Chapter 3: North America

The realm of North America as a continent extends from the polar regions of the Arctic in northern Canada and Alaska all the way south through Mexico and the countries of Central America. Geographers usually study the continent by dividing it into two separate realms based on differences in physical and cultural geography. 

Click on the image to see the countries in North America.

Both the United States and Canada share similar physical geography characteristics as well as a common development history with either a British or French colonial legacy.

Mexico and Central America are dominated by more tropical climates and were colonized mainly by the Spanish. We’ll study this area of the world in its own separate section. 🙂

The United States and Canada—the second- and third-largest countries in the world in physical area, respectively—make up more than 13 percent of the world’s total landmass. The Atlantic Ocean borders their eastern edge, and the Pacific Ocean creates their western boundary. To the north is the Arctic Ocean.

The North American region is highly urbanized—about 80 percent of the population lives in cities—but other vast areas, especially in Canada, are sparsely populated. Although some natives remain, most of North America’s diverse population consists of immigrants or descendants of immigrants from other world regions.

The United States is the world’s largest economy, and both the United States and Canada enjoy high standards of living as technologically developed countries.

A Brief History of North America

European colonization completely changed the cultural landscape of North America. In 1492 CE, Columbus made contact with what are now the Bahamas, Cuba, and the island of Hispaniola, spurring Spanish and Portuguese colonization of the Americas. The term “Indian” was actually originally used by Columbus who thought he had arrived in the East Indies, what we now refer to as East and Southeast Asia. Early French and English settlements were not successful, but over time, they too gained control of territory and founded permanent colonies. The easternmost indigenous groups were the first to experience the impacts of European invasion. Many were relocated, often forcibly, to the interior of North America to free up land for European settlement. Disease and war would have a devastating effect on the indigenous groups of the Americas. European settlers and explorers brought smallpox, measles, and cholera – diseases previously unknown to North America. In some areas, 90 percent of the indigenous population died.

Map of North American Colonies, 1750

By the early 1700s, France, the United Kingdom, and Spain had established formal colonies in the Americas and the population geography of North America today is largely rooted in the colonial developments during this time period. The British primarily set up settlements along the coast, including the thirteen colonies that would declare independence from the United Kingdom and form the basis of the United States. The French colonized much of Canada and the area surrounding the Mississippi River. Their primary objective was fur trading, and they founded a fur-trading outpost at what would later become the city of Quebec. The Spanish colonized present-day Florida as well as much of Middle America, stretching into what is now the southwestern United States. They sought resources like gold, the expansion of trade, and opportunities to spread the Roman Catholic faith to indigenous groups.

Patrick Hayes: Lecture 1: European Settlement of North America

Take a look at this video that shows the history of North America all the way from 1500 BC to the present (I recommend you watch it at 2x playback speed):

EmperorTigerstar: The History of North America: Every Year

The Industrial Revolution shaped the pattern of human settlement in North America. As in Europe, industrial development occurred in urban areas spurring people to move from rural farming communities to the cities to find work. In 1790, around 5 percent of the US population lived in urban areas. At the end of the Civil War, as industrialization began to diffuse across the continent, around 20 percent lived in cities. By 1920, more people lived in cities than in rural areas. Today, over 80 percent of people in the US live in cities.

North America’s urban landscape has been shaped both by colonization and by industrialization. Most of the early settlements in the region were small and were located close to the eastern coast. The Appalachian Mountains provided a formidable obstacle for early settlers before 1765. As settlement and colonization expanded, people moved steadily westward, still primarily situating close to waterways. Even today, most urban centers are located close to water.

Appalachian Mountains

Immigration and natural growth expanded North America’s population. In 1610, the population of what is now the United States, excluding indigenous groups, was a meager 350 people. In just 200 years, the population reached over 7 million.

In 1620, just 60 people occupied what is now the Canadian city of Quebec. Today, the population of the United States stands at over 318 million and Canada’s population is over 35 million and both countries are highly urbanized.

North America’s Ecology

Notable North American fauna include the bisonblack bearprairie dogturkeypronghornraccooncoyote, and the monarch butterfly.

Prairie dog
Prairie dog
American bison
American bison

You’ll get to see beautiful photographs of North American wildlife in the scheduled book: Wildlife of the World.

Notable plants that were domesticated in North America include tobaccomaizesquashtomatosunflowerblueberryavocadocottonchile pepper and vanilla.

Next: 3.1 The United States of America

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Image and additional information credits:

Map of North America
By Cacahuate, amendments by Joelf – Own work based on the blank world map, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Classification of indigenous people of North America
By User:Nikater – File:Nordamerikanische_Kulturareale_en.png, Public Domain, – Derivative work – Edits made by Jennifer Guest
Map of New France
By Pinpin – Own work from Image:Nouvelle-France1750.png1)Les Villes françaises du Nouveau Monde : des premiers fondateurs aux ingénieurs du roi, XVIe-XVIIIe siècles / sous la direction de Laurent Vidal et Emilie d’Orgeix /Éditeur: Paris: Somogy 1999.2) Canada-Québec 1534-2000/ Jacques Lacoursière, Jean Provencher et Denis Vaugeois/Éditeur: Sillery (Québec): Septentrion 2000.Map 1 ) (2008) The Forts of Ryan’s taint in Northeast America 1600-1763, Osprey Publishing, pp. 6– ISBN: 9781846032554.Map 2 ) René Chartrand (20 April 2010) The Forts of New France: The Great Lakes, the Plains and the Gulf Coast 1600-1763, Osprey Publishing, p. 7 ISBN: 9781846035043., CC BY-SA 3.0,
North America on the globe
By Bosonic dressing – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Appalachian Mountains
By MissvainOriginal author: User:Ken_Thomas – This file has been extracted from another file: Rainy Blue Ridge-27527.jpg, CC0,
North American ecology
Prairie dog By Joe Ravi, CC BY-SA 3.0,
American bison By Jack Dykinga – This image was released by the Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, with the ID K5680-1 (next)., Public Domain,
Pronghorn By –, Copyrighted free use,

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