People who built America

The history of the United States typically begins with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. The key people who helped found the early American colonies, include the settlers from Europe, seeking a life in America.

It was in the late eighteenth century that the modern United States of America was forged as an independent nation. The principal Founding Fathers included; Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and George Washington.

This is a look at the most influential people who built and created the modern United States.

columbus Christopher Columbus (1451 – 1506) was a navigator and explorer who made several transatlantic journeys to America. He was not the first person to arrive in America, but he was the first to establish permanent settlements. He helped to raise the awareness of America in Europe and paved the way for the flow of European travellers and settlers to move East looking for a new life and new opportunity.

Pilgrims – Early settlers (17th Century) Pilgrims or the Pilgrim Fathers is a name ascribed to a group of early settlers who left England and founded a colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts, around 1620. The group, original from the East Midlands of England, had fled religious persecution and political instability. After a temporary stay in Holland, they sailed for America in 1620, on the Mayflower. They founded the oldest continuously established British colony, and are a symbol of the many people who later left Europe to found a new life in the ‘new world’ of America.

William Penn (1644 – 1718) William Penn was a Quaker who was involved in building the ‘model city’ of Pennsylvania. In the Pennsylvania Frame of Government (1682), Penn included democratic principles and the ideal of religious tolerance. Penn was also an early advocate for uniting the different colonies of America.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He was an author, politician, diplomat, scientist and statesman. In particular, Benjamin Franklin is remembered for urging the colonies to join together and one of the strongest supporters of the idea of a United States. His slogan in 1765 was ‘join or die’; this was a key factor in helping spread the idea of a ‘United States of America’ that didn’t really exist before. He served as US foreign minister to France (1778-1785) symbolising the new face of America. He rose from humble working-class roots to be a successful world figure – he was an epitome of the ‘American Dream’ and left a lasting legacy on American society.

George_Washington George Washington (1732–1799) was a Founding Father of the United States, who acted as Commander in Chief during the American Revolutionary War. A great strategist, he succeeded in defeating the British army – even though he lost individual battles. After the victory, he didn’t assume power as Commander in Chief but was later elected the first President of the United States in 1788, serving for eight years. His first presidency set the tone for how America would be governed – one of the first partial democracies in the world. He used a cabinet, gave inaugural addresses and maintained American neutrality in foreign conflicts. He is widely regarded as the ‘Father of the Country.”

Daniel_Boone Daniel Boone (1734 – 1820) Boone was an American pioneer, and explorer who helped to explore the new settlement of Kentucky – helping to open up America to the unchartered west. He founded the village of Boonesborough – one of the first settlements to the west of the Appalachian mountains. He fought in the American Revolutionary War and later emigrated to eastern Missouri. He became an iconic folk hero and emblem of the American frontiersman who travelled into the unexplored lands to the west.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809)  was an English-American writer and political activist. In 1776, he wrote the best-selling pamphlet Common Sense; this advocated America seeking independence from Great Britain. It was widely read and helped to propagate the idea of American independence. John Adams said, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.” He wrote many similar articles throughout (1776-83) supporting the revolution and republican ideals. He was also a supporter of the French Revolution and wrote the influential book ‘Rights of Man’ (1791).

Thomas Jefferson(1743-1826) was an American Founding Father and the principal author of The Declaration of Independence (1776) In this declaration, Jefferson laid out the fundamental principles of America, calling for equality and liberty. He served as third President of the United States and helped to expand the territory of the US through the Louisiana declaration of (1803). He also founded the University of Virginia and passed the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” (Declaration of Independence)


Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) was a Founding Father, who served as a soldier, economist, and lawyer. He served as the first United States Secretary of the Treasury and was responsible for the economic policies of George Washington. He established a national bank, taxation system to pay off debt and negotiated trade deals with Great Britain. During the War of Independence, he served as a confidant to George Washington. “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the Hand of Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.” – Alexander Hamilton

Lewis_and_Clark Meriwether Lewis (1774 – 1809) and William Clark (1770-1838) In 1804 Lewis and Clark led an expedition from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania across the mid-west (Recently purchased Louisiana territory )and all the way to the west coast of America by the Pacific. The expedition was commissioned by Thomas Jefferson who wished to find the most practical route to the Pacific and more importantly for the American government to claim the whole landmass on behalf of the United States before rival European powers tried to stake a claim. The mission also sought to gain knowledge over the interior of the continent and at Jefferson’s bidding develop better relations with native American Indian tribes. After two years they returned to St Louis and reported their findings to the president.

John Adamsjohn-adams(1735-1826) John Adams was a Founding Father and the second US President. Adams assisted Thomas Jefferson in writing the Declaration of Independence and helped to pass the Declaration through Congress. Adams was a strong advocate of American independence and Republicanism. He negotiated the peace treaty with Great Britain and secured loans from Amsterdam bankers during the War of Independence. He wrote the Massachusetts Constitution (1780) and Thoughts on Government. “But a Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever.”  – John Adams

James Madison (1751-1836) was the fourth president of the US (1809-1817) and was responsible for drafting the United States Constitution and the United States Bill of Rights. In 1788, along with Hamilton and John Jay, he wrote the Federalist Papers, which strongly advocated support for the US constitution. “Equal laws protecting equal rights, are found as they ought to be presumed, the best guarantee of loyalty, and love of country.”

John Marshall (1755-1835) was the fourth Chief Justice of the United States (1801-1835). His opinions helped to lay the framework for American constitutional law and helped strengthen the position of the Supreme Court within the US political system. His decisions increased the role of the Federal government over states, and also allowed laws to be struck down if they violated the constitution.

Tecumseh Tecumseh (1768 – 1813) Tecumseh was a Native American Shawnee warrior and chief. He managed to create a significant Confederacy of Indian tribes. He wanted native American Indians to unite under one force to gain better negotiations with European Americans. He fought the U.S. government between 1810 and 1813 – though was largely unsuccessful in getting the government to rescind any land treaties he considered unfair. After his death, his pan-Native American alliance fell apart and the US government continued to claim Indian territories in the north east. Native Americans migrated west. But Tecumseh was important for building a sense of Native American identity that went beyond tribal rivalries. He became a folk hero in Indigenous American history and played an important role in the attitude of Native Americans in the coming decades.

David_Crockett_portrait_by_Chester_Harding David Crockett (1786 – 1836)  Crocket was an American frontiersman, soldier and politician. He grew up in Tennesee where he served in the state legislator and later as a member of the House of Representatives. He was one of the few to vote against Andrew Jacksons Indian Removal Act of 1831 – arguing it was unfair to force Native Americans out. He then lost his seat and moved to Texas. In 1836, he joined the Texas militia and fought against the Mexican Army. Although Crockett died in the Siege of Alamo, the Texas Revolution ultimately led to Texas leaving Mexico and becoming annexed by the United States. David Crocket wrote an autobiography of his life – detailing his exploits on the American frontier.

Cornelius_Vanderbilt Cornelius Vanderbilt (May 27, 1794 – 1877) Vanderbilt began in shipping operating steamboats and steamships which carried migrants to the west. In the 1850s, he began taking an interest in the new technology of railroads. In gained control of and developed some of the most significant railroads in America, such as the New York Central, Hudson River and West Shore Railroads. In 1869, he began building Grand Central Depot in New York. built and controlled many of the most significant railroads in America, such as the New York Railroad and the Grand Central Terminal.


Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was the 16th President of the US from 1861-1865. He led the US during the American civil war – where the southern states which to break free from the union to preserve their right to allow slavery. He famously stated “A house divided against itself cannot stand” Lincoln led the North to victory preserving the Union and ending slavery. His speeches, such as the Gettysburg address, have become key elements of what constitutes America. He was assassinated in 1865, just after the end of the Civil War.

John_Charles_Fremont John C. Fremont (1813 – July 13, 1890) Fremont was a military officer and President who served as a senator for California 1850-51. He was a key figure in the exploration and expansion of settlements in California. He made extensive explorations of the state and made detailed notes and reports which encouraged others to come and settle. He developed a reputation for being the “Pathfinder of the West” and helped to secure funding for a railroad between St Louis and San Francisco. He became rich during the California Gold Rush

Andrew Carnegie (1835 – 1919) Born in Scotland to poor parents, Carnegie moved to America where he became very wealthy through dominating the US steel industry. Carnegie literally helped build America during the Nineteenth Century industrial revolution through supplying steel and other raw materials to the building trade. After making a fortune in business, he retired and became a noted philanthropist.

J._P._Morgan John Pierpont “J. P.” Morgan (1837 – 1913) J.P.Morgan built a financial empire based on banking, and investment. He arranged the biggest mergers of his day. Morgan was a key player in the formation of great corporations such as General Electric 1892 and the US steel corporation. On his death, he left $68.3 million ($1.39 billion adjusted for inflation)

John D. Rockefeller (1839 – 1937) Rockefeller became one of the richest persons in the world through his dominance of the oil and railroad industries. His railroad companies became the dominant monopoly force, providing the backbone of American infrastructure. He also oversaw the boom in oil production, especially as demand for petrol grew.


Thomas Edison (1847–1931) American inventor who filed over 1,000 patents. He developed and innovated a wide range of products from the electric light bulb to the phonograph and motion picture camera. He was also a practical inventor who was able to implement his ideas on a mass scale. In 1880, he established the Edison Illuminating Company which built pioneering electrical generating stations, initially in New York. It was the first power station in US and one of first in the world, it marked the dawn of the new ‘electrical age’ which within a few decades would see electricity brought into people’s homes across America.

theodore_roosevelt-150 Theodore Roosevelt (1858 – 1919) President (1901-09) Roosevelt was a leading political figure of the Progressive Era – fighting corruption and the power of monopoly trusts. As President, he brokered ‘a square deal’ offering some support to workers and progressive reforms. He also created the first American Natural Parks.

Henry Ford (1864 – 1947) Founder of Ford Motor company. Ford pioneered the use of the assembly line for making cars, helping to reduce the price and make cars affordable for the average American consumer.
The model T Ford car was critical in enabling mass car ownership after the First World War. Ford was also able to offer higher wages to workers, due to increased efficiency.

f-d-roosevelt Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 – 1945) – US President 1932 – 1945. The longest serving US President, Roosevelt came to power during the crisis of the 1932 recession and significantly expanded the role of Federal government offering the beginnings of a welfare state, farm subsidies and greater government intervention in the economy. He also oversaw the growth of the US into the world’s dominant economic and political superpower.

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “People Who Built America”, Oxford, Last updated 4 May 2020. Published 15 October 2015.

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