Timeline from 1850 to 1860

Engraved illustration of the Christiana Riot
The Christiana Riot. public domain

The 1850s was a pivotal decade in the 19th century. In the United States, tensions over the institution of slavery became prominent and dramatic events hastened the nation's movement towards civil war. In Europe, new technology was celebrated and the great powers fought the Crimean War.


January 29: The Compromise of 1850 was introduced in the U.S. Congress. The legislation would eventually pass and be highly controversial, but it essentially delayed the Civil War by a decade.

February 1: Edward "Eddie" Lincoln, a four-year-old son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, died in Springfield, Illinois. 

July 9: President Zachary Taylor died in the White House. Vice President Millard Fillmore ascended to the presidency.

July 19: Margaret Fuller, an early feminist writer and editor, died tragically at the age of 40 in a shipwreck on the coast of Long Island.

September 11: The first New York City concert by Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind created a sensation. Her tour, promoted by P.T. Barnum, would cross America for the following year.

December 7: The first clipper ship built by Donald McKay, the Stag Hound, was launched.


May 1: An enormous exhibition of technology opened in London with a ceremony attended by Queen Victoria and the event's sponsor, her husband Prince Albert. Prize-winning innovations shown at the Great Exhibition included photographs by Mathew Brady and the reaper of Cyrus McCormick.

September 11: In what became known as the Christiana Riot, a Maryland enslaver was killed when he attempted to capture a freedom seeker in rural Pennsylvania.

September 18: Journalist Henry J. Raymond published the first issue of The New York Times.

November 14: Herman Melville’s novel "Moby Dick" was published.

Engraved portrait of politician Henry Clay
Henry Clay. Getty Images


March 20: Harriet Beecher Stowe published "Uncle Tom’s Cabin."

June 29: Death of Henry Clay. The great legislator's body was taken from Washington, D.C. to his home in Kentucky and elaborate funeral observances were held in cities along the way.

July 4: Frederick Douglass delivered notable speech, “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro.”

October 24: Death of Daniel Webster.

November 2: Franklin Pierce was elected president of the United States.


March 4: Franklin Pierce sworn in as President of the United States.

July 8: Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Japanese harbor near present day Tokyo with four American warships, demanding to deliver a letter to the emperor of Japan.

December 30: Gadsden Purchase signed. 

illustration of the sinking of the SS Arctic
The sinking of the S.S. Arctic. Library of Congress 


March 28: Britain and France declare war on Russia, entering The Crimean War. The conflict between was costly and had a very confusing purpose.

March 31: Treaty of Kanagawa signed. The treaty opened Japan up for trade, after considerable pressure from the United States.

May 30: The Kansas-Nebraska Act signed into law. The legislation, designed to lessen the tension over enslavement, actually has the opposite effect.

September 27: The steamship S.S. Arctic collided with another ship off the coast of Canada and sank with a great loss of life. The disaster was considered scandalous as women and children were left to die in the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

October 21: Florence Nightingale left Britain for the Crimean War. Her service aiding battlefield casualties would make her a legend and set a new standard for nursing.

November 6: Birth of composer and bandleader John Philip Sousa.


January 28: The Panama Railroad opened, and the first locomotive to travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean traveled on it.

March 8: British photographer Roger Fenton, with his wagon of photographic gear, arrived at the Crimean War. He would make the first serious effort to photograph a war.

July 4: Walt Whitman published his first edition of "Leaves of Grass" in Brooklyn, New York.

November 17: David Livingstone became the first European to reach Victoria Falls in Africa.

November 21: Violence over the practice of enslavement erupted in the U.S. territory of Kansas at the start of the pre-war troubles that would become known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

Congressman Preston Brooks attacking Senator Charles Sumner
Congressman Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Getty Images


February 18: The Know-Nothing Party held a convention and nominates former president Millard Fillmore as its presidential candidate.

May 22: Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was attacked and beaten with a cane in the U.S. Senate chamber by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina. The nearly fatal beating was prompted by a speech the anti-slavery Sumner gave in which he insulted a pro-slavery Senator. His attacker, Brooks, was declared a hero in the pro-slavery states, and southerners took up collections and sent him new canes to replace the one he had splintered while beating Sumner.

May 24: Abolitionist John Brown and his followers perpetrated the Pottawatomie Massacre in Kansas.

October: A series of incidents begin the Second Opium War between Britain and China.

November 4: James Buchanan elected president of the United States.


March 4: James Buchanan was inaugurated as President of the United States. He became very ill at his own inauguration, raising questions in the press about whether he had been poisoned in a failed assassination attempt.

March 6: The Dred Scott Decision was announced by the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision, which asserted that Black people could not be American citizens, inflamed the debate over enslavement.


August–October 1858: Perennial rivals Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln held a series of seven debates in Illinois while running for a U.S. Senate seat. Douglas won the election, but the debates elevated Lincoln, and his anti-slavery views, to national prominence. Newspaper stenographers wrote down the content of the debates, and portions that were published in newspapers introduced Lincoln to an audience outside of Illinois.


August 27: The first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania to a depth of 69 feet. The following morning it was discovered to be successful. The modest well would lead to a revolution as petroleum taken from the ground would propel the rise of industry.

September 15: Death of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the brilliant British engineer. At the time of his death, his enormous steel ship The Great Eastern was still unfinished.

October 16: Abolitionist John Brown launched a raid against the U.S. arsenal at Harper's Ferry. Brown hoped to stir up an uprising of enslaved people, but his raid ended in disaster and he was taken prisoner by federal troops.

December 2: Following a trial, abolitionist and activist John Brown was hanged for treason. His death energized many sympathizers in the North, and made him a martyr. In the North, people mourned and church bells tolled in tribute. In the South, people rejoiced.

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McNamara, Robert. "Timeline from 1850 to 1860." ThoughtCo, Mar. 6, 2021, thoughtco.com/timeline-from-1850-to-1860-1774039. McNamara, Robert. (2021, March 6). Timeline from 1850 to 1860. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/timeline-from-1850-to-1860-1774039 McNamara, Robert. "Timeline from 1850 to 1860." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/timeline-from-1850-to-1860-1774039 (accessed June 8, 2023).