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 slavery became prominent and events began to put the nation on the road to civil war. In Europe, new technology was celebrated and the great powers fought the Crimean War.

 

Decade By Decade: Timelines of the 1800s

1850

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

January 27: The labor leader Samuel Gompers was born.

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

1851

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 slave-owner was killed when he attempted to capture a runaway slave in rural Pennsylvania.

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

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

1852

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 cites 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 elected President of the United States.

 

1853

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: Gadsden Purchase signed.

 

1854

March: The Crimean War began.

March 31: Treaty of Kanagawa signed.

May 30: The Kansas-Nebraska Act signed into law. The legislation, designed to lessen the tension over slavery, 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.

October: Florence Nightingale left Britain for the Crimean War.

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

1855

January: The Panama Railroad opened, and the first locomotive to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific 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: Walt Whitman published his first edition of Leaves of Grass in Brooklyn, New York.

November: The violence over slavery that will become known as “Bleeding Kansas” began in the US territory of Kansas.

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

 

1856

February: 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 US 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 slave states, and southerners took up collections and sent him new canes to replace the one he had splintered while being Sumner.

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

October: Second Opium War began between Britain and China.

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

1857

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 African Americans could not be American citizens, inflamed the debate over slavery.

1858

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 which were published in newspapers introduced Lincoln to an audience outside of Illinois.

1859

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.

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 fanatic John Brown launched a raid against the U.S. arsenal at Harper's Ferry.

December 2: Following a trial, abolitionist 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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