An old plat of New Salem, which
turns out to be incomplete. A long-forgotten document
that spoke of a horse and a house. Illinois State
Historian Thomas Schwartz's knowledge of frontier people
and practices. Robert Mazrim's archaeological surveys of
the village where a future president spent some of his
All become ingredients in a muffled bombshell of
information: Abraham Lincoln owned property during his
time in New Salem.
A rediscovered document - a writ of execution of
judgment from the March 1835 sheriff's auction of
Lincoln's personal property - describes "the undivided
half of Lots 16 & 17 north of Main Street New Salem"
as having been owned by Lincoln.
Although his horse and surveyor's equipment were sold
at that auction to settle a debt, the writ also contains
the notation that "the above property levied on was sold
this day for $81. The sale of the house and lots was
stayed by order of the Plaintiff."
The conventional wisdom is that Lincoln owned no
property at New Salem, near Petersburg, and that his
home in Springfield was the first improved property he
ever purchased. The New Salem discovery revises that
interpretation of Lincoln's early years in Illinois.
"It's remarkably important, because it goes to the
heart of our interpretation of Lincoln as a young man,"
said Mazrim, director of the Sangamo Archaeological
Center in Elkhart.
Based on a theme that was part of the Victorian
culture of the late 1800s, it was always thought and
taught that, while at New Salem, Lincoln was somewhere
between being a backwoods drifter and a responsible,
"This information shows that he had much more
invested in the community and had a more stable and
successful life there," Mazrim said.
As part of their research, Schwartz and Mazrim
carefully studied the handwritten document that
initially had been misread.
What originally was interpreted as two mentions of a
horse actually was
one listing of a "horse" and one of a "house."
Digital technology enhanced the document for
clarification. The new information was compared to
additional documents and stories concerning the auction
to add further clarification.
The original 1829 plat of New Salem recorded lot
numbers only through Lot 13. Oral tradition, additional
records of the period and archaeological evidence were
used to determine building placements for the current
replica village, constructed during the 1930s, which
includes sites not on the original plat.
Mazrim and Schwartz, however, were able to
re-establish the location of the new lots.
"Using a combination of archaeological data,
additional deeds relating to property not on the plat
and an understanding of the methodology of the 1829
surveyor, Lots 16 and 17 were found to encompass what
today is known as the Offutt store site, which
previously floated outside the town plat," Mazrim said.
It has long been known that Lincoln clerked at
Offutt's store in 1831, but it now appears he also may
have acquired a financial interest in the property.
The results of the research are published in the
Sangamo Archaeological Center's new bulletin,
"Magnificent Storehouses and Forgotten Lot Lines: New
Light on Lincoln and Storekeeping at New Salem."
"Robert's interest in archaeology has nicely
dovetailed with my interest in old documents, and the
result promises to revise some of our interpretation of
Lincoln," Schwartz said.
Both scholars are excited about the discovery, which
also indicates the possibility for more findings.
"The primary documents haven't been fully tapped,"
Mazrim said. "It's the assumption that all of the
documents have been read that holds new research back.
The same holds true for the archaeological record. We
need to revisit primary sources.
"It still seems almost unbelievable that there's
something new to be learned about Lincoln, but there is
in both the archival and archaeological record."
The Sangamo Archaeological Center had been scheduled
to conduct studies at New Salem last summer, in part to
address the discovery about Lincoln's apparent property
ownership. However, the project's private funding was
withdrawn, and the project is on hold, Mazrim said.
"My responsibility was to put the discovery into
context and to get the material out through our bulletin
and lecture series," he said. "This way the information
can be picked up and plugged into an even bigger
As often happens in historical research, new
information breeds new questions, including: Just what
was the purpose of the building Lincoln owned?
"I don't know; I wasn't there," Mazrim said.
"But at the same time we have educated guesses that
suggest that Lincoln spent most of his time in 1833 and
1834 at the building we call the Second Berry-Lincoln
store. The firsthand stories that we use to track
Lincoln's whereabouts are fewer between 1835-1836,
however, because he spent less time in the village while
he was becoming a busy surveyor and spending time in
"But Lincoln would have lost access to the Second
Berry-Lincoln store in 1836, and after that, he may have
briefly used the building on Lot 16 as some sort of base
of operations for his surveying career. He certainly
didn't draw his survey maps on stumps of trees. But for
now, that is just a guess."
Carol Woodrum can be reached through the metro desk