Several hundred years after Europeans began arriving in North America, the United States of America fought for and won its freedom as an independent country. But it wasn’t until the 1800s that a series of events would propel this largely agrarian land toward its status as a powerful and unified nation.
Key to this growth was the idea of “manifest destiny,” a term credited to newspaper editor John O’Sullivan (1813–1895) in 1845 that outlined the colonialist belief that America was destined—ordained by God, in fact—to expand the virtues of its democratic founding westward until it held every inch of land from shore to shore.
Yet the Civil War, which took place in the middle of the century, resulted in part as a challenge to this idea. The war left the nation teetering on the edge of complete fracture.
The 1800s were also a time of great intellectual and technical progress, with many people acquiring astonishing economic gains.
March 4, 1801: Thomas Jefferson takes his seat as the third U.S. president, where he will stay until 1809.
April 30, 1803: Jefferson buys Louisiana from France, doubling the size of the country.
July 23, 1803: Robert Emmet (1778–1803) foments a rebellion in Ireland, in an unsuccessful attempt to secure its independence from Great Britain.
May 1804: U.S. explorers Lewis and Clark head west on their two-year, 8,000-mile expedition to explore the new Louisiana Purchase territory.
July 11, 1804: U.S. founding fathers Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton fight a duel; Hamilton is killed and Burr is ruined.
1809: Writer Washington Irving (1783–1859) publishes “A History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker,” defining American literature.
1811: The first contracts for The National Road are signed and the first 10 miles are constructed westward from Cumberland, Maryland, which will make westward migration possible.
November 7, 1811: At the Battle of Tippecanoe, Indigenous peoples led by Tecumseh fight and lose a major battle opposing White settlement.
August 24, 1814: The British burn the White House and the Capitol, but first lady Dolley Madison saves the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.
July 15, 1815: Napoleon Bonaparte surrenders after a devastating loss at the Battle of Waterloo, ending the Napoleonic Wars in Europe.
December 23, 1814–January 8, 1815: Andrew Jackson becomes an American hero at the Battle of New Orleans.
March 3, 1820: The Missouri Compromise, precariously balancing the practice of enslavement, holds the Union together, at least temporarily.
1824: The U.S. election that made John Quincy Adams president is bitterly contested and must be resolved by the House of Representatives.
1825: The Erie Canal opens, making New York the Empire State.
1828: The election of Andrew Jackson is no less bitter than the previous one, and Jackson’s inaugural party nearly wrecks the White House.
October 6, 1829: A new police facility opens on Scotland Yard street in London, establishing London’s first formal police force.
September 18, 1830: In Baltimore, a steam locomotive races a horse-driven railroad car—and loses after a drive band slips.
January 30, 1835: An English-born house painter attempts to assassinate Jackson, but the president beats him up.
September–October 1835: Pioneer scientist Charles Darwin visits the Galapagos Islands.
March 6, 1836: A tragic siege at the Alamo becomes a legendary battle in the Texas War for Independence.
1840: The song “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” helps usher in a presidential election win for William Henry Harrison, who dies of pneumonia a month later.
1845–1847: Ireland is ravaged by the Great Famine, spurring one of the great migrations of people to the U.S.
December 1848: U.S. President James K. Polk confirms that quantities of gold have been discovered and Gold Fever strikes the thousands of people who rush to California.
1850: The ominous Compromise of 1850 over enslavement delays the Civil War.
1852: U.S. abolitionist and writer Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) publishes “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and sells 300,000 copies in its first year.
1854: The Kansas-Nebraska Act breaks the previous compromises over enslavement.
Summer and fall of 1858: The upstart politician Abraham Lincoln debates Stephen A. Douglas, in a series of debates that included enslavement in the country.
October 16, 1859: Abolitionist John Brown (1800–1859) leads a raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, hoping to initiate a revolt of enslaved people that would put America back on the path to war.
1861–1865: The United States is torn by the Civil War.
April 14, 1865: Five days after the war ends, President Lincoln is assassinated.
1868: Scottish naturalist John Muir (1838–1914) arrives in Yosemite Valley, California, where he would find his spiritual home.
March 4, 1869: A hero of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) becomes president of the United States.
March 1, 1872: President Ulysses S. Grant establishes Yellowstone Park as the first National Park.
November 10, 1871: Newspaper journalist and adventurer Henry Morton Stanley finds the Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone exploring in Africa.
1873: William “Boss” Tweed (1823–1878) goes to jail, ending his corrupt New York political machine “Tammany Hall.”
June 1876: Lt. Colonel George A. Custer meets his end in an ill-considered fight with assembled Indigenous troops at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
1876: Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893) wins the hotly contested 1876 presidential election, although not the popular vote.
May 24, 1883: The Brooklyn Bridge opens with a huge celebration, and the crush of visitors results in a disaster a week later.
August 1883: The volcanic island of Krakatoa in present-day Indonesia blows apart from an eruption and resulting tsunami, killing 10,000 people.
October 28, 1886: The Statue of Liberty is dedicated in New York Harbor.
May 31, 1889: The South Fork Dam in Pennsylvania breaks, destroying everything in its path, including most of the industrial town of Johnston.
August 4, 1892: Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother are slaughtered with an ax and she is charged with murder.
1890: Yosemite, California becomes the second U.S. National Park.
1893: A widespread panic creates a serious economic depression lasting until 1897.
April 1896: The first modern Olympic Games are held in Athens, Greece.
1895–1896: Future president Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1858–1919) shakes up New York City by cleaning up the police department before charging up San Juan Hill on July 1, 1898.