The Rocky Mountains, west of the Great Plains, extend north to south across the country, peaking around 14,000 feet (4,300 m) in Colorado. Farther west are the rocky Great Basin and deserts such as the Chihuahua and Mojave. The Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges run close to the Pacific coast, both ranges reaching altitudes higher than 14,000 feet (4,300 m). The lowest and highest points in the contiguous United States are in the state of California, and only about 84 miles (135 km) apart. At an elevation of 20,310 feet (6,190.5 m), Alaska's Denali is the highest peak in the country and in North America. Active volcanoes are common throughout Alaska's Alexander and Aleutian Islands, and Hawaii consists of volcanic islands. The supervolcano underlying Yellowstone National Park in the Rockies is the continent's largest volcanic feature.
The first known use of the name "America" dates back to 1507, when it appeared on a world map created by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. On this map, the name applied to South America in honor of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. After returning from his expeditions, Vespucci first postulated that the West Indies did not represent Asia's eastern limit, as initially thought by Christopher Columbus, but instead were part of an entirely separate landmass thus far unknown to the Europeans. In 1538, the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator used the name "America" on his own world map, applying it to the entire Western Hemisphere.More Info
Estimating the native population of North America at the time of European contact is difficult. Douglas H. Ubelaker of the Smithsonian Institution estimated that there was a population of 92,916 in the south Atlantic states and a population of 473,616 in the Gulf states, but most academics regard this figure as too low. Anthropologist Henry F. Dobyns believed the populations were much higher, suggesting 1,100,000 along the shores of the gulf of Mexico, 2,211,000 people living between Florida and Massachusetts, 5,250,000 in the Mississippi Valley and tributaries and 697,000 people in the Florida peninsula.More Info
With the advancement of European colonization in North America, the Native Americans were often conquered and displaced. The first Europeans to arrive in the contiguous United States were Spanish conquistadors such as Juan Ponce de León, who made his first visit to Florida in 1513. Even earlier, Christopher Columbus landed in Puerto Rico on his 1493 voyage. The Spanish set up the first settlements in Florida and New Mexico such as Saint Augustine and Santa Fe. The French established their own as well along the Mississippi River. Successful English settlement on the eastern coast of North America began with the Virginia Colony in 1607 at Jamestown and with the Pilgrims' Plymouth Colony in 1620. Many settlers were dissenting Christian groups who came seeking religious freedom. The continent's first elected legislative assembly, Virginia's House of Burgesses, was created in 1619. The Mayflower Compact, signed by the Pilgrims before disembarking, and the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, established precedents for the pattern of representative self-government and constitutionalism that would develop throughout the American colonies.More Info
Following the decisive Franco-American victory at Yorktown in 1781, Britain signed the peace treaty of 1783, and American sovereignty was internationally recognized and the country was granted all lands east of the Mississippi River. Nationalists led the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 in writing the United States Constitution, ratified in state conventions in 1788. The federal government was reorganized into three branches, on the principle of creating salutary checks and balances, in 1789. George Washington, who had led the Continental Army to victory, was the first president elected under the new constitution. The Bill of Rights, forbidding federal restriction of personal freedoms and guaranteeing a range of legal protections, was adopted in 1791.More Info
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