1801-1870: Expansion and Reform

Westward migration, technological advances, and rapid economic development pushed the country onward even as they threatened to break it apart. The nation expanded its borders into territory held by American Indians, France, and Mexico, claiming millions of acres and thousands of people as part of the United States. Urbanization and industrialization led to new social challenges while slavery and sectional politics drove the country to civil war. 

The objects in this section of the exhibition convey stories about the War of 1812, the growth of the nation, innovation, and the Civil War.

Currently on view

Sunstone Capital, about 1846

From the temple of the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois

Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon in 1830, during a great Christian revivalist movement. Persecuted from the beginning, the Latter-day Saints left New York State and went west in search of sanctuary. Nauvoo was just one step along the way of a migration toward what became Salt Lake City, Utah; it drew tens of thousands of converts from the eastern United States and many European countries.

Plate Commemorating the Latter-Day Saints Temple in Nauvoo, Illinois, 1844–46

Made by Joseph Twigg’s Newhill Pottery, England

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints founded the town of Nauvoo in 1839 and finished construction of their elaborate temple in 1846. Initially welcomed by the Illinois General Assembly, growing anti-Mormonism and the 1844 murder of leader Joseph Smith drove them to abandon the town and head west.

Gift of Ellouise Baker Larsen

Stoneware Jar, 1862

Made by David Drake, Edgefield, South Carolina

Over three million enslaved blacks labored in the South by the 1800s. The majority were agricultural laborers, but a substantial number worked in craft trades as skilled artisans, providing their owners with necessary goods and services to use or to sell. Potter David Drake made ceramic storage vessels at his owner’s plantation pottery for over thirty years.

Slave Ship Manifest from the Schooner Lafayette, 1833

Listing a group of eighty-three enslaved people shipped from Alexandria, Virginia

The United States ended the legal importation of slaves in 1808, but enslaved blacks continued to be bought and sold within the country, making the internal slave trade a lucrative business. Historians estimate that as many as one million enslaved people were moved from the eastern United States to the Deep South between 1810 and 1861.

Silver Peace Medal, 1801

Issued under President Thomas Jefferson and given to an Osage chieftain

The 1803 Louisiana Purchase opened the area west of the Mississippi to U.S. settlement, causing conflict with many of the Indian tribes living there. In order to obtain land and facilitate trade, Thomas Jefferson pursued treaties and encouraged tribes to give up their traditional ways of life. Medals such as this were often presented to native chiefs as diplomatic gifts.

Gold Rush Assayers' Ingots, 1850

Issued by State Assay Office of California

The 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill drew hundreds of thousands of hopeful miners from around the world to California and helped shape the development of the western United States. As yields from the mines declined, Americans learned that the seemingly limitless natural resources of the nation were, in fact, finite.

From the National Numismatic Collection

Plate with Views of the Erie Canal, 1819–46

Made by Enoch Wood and Sons, Staffordshire, England

The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 revolutionized transportation in America, and helped pave the way for economic and westward expansion. The 364-mile waterway between Albany and Buffalo, New York, was built largely through unsettled territory, leading to rapid population growth along its route and linking the urbanized areas of the East with the developing West.

Gift of Ellouise Baker Larsen

Joseph Emerson Brown Pike, 1860s

One of 10,000 purchased to arm Georgia’s militia until guns could be obtained

The struggle over the balance of power between the federal government and individual states had been a concern since the formation of the nation and was a major issue in driving the country to civil war. As governor of Georgia, Joseph Brown supported seceding from the Union, which he believed had grown too powerful.

Gift of Mrs. Charles W. Hickman

John Brown Pike, 1856

Used in the 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

In the 1850s, responding to pressure from southern slaveholding states, Congress passed a number of laws upholding the rights of slave owners. Abolitionist John Brown believed slavery could only end through violence; he purchased 1,000 pikes to arm a slave revolt. His raid on Harpers Ferry failed to secure the U.S. arsenal, but did energize the abolitionist movement.

Bronze Cast of Abraham Lincoln's Life Mask, 1886

Made by Augustus Saint-Gaudens after Leonard Volk’s 1860 original

As the United States expanded westward, Americans debated and fought over the issue of allowing slavery in the new lands. Abraham Lincoln rose to national prominence after delivering a speech at the Cooper Union in February 1860 arguing against the extension of slavery. Following his election that year, seven southern states, fearing that he was anti-slavery, seceded from the Union.

Gift of Thirty Three Subscribers

Transatlantic Telegraph Cable Souvenir, 1858

Made and sold by Tiffany & Co., New York

Long before the internet, a network of undersea telegraph cables allowed almost-instantaneous communication around the world. Cyrus Field’s Atlantic Telegraph Company completed the first transatlantic cable in 1858, then sold twenty miles of surplus cable to Tiffany & Co. to make souvenirs. Although this first cable failed, within twenty years over 100,000 miles had been laid beneath the seas.

Gift of Silver Creations Ltd. and Lenello Reserves, Inc.

Part of a Telegraph Patent Model, 1846

Samuel F. B. Morse’s modification for a telegraph receiver

Along with the spread of transportation networks, the invention and commercial application of the telegraph helped stimulate economic growth in the United States by connecting far-flung markets. Samuel Morse opened the first telegraph line in 1844. Less than a decade later telegraph wires crisscrossed the country, allowing business to be conducted more quickly and profitably.

Transfer from U.S. Patent Office

Ether Inhaler, about 1846

Developed by William T. G. Morton

As physicians became increasingly knowledgeable about anatomy and surgical procedures in the 1800s, the need for a safe and effective anesthesia became more pressing. In 1846, Dr. William Morton successfully demonstrated that inhaling sulfuric ether would put a patient into a deep sleep. Quickly adopted, the procedure changed the nature of surgery and medical care.

Gift of Dr. Gustave P. Wiksell

Howard Watch No. 1, 1852

Made by E. Howard & Company, Boston

The advent of the Industrial Revolution meant that more people worked in shops and factories. This changed the long-established rhythms of daily life and more people had a greater need to know the time. To tap into this market, Edward Howard’s firm developed the first machine-made watches.

Long-term loan from Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association

Presentation Saddle, about 1866

Made in Mexico and given to General Philip H. Sheridan

The United States gained hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. In 1866, General Philip Sheridan armed Mexican nationalists led by Benito Juárez, and headed a 50,000-man army along the U.S.-Mexico border in order to pressure France to end its occupation of Mexico. That same year, a Mexican friend gave Sheridan this elaborate saddle with embossed silver medallions.

Gift of Mrs. Philip H. Sheridan

1845 Reproduction of Eli Whitney's Cotton Gin Patent Model

Patent issued 1794

In Whitney’s day, inventors sent paperwork, a model, and $30 to the secretary of state (then Thomas Jefferson) in order to obtain a patent. After a fire destroyed the Patent Office and its contents in 1836, officials re-created some of the records and models. This model may have been based on existing gins as well as on other models made by Whitney.

Transfer from U.S. Patent Office

Woman's Mantle or Sacque, 1840-50
Probably worn in New England
Although American men could order ready-to-wear clothing as early as 1815, women mainly hand-sewed their own garments or relied on dressmakers to create clothing for them, until well after the Civil War. The exception was outerwear. By 1860, manufacturers were advertising women's cloaks and wraps made of heavy, hard-to-sew material that didn’t require a close fit. Ready-made cloaks such as this one were at first imported from Europe, but increasing demand soon encouraged domestic production.
Gift of Mrs. Scott Adams

The objects below are no longer on view

Pin-Making Machine Patent Model, 1841

Patented by John Howe

In the early 1800s, Americans increasingly turned their attention to mechanizing labor-intensive tasks. The ensuing Industrial Revolution changed the face of transportation, manufacturing, trade, and even the landscape as Americans established mills and factories. One of John Howe’s machines could produce over 20,000 pins a day, compared to the twenty pins that one man could make by hand.

Transfer from U.S. Patent Office

Fiji Islands Tobacco, 1838–42

Collected by the United States South Seas Exploring Expedition

Although much of the United States remained uncharted, the young republic sought to expand its economic and intellectual horizons through a government-sponsored exploration of the Pacific Ocean. Like the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Northwest thirty-five years earlier, the South Seas exploration team mapped unknown lands, collected scientific data, and sought opportunities for trade.

Fairmount Fire Company Volunteer Firefighting Outfit, early 1800s

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

As American cities grew and industrialized in the late 1700s and 1800s, the risk of deadly fires increased. Volunteer fire departments formed in response, often developing distinctive cultures based on common ethnic heritage, and emphasizing bravery, masculinity, and citizenship. By the 1860s, cities began to develop professional departments and the volunteers’ status as popular heroes was on the wane.

Gift of CIGNA Museum and Art Collection

Cane Made of Wood from the USS Constitution, 1829–33

Presented to former president James Madison

The United States fought against Britain in the War of 1812, also known as the Second War for Independence, to protect maritime rights, end trade restrictions, settle boundary issues, and curtail the allied British and Indian threat to westward expansion. After declaring victory, Americans turned to nation building and began the march west in fulfillment of what many believed to be the country’s “manifest destiny.”

Gift of Mr. James C. McGuire

Gold Sovereign

Part of James Smithson’s 1838 bequest

Born the illegitimate son of an English duke, James Smithson left his fortune to the United States to found an institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.  Although he never visited the United States, Smithson undoubtedly appreciated what the young democracy represented—the freedom for individuals to succeed based on accomplishments rather than inherited titles.

Transferred from U.S. Mint

United States Colored Troops Medal, 1864

Commissioned by General Benjamin Butler to honor black troops under his command

Less than a year after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 promised freedom to Confederate slaves, tens of thousands enrolled in black military regiments. By war’s end, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors fought for the North. Usually under white leadership, black troops fought in thirty-nine battles; 37,000 died in service. The Butler medal was the only one created for a black unit.

Gift of James Parton

Abraham Lincoln's Pocket Watch and Fob, about 1850

Engraved in 1861 by watchmaker Jonathan Dillon, Washington, D.C.

The Confederacy’s April 1861 attack on federal property— Fort Sumter, South Carolina—was the opening volley of four years of civil war. Lincoln led the United States through its greatest crisis, expanding the power of the presidency and coming to the conclusion that slavery had to be abolished. Northern victory preserved the Union and ended slavery, but deferred the issue of racial justice.

Gift of Lincoln Isham

Surveyor's Vernier Compass, 1819–46

Made by Enoch Wood and Sons, Staffordshire, England

The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 revolutionized transportation in America, and helped pave the way for economic and westward expansion. The 364-mile waterway between Albany and Buffalo, New York, was built largely through unsettled territory, leading to rapid population growth along its route and linking the urbanized areas of the East with the developing West.

Gift of Ellouise Baker Larsen

Anti-Slavery Pot Holder, mid-1800s

Made by hand in the United States

The American abolitionist movement grew out of the 1830s wave of religious revivalism. Women played a prominent role, giving lectures, distributing pamphlets, and raising money through fund-raising fairs with the sale of handmade crafts such as this pot holder. One of the largest fairs, held in Boston, raised over $65,000 for the cause during its twenty-three-year run.