I tried to import a layer from a file into ArcGIS Online. ArcGIS Online did not recognize the zipped shapefiles I tried to import. I was trying to import 1990 block group files. I got the message
It should be possible to use NHGIS shapefiles in ArcGIS Online, but most NHGIS shapefiles exceed the size limit that ArcGIS Online imposes for direct uploads of data.
This Esri FAQ post discusses the size limit. It suggests you could use “feature services” to upload a larger file and provides links to more info.
When I tried to upload an NHGIS shapefile of U.S. states just now, I get a more detailed error message than the one you received. It states:
> “This dataset is too large to add directly to the map. Instead, publish this data as a hosted layer, then add the hosted layer to the map.”
I hope you’ll be able to use either hosted layers or feature services to open the files in ArcGIS Online. If not, please feel free to follow up here.