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Natural Resources in American History


The United States is a prosperous and economically developed country not only because of human capital but also because of the presence of natural resources within its territories. Throughout history, natural resources have played a vital role in providing the population with a means to feed themselves and serving as a motivation for further growth and progress. Large land has allowed farmers to grow crops and develop agriculture, while coal mining, oil, and gas have fueled the nation’s technological advancement. Natural resources have shaped the course of development significantly and have allowed the United States to become one of the largest and wealthiest countries in the world.

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Land and Westward Expansion

Before the 19th century, the United States occupied only the easter shores of the North American continent. Northern and Central regions were possessed by the French Republic. Americans expressed interest in territories west of the Mississippi river primarily because the river had direct access to the Atlantic Ocean through the Gulf of Mexico. Since water is a natural resource, it can be considered that foreign policy has been affected significantly by the presence or absence of such natural resources. As part of the Treaty between the United States and the French Republic, Louisiana was purchased by the Americans for 15 million dollars (Library of Congress 1803). This acquisition marked the beginning of the westward expansion of the U.S.

Louisiana had an immense territory – the total area of the country almost doubled with the purchase. Americans now had access to the Mississippi River, which bolstered the trade between the North and the South (Corbett et al. 2017). Americans were willing to prosper, which is why they started immigrating west of the river. Large areas of land ready to be cultivated waited for new settlers. The availability of farming opportunities motivated the Americans to move further West (Corbett et al. 2017). In other words, territorial expansion and migration were fueled by the abundance of land, which is a vital natural resource.

California Gold Rush

Opportunities for becoming wealthy always serve as a catalyst for progress and development. The discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California in the middle of the 19th century impacted the whole world (Corbett et al. 2017). Hundreds of thousands of people, both in the United States and around the globe, immigrated to Canada in search of personal fortune. Progress was caused in a broader context as well – in order to accommodate the immigrants, towns, and related infrastructure had to be built. The economic and population growth was so rapid that in 1950, California was able to apply for statehood and become the next state of the U.S. (Corbett et al. 2017). To connect California to the rest of the country, the government started working on transcontinental railroads that spanned from the Eastern states to San-Francisco bay (Corbett et al. 2017). The further chain of reaction included the sale of farmlands along the railroad route (Illinois Central Railroad Company 1855). The government believed that the possibility to travel swiftly between different parts of the country would spark trade and relevant industries, such as agriculture.

Land and Secession Crisis

As the United States expanded into new territories and people discovered new natural resources, additional states formed and joined the Union. The primary argument in the 19th century when applying for statehood was whether or not this state could override federal laws. The issue reached its climax when the federal government became the primary body to decide whether or not applicants would be a slave state (Corbett et al. 2017). The majority of the states in the South wanted to secede from the Union, partially because the availability of natural resources would allow them to operate in a self-sustainable fashion (Corbett et al. 2017). No state depended significantly on the provisions from others. However, southern states relied significantly on cotton crops, and slaves were needed to grow them (Corbett et al. 2017). The introduction of paid labor would increase the market price of cotton and decrease demand. The abundance of farmlands, in other words, required a large number of workers, which contributed to slavery in the southern states.

Timber and the Civil War

When the Civil War began, natural resources became a decisive element in the confrontation between the Union and the Confederates. Food and supplies are essential for winning a war, and in this context, American woods assisted the armies (Boutin 2015). Lumber was used to fuel fires to cook food and light encampments and the road during night marches (Boutin 2015). To accommodate soldiers, buildings needed to be built quickly and with low expenses. Timber was used extensively to build houses in the 19th century, primarily because stone constructions were not easy to assemble, and their materials were harder to transport (Boutin 2015). Portability was essential during the Civil War, which is why large areas of woods were deforested in order to yield timber.

Previous paragraphs primarily discussed how natural resources catalyzed technological and economic progress. When speaking of timber, however, it is essential to analyze how human decisions have impacted the availability of natural resources. Extensive farming required more land to be cleared for agricultural purposes, which is why southern territories of the United States had experienced deforestation for hundreds of years (Boutin 2015). The Civil War also put a continuous strain on the natural ecosystem of the country. Constant consumption of wood devasted forested areas of the U.S. and caused almost irreparable damage to the environment (Boutin 2015). Some soldiers shared their distress about what they had done to the trees (Boutin 2015). Others wondered how forests could disappear with such an unnatural rapidity (Boutin 2015). In summary, the Civil War would have been impossible to fight without the abundance of wood – shelter, transportation, and the preparation of food all relied on the availability of trees.

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Coal, Steel, and the Industrial Revolution

For many decades after Europeans settled in the Americas, the territory of the United States was not considered to be rich with minerals. The abundance of wood, animals, and land, however, served as compensation, while coal was imported from Britain. However, later discovery of coal in the U.S. influenced many areas of human activity. First, coal was used to fuel steam engines and furnaces, which encouraged technological development (Schultz 2015). The emergence of the steel industry was primarily caused by extensive coal mining in the country (Schultz 2015). Second, trade unions started to emerge due to harsh working conditions in coal mines (Schultz 2015). The first legally recognized trade union in the United States, Knights of Labor (1892), was formed specifically to address the concerns of coal miners.

The global steel industry is heavily dependant on coal even today. Therefore, it can be considered that the impact generated by the steel industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was primarily based on the pervasive growth of the coal industry. The discovery of iron ore reserves and the later transformation of this crude metal into steel made the United States one of the largest economies in the world (Schultz 2015). Steel was first used to build machinery to be used in factories, trains, railroads, and bridges. As technology advanced, steel became the foundation for automobiles and urban infrastructure (Schultz 2015). Some individuals, such as Andrew Carnegie, built fortunes on steel production and delivery. Carnegie is considered to be one of the richest men in the history of the United States.


As discussed in the previous paragraphs, the discovery of minerals and other valuable natural resources led to territorial expansion, economic growth, and technological progress. However, no natural resource has had the same impact on foreign policy, military developments, and scientific progress as oil. This black gold has been at the center of most economic and political relations since the late 19th century (Corbett et al. 2017). The United States could achieve an advantage during World War I primarily because it transferred military equipment to oil-powered engines (Corbett et al. 2017). For instance, ships could travel faster, and automobiles became more efficient and convenient. Also, the development of airplanes and space rockets was possible only because the country had large reserves of oil on its territories (Corbett et al. 2017). However, the oil needs to be extracted and purified before it is ready to be used (Corbett et al. 2017). Therefore, the industry necessitated the development of new technological equipment that would make oil extraction, processing, storage, and transportation more manageable and much cheaper.

Today, most production facilities depend on oil as the source of energy. Therefore, it is ubiquitously consumed in all parts of the world, which makes oil one of the most demanded and necessary natural resources. For this reason, the foreign policy of the United States has been significantly shaped by the oil industry (Schultz 2015). For instance, imposing sanctions on countries whose economies depend on oil exports can yield effects the U.S. government desires. Also, because the U.S. is dependant on oil, its foreign policies often address the concerns in the relationships between the United States and oil-exporting countries (Schultz 2015). Active participation of the American government in the issues of the Middle East can be used as an example.


Some countries thrive because they occupy territories that are wealthy with natural resources, which they can sell. Other nations develop primarily because of human capital – their citizens are bright thinkers and have expertise in science and technology. The abundance of natural resources in the United States has allowed it to become a nation with a diverse population, and thus, with substantial human capital. The California Gold Rush is only one example of how people from around the globe moved to the American West in search of their fortune. Every discovery of valuable natural resources has been accompanied by economic and technological progress. Natural resources even shaped both domestic and foreign policies of the United States.


Boutin, Cameron. 2015. “The Roles of Natural Environments in the American Civil War.” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 5(2). Web.

Corbett, Scott, Volker Janssen, John Lund, Todd Pfannestiel, Sylvie Waskiewicz, and Paul Vickery. 2017. U.S. History. Houston: Rice University.

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Illinois Central Railroad Company. 1855. “Farm Lands for Sale.” Library of Congress. 2020. Web.

Knights of Labor. 1892. “Constitution of the General Assembly.” HathiTrust. 2020. Web.

Schultz, Kevin. 2015. U.S. History Since 1865. Boston: Cengage Learning.

“Treaty with France 1803.” 1803. Library of Congress. 2020. Web.

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