Life in the United States during the 1850s

A family photo from the 1850s in Seattle, United States.

What happened in 1850 and the following decade? Imagine you could get into a time machine that would take you back to when your ancestors lived during the 1850s. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? What would you want to know? What questions would you ask?

Since we can’t travel back in time, the next best thing is to learn about the events and conditions of this period. Learning about your ancestors’ lifestyles and experiences will help you better understand their lives.

The United States Census Records

One resource that gives insight into the people and economic trends of the United States are its census records, which are gathered and compiled every 10 years. For example, in the United States census of 1850. we find that the total United States population was more than 23 million. There were 30 states, and New York City, New York, was the largest city, with a population over 500,000.

Compare those statistics with the United States census of 1860, and we see that the population grew to than 31 million living in 33 states and 9 organized territories, showing a 35 percent increase. The 1860 census also listed almost 4 million enslaved people. (The 1860 census was the first to count enslaved people.) The state of New York had a population of 3,880,735, while Oregon had just 52,465 inhabitants.

An 1860 census record showing a family from South Carolina.

What Was Life Like in the 1850s?

In the 1850s, most people lived on farms and lived much like their ancestors. They followed the seasonal rhythms, grew their own food, sewed their own clothing, built traditional homes, and followed the customs and traditions they were familiar with. Yet national and world events, along with new inventions and cultural shifts, brought significant changes to societies around the world during the decade of the 1850s.

Notable Events in the United States

In the United States, the decade of the 1850s was a time of land expansion, increased immigration, and rising tension over the issue of slavery.

Land Expansion

In the late 1840s, a popular idea that the United States should expand from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean became known as “Manifest Destiny.” For example, the Mexican–American War (1846–48) started as a territory dispute over the Texas border with Mexico and ended with the United States acquiring more than 500,000 square miles of Mexican territory, extending westward from the Rio Grande River to the Pacific Ocean.

An engraving of pioneers from the westward expansion movement in about 1850, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

To reduce lingering tensions with Mexico and to allow for the building of a southern transcontinental railroad, the Gadsden Purchase of 1854 was an agreement for the United States to pay Mexico for additional land that later became part of southern Arizona and New Mexico.

Increased Immigration

The 1840s brought an increased number of immigrants to the United States due to the Irish potato famine, civil unrest throughout Europe, and a desire for more land to farm. Many of the immigrants came from Ireland, the German states, and Scandinavia. On the West Coast, Chinese immigrants came to the United States to work in the gold mines and help build railroads. These immigrants made up most of the laborers who built the railroads and canals and who worked in factories.

These immigration patterns continued into the 1850s, and with an increase of available land and the 1848 California gold rush, more people moved to the western United States.

Immigrants on a busy dock, boarding a ship in about 1850.

Rising Tension over Slavery

With additional population in the United States and the need to create new states, several new laws were passed in an effort to ease the increasing tension and disputes over slavery. The Compromise of 1850 was intended to ease tensions between free and slave states over the issue of slavery. In 1854, the Kansas–Nebraska Act led to violence and the creation of the new Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln was a rising politician who had a series of debates about slavery with Senator Stephen A. Douglas. The Dred Scott Decision of 1857 and the raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859 pushed the country closer to civil war.

Events around the World

As changes were taking place domestically, many world events also shaped the lives of people living in the United States. Queen Victoria ruled in Great Britain, while Europe and Asia experienced cultural and political changes during the 1850s.

World map from 1855.
World map from 1855, originally from Harper's statistical gazetteer of the world.


  • 1853–56: Western European powers and Imperial Russia fought the Crimean War.
  • 1859: The Second War of Italian Independence, also known as the Franco–Austrian War or the Austro–Sardinian War, led to the creation of the modern state of Italy.


  • Japan and China were under pressure to open their borders to foreign trade.
  • In 1853, United States Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into a Japanese harbor near Tokyo. One year later, the Treaty of Kanagawa was signed, opening Japan for trade.
  • The Second Opium War between Britain and China occurred in 1856 due to the trade in opium and other issues.

Central America

  • Colonization of Central America by Britain and the United States became an issue as the two countries began exploring ways to build a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
  • In the Clayton–Bulwer Treaty of 1850, the United Kingdom and the United States agreed that neither nation could colonize or control any Central American republic.
  • The Panama Railroad opened in 1855, and travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean became easier.


Prominent Contributions in the Arts

Profile of Jenny Lind, a Swedish opera singer from the 1850s.
Jenny Lind, a Swedish opera singer from the 1850s.

The 1850s were part of the music and literature period known as post-romanticism. Prominent musicians and composers began playing concerts for the general public in addition to concerts for royalty. Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, and Johann Strauss Jr. were a few of the notable musicians of the time. The Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind began her successful tour of the United States, and American composer Stephen Foster captured American culture in his songs.

In literature, many notable works were published, including David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens; Moby Dick, by Herman Melville; Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe; and The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. Henry J. Raymond also published the first issue of the New York Times newspaper in 1851.

What Inventions Happened during the 1850s?

The 1850s saw several important inventions that shaped the world as part of the ongoing industrial revolution. Here are a few examples:

  • The first world’s fair was held in London, England. Sponsored by Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, the exhibition showcased modern technology.
  • Henry Bessemer invented an inexpensive way to make steel through mass production known as the Bessemer process.
  • Elisha Otis produced and installed the first elevator. The elevator paved the way for building skyscrapers.
  • Isaac Singer produced the first sewing machine for home use, making sewing easier for the masses.
  • The first productive oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania, which launched the beginning of the petroleum industry.

Do You Know What Your Ancestors Were Experiencing in the 1850s?

As you learn more about your ancestors who lived during this period, search the United States census of 1860 located on to give you some additional fascinating insight.

Another great feature on the FamilySearch website is the Where Am I From? experience. It can help you discover where your ancestors lived by tracing your family lines around the world.

Screenshot of the Where Am I From? timeline experience on

Be sure to share what you learn about your own family tree in the FamilySearch Family Tree!

Sources for More Information about the 1850s

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