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Stephen Foster | Timeline

Stephen Foster: Timeline

Stephen Foster. Courtesy : Center for American Music, U. of Pittsburgh

April 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.

November 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.

October 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.

August 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.

William 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.

November: 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.

September 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.

December 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.

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.

August 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.

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.

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