The American Experience in the Classroom: Timeline

Use the timeline to see how our featured artworks fit into the context of important events in American history.

1760-06-05 03:58:50

Young Moravian Girl

This girl's flushed cheeks, bright eyes, and graceful gestures hint at a vibrant personality. The artist, who was a lay preacher and painter in the Moravian community, also delights in rendering details of her traditional costume—from the pointed waistline to the elegantly slit sleeves. The Moravians were a communal society that began in the fifteenth century in Moravia and Bohemia, which today are parts of the Czech Republic. Many Moravians settled in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. This work is a reminder of the search for religious freedom that led many to migrate to America.

1765-04-01 00:00:00

The Stamp Act

The British Parliament enacts the Stamp Act, provoking anti-tax protests in colonies.

1765-04-01 00:00:00

Mrs. George Watson

Mrs. Watson, the wife of a wealthy Boston merchant, wears a fashionably low-cut gown of luscious satin and white lace and holds a porcelain vase that echoes the contours of her figure. The yards of expensive fabric and silk ribbons in the costume testified to George Watson's success as an importer of European goods, as did the fact that he could afford to commission a portrait from Boston's foremost painter. Mrs. Watson showed herself to colonial society as a fashionable English matron, but her direct gaze suggests the grit and character of a new American society that would emerge within ten years.

1767-06-05 03:58:50

The Townshend Acts

The act requires colonists to pay duties on tea and other imports.

1770-03-05 21:21:32

The Boston Massacre

The confrontation between a mob of colonists and British soldiers on the night of March 5, 1770 ended with the death of 5 colonists. The event became highly propagandized by Patriots in favor of independence from Great Britain.

1773-09-01 06:37:41

Phillis Wheatley becomes the first African American to publish a book of poetry

Phillis Wheatley was only seven or eight years old when she was captured and taken from her home in West Africa. A slave ship brought her to Boston in 1761. Knowing nothing of the talents she would soon show the world, John Wheatley, a prosperous tailor, and his wife, Susanna, purchased the young girl directly from the ship and named her Phillis Wheatley. Wheatley grew up to be a poet. Her collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published on September 1, 1773. - Library of Congress

1773-12-16 12:32:25

The Boston Tea Party

In an act of protest against British taxation, demonstrators board three ships in Boston Harbor and dump 342 chest of tea into the water.

1775-04-19 11:54:07

The Battles of Lexington and Concord

The Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the Revolutionary War.

1776-02-10 05:09:52

Mrs. James Smith and Grandson

Charles Willson Peale painted this intimate portrait in Philadelphia two months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The young boy, Campbell Smith, named for his grandfather *, holds The Art of Speaking, a manual of rhetoric and oratorical study. Campbell rests his finger on the phrase “to be or not to be” from Hamlet's soliloquy, possibly referring to family aspirations or revolutionary ideals.

1776-03-08 13:50:55

1776 - Thomas Paine publishes Common Sense

Published anonymously in Philadelphia in January 1776, Common Sense appeared at a time when both separation from Great Britain and reconciliation were being considered. Through simple rational arguments, Thomas Paine focused blame for colonial America’s troubles on the British king and pointed out the advantages of independence. With over half a million copies in twenty-five editions appearing throughout the colonies within the first year, this popular pamphlet helped to turn the tide of sentiment toward revolution. – Library of Congress

1776-07-04 11:03:06

The Declaration of Independence

Drafted by Thomas Jefferson between June 11 and June 28, 1776, the Declaration of Independence is at once the nation's most cherished symbol of liberty and Jefferson's most enduring monument. Here, in exalted and unforgettable phrases, Jefferson expressed the convictions in the minds and hearts of the American people. The political philosophy of the Declaration was not new; its ideals of individual liberty had already been expressed by John Locke and the Continental philosophers. What Jefferson did was to summarize this philosophy in "self-evident truths" and set forth a list of grievances against the King in order to justify before the world the breaking of ties between the colonies and the mother country. - National Archives

1781-10-19 22:56:50

Gen. Cornwallis Surrenders at Yorktown

British General Charles Cornwallis formally surrenders to General George Washington and his American forces at Yorktown, Virginia, bringing the American Revolution to a close.

1783-09-03 14:55:42

The Treaty of Paris is signed

Signed in Paris by representatives from the United States and Great Britain, the treaty officially ends the American Revolutionary War. The design on this relief sculpture shows John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay signing the document for the United States. The seated figure at the opposite end of the table may represent David Hartley, a member of the British Parliament, who signed on behalf of Great Britain.

1786-07-18 13:58:56

Charles Willson Peale opens a museum of fine art and natural history.

Peale conceived the idea for an American museum of natural history in 1783 following his time spent drawing from mastodon fossils. Three years later on July 18, 1786, his museum was opened to the public in Philadelphia.

1787-05-01 07:12:59

The U.S. Constitution is drafted

The Federal Convention convened in the State House (Independence Hall) in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787, to revise the Articles of Confederation. Because the delegations from only two states were at first present, the members adjourned from day to day until a quorum of seven states was obtained on May 25. Through discussion and debate it became clear by mid-June that, rather than amend the existing Articles, the Convention would draft an entirely new frame of government. All through the summer, in closed sessions, the delegates debated, and redrafted the articles of the new Constitution. Among the chief points at issue were how much power to allow the central government, how many representatives in Congress to allow each state, and how these representatives should be elected--directly by the people or by the state legislators. - National Archives

1789-02-04 18:46:41

George Washington is unanimously elected the 1st president of the U.S.

1791-12-15 13:06:34

The Bill of Rights is ratified

The Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, were adopted as a single unit on December 15, 1791, and constitute a collection of mutually reinforcing guarantees of individual rights and of limitations on federal and state governments. The Bill of Rights derives from the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the colonial struggle against king and Parliament, and a gradually broadening concept of equality among the American people.

1794-06-21 14:11:54

Eli Whitney patents the cotton gin

The cotton gin greatly sped up the process of removing seeds from the cotton fiber. This had the positive impact of increasing U.S. cotton exports, but it also had the negative impact of enabling the expansion of slavery.

1797-03-04 00:51:01

John Adams becomes the 2nd U.S. President

1800-11-13 19:17:23

Washington replaces Philadelphia as the U.S. capital city

1803-04-29 12:40:55

The Louisiana Purchase

In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson negotiated a treaty with France in which the United States paid France $15 million for the Louisiana Territory – 828,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River – effectively doubling the size of the young nation. The lands acquired stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border. As soon as the treaty was signed, he sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark with their Corps of Discovery to find a route to the Pacific Ocean. They returned, with their mission completed, in 1806.

1804-05-01 12:40:55

Lewis and Clark Expedition

President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on a three-year expedition to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase.

1807-01-05 09:05:00

Robert Fulton invents the Steamboat

Fulton built upon knowledge gleaned from years of experimenting with different designs in England and France to finally develop and build a working steamboat in the United States. In August 1807, his steamboat made its historic voyage navigating the Hudson River from New York to Albany. The trip took an incredible thirty-two hours. By comparison, the same trip took sailing vessels four days to complete.

1812-06-18 01:19:45

The War of 1812 begins

1812-08-07 14:41:09

Daniel La Motte

Famed portraitist Thomas Sully presents Baltimore merchant Daniel La Motte as a contemplative romantic figure, casually lounging with disheveled hair. His sumptuously detailed clothes, in the style of English fashion leader Beau Brummel, indicate La Motte's status and prosperity. The lush landscape seen through the window represents his holdings on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and establishes him as a gentleman landowner as well.

1814-06-17 05:16:21

The Star Stangled Banner is written

By the “dawn’s early light” of September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key, who was aboard a ship several miles distant, could just make out an American flag waving above Fort McHenry. British ships were withdrawing from Baltimore, and Key realized that the United States had survived the battle and stopped the enemy advance. Moved by the sight, he wrote a song celebrating “that star-spangled banner” as a symbol of America’s triumph and endurance. - Smithsonian National Museum of American History

1814-08-24 18:06:08

The British burn Washington, D.C.

Angered by British interference with American trade, the young United States was intent on reaffirming its recently won independence. Instead, a series of defeats left Americans anxious and demoralized. They were stunned when, on August 24, 1814, British troops marched into Washington, D.C., and set the Capitol building and White House ablaze. - Smithsonian National Museum of American History

1819-04-06 21:11:54

Spain cedes Florida to the U.S.

Spain, unsuccessful at settling Florida, cedes its territory to the United States for many of the same reasons France sold the land in the Louisiana Purchase - fear of losing it by war. This removed yet another European power from the continental U.S. and removed a source of friction over borders - a common occurrence. Formal U.S. occupation began in 1821, with War of 1812 hero, and future president, Andrew Jackson serving as governor.

1820-03-06 04:25:38

The Missouri Compromise is declared

In an effort to balance the power in Congress between free and slave states, a compromise is reached between pro- and anti-slavery Senators, declaring the admission of Missouri as a slave state and Maine admitted as a free state. President James Monroe signs the compromise on March 6, 1820.

1823-05-05 08:35:17

Monroe Doctrine proclaimed

President James Monroe is best remembered for his declaration that the United States would behave unfavorably toward European countries that tried to interfere with North and South American affairs, warning against any attempts by European powers to establish colonies in America. This pronouncement is now known as "The Monroe Doctrine." - Smithsonian National Museum of American History

1824-06-01 00:00:00

1824 - Bureau of Indian Affairs established

The bureau is established to regulate and settle trade disputes with Indian tribes.

1825-10-26 18:05:13

1825 - Erie Canal opens

When workers began digging the Erie, the longest existing canal in the U.S. measured 28 miles long. In contrast, the Erie Canal was planned to extend over 300 miles, connecting the Hudson River with Lake Erie, the East Coast with the frontier. The canal was funded by the state of New York. Even before it officially opened in 1825, the canal began to generate income. The Erie Canal gave 19th-century New York an edge over other commercial port cities on the Atlantic coast. The Erie canal’s success encouraged canal building elsewhere, and by 1840, the United States had 3,326 miles of canals. - Smithsonian National Museum of American History

1826-04-26 16:11:57

The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper is published

1826-04-29 16:20:31

John Adams

Gilbert Stuart, America's foremost portrait painter of his day, painted the eighty-nine-year-old former President and signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams, in 1823-1824. Stuart painted Adams on a Chippendale sofa in the parlor of the "Old House" on Adams' 'Peacefield' farm in Quincy, Massachusetts, where Adams spent his retirement years. Though suffering various physical infirmities, Adams' mind was still clear and sharp, and he enjoyed sitting for Stuart's portrait. President John Quincy Adams commissioned the original painting from Stuart and it remained in the family's possession until 1999, when it was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In 1826, following his father's death, John Quincy Adams asked Stuart to paint a posthumous copy of his father's portrait.

1826-07-04 19:34:33

Deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

Both former presidents die on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

1828-02-19 13:57:03

1828 - Andrew Jackson elected President; Democratic Party formed

1830-01-28 12:16:01

George Catlin makes five trips out west to paint Native peoples

Determined to record the "manners and customs" of Native Americans, Catlin, a lawyer turned painter, traveled thousands of miles from 1830 to 1836 following the trail of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Catlin visited 50 tribes living west of the Mississippi River from present day North Dakota to Oklahoma.

1830-04-15 07:46:02

The Indian Removal Act

The Indian Removal Act authorized the federal government to negotiate treaties with eastern Indian tribes for their removal to lands west of the Mississippi River in exchange for their homelands east of the river.

1836-02-08 15:39:32

Andrew Jackson

This grand, larger than life portrait of Jackson in the collection of the Museum serves to summarize Jackson’s tenure in office and presents an image of an outgoing president that was viewed by many as Jackson’s legacy portrait. The artist chose to depict Jackson as a statesman, rather than as a soldier. In doing so he emphasized the work that Jackson had accomplished as president and not his military accolades which gave him notoriety and set him on a path to the White House. Earl began painting in December 1836, just a few months before the end of Jackson’s presidency.

1836-11-03 08:41:53

Samuel Colt Develops his Revolver

Gun manufacturer and inventor Samuel Colt (1814-62) receives a patent in 1836 for his design of a firing mechanism that can be fired multiple times without reloading. During the Civil War, the Colt Revolver was the most commonly used revolver.

1837-10-14 03:46:38

Samuel Morse Develops the Electric Telegraph

Morse develops and patents the electric telegraph, the first communication form of its kind to be sent long distance. Morse then develops what later became known as "Morse code" in order to transmit messages along telegraph wire.

1837-11-05 23:21:39

Wi-jún-jon, Pigeon's Egg Head (The Light) Going To and Returning From Washington

George Catlin first met the Light in St. Louis in December 1831, when the Assiniboine warrior was en route to Washington to meet President Andrew Jackson and tour the city. Catlin recalled that the warrior appeared for his portrait sitting “plumed and tinted . . . [and] dressed in his native costume, which was classic and exceedingly beautiful.” Wi-jún-jon returned home to the northern Plains eighteen months later a decidedly different man---dressed apparently in a “general’s” uniform and sharing what to his fellow tribesmen were astonishing accounts of the white man’s cities. They eventually rejected his stories as “ingenious fabrication of novelty and wonder,” and his persistence in telling such “lies” eventually led to his murder.

1838-10-14 03:46:38

The Trail of Tears

In 1830, Congress passes the Indian Removal Act, mandating that the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole tribes abandon their homes in the southeastern states and move to Indian Territory, the eastern half of what is now the state of Oklahoma. Great suffering and loss of life occurred on the journey west, which the Cherokee called the Trail of Tears.

1841-02-05 18:27:21

George Catlin’s "Notes and Letters...on the American Indians" is published

Catlin's book details his years traveling in the West to document the culture and customs of the American Indians.

1841-04-12 09:50:39

Sculpture: "Washington Resigning His Commission"

George Washington refused to accept the extraordinary power Congress offered to him after his victory over the British, declaring "as the sword was the last resort for the preservation of our liberties, so it ought to be the first thing laid aside, when those liberties are firmly established." He resigned his military commission and became an ordinary citizen because he believed that only monarchies needed standing armies, chiefly to keep the people subdued. Citizen militias, organized at moments of crisis and quickly disbanded, represented the true nature of a democracy. Ferdinand Pettrich created this work when political power in the United States was being consolidated around the federal government. He may have felt that this historic moment in Washington’s life would remind a new generation of the nation's founding ideals, and of the dangers of too much power given to too few.

1846-06-04 20:07:14

The Mexican-American War

A war between Mexico and the United States over a territorial dispute for land in present-day Texas. A decisive U.S. victory resulted in the Mexican cessation of land in Texas, California, and New Mexico

1846-06-04 20:07:14

Smithsonian Institution established

The Smithsonian Institution is established with funds from James Smithson (1765-1829), a British scientist who left his estate to the United States to found “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Since its founding, more than 164 years ago, the Smithsonian has become the world's largest museum and research complex, with 19 museums, the National Zoo, and nine research facilities.

1848-02-02 03:58:50

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

The treaty ends the Mexican-American War, giving the U.S. a massive amount of territory, including present-day California. This territory was added to during a peaceful purchase under the Gadsden purchase in 1853 with the land intended to accommodate a southern transcontinental railroad.

1849-06-02 11:16:39

The California Gold Rush begins

James Marshall was superintending the construction of a sawmill for Col. John Sutter on the morning of January 24, 1848, on the South Fork of the American River at Coloma, California, when he saw something glittering in the water of the mill's tailrace. According to Sutter's diary, Marshall stooped down to pick it up and "found that it was a thin scale of what appeared to be pure gold." Marshall bit the metal as a test for gold. By August of 1848, as evidence of the find, this piece and other samples of California gold had arrived in Washington, D.C., for delivery to President James K. Polk and for preservation at the National Institute. Within weeks, President Polk formally declared to Congress that gold had been discovered in California. - Smithsonian National Museum of American History

1851-08-01 08:42:00

Miners in the Sierras

California was admitted to the Union in 1850, less than two years after the first rumblings of the Gold Rush. President Polk encouraged Americans to settle the new state, and San Francisco quickly grew to be the fourth-busiest port in the nation. Charles Christian Nahl and August Wenderoth were refugees from Germany's political troubles of 1848. Like thousands before them, they came to California to find their fortunes, but as skilled entrepreneurs rather than adventurers. They built a studio in Sacramento and painted the first wave of prospectors. These miners wear red, white, and blue shirts, signaling California's importance to the nation's future. But by the time Nahl and Wenderoth collaborated on this canvas, panning for gold had all but disappeared with the arrival of huge mining companies, and the new state was already an economic powerhouse.

The American Experience in the Classroom: Timeline

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