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Stephen Foster

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1796 - 1846 | 1847 - 1864


Market Scene, PittsburghApril 21: William Barclay Foster sets out for Pittsburgh to make his fortune. The city, which is beginning the transition from frontier settlement to industrial center, is home to 1,300 citizens.


Foster's parents, Eliza and WilliamNovember 14: William Foster marries Eliza Tomlinson. He is the son of a prosperous Pennsylvania landowner; she a descendant of wealthy plantation owners from Maryland.


December 14: Charlotte Foster, the first Foster child to show musical talent, is born. By age nine, she will thrill friends and relatives with her piano playing and singing.


April 5: Now a prosperous merchant, William Foster buys 123 acres of land on the Allegheny River northeast of Pittsburgh. Soon, he builds the White Cottage, the beloved family homestead, on the land.


April 30: William Foster's financial troubles begin. Foster had purchased supplies for the Army during the War of 1812. But the War Department disputes his reimbursement claim. Now, Foster sues for $2,704.90 -- the beginning of a long-running legal battle.


The Missouri Compromise allows Missouri to be admitted as a slave state and Maine as a free state. It prohibits slavery in parts of the Louisiana Purchase that are north of Missouri's southern border.


The Greenburgh Turnpike Company goes under, taking with it manager William Foster, who is sued for the company's debts.


Erie CanalOctober 26: The Erie Canal opens for business. The 363-mile canal from the Hudson River to Lake Erie helps drive westward expansion -- and sets off a frenzy of American canal building.

William Foster wins election to the Pennsylvania state legislature. His victory proves his popularity, but does little to ease his financial straits.


July 4: Stephen Collins Foster is born at the White Cottage on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Later that day, Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and Johns Adams die.


June 26: William Foster Jr. gets a raise. The illegitimate son of William Foster, William Jr. makes his living as an engineer. The $3.50 a day he earns will help to keep his father solvent.


On a visit to relatives in Bardstown, Kentucky, Charlotte Foster contracts a fever, probably malaria. She dies on October 20 in Louisville, Kentucky. Her death, at age nineteen, devastates the Foster family.


The Bank of the United States forecloses on the White Cottage. From this point forward, the Fosters will move frequently -- often depending upon the largesse of brother William Jr.


Nat TurnerAugust 21: Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. Turner will hang for his part in the unsuccessful uprising, but he helps destroy the myth of the contented black slave.


New OrleansWilliam Foster Sr. takes a pledge of temperance, putting a halt to his alcoholic overindulgence, which has caused the family grief. He will become an ardent spokesman for the temperance cause.


A financial panic sweeps the nation -- and worsens the Fosters' precarious financial state. The crisis deepens William Foster Sr.'s distrust of the Bank of the United States and "federalism." "Such times you never saw," he writes, "banks refuse specie, and nothing but shinplaster for change."


January 31: Future president James Buchanan is among those who recommend William Foster to the commissioners of the Blairsville-Pittsburgh Canal. Hired as toll collector, Foster will struggle to get paid, and will eventually resign his position.


Fall: Stephen Foster commences study at the Athens Academy in Athens, Pennsylvania. A capable yet unenthusiastic student, he spends a year there.


April: Stephen plays flute in a performance of his first composition, "The Tioga Waltz," at Athens Presbyterian Church in Athens, Pennsylvania. The score of the tune has since been lost.

July: Stephen enrolls at Jefferson College. Stephen's father had attended the school, formerly known as Canonsburg Academy. Stephen, who enrolled after the term had begun, finds himself hopelessly behind, and leaves after a week.

Henry HarrisonNovember: In return for his efforts on behalf of William Henry Harrison's successful presidential campaign, William Foster Sr. wins a federal treasury post. He soon will give the job to his son Henry.

Fall: William Foster Sr. wins election to the first of two terms as the mayor of Allegheny, Pennsylvania.


March 7: The Virginia Minstrels, America's first blackface minstrel troupe, puts on their first full-scale "Ethiopian Concert" at the Masonic Temple in Boston.


December 7: Eighteen-year-old Stephen Foster publishes his first song, "Open Thy Lattice Love," written to the lyrics of poet George P. Morris. Copyrighted by G. Willig of Philadelphia, it barely makes a ripple.


April 10: A fire devastates Pittsburgh. Stephen Foster and his brother Morrison help battle the blaze, which destroys more than a thousand buildings and causes some $9 million in damages.


Stephen Foster is hired by a merchant firm co-owned by his older brother Dunning, and moves to Cincinnati for the job; Stephen proves a competent bookkeeper.

May 11: The United States declares war on Mexico. A victorious U. S. will claim land that will become New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, Texas, and western Colorado. The admission of these territories will intensify the struggle over slavery.

1796 - 1846 | 1847 - 1864

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