Geography of the United States What Are the United States? Guiding Question: What political features make up the United States? The United States has special peoples, places, and other features. Some features are natural, such as the Rocky Mountains and the Florida Everglades. Others are human–made and serve specific political purposes, such as state boundary lines. States Political borders help define the size and shape of the United States. They also help organize its land and people. The country consists of 50 political subdivisions called states. A state is a political unit within a nation. It has clear borders. A state has its own government but is also subject to the national government. The contiguous United States has 48 states, with two additional states, Alaska and Hawaii, located apart. They come in a wide range of sizes and shapes. Alaska, the largest state, has about 400 times the area of Rhode Island, the smallest state. States such as Kansas are entirely landlocked, while Hawaii is an island state. Florida is a peninsula bounded by the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. A peninsula is a piece of land almost entirely surrounded by water but attached to a larger body of land. Northern Florida, including the northwestern part, called the panhandle, is attached to the mainland. National and State Capitals The United States includes a special area called the District of Columbia. Also known as Washington, D.C., this large city is the c apital of the nation. A nation’s capital is its seat of government. The offices of the government are in the District of Columbia. The capital city is located on the Potomac River between the states of Maryland and Virginia, and it has its own borders. Each state also has its own capital city. These are the seat of state government. The United States has 50 states and 50 state capitals. For example, Tallahassee is the capital of Florida, Sacramento of California, and Austin of Texas. U.S. Territories The United States holds other lands in addition to the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Scattered across the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea are more than a dozen such political units that belong to the United States. These holdings are known as United States territories. A territory is an area of the country that is neither a state nor a part of a state. Each territory has its own political borders. It is subject to the U.S. government. However, a territory has looser ties to the United States than do the states. In the past, the United States also had protectorates. These were largely independent but received diplomatic or military protection against powers that were rivals of the United States. Cuba, Panama, and Haiti in the Caribbean Sea and the Philippines and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean were U.S. protectorates at one time. Many of the territories held by the United States today were acquired through conflict at the end of the nineteenth century or during the twentieth century. Among these are the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean Sea, and Guam, American Samoa, Wake Island, and the Midway Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Several of these territories were once used as bases by the U.S. military forces. Today, few people live on them. Some territories, including Navassa Island, are also claimed by other countries. Commonwealths Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Sea and the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean are commonwealths. A commonwealth is a U.S. territory with its own constitution and government. Those governments, however, receive their powers from the U.S. Congress, and U.S. laws apply there. Residents of the commonwealths are U.S. citizens but do not pay federal income tax and cannot vote in presidential elections. Each commonwealth has one nonvoting delegate in the U.S. Congress. Puerto Rico became a commonwealth in 1952. Today, Puerto Ricans continue to debate their island’s status. Some want full statehood; others want independence from the United States. The Northern Mariana Islands became a commonwealth in 1978. Like Puerto Rico, the islands handle their own internal affairs but are subject to U.S. laws. For example, in 2007, the U.S. government passed a minimum-wage law that applied not only to states but also to territories and commonwealths. U.S. Military Bases The United States operates as many as 700 military bases in more than 100 foreign nations. These bases are subject to U.S. administration and law—not to the laws of the host countries. The bases house members of the U.S. armed forces, provide places to train soldiers, and serve as command centers for military operations. Many bases have their own schools, hospitals, and grocery stores to serve the people who live there. Guantanamo Bay in Cuba is a notable overseas base. Military bases are located within the United States, too. For example, Florida hosts 21 bases, from all five military branches. All bases are subject to national, not state, government and laws. Regions of the United States The Northeast Guiding Question: How has the geography of the Northeast influenced its economy? Our nation can be divided into five major regions, or areas. They are the Northeast, the South, the Midwest, the Interior West, and the Pacific. Find them on the Regions of the United States map. The Northeast has the smallest land area of the five regions. Yet, it is the most densely populated. Its 11 states are mostly urban, or thickly settled. Two of the region’s cities, New York City and Philadelphia, are first and sixth in the nation in population. Many people in the Northeast are descended from European settlers. Many African Americans, Asians, and Latinos also live in this area. Latino is a term for people of Latin American origin. Early settlers quickly found ways to adapt to the land in the Northeast. The rocky soil, mountainous landscape, and cold winters were not ideal for farming. Miles of coastline and rivers, however, provided resources for industries such as fishing, shipping, and trade. Settlements grew into towns, and towns grew into cities. Today, the economy of the Northeast remains based on industry and trade. Trade is the buying and selling of goods and services. Services are jobs performed by one person for another. Industries such as computers, communications, research, publishing, and chemical production are part of the urban economy of the Northeast. The region also boasts cranberry bogs in Massachusetts, coal mines and timber in the Appalachian Mountains, farms in Pennsylvania and New York, maple syrup producers in Vermont, jewelry makers in Rhode Island, and naval shipyards in New Hampshire. In recent years, the region’s service sector has expanded. This sector produces services rather than goods. Examples of service industries include health care, banking, and tourism. The Northeast is known for its historic sites. Philadelphia is the home of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, symbols of the nation’s birth. Boston is also steeped in early U.S. history. New York City boasts the Statue of Liberty in its harbor and the Empire State Building at its center—both U.S. landmarks. The South Guiding Question: How have recent population trends changed the South? The South has a warm climate, rich soil, and lots of rain. These resources have made farming a key part of the region’s economy. Major crops include citrus, cotton, rice, tobacco, nuts, and soybeans. Cattle ranching also thrives, especially in Texas. In recent years, the South has seen much economic growth. Many new industries are developing. West Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma are major coal, oil, and natural gas producers. The aerospace industry, which develops aircraft, spacecraft, missiles, and satellites, is important to the area. It is centered in Cape Canaveral, Florida, with other facilities in Alabama and Texas. The South is a major producer of textiles, or cloth, along with electrical equipment, computers, airplanes, and parts. Service industries are also growing. Population in the South has increased and become more diverse. In the mid-1900s, retirees began moving to the region in record numbers. States such as Florida also have many Latino and Haitian immigrants. As a result of population growth, the South has gained a stronger voice in the nation’s government. Like the Northeast, the South has a rich history. Early U.S. leaders such as George Washington were Southerners. In 1836 the Alamo in Texas was the site of a battle that rallied support for Texas’s independence from Mexico. The secession of Southern states, followed by the Civil War, had a long-term effect on the South’s relations with the rest of the nation. More recently, Jimmy Carter of Georgia became president in 1976. Three other Southerners who held this post in recent decades include George H. W. Bush of Texas, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, and George W. Bush of Texas. The South has large rural areas. A rural area is one that is not heavily populated. Acres of forest, farmland, and coastal plains cover much of the region. The Florida Everglades provide one example. About half of this huge, unique wetland area is national parkland reserved for diverse wildlife. Alligators, bobcats, manatees, turtles, and rare panthers roam freely here. The South also includes rapidly growing urban areas. Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Miami are busy port cities and business centers. The U.S. capital, Washington, D.C., lies between Maryland and Virginia. The Capitol and the White House are among the famous sites there. The Midwest Guiding Question: How has the geography of the Midwest shaped its development? What is the geography of the Midwest? Its major physical features are the Great Lakes and the Great Plains. The Great Plains are noted for miles of flat, fertile land. Winters are colder here than in the South, and the climate is drier. But fertile soil allows farmers to raise crops such as wheat, corn, oats, soybeans, fruits, and vegetables. In fact, so much grain is grown here that the Midwest is called the “breadbasket of the nation.” Farms here also produce pork, beef, and dairy products. Valuable minerals include iron, coal, lead, and zinc. The Midwest formed a crossroads for settlers heading west in the 1800s. They bought supplies in St. Louis, Missouri, on the Mississippi River. The famous Gateway Arch monument marks this historic westward movement. Over time, manufacturing centers grew, aided by access to nearby coal and iron as well as shipping channels on the rivers and Great Lakes. In the 1900s, cities such as Cleveland and Detroit produced steel and cars. Midwestern factories, especially those making steel and cars, fell on hard times during the latter part of the twentieth century. The slump was partly due to factories moving to the South or to Mexico. Because of the sharp decline in the economy and the loss of jobs, the region came to be called the Rust Belt. Some parts of the Midwestern manufacturing industry have recovered, although the automobile industry is still troubled. It has suffered from foreign competition and a national economic downturn. Despite these facts, it still plays a role in the regional economy. Today, in addition to manufacturing and agriculture, the Midwest has developed thriving service industries. Many African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos make their home in the Midwest. In fact, experts estimate that African Americans make up 80 percent of the population of Detroit, Michigan. Many originally came to the region seeking jobs in the growing industries there. The Interior West Guiding Question: In what ways is the Interior West diverse? The people of the Interior West have diverse roots. Native American groups like the Navajo and Apache lived here long before the United States was formed. Spanish settlers arrived during the colonial period. Latin Americans crossed the border from Mexico. Settlers from the East headed west in the 1800s. Although the region is dry, irrigation allows farmers to grow cotton, alfalfa, and other crops. Ranchers raise livestock. Lumbering and the mining of copper, iron, coal, and other minerals occur here. The region’s natural resources also include oil and natural gas. Other parts of the Interior West’s economy have grown recently. Manufacturers make products for the aeronautics and electronics industries. Research and development, especially for the aerospace, nuclear weapons, and energy industries, is another growth area. While this region has fewer people than any other, it is home to some major cities. Denver and Salt Lake City have become centers for technology. Albuquerque and Phoenix have a thriving tourism industry. The warm, dry climate of Arizona attracts retired Americans as well as visitors. The Interior West is a region of dramatic geographic features. From the soaring Rocky Mountains to the Arizona desert, the landscape attracts visitors from far and wide. The Pacific Guiding Question: Which parts of its economy make the Pacific region unique? The states in the Pacific region border the Pacific Ocean. Though their climates vary, in general these states have plenty of rain and mild temperatures along the coast. The northern states of Washington and Oregon have the most rain. The region also contains valuable natural resources. Gold, lead, and copper are mined in California. Alaska has vast oil reserves. Washington and Oregon have plentiful timber resources. In many places, the coastal plains rise to mountain ranges, such as California’s Sierra Nevada and Washington’s and Oregon’s Cascade Range. Farther north, the Alaska Range includes the highest peak in North America, Mount McKinley, in Denali National Park. This peak is sometimes called Denali, which means “the high one” in the language of the local native peoples. The Pacific region is also dotted with volcanoes. One Pacific state, Hawaii, is actually a chain of volcanic islands. Fertile valleys in California, Washington, and Oregon make agriculture a key part of the Pacific economy. California produces more than half of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States. Hawaii grows sugarcane, pineapples, bananas, papayas, and coffee in its rich volcanic soil. Additional Pacific region industries include tourism, lumber, fishing, livestock, oil, plastics, and satellite communications. Silicon Valley near San Francisco is a hub of the computer and electronics industries. Los Angeles is the center of the film industry. Other major cities include San Diego in California and Seattle in Washington. The region’s geographic features and technology sector have drawn many newcomers from around the world. The ethnic backgrounds of the people of the Pacific region vary. The people of Oregon and Washington have mostly European backgrounds. California, Hawaii, and Alaska are home to many Native Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. In fact, in California, the country’s most populous state, nearly half the people are Latino or Asian American.