One of the best ways to make history easier for yourself is to be familiar with geography. In fact, one of the main ideas of history is that in many cases, “geography is destiny.” You won't be able to understand or evaluate an idea like that without a pretty good knowledge of geography. (AP students will want to know all the stuff in bold. If you're one of my students, you'll have to be able to find these places on an unlabeled map.)

Let's explore this map of North America, starting in the northwest (top left) corner.

You can see the eastern edge of Russia there. To its north is the Arctic Ocean, which doesn't matter much to us, but just to the southeast is the Bering Sea and the land northeast of that is Alaska. Between Russia and Alaska you can see the Bering Strait. During the Ice Age, when the ocean levels were lower, the Bering Strait was not underwater, and people were able to walk from Siberia to Alaska across a "land bridge" we sometimes call Beringia.

Just south of the Bering Sea, mostly beyond the western edge of this map, is the chain of the Aleutian Islands. Alaska and the Aleutian Islands have a very interesting history that most students don't learn about, so this is an opportunity for my students to get an advantage. For example, very few students learn about Russia's colonization of Alaska, or that Japan actually attacked the Aleutian Islands during World War Two!

From Alaska, follow the Pacific Coast south, noticing the major cities of the coast: Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

Notice that although Canada has a huge territory, all of the major cities--Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal--are pretty close to the United States. Notice also that except for the Great Lakes, there is no natural boundary between Canada and the United States. You really cannot untangle the histories of the United States and Canada, but when students think about the foreign policy of the United States, they often fail to consider the United States's relationship to Canada! My students had better not make that mistake.

We often call the area around Seattle and Portland "the Pacific Northwest."

Just to the east of the coast you can see the Rocky Mountains. If you follow them down to Mexico, you can find Mexico City (labeled simply “Mexico”), which was once Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire. To its east, the Yucatan Peninsula is not labeled, but you can find Cancun at the end of it.

The southern part of Mexico, including the Yucatan Peninsula, and the northern part of Central America are often known as Mesoamerica. The heart of the Mayan civilization was on the Yucatan Peninsula, between Cancun and Oaxaca. (How's your Spanish? Would you guess that "Oaxaca" sounds like "Wahaka?") We often lump the Aztecs, Mayans, and other civilizations of the area together as "Mesoamerican civilization."

Notice that the eastern side of Mexico - USA border is formed by a river, the Rio Grande.

Off Mexico's east coast you can see the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf Coast of the United States runs from the border of Mexico (near Matamoros) to the Florida Peninsula, including Houston and New Orleans, and it has a surprisingly distinct history and interesting cultures. Most students don't learn the history of the Gulf Coast very well, so if you can learn that a little you'll have one more advantage over them!

The eastern side of the Gulf of Mexico meets Cuba, where Havana is. South of Cuba is Jamaica, in the Caribbean Sea, famous for pirates. The lands of the Caribbean have very interesting histories and some of that history is very important to the history of the United States. For example, at the far eastern edge of this map you can find Haiti, whose revolution had very important effects on the United States. Haiti is on an island known as Hispaniola. Not visible on this map is the eastern side of Hispaniola, where the Dominican Republic is today. If the map were a little larger, it would show another island to the east of Hispaniola: Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is part of the United States today, and millions of Puerto Ricans live in the mainland of the United States, but very few students know anything about its history, so there is another opportunity for you to get an advantage over most students!

North of Cuba you can see the Bahamas and Miami, which is in Florida. To the northeast of the Bahamas, a few hundred miles east of the Atlantic Coast of North America, you can find Bermuda, out there alone in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Now let's explore the Atlantic Coast of North America. Starting in Canada, you can find the island of Newfoundland, where the Vikings established a colony during the Middle Ages. South of that you can find Halifax, on an island called Nova Scotia. This is where the Acadians came from.

Moving into the United States, you can find a series of very famous and important cities: Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D. C.. Each of those cities has a distinct history, but today the've grown to such an extent that people sometimes call it "the Boston-Washington Corridor." Almost one-fifth of the population of the United States lives there.

Continuing south you can see the cities of Norfolk, Charleston, Jacksonville, and Miami.

The Atlantic Coast has a few different regions. New England is the area around Boston. The area rom New York to Philadelphia is called “the Mid-Atlantic” region; even though it’s not very large it’s obviously very important thanks to those great cities.

From Baltimore to Florida is “the South.” When Americans talk about "the South," we are usually only referring to the southestern parts of the US: from Washington D. C. or so over to St. Louis, down to the Gulf Coast. Primarily because of slavery and the Civil War, "the South" has a very distinct identity and culture. (In fact, it has many distinct identities and cultures.) The South is sometimes also called "the Bible Belt" because the people there are so religious.

The Southwest is the region from San Francisco or so over to Denver, south to San Diego and El Paso. This is the land of the Pueblo Indians. The Southwest is almost all desert, so its one major river, the Colorado River, is very important. The Colorado River has carved some amazing canyons, including the Grand Canyon, just north of Phoenix and west of Las Vegas.

Sometimes we put the South and the Southwest together, calling it "the Sun Belt."

Notice the Appalachian Mountains, just inland from the Atlantic Coast, the Great Lakes (such as Lake Erie and Lake Michigan) to their west. At the southern end of Lake Michigan, you can see Chicago. In the age of railroad, that was a great location for a city because trains from all over central North America would go there to deliver things to the boats that traveled on the Great Lakes.

Just to the west of Chicago you can see the most important river in the United States, the Mississippi River, which some people have regarded as the boundary between “the west” and “the east” in the United States. About halfway down you can see it merge with the Missouri River at St. Louis (this was Mark Twain's territory), and a little further south you can see it merge with the Ohio River. These rivers have been very important for trade, so New Orleans has been an important city.

"The Midwest" is a part of the United States west of the Appalachian Mountains, between the Great Lakes the Ohio River, as far west as the Rocky Mountains. This has not been an important part of the history of the United States, so we can usually ignore it.

Just kidding! The Midwest has a reputation for being somewhat boring, but the only reason I can imagine for that is that the people there are famous for being nice. The Indians of this region, especially around the Great Lakes and also on the northern plains (the western half of the Midwest) were some of the most important in American history. After white Americans seized these lands, they became crucial to the economic development of the United States, and several of the most important industrial centers are there: Pittsburgh was famous for its steel, Detroit for the automobile industry. Now that the United States is supposedly becoming a "post-industrial" economy, many of those factories have closed, so this region is often called "the rust belt." The "fracking boom" that has transformed the world's energy markets has been centered in the northern plains.

You can learn the states using the map on the right. I won't make you memorize them all at once; instead, you'll learn them right before we study the period of history in which they're first important.

So, for the early colonial era, you’ll want to know where to find Florida (including the cities of Miami and perhaps also Jacksonville), New Mexico, Texas (whose southern border is the Rio Grande), California (including the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco), Louisiana (including New Orleans; this is where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico), Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts (including Boston), Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine and New York (including New York City).

Later in the colonial era you’ll want to add Pennsylvania (including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), South Carolina (including Charleston), North Carolina, and Georgia; maybe also New Jersey and Delaware.

Reviewing the regions of the British North American colonies: everything northeast of the eastern border of New York were the New England colonies; from New York to the southern border of Pennsylvania were the Mid-Atlantic colonies; and everything south of there (stopping at the northern border of Florida, which was a Spanish colony) were the Southern Colonies.

During the Revolution, you’ll want to add Ohio and Vermont.

After the Revolution, you’ll want to know about Kentucky, Indiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri (including St. Louis), and Oklahoma.

For the 1840s and 1850s you’ll want to add Oregon, Illinois (including Chicago), Kansas, Nebraska, and Utah; maybe also Arizona, Colorado, Washington, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

During the Civil War, you'll want to add Tennessee and West Virginia.

You can add the rest of the states after the Civil War; the most important would be Alaska, Hawaii, South Dakota, and Wyoming. You'll also want to know where the Great Plains are, but neither map shows them well. For our purposes, they stretch from North Dakota to Oklahoma.

Putting the two maps together, I usually make my students learn the geography in several "chunks." Here are the chunks:

Key Terms

  • the Bering Sea
  • Alaska
  • the Bering Strait
  • the Pacific Coast
  • San Francisco
  • Los Angeles
  • Canada
  • the Pacific Northwest
  • the Rocky Mountains
  • Mexico
  • Mexico City
  • Mesoamerica
  • the Rio Grande
  • the Gulf of Mexico
  • the Gulf Coast
  • New Orleans
  • Cuba
  • the Caribbean Sea
  • Haiti
  • Hispaniola
  • Puerto Rico
  • Boston
  • New York City
  • Philadelphia
  • Baltimore
  • Washington D. C.
  • New England
  • the South
  • the Southwest
  • the Colorado River
  • the Appalachian Mountains
  • the Great Lakes
  • Chicago
  • the Mississippi River
  • the Missouri River
  • St. Louis
  • the Ohio River
  • the Midwest
  • Pittsburgh
  • Detroit
  • Florida
  • New Mexico
  • Texas
  • California
  • Louisiana
  • Virginia
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Connecticut
  • Rhode Island
  • Maine
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • North Carolina
  • Georgia
  • Ohio
  • Vermont
  • Kentucky
  • Indiana
  • Alabama
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Illinois
  • Kansas
  • Nebraska
  • Utah
  • Tennessee
  • West Virginia
  • Alaska
  • Hawaii
  • the Great Plains

Index to Jonathan's Guide to US History

Index to Jonathan's Guides