Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Rollover text informationAmerican Experience Logo
Stephen Foster

spacer above content

1796 - 1846 | 1847 - 1864


Sheet music cover for Oh! SusannaSeptember 11: "Oh! Susanna" premieres in a performance at Andrews' Eagle Ice Cream Saloon in Pittsburgh. The song will sweep the nation -- and, within the year, become the unofficial theme of the California gold rush.


January 24: James Marshall discovers gold at Sutter's Mill, on the South Fork of California's American River. His find kicks off the biggest Westward migration in American history.

Sheet music cover for Uncle NedDecember 30: Foster publishes "Old Uncle Ned," a sentimental blackface ballad. Frederick Douglass remarked upon the song's ability to "awaken sympathies for the slave."


Stephen publishes "Nelly Was a Lady." Notable is Foster's reference to an African American woman as a "lady," which was unusual for the time.

September 12: Stephen Foster signs a publishing contract with New York's Firth, Pond & Co. guaranteeing a royalty of two cents per copy of sheet music sold -- about an 8% royalty, given the per-sheet price of twenty-five cents.


The Compromise of 1850 settles the slavery question for newly acquired U. S. territories. California is admitted as a free state; Utah and New Mexico will decide the issue by popular sovereignty. Fugitive slave laws are strengthened.

February 19: Foster publishes "Gwine to Run All Night," the song popularly known as "Camptown Races." It will become one of Foster's most enduring hits.

July 22: Somewhat to the surprise of his family and friends, Stephen Foster weds Jane McDowell, the daughter of a Pittsburgh physician. The marriage, which will produce one child, will be far from ideal.


William Foster Sr. suffers a stroke. Foster had struggled for years to regain the position of wealth and influence he once held, without success. He will live on as an invalid for four more years.

April 18: Stephen's daughter, Marion Foster, is born. Although Marion and her mother will be separated from Stephen for long periods of time, Marion will remember her father fondly.

June 12: Stephen Foster offers E. P. Christy's famous minstrel troupe the exclusive right to premiere "Oh! Boys Carry Me 'Long" for $10. This arrangement will be repeated.

October 1: Foster publishes "Old Folks at Home," better known as "Swanee River." He sells E. P. Christy the right to be listed as author -- a decision Stephen will come to regret.


February 20: Stephen and Jane Foster travel by steamboat to New Orleans. Even today, few people realize that Stephen Foster was not a Southerner. In fact, he only traveled to the Deep South once in his lifetime.


January 31: Firth, Pond & Co. copyrights Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night." This song, perhaps more than any other, contributes to the idea that Foster was a Southerner.

Spring: Jane Foster leaves her husband, taking their daughter Marion with her. Stephen departs for New York, which is fast becoming the center of American music publishing.


Spring: Stephen, Jane and Marion have reunited, and are living in a house in Hoboken, New Jersey.

May 30: The Kansas-Nebraska Act allows these new entrants to the Union to decide the slavery question by popular sovereignty. The act triggers bloody battles between pro-slavery and anti-slavery groups in Kansas.

Illustration from cover of sheet music for 'Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair'June 5: Stephen Foster publishes "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," a love song inspired by Jane's absence. It will enjoy its greatest popularity ninety years later, in the early 1940s, when contractual difficulties in the music industry send publishers scrambling for music with expired copyrights.

October: Stephen returns to Allegheny. Jane and Marion probably remain behind in Hoboken, but will follow Stephen home after a few weeks.


January 17: With the country in a financial downturn, Foster writes "Hard Times Come Again No More." The song will prove an enduring expression of the struggle with poverty, and will eventually be recorded by Bob Dylan, Nancy Griffith, and Emmylou Harris, among others.

January 18: Eliza Foster, Stephen's mother, suffers a stroke and dies.

July 27: William Foster Sr., Stephen's father, dies at the family home in Allegheny.


James BuchananAugust 6: Stephen Foster becomes musical director of the Buchanan Glee Club. He helps Democrat James Buchanan win the presidential election by writing "The White House Chair", a pro-Buchanan tribute, and "The Abolition Show," in which Foster rails against the antics at a recent Republican political rally.


March 14: Foster sells rights to future royalties on songs previously published by Firth, Pond & Co. For $1,872.28, he surrenders rights to "Old Folks at Home," "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night," "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," and more.


Ledger of Firth, Pond and Co.May 16: Already in debt to Firth, Pond & Co., Foster attempts to draw a $100 advance. The publisher refuses to honor the draft.

October 6: Abolitionists led by John Brown attack the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Their attempt to foment a slave uprising fails. Brown is hanged -- and transformed into a martyr for the cause of abolition.


Spring: Stephen, Jane and Marion move to Warren, Ohio, where Stephen's sister Henrietta makes her home.

July: For about $67 each, Foster sells six songs to Clark's School Visitor, a publication for schoolchildren. One of the songs, "Jenny's Coming O'er the Green," will become a popular favorite.

August 9: For $1,600, Foster sells Firth, Pond & Co. all rights to songs published under his prior contract. He pays the $1,396.64 in advances he owes the publisher, and has $203.36 left over.

Fall: Stephen, Jane, and Marion return to New York.

November 6: A fissure in the Democratic Party helps Republican Abraham Lincoln win election to the presidency.


February 8: Southern states secede and form the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis is chosen as the rebel nation's president. Dan Emmett's "Dixie's Land" will be sung at Davis' inauguration.

April 12: Southern troops fire on a federal garrison at Fort Sumter. After two days of shelling, the fort surrenders. The American Civil War begins.

July: The Foster family has split again. Jane takes Marion and moves from New York to Pennsylvania, finding a job as a telegrapher on the Pennsylvania Railroad. She maintains contact with Stephen, but will never share a home with him again.

July 18: A war song by Stephen Foster, "I'll Be a Soldier," is copyrighted on this day. It will be followed in 1862 by "Was My Brother in the Battle?" and "We Are Coming, Father Abraam."


Stephen Foster publishes seventeen songs this year. The following year, he will publish forty-nine. The songs are characterized by mediocrity, and sell poorly. Liquor dominates Foster's life, and his career is in a downward spiral.


January 1: Lincoln emancipates Southern slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation declares freedom for African American slaves -- but only those who live in the Confederacy.

April 14: Horace Waters releases The Golden Harp, a hymnbook featuring ten new songs by Stephen Foster. In December, Wallace will release another ten Foster hymns, in a songbook entitled The Athenaeum Collection.


January 13: Stephen Foster dies at New York's Bellevue Hospital. He dies in poverty, with 38 cents in his pocket and a scrap of paper on which is written "dear friends and gentle hearts."

March 10: William A. Pond & Co. (formerly Firth, Pond) publishes "Beautiful Dreamer", "the last song ever written by Stephen C. Foster, composed but a few days before his death." Counterfeit "last songs" by Stephen Foster will be published for years.

1796 - 1846 | 1847 - 1864

Site Navigation

Stephen Foster Home | The Film & More | Special Features | Timeline | Gallery | People & Events | Teacher's Guide

American Experience | Feedback | Search & Site Map | Shop | Subscribe | Web Credits

© New content 1999-2000 PBS Online / WGBH

Exclusive Corporate Funding is provided by: