Exam preparation materials

An Overview of United States History

The following overview of U.S. history concentrates on political and economic developments. Each of the twelve sections contains a brief outline of things to know about the period, a list of important individuals, events, and concepts, key definitions, and a short bibliography of helpful monographs for further reading. Tables present information about the Age of Exploration, the founding of the British colonies, the background to the American Revolution, the Supreme Court decisions of Chief Justice Marshall, events leading up to the Civil War, and the programs of the New Deal. If you want a more detailed summary of American history, we suggest you use Cliffs Quick Review U.S. History I and II (1998,1999) by the authors.

The overview is best used as a study guide for tests in your AP class and for the AP exam itself. As you read your text, identify the items listed under Key Terms and Concepts in a sentence or two. Since it’s impossible to include all the people, places, and things or define all the terms that you or your teacher find important, add to those provided here. You may want to use three- by-five index cards to better organize this part of your notes. Also, try your hand at making up additional tables — Supreme Court decisions dealing with civil rights or major American writers, for example. Tables are a good way of summarizing information on a theme or broad subject in U.S. history, particularly one that covers a long period of time.

Exploration and Colonization, 1492-1763

Things to Know

1. Factors in the European Age of Exploration (fifteenth-sixteenth centuries): importance of trade with Asia; need for new routes; improvements in maritime technology; rise of nation-states.

2. Major voyages of exploration and conquest: explorers, dates of voyages, countries they represented, results; consequences of first contact — Great Biological Exchange.









rounds southern tip of Africa




first to explore Western Hemisphere


da Gama


sea route to India by sailing around Africa




explores Newfoundland and Nova Scotia




explores coast of South America




Portugal's claim on Brazil




conquest of Aztecs




circumnavigates world




conquest of Peru (Incas)




explores St. Lawrence River


de Soto


explores lower Mississippi River




explores the Southwest

3. Establishment of English colonies of North America: motives in founding colonies (economic and religious); when and how the colonies were established.



Founded By


Jamestown (1607)

Virginia Company

first permanent English colony

Plymouth (1620)


Mayflower Compact

Massachusetts Bay (1630)

Massachusetts Bay Company


Maryland (1634)

Lord Baltimore

first proprietary colony; Catholics

Rhode Island (1636)

Roger Williams

religious toleration

Connecticut (1636)

Thomas Hooker

Fundamental Orders of Connecticut

Delaware (1638)


under English rule from 1664

Carolinas (1663)


North and South given separate charters in the eighteenth century

New York (1664)

Duke of York

under Dutch control as New Amsterdam from 1621 to 1664

New Hampshire (1664)

John Mason

royal charter in 1679

New Jersey (1664)

Berkeley and Carteret

overshadowed by New York

Pennsylvania (1681)

William Penn


Georgia (1732)

James Oglethorpe

buffer against Spanish Florida

4. Economic basis of colonies: differences between New England, middle colonies, and southern colonies; role of agriculture, industry, and trade.

5. Colonial society: labor force — indentured servants and slaves; ethnic diversity — Germans, Scotch-Irish, Jews; status of women; relations between colonists and Native Americans; religious dimension — religious conformity vs. religious dissent; Puritanism, Great Awakening.

6. Relations with Great Britain: mercantilism and its early impact on colonies; impact of events in England — Restoration (1660) and Glorious Revolution (1688); colonial political institutions — assemblies and governors; Anglo-French rivalry in North America — French and Indian War.

Key Terms and Concepts


Great Biological Exchange

Line of Demarcation

Treaty of Tordesillas

lost colony of Roanoke

Virginia Company

Virginia House of Burgesses

William Bradford

Mayflower Compact

John Winthrop

“City on a Hill”

Salem witch trials

Roger Williams

Thomas Hooker

Pequot War

King Philip's War

Bacon’s Rebellion

New Amsterdam

“Peaceable Kingdom”

Society of Friends

Maryland Toleration Act (1649)

Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639)

Restoration colonies

Dominion of New England

John Peter Zenger

Jonathan Edwards

George Whitefield

Leisler’s Rebellion

Albany Plan of Union

Benjamin Franklin

Treaty of Paris (1763)

Important Definitions

Antinomianism: An interpretation of Puritan beliefs that stressed God’s gift of salvation and minimized what an individual could do to gain salvation; identified with Anne Hutchinson.

enumerated articles: Under the English Navigation Acts, those commodities that could be shipped only to England or other English colonies; originally included sugar, tobacco, cotton, and indigo. 

Great Awakening: Religious revival movement during the 1730s and 1740s; its leaders were George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards; religious pluralism was promoted by the idea that all Protestant denominations were legitimate.

Great Migration: Settlement of over twenty thousand Puritans in Massachusetts Bay and other parts of New England between 1630 and 1642.

Half-Way Covenant: In 1662, Puritans permitted the baptized children of church members into a “half-way” membership in the congregation and allowed them to baptize their children; they still could not vote or take communion.

headright system: Method of attracting settlers to Virginia; after 1618, it gave fifty acres of land to anyone who paid for their own passage or for that of any other settlers who might be sent or brought to the colony.

indentured servants: Individuals who sold their labor for a fixed number of years in return for passage to the colonies; indentured servants were usually young, unemployed men and could be sold.

joint-stock company: The company sold shares of stock to finance the outfitting of overseas expeditions; colonies founded by joint-stock companies included Jamestown (Virginia Company) and New Amsterdam (Dutch West India Company).

mercantilism: Economic policy that held that the strength of a nation is based on the amount of gold and silver it has; also, that the country needs a favorable balance of trade and that colonies exist for the good of the mother country as a source of raw materials and a market for manufactured goods.

Middle Passage: The sea route followed by slave traders from the west coast of Africa to the Western Hemisphere.

proprietary colony: A colony founded as a grant of land by the king to an individual or group of individuals; Maryland (1634) and Carolina (1663) were proprietary colonies.

Separatists: Those who wanted to break all connections with the Church of England as opposed to most Puritans who believed it was possible to reform the church; the Pilgrims were Separatists.

triangular trade: Trade pattern that developed in the colonies; New England shipped rum to the west coast of Africa in exchange for slaves that were sent to the West Indies for molasses that was sold in New England.

Readings on Exploration and Colonization

Bailyn, Bernard. The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction (1986).

Boorstin. Daniel J. The Americans: The Colonial Experience (1958).

Greene, Jack P. and J. R. Pole, eds. Colonial British America (1984).

Hofstadter, Richard F. America at 1750: A Social Portrait (1971).

Nash, Gary B. Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America (1982).

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!