America, the western continent and its adjacent islands, forming the main body of land found in the western hemisphere. America has an area of about 16,500,000 sq. m., and is larger than Europe and Africa together. It is more than four times as large as Europe, five times as large as Australia, and half as large again as Africa; but is considerably smaller in area than Asia. It is customary to regard Greenland as a part of America; while the adjacent island of Iceland, though partially in the western hemisphere, is usually associated with Europe. The other principal American islands in the Atlantic are Newfoundland, Cape Breton, Anticosti, Prince Edward Island, Long Island, the Bermudas, the Antilles or West Indies, Joannes, the Falkland Islands, Staten Land, and South Georgia. At the southern extremity of America lies the archipelago of Fuegia (Tierra del Fuego). In the Pacific are the Aleutian Islands, Kadiak, the Alexander and Queen Charlotte groups, Vancouver and other British-Columbian Islands; the Santa Barbara group, Revilla-Gigedo, the Pearl Islands, and others in the Gulf of Panama, the Galapagos, Juan Fernandez and the associated islets, Chiloe and the Chonos Archipelago. In the Arctic Ocean there are many large but unimportant islands.
The American continent consists of two principal parts, North America and South America, which are connected by the narrow Isthmus of Panama. These two bodies of land, though differing very much in climate and productions, are much alike in several respects. Each is of triangular outline, with the shortest side to the north, and with a narrow southern prolongation. In outline, North and South America have each a certain resemblance to Africa. The two Americas have each a high range of volcanic mountains, extending from north to south along the west coast, a broad central plain, and a relatively low eastern mountain-range. Their great rivers have also some features in common, especially in regard to their direction. America is called the New World; and from the historical point of view, this name is obviously appropriate; but geologically it may be called the Old World, since the oldest known strata have their widest development on its surface; and there have been here found relics of prehistoric man, which must be regarded as among the oldest yet discovered.
North America has an area of more than 9,000,000 sq. m. It is considerably larger than South America, which is in turn larger than Europe and Australia combined. The western mountain-system of North America comprises a very great number of minor ranges, mostly having a north and south direction. The main chain (Sierra Madre) cannot be said to preserve an unmistakable identity throughout. The Coast Range, the Sierra Nevada, and the Cascade Mountains are the most noted of the western parallel ranges; they all lie on the Pacific slope, and they contain some of the highest of North American peaks. The elevated plateau called the Great Basin (chiefly in Utah and Nevada, U.S.), contains the Great Salt Lake and several smaller bodies of strongly saline water, evidently the remains of a much larger lake which once sent its waters to the sea. The eastern or great Appalachian mountain-system has a general NNE. direction, nearly parallel with the Atlantic coastline.
North of the St Lawrence River is seen the vast and complicated mountain-system of the Laurentides, which extend from the Atlantic westward to near Lake Superior. The highest mountain in North America is Mount McKinley, in Alaska (20,464 feet). Orizaba, in Mexico, is 18,250 feet; Mount Logan, in Yukon, 19,539; Mount St Elias, long believed to be the highest summit, 18,024. Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, in Mexico, are 17,520 feet and 16,9(30 feet respectively. Many other peaks are over 14,000 feet.
A very remarkable feature of North America is the great central plain which reaches from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. A prominent feature of the central plain is the Hauteur des Terres, a high ridge, whence flow the Mississippi, the Red River, the St Lawrence, and the Winnipeg. This ridge is nowhere over 2000 feet high, and its ascent is extremely gradual. The most general name for the great plains of North America is prairie; there are local distinctions between timbered and bald or treeless prairies; and few prairies are of a dead-level surface, and many are 'rolling' - that is, their surface is a succession of low wave-like swells and depressions.
The coast-line of North America on the west is almost everywhere high and rocky. To the south of Puget Sound, good harbours are rare; but British Columbia and Alaska have great numbers of good seaports, the coast-line being, in many places, deeply cut with high-walled fjords, or 'canals,' and elsewhere sheltered by ranges of high and well-wooded islands. The Atlantic coast, to the north of New York Bay, is generally rocky and well sheltered with islands, and has abundance of good natural harbours; but south of the parallel of New York, the coast of the mainland is almost everywhere low and sandy. Many of the best ports are formed by river-mouths, and have sand-bars across their entrances. Nowhere else in the world is there any such extent of low and sandy coast as on the Atlantic and Gulf seaboards of the United States.
In general, Canada and the Atlantic slope are well watered and have abundant rains. Along a narrow strip on the Pacific slope, from San Francisco southward to Acapulco, the water-supply is deficient, and the interior regions near the coast have locally a desert character; while from Acapulco southward the rainfall is ample for all needs. The central valley is generally well supplied with water; but to the west of the Mississippi there are but scanty summer rains. As the Rocky Mountains are approached, the water-supply becomes more deficient; and, except where irrigation is practicable, agriculture proper generally gives place to the grazing of cattle. But in the Canadian part of the central valley there is ordinarily no deficiency of rainfall. In the Rocky Mountain region, the summers are generally very dry; and in some sections, irrigation is required in order to produce crops. Still the great volume and length of the North American rivers, and the immense number of lakes, are sufficient proof of the amplitude of the general rainfall. In the Rocky Mountain region of Canada, the great rivers, Yukon, Fraser, Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Mackenzie, take their rise. Between these mountains and Hudson Bay, a girdle of vast lakes, or inland seas (Great Bear, Great Slave, Athabasca, Deer Lake, Winnipeg, and others), are seen to form a regular succession running from the Arctic Circle in a SSE. course to Lake Superior (412 by 167 miles), which is itself the largest fresh-water lake in the world, and the first of a wonderful chain of great sea-like expansions of the Upper St Lawrence (the others being Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario). The line of these great lakes (from Great Bear Lake to the Lake of the Woods inclusive) marks the eastern limit of a fertile prairie region resting on fossiliferous rocks. East of this line we find a vast wilderness of ' Barren Grounds.' North of the St Lawrence system, almost the whole country is thickly studded with lakes, which, with their connecting streams, form a network of important waterways traversable by canoes and boats.
The Atlantic slope of the United States is well supplied with water, and many of its streams afford extensive navigation. The Hudson is noted for its fine scenery; the Potomac is one of the noblest of American rivers; and important streams flowing to the Atlantic are the St John, the Penobscot, the Kennebec, the Merrimac (noted as affording more utilised water-power than any other river in the world), the Connecticut, the Delaware, the Susquehanna, the James, and the St John's, nearly all navigable in their lower courses. The chief rivers flowing to the Gulf of Mexico are the Appalachicola, the Mobile, the Pearl, the great Mississippi, the Sabine, the Trinity, the Brazos, the Colorado of Texas, and the Rio Grande.
Of the many large Alaskan rivers, the principal are the Yukon and the Kuskoquim. The Fraser is a swift and strong river; the great river Columbia is noted alike for its navigation, its salmon-fisheries, and its enormous cataracts. The Rio Colorado, whose waters flow to the Gulf of California, traverses a desert plateau. Here, nearly every watercourse runs in a deep-walled canon, a narrow valley with precipitous sides, often of prodigious height.
The winter cold and the summer heat of North America are extreme, when we consider the latitudes. Variations of temperature are more sudden and more extreme than in South America or Western Europe. The arctic portion of North America has a climate of extreme severity; and much of the northern sub-arctic region has a decidedly arctic climate. South of the Canadian line, we are still in the spring-wheat belt; and not till we go south 4 or 5 degrees of latitude do we enter the winter-wheat belt. Maize is planted in the warmer parts of Canada, and in nearly all the more southern parts of North America. The other cereals grown in the United States are much the same as those ordinarily produced in Europe. Sugar-cane is raised only in the most southern parts of the United States, and in latitudes still farther south. Tobacco is an important crop not only in tropical America, but nearly as far north as Canada. Cotton reaches its northern limit in California, Missouri, and Virginia. True rice is grown in the more southern United States. Throughout the Atlantic and Gulf slopes of North America, the winter climate is much more severe than in corresponding European latitudes. It will be observed that nearly all the cultivated crop-products of North America (except maize, potatoes, and tobacco) are of Old-World origin. The same thing is true in a less degree of the cultivated fruits. The European apple thrives even better in North America than in Europe; so likewise do the peach, the pear, and other fruits. But the grapes generally cultivated in America are of native or hybrid origin; although the European grape does well in California and Mexico. The cranberries, strawberries, and some of the other cultivated small fruits of North America, are of native origin, as are some of the more hardy varieties of the plum. Subtropical fruits, such as the orange, fig, and lemon, do well in that limited part of non-tropical North America which lies south of the frost-line. The mineral treasures of North America are vast; coal, iron, copper, gold, silver, lead, and petroleum being abundant, besides salt and other valuable products.
The native peoples of North and South America alike would appear to have been all of one race, although the Eskimo of the far North resemble the ' Indian,' or copper-coloured native races, not so much in appearance and in physical features, as in the polysynthetic or incorporative character of their system of word-building. The present population of North America contains a copious element of the Indian stock, chiefly found in the remoter parts of Canada and in Mexico and Central America. In Spanish America and in Manitoba (Canada), there are many persons of mixed white and Indian origin. The Spanish language is spoken in Central America, Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico; French prevails in parts of Canada and Louisiana, and in some of the West Indies; and a German dialect prevails locally in Pennsylvania. But by far the largest share of the North American people are English in language, if not in descent.
The political divisions of North America are (1) Danish America, which includes Greenland, and three small islands of the Virgin group in the West Indies. (2) British North America, in which division we may place the Dominion of Canada, Newfoundland, Labrador, the Bermudas, the numerous British West Indian islands, and British Honduras. (3) The United States, including the detached territory of Alaska. (4) Mexico. (5) The Central American republics of Honduras, Guatemala, Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, together with Panama - unless its southern part be regarded as belonging to the South American continent. (6) The West Indian republics of Hayti and San Domingo. (7) The Dutch West Indies. See the articles on the separate states and colonies.
The population of North America, with the West Indies, is not less than 105,000,000 souls, of whom 7,000,000 may be of Indian descent. The very great majority of North American Indians, who fall into about a dozen stocks or groups of tribes, are found in Mexico and Central America. The people of African stock number at least 11,000,000, most of whom are natives of the United States. The original slave element was derived from almost every coast-region of the African continent.
South America has somewhat the same general shape on the map as North America, and the semi-continents have many features in common, as well as certain marked contrasts. The broadest part of each is towards the north; but the northern portion of North America is a frozen and most repelling region, having its coasts washed by a trackless frozen ocean, filled with barren and ice-crowned islands; while the Caribbean Sea, which lies north of the southern half of the continent, is entirely tropical, and is encircled by a chain of rich and beautiful islands, where frosts are never seen. The climates are therefore reversed. The greater portion of North America has either a cold or a temperate climate; while that part of South America which is of corresponding position and importance has a hot climate. The tropical region of North America is relatively small in area; while in South America it is much the smaller part which has a cold climate. Moreover, the winter cold of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, and the Falkland Islands is never extreme, like that of so great a part of North America. Even Tierra del Fuego, which has a terribly bleak and blustering wet and windy climate, is never very cold. The summers of the extreme south of America are indeed relatively cold, but the winters are correspondingly mild; that is to say, the climate is more steady and less changeable than that of North America.
The Andes, or South American Cordilleras, have some features in common with the great North American Cordilleras, the Rocky Mountain system. They both extend north and south; both are near the west coast; both are volcanic; and both cut off' the rains from a considerable region, rendering the climate locally very dry. But the Andes are much more nearly continuous; they are a much more complete barrier to the traveller and merchant, as well as to the rain-bearing winds of the Atlantic; they have a much greater absolute height, and contain a far greater number of very lofty peaks. Their volcanic activity is also at present much more intense than is seen at any point in North America north of the Tehuantepec Isthmus. The dry or desert region west of the Andes is far more extensive and far more completely arid than the corresponding section of North America. To the east of the Andes, and as it were reclining against them, there is an enormous and lofty plateau on which are scattered various extinct or dormant volcanic peaks; but the western slope of the Andes is usually very steep. In some parts of the eastern sub-Andean plain there appear complicated (but generally north and south) ranges of lower mountains, occasionally sending out an arm of hills into the plains of the interior. The really temperate part of South America, including most of Chili, Uruguay, and the Argentine Republic, has a mild, and for the most part singularly equable and agreeable climate; although Northern Chili is a hot and arid desert, and the southern third of that country, including the Chonos Archipelago, is drenched with continual rains. The greater and most characteristic region of South America is the tropical portion. For a tropical country the climate is in general remarkably fine, regular, and healthful. A marked feature is the large and regular rainfall, caused by the Andes, which here stand exactly across the course of the trade-winds. These winds, carried gradually upwards by the shelving plateaus, till they reach the cold Andean summit-region, precipitate nearly all their moisture, and leave the narrow strip of land west of the Andes a desert. Towards the north and south, the Pacific slope, being out of the highway of the trade-winds, receives abundant moisture from the Pacific. Owing to the enormous rainfall of tropical South America, it is above all others the land of great rivers. The three great river-systems of the Orinoco, the Amazon, and the Plata are all primarily developed upon the eastern terraces of the Andes; but the Plata derives its main water-supply from the Brazilian mountains. Other large rivers are the Magdalena in Colombia, the Sao Francisco in Brazil, and the Rio Negro in the Argentine Republic. South America has few large lakes, Lake Titicaca being one of the most remarkable; but the slopes of the Southern Andes abound in smaller lakes, doubtless of glacial origin.
The interior of South America presents considerable variety. In the central and southern portion of Venezuela we find extensive steppes or prairies, here called llanos; an open region, in part treeless, but in general grassy and devoted to pasturage. To the east and west of these the country is for the most part densely wooded. The vast forest-clad plain of the Amazon is of fluviatile origin. Towards the southern tropic we encounter a region which, though little developed, appears to be one of the finest and most fertile on the globe. Farther south the forests begin to disappear, and finally end in the great treeless pampas of the Argentine Republic. The Patagonian region south of the pampas consists largely of a succession of terraces rising westward to the Andes, and crossed by many swift and copious rivers. Here are seen vast fields covered with loose stones and shingle, recalling the enormous boulder-covered waste of Labrador. Farther south lies the Fuegian Archipelago, a gloomy and unpleasant region with a bleak climate.
The mineral wealth of South America is very great, including gold, silver, mercury, copper, diamonds, and coal.
The agricultural capabilities of a large part of South America are unquestionably very great. Stock-breeding is the leading industry on the pampas of the south, and on the llanos and campos of the north. Coffee-growing is a prominent pursuit in Brazil. The cereal grains thrive remarkably in the temperate regions. Sugar, tobacco, and cotton are produced in the warmer latitudes. Silver, copper, iodine, nitrates, guano, hay, and provisions are shipped from the west coast. From the La Plata countries wool and various cattle products still take the lead, although flour and grain are becoming important staples of export. Peruvian bark and other medicines, india-rubber, cabinet-woods, chocolate, tobacco, and fruits are shipped from the tropical and forest-regions of the north.
The aboriginal population of South America is divided into a large number of tribes, which have been grouped under some eight different stocks. The white population is largely Spanish in language and descent, except in Brazil, where Portuguese is spoken. The common people of Chili are largely of Gallician (Spanish) descent; while Basque blood is said to prevail in Peru. The Brazilian whites are to a considerable extent of Azorean and Madeira stock. There are numbers of German colonists in Brazil, the La Plata countries, and Chili; and also many Italians, Basques, and other Europeans in the Argentine Republic and Uruguay. The English language is spoken in the Falklands and in Guiana; French and Dutch prevail in parts of Guiana. The negro element is strong in Brazil, in parts of Peru, and in Guiana; and there are many persons of mixed descent. It is believed that the total population of South America is about 38,000,000.
A considerable number of the islands visually reckoned as West Indian, and assigned by most geographers to North America, are really continental and South American. Such are the large British colony of Trinidad; the Venezuelan island of Marguerita; and the Dutch island of Curagoa.