The U.S. Economy:
A Brief History
modern American economy traces its roots to the quest of European settlers for economic gain in the 16th, 17th,
and 18th centuries. The New World then progressed from a marginally successful colonial economy to a small,
independent farming economy and, eventually, to a highly complex industrial economy. During this evolution, the
United States developed ever more complex institutions to match its growth. And while government involvement in
the economy has been a consistent theme, the extent of that involvement generally has
America's first inhabitants were Native Americans -- indigenous peoples who are believed to have traveled to
America about 20,000 years earlier across a land bridge from Asia, where the Bering Strait is today. (They were
mistakenly called "Indians" by European explorers, who thought they had reached India when first landing in the
Americas.) These native peoples were organized in tribes and, in some cases, confederations of tribes. While
they traded among themselves, they had little contact with peoples on other continents, even with other native
peoples in South America, before European settlers began arriving. What economic systems they did develop were
destroyed by the Europeans who settled their lands.
were the first Europeans to "discover" America. But the event, which occurred around the year 1000, went largely
unnoticed; at the time, most of European society was still firmly based on agriculture and land ownership.
Commerce had not yet assumed the importance that would provide an impetus to the further exploration and
settlement of North America.
1492, Christopher Columbus, an Italian sailing under the Spanish flag, set out to find a southwest passage to
Asia and discovered a "New World." For the next 100 years, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and French
explorers sailed from Europe for the New World, looking for gold, riches, honor, and glory.
the North American wilderness offered early explorers little glory and less gold, so most did not stay. The
people who eventually did settle North America arrived later. In 1607, a band of Englishmen built the first
permanent settlement in what was to become the United States. The settlement, Jamestown, was located in the
present-day state of Virginia.