What the world was like when your grandparents were born
Independent since 1776, the United States of America is 243 years old. With the average life expectancy now hovering around 80 years, that means the entire history of the country—from powdered wigs to the Internet of Things—spans a little more than just three back-to-back modern human lifetimes. Historically, America is a young country.
The centenarians who defied the odds and lived to be 100 today could have grandparents who were alive in 1860, provided that both their parents and grandparents gave birth at the age of 30. For a 20-year-old whose parents and grandparents both gave birth at 20, their three-generation lineage would date back only to 1960—a full century later.
A lot happened during that century. If someone said "British invasion" at the beginning of it, Redcoats with muskets would likely have come to mind. Just beyond the other end of that timeline, however, the same utterance would have probably sparked a conversation about The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Chances are good that your actual grandparents were born somewhere in between.
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By 1860, the United States was a country that could no longer sidestep a reckoning over the question of slavery. It was an open wound that had been festering since Congress punted on the issue with the Missouri Compromise two generations earlier in 1820. With the election in 1860 of anti-slavery presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln, South Carolina seceded from the Union. It was the point of no return. War between the North and South was now inevitable.
In 1861, the opening shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The Civil War would rage for four years, killing more than 600,000 Americans at the hands of other Americans. To finance the war, the government created what would go on to become an American institution: the income tax. Also, a new era in communication was ushered in that year when the completion of the transcontinental telegraph rendered the famed Pony Express obsolete.
Thanks to ghastly new weapons like the Gatling gun, grandparents of the oldest Americans in 1862 were growing up as towns like Antietam, Shiloh, and Manassas transformed into graveyards. As the war dragged on, the country's landscape changed. West Virginia broke away from Virginia and became its own state while the Homestead Act sent waves of Americans, including freed slaves, pouring into the interior of the country under the promise of free land.
The Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, officially granted freedom to any slaves held in rebel states. Because Confederate states were already in rebellion and therefore not taking orders from the Union, and because the proclamation did not apply to Union states, the order did nothing to change the status of slaves. Still, the Emancipation Proclamation did pave the way to the eventual emancipation of all people; making your young grandparents among the first children in American history to grow up in a country where human beings were not bought and sold at auctions alongside farm equipment and animals.
While war raged at home, the nature of war and global alliances were changing overseas as 12 nations came together in 1864 to sign the first Geneva Convention. November would also take on a whole new meaning for generations of Americans as President Lincoln formally established Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
In 1865, the Civil War finally passed into history when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House. Shortly after, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but storm clouds were on the horizon. That same year, a famous actor and Confederate militant named John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
In 1866, newly freed slaves were emboldened by the presence of federal troops in the South as what would become the era of Reconstruction offered protection and political empowerment. To restore white supremacy in the postwar South, former Confederate soldiers and sympathizers formed the Ku Klux Klan to suppress and intimidate black people through racial terror.
In 1867, Americans would have noticed their country getting much bigger. That year, America added Alaska to its tally of territories after purchasing the enormous northern land mass from Russia for about $.02 an acre. Also, human communication changed forever that year with the invention of the typewriter.
New technologies in 1868 changed the postwar world as intellectual and business giants rose to prominence. Their ideas would shape the coming decades and position America as an industrial giant. George Westinghouse patented a railroad air brake—just one of over 400 inventions he would go onto develop. That same year, a brilliant up-and-coming inventor named Thomas Edison applied for his very first patent.
In 1865, America was unified through war. Four years later in 1869, the country was unified by steel. On Nov. 24, Central Pacific railroad workers pushing east from California met up with Union Pacific workers pushing west from Omaha, Nebraska. The transcontinental railroad was completed when the two parties met in Promontory, Utah. The moment signaled the passing of the American frontier, with its caravans of wagon trains carrying pioneers on the long, dangerous journeys west.2018 All rights reserved.