Notes from the 1850s

Antebellum America – the time leading up to the American Civil War


1848 – Gold is discovered on John Sutter’s land in California – War with Mexico ends with the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

 More information available at:


1848 – General Zachary Taylor (Whig party) defeats Lewis Cass (Democrat) in presidential election. Taylor thought he’d be nominated by both parties based on his popularity.


1849 – 80,000+ head west seeking their fortune hunting for gold in California. Most find nothing. San Francisco booms from the influx of people.  Most who profit from the gold rush do so by providing services or supplies, not by finding gold.


1850 – President Taylor dies in office. After participating in ceremonies at the Washington Monument on a blistering July 4, Taylor fell ill; within five days he was dead. Vice President Millard Fillmore is sworn in as president.


1850 – Henry Clay proposes his last great compromise – the Compromise of 1850.

The four main points of the compromise: 1. California admitted as a free state (31st state). 2. Slave trade abolished in District of Columbia. 3. New Mexico and Utah organized into territories with no restriction on slavery. 4. Stricter fugitive slave law passed by congress. More info available at:


1851 – American sailors defeat Great Britain in sailing competition. Becomes known as the America’s Cup race. The America’s Cup resided at the New York Yacht Club for 132 years as the club successfully withstood 25 challenges from all quarters.


1851 – American author Herman Melville writes and publishes his most ambitious book of maritime adventure titled Moby Dick.


1852 – Franklin Pierce (Democrat) defeats Winfield Scott (Whig) in presidential election.

See results on election map:


1852 – First intercollegiate competition in sports. Harvard and Yale crews compete in rowing race in New Hampshire.


1853 – Levi Strauss manufactures jeans for miners in California. Uses denim, and copper rivets at the stress points to reinforce the garment.


1853 – United States purchases a small tract of land from Mexico in order to proceed with a southern railroad project. Gadsden Purchase completed at a cost of $10,000,000.


1854 – Commodore Matthew Perry secures trade agreement with Japan. Treaty of Kanagawa opens two Japanese ports to American merchants.


1854 – New political party is started in the north in Ripon, Wisconsin on February  28th, 1854. Using the idea of the “Free-Soilers” the Republican Party embraces the doctrine of non-extension of slavery into the territories.


1854 – Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas introduces the Kansas-Nebraska Bill to congress. Promotes the idea of Popular Sovereignty to decide the slavery issue in Kansas and Nebraska. Some saw this as a way for Douglas to secure Southern support for either a transcontinental railway beginning in Chicago (in his home state) or support for his run for the presidency.


1852 – Massachusetts state legislature outlaws segregation in all Massachusetts schools.


1854 - The United States draws up a document suggesting that the U.S. should take Cuba by force if Spain refused to sell. Southerners favored the idea, but it was denounced by the free-soilers as a plot to extend slavery.


1855 – Kansas erupts in violence. Several thousand people from both the north and south flood into Kansas hoping to sway the vote on the slavery issue. Two territorial governments are established. Both claim to be the legitimate government.


New to the 1850s – potato chips, strawberry shortcake, Mason jars, lawn mowers.


1856 – During a speech in Bloomington, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln says, "You may fool all the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time."


1856 – Violence breaks out on the floor of the Senate. On May 19, 1856, Charles Sumner trashed slavery in a speech he read on the Senate floor. Sumner claimed all slaveholders were criminals. The speech deteriorated into a personal attack on Senator Butler of South Carolina. Sumner also made many mean-spirited remarks about other prominent southerners. Butler was not even present the day the speech was made, but his nephew, Preston Brooks was. Brooks decided to take revenge on Sumner. On May 22, Preston Brooks, holding a gentleman’s cane, walked into the Senate chamber and proceeded to beat him senseless with his cane. Sumner was beaten unconscious, and would remain absent from the Senate for more than a year.


1856 – James Buchanan (Democrat) defeats John C. Fremont (Republican) and Millard Fillmore (Know-Nothing Party) in presidential election. See map:


1856 – John Brown and his sons hack 5 pro-slavery men to death with broad swords in Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas. This massacre shocked even Brown's fellow abolitionists and led to a string of violent deaths, which gave rise to the name "Bleeding Kansas."


1857 – Dred Scott Case sets controversial precedent. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney hands down the majority opinion that (1) Dred Scott, not being a citizen, could not sue in a court of law, and  (2) slaves were property and could not be prohibited in any territory - thus the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional. For more information visit this Missouri historical website:


1858 – Minnesota is admitted to the Union as the 32nd state.


1858 – Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln engage in a series of famous debates throughout Illinois. They were competing for one of the state’s senate seats and spoke in all seven congressional districts. As expected, the Democrats thought Douglas was convincingly superior and the Republicans thought Lincoln easily outshone his worthy opponent.


1859 – Oregon is admitted to the Union as the 33rd state.


1859 - John Brown surfaces in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia to lead an ill-fated raid on the federal arsenal in that tiny junction.

He and 20 of his followers attempted to take command of the arsenal with the purpose of arming nearby slaves. The rebellion was to gain momentum and free thousands as it worked its way south. He was captured by the U.S. Marines, charged with treason, convicted, and executed before the year was through. For more info:


1860 – Abraham Lincoln (Republican) is elected president. Defeats three other candidates Stephen Douglas (Northern Democrat) Vice President John C. Breckenridge (Southern Democrat) and John Bell (Constitutional Union Party). See the political map: