New Salem, in Search of Abraham Lincoln

Statue of Abraham Lincoln as surveyor at New Salem, Illinois

New Salem, Sunday, July 31st, 2017

From the Michael J. Howlett building in downtown Springfield (part of which stands on the site of the Ninian Edwards house where Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln were married and where Mary died), I head northwest on highway 97 to New Salem Historic Park. This is the site of New Salem, the small frontier commercial village which played no small role in Lincoln’s life as a young man striking out on his own. It’s a pleasant drive through farmland with homes and farm buildings and gas stations and tiny general stores scattered here and there. In a little under half an hour, I reach a wooded area, and soon after that, take the turnout to my left to New Salem. I stop for a snack at the little cafe offering a modest selection of hot dogs, nachos, sandwiches, and other things that take the edge off but don’t suffice as a meal. The park’s visitor center buildings are all closed because the air conditioning system isn’t working. I don’t blame them at all for not opening up: it feels very much like a summer day in the Midwest, hot and humid, and I imagine a full day indoors would get stuffy and miserable. But the park itself is open to roam, so I do.

I find that some of the volunteer interpreters are not deterred today by the heat or the lack of an air-conditioned space to retreat to. Two men in early-to-mid 19th-century costume roam the park under shady, battered straw hats, recounting the history of New Salem and anecdotes from Lincoln’s life here. Some kind soul(s) placed large coolers here and there filled with ice water as well. It’s a lovely place to wander, and I take my time exploring. Though I visit all of them, there are so many structures that I’ll just show and tell of the ones that have some connection to Lincoln. The park contains 22 reconstructed and one original building from the New Salem of Lincoln’s time. The reconstructions are based on the findings from archaeological digs, on descriptions of the town from former residents, and on other representations of buildings, furniture, and tools from the same time period. Most of the buildings, as far as could be determined, are built on or near the original foundations. Many of the furnishings, equipment, dishes, and more are from that time period, too, collected locally.

Lincoln’s first sight of New Salem was from the Sangamon River, which powered the little town’s gristmill and sawmill. On that day in April 1831, to be more precise, he was in the river: barefoot, hatless, and soaked to the skin, working frantically to dislodge Denton Offutt’s flatboat from where it had gotten stuck going over the dam. Lincoln had helped build the flatboat whose cargo of bacon and grain, en route to New Orleans, was in danger of going overboard. His efforts to save the boat and cargo succeeded, and Offutt, impressed and relieved, offered Lincoln the management of the new general store he planned to build for New Salem. It took Offutt longer the get the store up and running than he planned, but eventually, it did open in September of that same year, and Lincoln did run it after all.

Henry Onstot’s cabin, right, and cooper shop, left, New Salem, Illinois. The cooper shop is the only original building from New Salem; the rest have been reconstructed

Interior of the Onstot cooper shop where Lincoln would retreat and light a fire to read by.

Henry Onstot, whose house is the first I visit, was the area cooper, maker of barrels and other implements that required the same wood-steaming and bending techniques. His cooper’s shop next door is the only original building that still stands in New Salem. After the village was abandoned in 1840, Onstat moved his business, building and all, to nearby Petersburg. The building was returned to New Salem in 1922, not long after the park was opened to the public by the State of Illinois. Sixteen years earlier, in 1906, William Randolph Hearst purchased the site and surrounding lands and donated it to the Old Salem Chautauqua Association, who had invited him to speak and had sparked his interest in the site and its history. (Chautauqua is an adult education movement founded in the 1870’s, named for the New York lake near which the first meeting was held.) The Association, in turn, donated it to the state. This building is the only thing on this site that Lincoln was sure to have touched. William Herndon, Lincoln’s future law partner and biographer, tells us that Lincoln frequently would retreat to the cooper shop to read by the light of the fire he’d build using the leftover barrel-making materials.

The Trent brothers’ residence behind Henry Onstot’s house and cooper shop, New Salem, Illinois. Alexander Trent served with Lincoln in the Black Hawk War in 1832, and the next year, he and his brother Martin took over the Lincoln-Berry store.

A view of Lincoln’s New Salem, Illinois

The doorway to Jack Kelso’s place, New Salem, Illinois

I visit the Trent brothers’ house next, then the Kelso-Miller house. The Kelso-Miller house is a sort of duplex sometimes called a ‘dogtrot house’. The front doors face one another across an unwalled roofed and floored passage between the two halves. Jack Kelso, who New Salem historian Benjamin Platt Thomas describes as ‘a lazy dreamer’ and ‘the village philosopher,’ was a hunter, trapper, fisher, and odd-jobber. He loved Shakespeare and Robert Burns and could recite from them at length, to the surprise and delight of many. Lincoln became a lifelong fan of both.

Especially during his early years here, Lincoln, who never owned a house in New Salem, would board with them. It amazes me that Kelso and his wife could host Lincoln: the tiny size of this place makes it difficult to imagine that it could hold three cooking, eating, sleeping people, especially given the girth of Kelso and the height of Lincoln.

The interior of Jack Kelso’s residence; there’s not much more of this one-room house than what you can see here. Can you imagine three adults staying in this tiny place?

Kelso-Miller building, New Salem, Illinois. The Kelsos’ place is to the left, the Millers’ is to the right. Miller’s blacksmith shop can be seen at the far right and in the two photos to follow

Joshua Miller was the village blacksmith and wagon-builder. His wife and Kelso’s were sisters. Unlike Kelso, Miller was not a bit lazy. His skills were in high demand in the growing village so he was kept constantly busy. Now that Miller was here, the villages’ horses could remain properly shod; the doors and windows could have metal fittings instead of wood ones; plenty of wagons would have been needed to carry grain to and from the gristmill, and would require regular maintenance and repair as well.

Exterior (left) and interior (right) of Joshua Miller’s blacksmith shop, New Salem

Interior of Mentor Graham’s schoolhouse. It also served as a church on Sundays.

Nxt, I visit the schoolhouse. Mentor Graham, the schoolmaster, was among those impressed by Lincoln’s ability, attentiveness to detail, and friendly concern for his neighbors and customers. According to New Salem historian Thomas, Graham assisted him in his continuing self-education, finding him a ready, apt, and diligent student. He helped Lincoln learn surveying as well, often working with Lincoln late into the night doing and checking calculations. Yet another biographer, Michael Burlingame, disputes the story that Graham was much of a help to Lincoln educationally, despite Graham’s and Lincoln’s friend Robert Rutledge’s claims. According to many of his former pupils, Graham had very poor math skills and was, in fact, a poor teacher overall. He had barely passed his teaching certification exams. Lincoln and Graham must have gotten along well enough, in any case: Lincoln boarded with his family for six months. If Graham’s former pupils spoke the truth, however, Lincoln likely mastered the skill of surveying on his own.

Mentor Graham’s schoolhouse, exterior view. It was originally located about a half mile southwest of the site of this reproduction.

A reproduction of the house of Isaac Guliher, or Golliher

First location of the Berry-Lincoln store in New Salem, from late 1832 to January 1833

Next, I stop by the house of Isaac Guliher or Golliher, variously spelled in my sources. His only significance in this account is that he also served with Lincoln in the Black Hawk War, one of the little troop that’s described in Thomas’ history of New Salem as “…a hard-looking set of men, unkempt and unshaved” who “made war on the pigs and chickens,” and one of whom replied “go to the devil” when Lincoln gave his first command. Though Lincoln was very proud of being elected their captain, it sounds as if would have been a tough job.

Two buildings past the house of Isaac Guliher stands a little pointy-roofed shop. The Berry-Lincoln store building, the first of its two locations, looks very like most of the other buildings here, sturdy but modest, strictly utilitarian with its rough-hewn log structure, pointed shake roof, and small door and windows. In 1832, Lincoln entered into partnership with William Berry, buying out James and J. Rowan Herndon’s share of the general store. Lincoln, as usual, was broke. The modest compensation he received for his service in the Black Hawk War that spring and early summer wouldn’t go far. He paid his share with a promissory note, as he did for his share of the stock he and Berry purchased from a defunct local store. The store was never very busy so Lincoln read quite a bit. In his New Salem years, he mostly read Shakespeare, Burns, and the Bible, as well as law books, Kirkham’s Grammar, and other practical books. Other than poetry and Shakespeare, he didn’t read much literature, in which he had little interest.

The store limped along and, to save it, Berry decided to apply for a license to sell liquor in small quantities, which made it effectively a tavern as well. This didn’t suit Lincoln, who didn’t drink and saw the ill effects on those who did. He released his interest in the store in April of 1833. Once again, Lincoln was broke, and this time, in debt. He became an odd-jobber again like his friend Kelso, but not a lazy one. He split rails, worked on the farms, in the mill, and tended Sam Hill’s store, and when he got the chance, took any jobs he could get relating to voting, politics, and the law. In May, thanks to one of his very numerous friends, he was appointed to the job of village postmaster. It paid poorly but it was a social job, suitable for this friendly and often gregarious young man, and it gave him access to all the newspapers coming through the post. Since it was only a part-time job, this again gave him some time to read and study, though his odd-jobbing continued. A friend had recommended he try for the job of assistant to the newly appointed county surveyor John Calhoun. That job, coupled with his postmaster’s salary, should give him enough to live on. So he borrowed Calhoun’s books and learned surveying, took the job, and from January 1834 to late 1836, he made a success of it. But when his debts began to come due from the failed partnership with Berry and other speculations, what he was earning turned out, yet again, not to be nearly enough.

Berry-Lincoln store, interior view, New Salem, Illinois

Lincoln the Ranger by Fred M. Torrey, portraying Lincoln as a soldier in the Black Hawk War, at the Lincoln Tomb, Springfield, Illinois

When it the time to elect state legislators began to come around in 1834, Lincoln’s friends encouraged him to run again. He first ran for that office in 1832, and his platform had included state investment in making the Sangamon River more navigable instead of putting in a much more expensive railroad line. He knew the river well, having been a flatboat pilot on it, and he knew just where it needed to be straightened, cleared, and dammed to get the goods flowing cheaply and easily to market. He also promoted public education, the lack thereof which had caused him so much frustration, and limits on predatory lending practices. Lincoln didn’t win the race, but made a respectable showing for a very young man of no means who had only been there about a year. In 1834, however, things were different. He had been a local businessman and postmaster, and his education and circle of friends had both increased. Among those who most encouraged Lincoln to run again was the justice of the peace Bowling Green.

So run he did, and he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives on August 4th, 1834. Lincoln would be reelected to that office four times, serving as state legislator from 1834-1842.

During his 1834 run for office, Lincoln would develop his interest and education in the law. John Todd Stuart, who served with Lincoln in the Black Hawk War, also ran for state legislature in 1832 and won. He would eventually become Lincoln’s first law partner, took an active interest in his prospects and loaned him his law books. Lincoln’s friend and mentor Bowling Green (what a name!) also recognized that Lincoln’s sharp mind took right to his legal studies. As justice of the peace, Green allowed Lincoln to comment on his court cases, which in turn led to many turning to Lincoln for advice and assistance drafting legal documents.

Rutledge Tavern, New Salem, Illinois, 2017

Rutledge Tavern kitchen

Almost three-quarters of the way down the main street, I take the right turn to that leads to the Rutledge Tavern. Its proprietor, James Rutledge, was one of the founders of New Salem in 1828. Rutledge was one of those who encouraged Lincoln to run for state legislator. This one and a half-story structure first served as the Rutledges’ home, but when the town began to grow, it was converted into a tavern or inn, with a low sleeping area overhead and a public dining room. This was one of the places where Lincoln regularly lodged and ate his meals.

In his biography of Lincoln, Herndon made much of a story that Ann Rutledge, James Rutledge’s daughter, was not only the first, but also the true love of Lincoln’s life. They certainly would have seen each other frequently, and as a petite, pretty, and plump young woman, she likely would have caught his eye (all of the women Lincoln is known to have courted or loved were curvy). Ann died in 1835, probably of typhoid, when she was only 22 years old; Abraham was 26. There are many stories of a courtship between Ann and Abraham, and of a tentative engagement contingent on an earlier beau’s reneging on his own promise. Some of the stories of their love affair claim that Lincoln wept by her deathbed, others that Lincoln was so distraught after her death that his friends kept suicide watch over him. Yet these stories are fragmentary, hearsay, and recalled many years or decades after the fact. It’s a sweet story, but we may never know how much of it is true. We must keep in mind that Herndon pushed the story within a larger narrative of Lincoln as a man who had lost in love, ending up with a difficult woman unworthy of him. As I have written previously, it appears to me that his portrayal of Mary Todd and her relationship with Lincoln is slanted based on Herndon’s personal dislike of her, and is not a balanced assessment. In any case, Ann and Abraham almost certainly shared an attraction and possibly love, and Abraham was certainly grieved by the early death of the sweet and pretty innkeeper’s daughter.

Rutledge Tavern, interior view, New Salem, Illinois

I return to the main road and straight ahead of me, across the street, I find a large milled limber structure with a nice shady porch. This is the second location of Berry and Lincoln’s general store.

Second Berry-Lincoln store, image credit Learning Abe website. (The photo I took of the outside of the shop is missing, I must have accidentally deleted it.) Lincoln and Berry moved the business here in January of 1833 when this larger, nicer-looking lumber building came available

Second Berry-Lincoln store, interior view. The building had been owned previously by John MacNamar, the absent fiancée of Ann Rutledge, Lincoln’s storied first love

Next, I spot a large sign in a grassy area followed by a series of smaller signs in a row leading toward the Sangamon River below the bluff. I read the sign and find that this is an archaeological site that has not be reconstructed.

Archaeology Walk in New Salem, Illinois. The sign reads: ‘The reconstructed buildings at New Salem are based on archaeological excavations conducted in the 1930’s. In 1994, two archaeological sites were discovered in this field which were missed by the 1930’s researchers. Unlike most of the other sites in this village, no deed records exist for these sites, and there are no stories of the families who lived here. Only a single hand drawn map, published by R.J. Onstot (son of Henry Onstot) in 1909, pictures houses in this location, but they are mysteriously unlabeled…’ The path here follows the old roadbed that ran across here. Many of the places associated with Lincoln in and around New Salem have not been reconstructed here, including Bowling Green’s and the Abells’ homes about a mile north of here

It reminds me that there are many inhabitants of New Salem who Lincoln befriended, did business with, and lived with whose homes have not been reconstructed. For example, Lincoln lived with his friend Bowling Green’s neighbors Bennett and Elizabeth Abell for a time. Lincoln would regularly borrow books from them and Elizabeth, especially, thought he showed promise. She took such a liking to him that she introduced him to her sister, Mary Owens, in 1833, as a potential beau. They courted briefly a time but, despite Elizabeth’s eagerness that they marry, their relationship didn’t work out. Years later, she wrote to Lincoln’s law partner and biographer William Herndon that though she thought Lincoln a good man, nevertheless, he was ‘deficient in those little links which make up the chain of a woman’s happiness.’ She broke off the relationship; Lincoln, apparently, regretted ever getting involved and had written her letters hinting that they’d be better off without each other

J. Rowan Herndon residence, New Salem, Illinois.

I continue east along the main road, and to my right, I see the Herndon brothers’ house. One of them, J. Rowan Herndon, was married to Mentor Graham’s sister Elizabeth, and Lincoln lived with them for a time. Herndon was Berry’s original partner in the general store but since they didn’t get along, Herndon sold his share to Lincoln on credit. In 1833, Herndon accidentally shot and killed his wide when he was preparing to go out hunting. He left town to escape the rumors that he killed his wife on purpose, but it was no good: the rumors followed him for the rest of his life. Lincoln moved to Graham’s house when Rowan left.

Denton Offutt Store, New Salem, Illinois.

Continuing onto the last little road which veers off to the left from the main road, I find the first store Lincoln worked in when he moved to New Salem. It was from Offutt’s flatboat that Lincoln first saw New Salem, and it was Offutt’s promise of a job managing his new store that caused Lincoln to move here in 1831. So this humble little store is the one that brought Lincoln to this place so formative to his life and education. It’s not much to look at, but it brings home to me anew how amazing Lincoln’s story really is.

Perhaps it was the fact that New Salem was both a tiny frontier village and a commercial community reaching hard beyond itself, seeking to become a hub of skilled trade and interstate commerce, that Lincoln found it such an effective springboard. From 1831 – 1837, this close-knit and ambitious village nurtured an uneducated, awkward, poor farm-boy into a canny lawyer, a political powerhouse, and a great moral leader, perhaps the greatest President the United States will ever see.

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Sources and inspiration:

Abraham Lincoln Online: Lincoln Early Life Timeline, Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic SiteLincoln Timelines and Highlights, and Pre-Presidential Political Timeline

Burlingame, Michael. Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume 1. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012

Carwardine, Richard. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. New York: Random House, 2003

The Chautauqua Movement‘, Chautauqua Trail website

Denton Offutt.’ from Kentucky’s Abraham Lincoln by the Kentucky Historical Society

Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995

Gannett, Lewis. ‘”Overwhelming Evidence” of a Lincoln-Ann Rutledge Romance?: Reexamining Rutledge Family Reminiscences.’ Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 26, Issue 1, Winter 2005, pp. 28-41.

Herndon, William H. and Jesse W. Weik. Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life. 1889

Lehrman, Lewis E. Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.

Lincoln’s New Salem‘, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency website

Lincoln’s New Salem.’ In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Lincoln’s New Salem 1830-1837‘, National Park Service website

New Salem: Virtual Tour, Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site website

Nicolay, John George. An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006

Shenk, Joshua Wolf. ‘The Suicide Poem‘, The New Yorker, June 14, 2004

Simon, John Y. ‘Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association,
Volume 11, Issue 1, 1990, pp. 13-33

Thomas, Benjamin Platt. Lincoln’s New Salem. Springfield, Ill.: The Abraham Lincoln Association, 1934; republished Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Library, 2006.

Trenholm, Sandra. ‘Abraham Lincoln, Mary Owens, and the Accidental Engagement.’ The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website

3 thoughts on “New Salem, in Search of Abraham Lincoln

  1. Pingback: Hannibal and Florida, Missouri, in Search of Mark Twain | Ordinary Philosophy

  2. Pingback: To the Great Plains and Illinois I Go, in Search of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, and Other American Histories | Ordinary Philosophy

  3. Pingback: New Podcast Episode: New Salem, in Search of Abraham Lincoln | Ordinary Philosophy

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