor with the Star of India, skyline, etc
Oceanside Oceanside Pier and Beach
Other San Luis Rey Mission and Family


     3. Individual

Each individual has a set of images that they accumulate as they grow up including their self awareness (Image and voice) and personal world view. A world view includes cognitive domains that include beliefs, values and  self imposed or documented norms of behavior.

Nature Nurture
Genotype/Phenotype Enculturation/Socialization: Cognitive Domains/Beliefs-Values-Norms; Behaviors-Group Networks

American Values: Individualism; Equality; Rationality; Spirituality; Materialism

Behavioral Guidelines: Golden/Silver Rule; Bronze Rule; Iron Rule

Next Notes : III

 Copyright S. J. Crouthamel