Lincoln's New Salem

No matter how hard he tried, the lanky young man could not get the small wooden boat unstuck. Finally conceding that there was no way to get his loaded barge any further down the river, Abraham Lincoln decided to offload his supplies and maybe lighten the load enough to get past the obstruction. Perhaps by asking one of the gathering crowd of spectators where he had become stuck, he would have learned that the settlement’s name was New Salem.

Just after he turned 21, Lincoln found himself alone. He had moved to central Illinois with his family, but after the brutal winter of 1830; which came to be known as the “Winter of the Deep Snow;” his parents had decided to abandon their new home near present-day Decatur and head back to Indiana. Abraham had no desire to go back to the Hoosier State, so he stayed behind.

Seeking employment, Lincoln soon crossed paths with Denton Offutt, also a transplanted Kentuckian, who had dreams of running a flatboat line from Central Illinois to New Orleans, using the Sangamon, Illinois and Mississippi Rivers to facilitate trade between the two regions. Lincoln and Offutt; four years his senior; became fast friends, and soon Lincoln was a partner in the burgeoning commercial enterprise.

In March 1831, Lincoln and two other workers helped Offutt to build a flatboat and load it with supplies bound for New Orleans. They boarded the boat and started down the Sangamon River, but they didn’t make it very far.

Twenty miles downriver, the boat ran aground on a mill dam which had been built two years earlier by two of New Salem’s founders, James Rutledge and John Camron, to more efficiently use the river’s water for a grist mill and a saw mill. After much effort, Lincoln and his team managed to free the boat from the mill dam, but in the meantime Offutt had been struck by inspiration. He believed the settlement of around 150 people could use a general store, and here he was with a boatload of supplies. He could use the ample timber and the functioning saw mill to build his boats here – and this jack-of-all-trades Lincoln could run things for him. New Salem would be the place where Denton Offutt and Abraham Lincoln would build their business.

No one in 1831 could have imagined how this moment changed American history. Perhaps Lincoln might have gone on to be a successful river merchant or settled somewhere else. Maybe he would not have discovered the need for infrastructure improvements in central Illinois and never given politics another thought. The moment of Lincoln’s unceremonious arrival in New Salem holds such historical importance that it is depicted in a mural in the south hallway of the first floor of the Illinois state capitol.

But business success did not await Denton Offutt. Lincoln went to work in the general store, and became quite popular with his new neighbors, while Offutt floundered as a businessman, eventually going bankrupt and fleeing his debts. Another businessman attempted to resurrect the dream of running a line; this time with a steamboat; up the Sangamon River, but the venture failed when the river proved to be virtually unnavigable.

Determined to open this commercial route into his adopted home region, Lincoln ran for the state legislature in 1832 on a platform of supporting infrastructure improvements: specifically waterways. His New Salem neighbors overwhelmingly supported him, giving him 277 of their 300 ballots, but his appeal did not extend much beyond the village and he suffered a terrible defeat. It was the first of many.

Facing defeat, he remarked that he had “been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined.”

Lincoln now partnered with yet another Kentuckian, William F. Berry, in a new general store. The two partners gradually outlasted competitors in New Salem, buying up the remaining goods in other stores about to go out of business, and emerging as the leading businessmen in the settlement.

Reconstruction of the Lincoln-Berry Store. Photo from the 1933-34 Illinois Blue Book.

But as with so much in Lincoln’s life, bad luck and failure stalked him here too. The Berry-Lincoln enterprise “winked out,” in Lincoln’s words, and then Berry sank into alcoholism and eventually an early grave, leaving Lincoln alone and virtually penniless once again.

At this moment came a decision that would come to define Lincoln for the rest of his life. Deep in debt, he eschewed bankruptcy and determined to repay every penny: an action (“the greatest obstacle I have ever met”) that would inspire many to attest to his sense of honor and honesty. It was among the first of many tales about Honest Abe.

Lincoln found work as the New Salem postmaster, then a deputy county surveyor. He was mentored by the village’s justice of the peace, and soon began to study law books. In 1834 he tried again for the legislature and was successful. One of his early triumphs in the legislature was the successful drive to relocate the capital city from Vandalia to Springfield. Lincoln soon relocated to Springfield as well.

The New Salem which Lincoln left behind at the end of the 1830s was a much different place than the one in which he accidentally landed at the beginning of the decade. By this time it was clear that the dream of river-bound commerce on the Sangamon was dead; the river presented too many hazards to navigation to ever be commercially viable; and now the new railroads were beginning to show potential. By 1840, New Salem was gone as a settlement, Lincoln’s old neighbors all moved on to other locations. The area was detached from Sangamon County and made part of the newly-created Menard County, but the county seat was a few miles up the river at Petersburg.

By the turn of the 20th century, there was nothing left of New Salem but a few low spots in the ground which had once been cellars for the cabins of Lincoln and his neighbors. The area was a livestock pasture in 1906 when it was visited by famous newspaperman William Randolph Hearst.

Hearst, serving in Congress and contemplating a run for the presidency, had come to Illinois on his way back from California. He had been invited to speak at the Old Salem Chautauqua, a large annual gathering in Menard County near Lincoln’s former home.

Exactly what happened next is not entirely clear. Legend has it that the family which owned the former New Salem property, the Bales, wanted to see it become a memorial of some kind for Lincoln, but they also wanted to ensure that it did not end up as some kind of business enterprise. They met with the Chautauqua association, who in turn discussed the idea with Congressman Henry Rainey. Rainey then made a suggestion to his wealthy colleague, Hearst, who saw an opportunity to link himself with the nation’s greatest President and perhaps please some voters in an upcoming Presidential election.

Hearst paid between $11,000 and $12,000 for the property, and then gifted it to the Chautauqua Association. The announcement was greeted with “tumultuous applause,” according to the local newspaper, but then things stalled for more than a decade. No preservation work was done, and no memorial was built.

In 1917, the Chautauqua Association created the Old Salem Lincoln League, with the assignment of researching Lincoln’s time in Menard County. The renewed interest in the site led to its being the location of a major celebration of the Illinois Centennial. With Hearst’s consent, the land was donated to the State of Illinois on May 22, 1919. Hearst insisted that it must always be free to visit.

Some restoration began in the early 1920s. Most dramatically this restoration involved the return of an entire original New Salem building which had been picked up and moved to Petersburg decades before. In 1931, one hundred years after Lincoln’s arrival, the Illinois General Assembly appropriated $50,000 to begin reconstructing the New Salem village as part of a state park. Governor Lewis Emmerson directed that the location be formally named “New Salem State Park.”

Though the restored village was dedicated by Governor Henry Horner and the Abraham Lincoln Association on a rainy day in October 1933, construction continued throughout the decade. In 1934, the Civilian Conservation Corps came in and took over the reconstruction work, building cabins and stores to resemble as closely as possible the appearance of the village one hundred years before.

“The State has made an excellent job of the reconstruction,” wrote Benjamin P. Thomas, Executive Secretary of the Abraham Lincoln Association. Thomas went on to write that state officials, “spared no effort to secure historic fidelity in every possible detail,” and that, “every available scrap of information about the old village was collected.”

Painstaking research was done on the site and on its inhabitants. Every detail, from the width of the main street to the locations of the fireplaces within each cabin was carefully studied to create the most accurate restoration possible. Many of the furnishings were donated by local residents.

“The people of Menard County and others who have made contributions deserve high praise for the unselfish generosity with which they have turned over their treasures to the state,” Thomas wrote. Some of those treasures were simply from the period of the 1830s, others were traced back to specific buildings in New Salem itself.

Research continues, part of a seemingly never-ending quest for historical accuracy at the site, which now contains 700 acres, 23 historic buildings – homes, shops, stores, a school, a tavern and the mill. The park also hosts a museum, informational displays and costumed interpreters who bring the village to life.

For more than 80 years, Lincoln’s New Salem has provided visitors with a look at the surroundings where Abraham Lincoln spent his first years of adulthood, where he learned the law and where his road to the White House began. Today the park, located 15 minutes from Springfield on Illinois 97, hosts festivals, living history demonstrations, a 500-seat theater in the park and a campground.

Lincoln’s New Salem is open to visitors from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week between May and October, Wednesdays through Sundays from November to April.