- January 8 - Borax is discovered (John Veatch).
- January 29 - Queen Victoria institutes the Victoria Cross
- February 18 - The American Party (Know-Nothings) convene in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to nominate their first Presidential candidate, former President Millard Fillmore.
- March 5 – Fire destroys Covent Garden Theatre
- March 30 - The Treaty of Paris (1856) is signed, ending the Crimean War
- April 7 - Foundation of Nelson College, Nelson, New Zealand
- May 21 - Lawrence, Kansas is captured and burned by pro-slavery forces.
- May 22 - Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina beats Senator Charles Sumner with a cane in the hall of the United States Senate for a speech Sumner had made attacking Southerners who sympathized with the pro-slavery violence in Kansas ("Bleeding Kansas"). Sumner was unable to return to duty for three years while he recovered. Brooks became a hero across the South.
- June 9 - 500 Mormons leave Iowa City, Iowa and head west for Salt Lake City, Utah carrying all their possessions in two-wheeled handcarts.
- July 31 - Christchurch, New Zealand chartered as a city.
- August 11 – Hurricane in Last Island, Louisiana - 400 dead
- November - James Buchanan defeats John C. Fremont in the U.S. presidential election
- November 17 - American Old West: On the Sonoita River in present-day southern Arizona, the United States Army establishes Fort Buchanan in order to help control new land acquired in the Gadsden Purchase.
- January 11 - Christian Sinding, composer (d. 1941)
- January 12 - John Singer Sargent, artist (d. 1925)
- January 20 - Harriot Eaton Stanton Blatch, women's rights activist (d. 1940)
- February 2 – Frederick William Vanderbilt, railway magnate (d. 1938)
- February 14 - Frank Harris, author and editor
- March 9 - Eddie Foy, singer, dancer, vaudeville performer (d. 1928)
- March 20 - Frederick Winslow Taylor, inventor, efficiency expert
- April 5 - Booker T. Washington, African-American educator (d. 1915)
- April 12 - William Martin Conway, British art critic and mountaineer (d. 1937)
- May 6 - Sigmund Freud, Austrian psychiatrist, founder of psychoanalysis
- May 6 - Robert Peary, explorer (d. 1920)
- May 15 - L. Frank Baum, author (d. 1919)
- June 14 - Andrey Markov, Russian mathematician (d. 1922)
- July 2 - Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Indian political activist (d. 1920)
- July 10 - Nikola Tesla, inventor (d. 1943)
- July 26 - George Bernard Shaw, writer (d. 1950)
- August 13 - Alfred Deakin, second Prime Minister of Australia (d. 1919)
- September 18 - Wilhelm von Gloeden, photographer (d. 1931)
- November 22 - Heber J. Grant, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (d. 1945)
- November 24 - Bat Masterson, "Wild West" legend (d. 1921)
- December 25 - Hans von Bartels, German painter
- December 25 - Sir Samuel William Knaggs, civil servant (West Indies) (d. 1924)
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