American History Timeline 1851–1860

Franklin Pierce, Fourteenth President of the United States
Franklin Pierce, Fourteenth President of the United States.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-BH8201-5118 DLC

The time between 1851 and 1860 was one of great upheaval in United States history. 

Early 1850s: Treaties and Land From Mexico

The early part of the decade began with a treaty signed with the Native American Sioux tribe and ended with Mexico selling the U.S. land along its southern border for $15 million.


  • The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux is signed with the Sioux Indians. They agree to give up their lands in Iowa and almost all of Minnesota. 
  • The New York Daily Times appears. This will be renamed the New York Times in 1857. 
  • A fire occurs at the Library of Congress, destroying 35,000 books. 
  • Moby Dick is published by Herman Melville. 


  • Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly is published to great success by Harriet Beecher Stowe. 
  • Uncle Sam appears for the first time in a comic publication in New York. 
  • Franklin Pierce wins the presidency. 
  • The "Know Nothing" Party is created as a Nativist party opposed to Catholics and immigrants. 


  • The Coinage Act of 1853 is passed by Congress, reducing the amount of silver in coins smaller than a dollar. 
  • Vice President William King dies on April 18th. President Pierce does not appoint a new Vice President for the rest of his time in office. 
  • Mexico gives land along the southern border of present-day Arizona and New Mexico in exchange for $15 million. 

Mid-Decade: Kansas-Nebraska Act to Election of James Buchanan

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was proposed during this period, which also included the publication of Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" and the election of James Buchanan to the presidency.


  • The Kansas-Nebraska Act is proposed that would separate the central Kansas Territory into two with the idea that the individuals in the territories would decide for themselves whether they would be pro- or anti-slavery. However, this was opposed to the Missouri Compromise of 1820 because they were both above latitude 36°30'. The act is later passed on May 26th. Eventually, this area would be called 'Bleeding Kansas' due to the fighting that would occur over the question of whether the area would be pro- or anti-slavery. In October, Abraham Lincoln gives a speech condemning the act. 
  • The Republican Party is formed by anti-slavery individuals who oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act. 
  • Commodore Mathew Perry and the Japanese sign the Treaty of Kanagawa opening ports up to trade with the U.S. 
  • The Ostend Manifesto is created declaring the U.S.'s right to purchase Cuba or take it by force if Spain does not agree to sell it. When it is published in 1855, it meets with negative public reaction.
  • Walden is published by transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. 


  • Over the course of the year, a virtual civil war happens in Kansas between pro- and anti-slavery forces. 
  • Frederick Douglass publishes his autobiography entitled My Bondage, My Freedom
  • Walt Whitman publishes Leaves of Grass


  • Charles Sumner is beaten with a cane by Preston Brooks on the floor of the Senate for an anti-slavery speech. He does not recover fully for three years. 
  • Lawrence, Kansas is the center of violence in Kansas when pro-slavery men kill an anti-slavery settler. Anti-slavery men led by John Brown then retaliate killing five pro-slavery men leading to the name "Bleeding Kansas." 
  • James Buchanan is elected as president of the United States. 

Late 1850s-1860: Enslavement Battles and Secession

As the Civil War approached, opposing forces grappled with, and fought over, the issue of enslavement and South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union.


  • A pro-slavery legislature in Kansas passes the Lecompton Resolution which an election of delegates to a Constitutional Convention. Buchanan supports the eventual Convention even though it favors pro-slavery forces. It is later approved and then rejected. It becomes a point of contention with the president and Congress. It is finally sent back to Kansas for a popular vote in 1858. However, they choose to reject it. Therefore, Kansas will not be admitted as a state until 1860. 
  • The Supreme Court decides that enslaved people are property and that Congress has no right to deprive citizens of their property. 
  • The Panic of 1857 begins. It will last two years and the failure of thousands of businesses. 



  • Oregon joins the Union as a free state. 
  • Silver is discovered in Nevada leads more people out west to make their fortune. 
  • The first American oil well is created when Edwin Drake finds oil in Pennsylvania. 
  • John Brown leads a raid at Harper's Ferry to seize the federal arsenal. He is a devoted abolitionist who wishes to create a territory for self-liberated enslaved people. However, he is captured by a force led by Robert E. Lee. He is found guilty of treason and hanged in Charlestown, Virginia. 


  • The Pony Express begins between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California. 
  • Abraham Lincoln wins the presidency after a hard-fought campaign centering on the issues of sectionalism and slavery. 
  • South Carolina decides to secede from the Union. The state militia takes over the Federal arsenal at Charleston.
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Your Citation
Kelly, Martin. "American History Timeline 1851–1860." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). American History Timeline 1851–1860. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "American History Timeline 1851–1860." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).