Beginning with the birth of P. T. Barnum in 1810 and ending with his death 81 years later, this timeline covers events in the history of the U.S., New York City, and the American Museum.
1810- P. T. Barnum is born in Bethel, Connecticut to middling class parents.
1812- European Naturalists establish the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
1816- The American Colonization Society is founded to encourage and assist free people of color to resettle in Africa.
1817- The New York Stock and Exchange Board (NYSE) is formally established in a rented room on 40 Wall Street.
1820- Congress forges the Missouri Compromise to keep a balance between slave and free states in Congress and thereby table further discussion on slavery. Maine is admitted as a free state, and Missouri is later admitted as a slave state.
1821- Troy Female Seminary, established in Troy, New York, by Emma Willard, becomes the first institution of advanced learning for women.
1825- The Erie Canal is completed, linking New York City to upstate New York and the Midwest for trade and travel. It cuts through 363 miles of wilderness and measures 40 feet wide and four feet deep.
1826- American Temperance Society is established in Boston.
1829- Chang and Eng, the conjoined twins later exhibited by Barnum, arrive in the United States from Siam (Thailand).
1830- Joseph Smith organizes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He publishes The Book of Mormon, a testament he claims is based on ancient Egyptian manuscripts just revealed to him by the angel Moroni in western New York.
1830- Congress passes the Indian Removal Act, which authorizes President Jackson to give lands west of the Mississippi River to Indian tribes willing to exchange their lands east of the Mississippi. The government forcibly removes those tribes not willing to take part in this exchange.
1831- Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion in Virginia.
1831- The first issue of William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, is published; he advocates immediate and unconditional abolition of slavery.
1832- Abolitionists found the New England Anti-Slavery Society in Boston.
1833- Oberlin College becomes the first college in the U.S. to admit men, women, and people of color.
1835- A fire in New York City destroys property estimated at 20 million dollars. Lasting two days and ravaging 17 blocks, it destroys 674 buildings including the Stock Exchange, Merchants’ Exchange, Post Office, and South Dutch Church.
1835- Barnum purchases the remaining months of Joice Heth’s slave hiring contract, and takes her on tour as the 161 year old nursemaid to George Washington.
1836- Congress passes the first “gag rule,” preventing further discussion or hearings on slavery, despite many petitions from abolitionists.
1837- The first National Female Anti-Slavery Society convention is held in New York City, and 81 delegates from twelve states attend.
1838- The underground railroad, a network of homes that provided slaves with a safe and secret escape from slavery, is formally organized. Black abolitionist Robert Purvis is named its first “president.”
1838- George Comb, a Scottish lawyer, tours the United States to help popularize phrenology. However, by the 1840s his emphasis on research and the study of the mind was eclipsed by a more popular, individualized evaluation for self-improvement.
1839- Slaves in transit from Africa to Cuba mutiny their slave ship the Amistad. Spain demands return of the Africans to Cuba to face trial for charges of piracy and mutiny, but famous American abolitionists legally defend the Africans’ freedom. The case is appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and though the Africans are not granted return tickets to Africa, American missionaries sponsor their return.
1839- The first “Married Women’s Property Act” is passed in Mississippi. Married women can at last own and control property in their own name.
1840- The Worldwide Anti-Slavery Convention is held in London. American women walk out in protest when they are not permitted to take their seats as delegates.
1841- P.T. Barnum purchases the “New American Museum” from John Scudder’s heirs. Formerly, the building was used as New York Institution for the Promotion of the Arts and Sciences, New York City’s first non-profit cultural center.
1842- Barnum and Levi Lyman add the FeJee Mermaid to the American Museum’s collection. It is exhibited in New York for a month and then tours nationally.
1842- Barnum discovers Charles Sherwood Stratton, a four year old living in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Soon after, Barnum transforms him into General Tom Thumb.
1843- Dan Emmet’s Virginia Minstrels premier the first full-fledged blackface minstrel show at New York’s Bowery Amphitheater. Four white men clad in “Southern” garb and burnt cork makeup caricature African Americans’ behavior, speech and musical talent, creating a sensation that sparks many other white musical groups to perform similar shows.
1844- Samuel F. B. Morse’s first successful telegraph message is sent from Baltimore to Washington. Within ten years, 23,000 miles of telegraph wire covers the country.
1844- Female textile workers in Massachusetts organize the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA) and demand a ten hour workday; they establish one of the first permanent labor associations for women in US.
1844- Charles Stratton tours England with Barnum as “General Tom Thumb,” performing at the Princess Theater and soon after entertaining Queen Victoria and other European royalty.
1846- The Mexican American War begins.
1846- A severe potato famine in Ireland forces over two million Irish to immigrate to America.
1847- Frederick Douglass begins publishing the North Star abolitionist newspaper out of Rochester, New York.
1848- News travels across the country of newly discovered gold in California. San Francisco grows from 79 buildings in 1847 (including shanties, frame houses, and adobes), to over 100,000 in 1849.
1847- Liberia becomes an independent republic, founded by freed slaves. They model their constitution and flag on the United States, and name their capital Monrovia after President James Monroe.
1848- The Mexican-American War ends. The United States annexes land that later becomes Texas, New Mexico, California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.
1848- The Women’s Rights Convention assembles in Seneca Falls, New York, and passes the Declaration of Sentiments.
1850- P. T. Barnum contracts with singer Jenny Lind, the European sensation and “Swedish Nightingale,” for a nationwide tour of the U.S. Arriving in New York Harbor on September 1, she is greeted by a crowd of 40,000 that Barnum has interested through his shrewd publicity tactics.
1850- Congress passes the compromise of 1850: the Fugitive Slave Law makes aiding a runaway slave a crime; the slave trade is abolished in Washington, DC, and California is admitted as a free state.
1850- Barnum opens his Lecture Room and dedicates it to moral drama. Its first production is The Drunkard.
1851- Maine becomes the first state to ban the sale of alcohol. Many states follow. By the Civil War, thirteen northern states ban alcohol sales.
1852- Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in serial form in the abolitionist newspaper The National Era.
1853- The Freedmen’s Aid Movement begins: northern whites travel South to educate former slaves and supervise their work as free laborers.
1853- The World’s Temperance Convention is held in New York City. Delegates Rev. Antionette Brown and Susan B. Anthony, who are not allowed to speak because they are women.
1853- George L. Aiken’s faithful stage adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin opens at New York’s National Theatre. H. J. Conway’s less faithful rendering of the same play, with an emphasis on sectional understanding and compromise over slavery, debuts at the American Museum’s Lecture Room
1853- Female suffragists meet in the Broadway Tabernacle, just a few blocks from the American Museum, during the World’s Fair in New York City to discuss double standards for women in politics and religion.
1854- Barnum completes construction that more than doubles exhibition space at the American Museum.
1854- Congress passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allows “popular sovereignty,” or a referendum vote, to determine the slave or free status of the territories.
1855- Barnum presents his first “Baby Show,” a contest for babies of most “genuine American stock.” Many complain that such competition degrades women in their role as mothers.
1856- George L. Aiken’s more faithfully abolitionist rendering of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin debuts in the Lecture Room at the American Museum.
1856- Scientist Louis Agassiz publishes Essay on Classification, advocating that there was more than one common ancestor for humanity; defines a species as a “thought of God.”
1857- Henry Bellows publishes The Relation of Public Amusements to Public Morality. Barnum builds on Bellows’ ideas in his exhibits.
1857- A July 4th riot between legendary gangs, the “Bowery Boys” and the “Dead Rabbits” leave twelve dead in New York City’s Sixth Ward.
1857- The U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott v. Sanford decision nullifies the Missouri Compromise.
1859- Abolitionist John Brown and twenty-one men raid the federal military arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia to potentially combine with slaves in attacking slaveholders.
1859- Dion Boucicault’s tragedy The Octoroon opens in New York City theatres in December. Though based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel by the same name, it is largely received as condoning, or even glorifying, the institution of slavery. Boucicault insists he intends no political messages.
1859- Darwin publishes The Origin of the Species and coins the principle of natural selection. He argues that biological differences among varieties of animals and plants are due to slow change over long periods of history.
1860- Barnum’s “What is it?” exhibit opens, attempting to fascinate the public with an African-American man reputedly the “missing link” between man and beast.
1860- President Abraham Lincoln is elected president in November, and South Carolina secedes from the Union in December.
1861- Eleven southern states inaugurate Jefferson Davis president of the Confederate States of America in February; Abraham Lincoln is inaugurated President of the U.S. in early March.
1861- Harriet Jacobs publishes Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl under the pseudonym Linda Brent, edited and prefaced by Northern abolitionist Lydia Maria Child. She chronicles the repeated sexual abuse of slave women, including herself.
1862- Barnum exhibits two large white (beluga) whales, 23 and 18 feet long, in an enormous tank in the basement of the American Museum.
1862- Seventeen year old Anna Swan accepts Barnum’s offer to come to New York as the Nova Scotia “giantess.” She receives fine clothing, a comfortable home, and a handsome salary, as well as a tutor for three hours per day.
1863- President Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in Confederate states. Later in the year, he gives the Gettysburg Address in an attempt to soothe sectional wounds and reunite the country.
1863- In New York City, racial and class tensions surrounding military conscription erupt in a four day Draft Riot that leaves at least 199 dead.
1863- Tom Thumb marries fellow “little person” Lavinia Warren in front of 2,000 guests.
1864- On Nov 25, Confederate officer Robert Cobb Kennedy escapes from a Union prison and attempts to burn down many public buildings in New York City, beginning with Barnum’s American Museum.
1864- The Geneva Convention sets a minimal standard of human rights during wartime, including protection of military medical personnel and humane treatment of the wounded.
1865- On May 10, Confederate President Jefferson Davis wears his wife’s dress to escape arrest but is captured despite the disguise. After unsuccessfully trying to obtain the original petticoats Davis wore, Barnum creates a wax figure of Davis incognito and dubs it the “Belle of Richmond.”
1865- President Lincoln is assassinated, and the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery, is passed. Congress establishes the Freedmen’s Bureau to help facilitate Reconstruction in the South.
1865- The New York City Fire Department is professionalized, ending the cooperation and competition among various local volunteer clubs.
1865- In one of the most spectacular fires in New York’s history, Barnum’s American museum is destroyed. Though no human lives are lost, half a million dollars worth of damage is done. Barnum quickly relocates the museum to a different location, where he stays until 1868.
1866- The fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution is passed, providing, for both whites and people of African descent, the right to be citizens, which includes due process and equal protection under the law. The era of Radical Reconstruction begins in the South.
1866- Henry Bergh and his newly founded American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) accuses Barnum of using animals for “cruel and demoralizing entertainment.”
1868- Barnum’s second American Museum burns to the ground. Barnum turns to circus production, his concept of a “traveling world’s fair,” for which he is most remembered.
1874- Barnum opens the Great Roman Hippodrome, a circus spectacular, which he tours nationally for the next two years.
1881- Barnum teams with James A. Bailey to begin building a British fan base and expand the circus experience. They add a third ring to “the greatest show on earth.”
1891- P. T. Barnum dies at age 81.