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Lincoln's Years at New Salem

Erin Fitzgerald
Anna-Jonesboro Community High School, Anna

In July 1831 Abraham Lincoln made New Salem, Illinois, his new home. After just a few weeks at his new home, Lincoln said, "I am a piece of floating driftwood, and I accidentally landed at New Salem." He may have been drifting, but his landing in New Salem was definitely no accident. In the six years Lincoln lived at New Salem, from July 1831 to April 1837, he became a mature man while building a secure base for his personal and social life and educating himself for his future.

Lincoln had moved from Indiana to New Salem, Illinois, at the end of 1831. Lincoln met a man by the name of Denton Offutt, who was impressed by Lincoln's work style. Offutt asked him to take a flatboat full of goods to New Orleans. Lincoln agreed, but returned to a job as a clerk in Offutt's New Salem general store. At the time this general store was one of three in New Salem.

When Lincoln began working at the store, no one knew him. He wanted to become well known by the local people. Lincoln soon took a temporary job counting election ballots. One afternoon, while counting ballots in the midst of the townspeople, Lincoln began telling stories of his days in Indiana. Laughing and enjoying these stories, the townspeople began to become acquainted with Lincoln. Offutt also helped bring out Lincoln's recognition by the townspeople. He went around bragging about Lincoln's strength. In fact Denton bet ten dollars with Bill Clary that a man named Jack Armstrong from Clary's Grove could not beat Lincoln in a wrestling match. Bill Clary's boys were the town bullies who intimidated the locals. Involved and ready for the fight, the townspeople bet on the best man. Lincoln picked up Armstrong and shaking him, defeated the six-foot-four-inch, two-hundred-fourteen-pound man. Now everyone in New Salem was an immediate friend of Abraham Lincoln.

While Lincoln lived at New Salem he was hired to pilot a flatboat to carry goods to New Orleans. This artist's rendering depicts Lincoln plying the waters of the Mississippi.

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30 ILLINOIS HISTORY / FEBRUARY 1998


Abraham Lincoln, a man hired to do many jobs, kept himself busy. In a town with no church, one tavern, two saloons, a post office, a ferry, and three general stores, Lincoln remained active. Initially Lincoln was Denton Offutt's clerk, but he was also hired by Dr. Nelson to pilot a flatboat to Beardstown. Aside from these two jobs, Offutt hired Lincoln to become head of the Rutledge and Camron Mill. Another man named William G. Greene was also hired to do the same job. Constantly working together, Abe and Greene developed a lifelong friendship. Earning only fifteen dollars a month, Lincoln slept in a room at the rear of Offutt's store. Eventually, the business began to fail, and Lincoln was left without a job.

Lincoln immediately enlisted in the army when the Black Hawk War began, only nine months after his arrival in New Salem. After serving one term, Lincoln was elected captain. After his ninety-day enlistment, Lincoln returned from the war and prepared for the election of the Illinois General Assembly. He ran as a Whig in a district with many Democrats. With only ten days to campaign, Lincoln spoke on several issues while at the podium. He did not speak much about national politics, but instead about the navigability of the Sangamon River. In the midst of one speech, a fight broke out in the crowd. Lincoln recognized one of the men as Rowan Herndon, a personal friend. Lincoln stepped down from the podium and defended his friend. He gained several people's attention, but it was not enough. Lincoln lost the election, but people in New Salem voted 277 to 3 in favor of him. After losing the election in 1832, Lincoln came back and won in 1834.

Lincoln worked for a time at the Rutledge and Camron Mill, located on the banks of the Sangamon River at New Salem.

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Out of a job, Lincoln went to work for general-store-owner Samuel Hill. Hill sold whiskey and was the town postmaster. However, the townspeople felt that Lincoln could be a better postmaster. At the time, Lincoln's ambition was growing. On May 7, 1833, Lincoln placed a five-hundred-dollar bond, and became postmaster. Abe was not paid much for splitting rails, helping at the mill, and being an assistant surveyor. In fact in the three years as postmaster, he was not paid more than two hundred dollars. In addition, Lincoln's mailing route was huge. Lincoln helped out people who could not afford to pay their mail bills. In one instance, Lincoln was turned in by a friend and fined ten dollars for delivering unpaid mail. On May 30, 1836, Lincoln resigned as postmaster.

While at New Salem, Lincoln also advanced his education and furthered his personal life. Lincoln was among the few people who could read and write. Benjamin Thomas wrote, "Always endeavoring to improve his education, he studied books on grammar and acquired a lifelong taste for the poetry of English poet and playwright William Shakespeare and Scottish poet Robert Burns." Lincoln also joined the local debating society. In fact, a member at Lincoln's first debate stated, "A perceptible smile at once lit up the face of the audience, for all anticipated the relation of a humorous story." In addition, Lincoln met some women. He knew a woman named Ann Rutledge. Lincoln found himself grieving over her death in 1835. He believed that maybe Ann was meant for him. However, eighteen months later, Lincoln met Mary Owens, and proposed to her. Miss Owens rejected him.

After his hours as postmaster, Lincoln studied law with Mentor Graham, the local schoolmaster. After becoming educated, Lincoln reached a high point in his life. On September 9, 1836, he applied for his law license, receiving it six months later on March 1, 1837. Lincoln now wanted to journey into the law field. With old memories and new knowledge, Lincoln left New Salem on April 15, 1837, to practice law in Springfield.

Lincoln's years in New Salem contributed to much of his development as a political realist, logician, and lawyer. According to one historian, "there he began his political career and the study of law, the two forces that shaped his thinking and prose style."[From David D. Anderson, Abraham Lincoln; Paul Horgan, Citizen of New Salem; Richard Kigel, The Frontier Years of Abe Lincoln; Benjamin Thomas, Abraham Lincoln.]

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