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A Copley Newspaper
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Digging into Abe's past
Archaeologists look for artifacts at New Salem

Published Sunday, April 30, 2006

PETERSBURG - Archaeologists searching for more evidence of the first building Abraham Lincoln owned have unearthed a slate pencil, a hand-forged iron chain link, window and bottle glass, a shell button, pottery fragments and other items at Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site.

"Finding that slate pencil was a real treat. It's as close as we're going to get to a Lincoln artifact," said Robert Mazrim, director of the Sangamo Archaeological Center in Elkhart.

Lincoln arrived at New Salem by flatboat in 1831, working first as a clerk in Offutt's shop. He later operated a store with William Berry and served as a postmaster and deputy surveyor before moving to Springfield to practice law. The log village was reconstructed in the 1930s and now is administered by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Thomas Schwartz, interim director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, recently discovered an 1830s document that revealed Lincoln owned a half interest in two lots and a structure in the frontier settlement.

Schwartz said the building would have been the first Lincoln ever owned, and the archaeological investigation "will give us more information about this important, previously unknown chapter of Lincoln's life."

Mazrim, four crew members and a small group of volunteers have been at the site for about six weeks. The group, after studying archaeological and written records and resurveying, is focusing on the area at the east end of the village that encompasses the rebuilt Offutt Store and the William Clary grocery.

Offutt opened his business in July 1831, but his enterprises failed within a year, and he left for Kentucky. It's believed that Lincoln and Charles Maltby, another clerk at the store, may have purchased Offutt's property in 1832.

Lincoln and Maltby apparently planned to operate a warehouse at New Salem that would serve as a distribution and shipping point for steamboats on the nearby Sangamon River. However, the shallow river halted steamboat travel in the area, and the Black Hawk War took Lincoln from the project in the summer of 1832.

When he returned, Lincoln re-entered the retail business, possibly using the Offutt building. Three years later, he still owned the property, which, according to Schwartz, may have served multiple purposes, including as a storage area, residence or an office for Lincoln's surveying work.

Mazrim believes the Offutt and Clary buildings probably were part of "a business complex that was pioneered by George Warburton (an early New Salem resident), expanded by Offutt and then owned by Maltby and Lincoln."

"We can say pretty confidently that Abraham Lincoln owned this property in 1835," Mazrim said, noting that Maltby left New Salem that year.

Schwartz watched Thursday as the archaeologists carefully excavated using simple hand tools - trowels, whisk brooms and shovels. Pouring bucket after bucket of soil through mesh sieves, they hunted for what could be tiny, but important, pieces of history.

"Good going," Mazrim remarked to the crew member who dug up the chain link, noting that it might have been made years ago at the blacksmith shop down the road.

David Brady, a history buff who works at the Prairie Archives bookstore in Springfield and has joined Mazrim on a dig in southern Illinois, volunteered to sift through the dirt Friday.

"This gives you a different point of view, rather than just reading old documents and newspaper accounts," Brady said.

During the project, Mazrim has learned that there were plaster laths on the interior walls of the Offutt structure.

"It was much less primitive than the (log) replica portrays," he said. "It was much more modern, much more finished, much more formal."

"It's something we'd never even considered here," New Salem site manager David Hedrick said of the finding.

Another major discovery was the scatter of handmade bricks found underground, surrounded by very burnt soil, near the Clary store.

"There's absolutely no archival record or oral tradition that there was any brick-making here," Mazrim said. "As far as who made this brick, we don't really know."

Painstakingly scraping away at the earth, Mazrim unburied what he calls "the earliest park litter," left behind from the 1880s to 1920s by picnicking tourists who came to see where Lincoln first worked. And a fellow archaeologist Friday came across the base of a medicine bottle that Mazrim said might have contained essence of peppermint or British oil.

Mazrim said it's "amazing" that the artifacts - some possibly part of the store's inventory - weren't destroyed during the reconstruction of New Salem.

Schwartz thinks that his research, combined with the archaeologists' work, indicates that Lincoln was "more serious about the commercial enterprise and the commercial viability of this whole area."

"It shows him invested in the community in a way that the traditional story ignores," Schwartz said. "Obviously, he was much more active than just standing in the store, telling jokes and going bankrupt. This shows a lot of hard work."

Hedrick said those involved with New Salem always try to present "a true and accurate picture of what the village looked like and was about." When archaeologists do research at the historic site, the information gathered helps interpret Lincoln's connection to New Salem, he said.

"The task of figuring out Lincoln's involvement here is never-ending," Hedrick said. "Every time archaeologists solve an issue, it creates more questions about what the true story is."

"Now that we know that this was Lincoln's, we have to go back and relook at our whole understanding of Lincoln and New Salem," agreed Schwartz, adding that some people may examine the evidence and draw different conclusions. Overall, however, he thinks people will concur with the findings.

The archaeologists plan to wrap up their work by the end of May.

"What artifacts we don't keep for display at the site will go to the Illinois State Museum. They're the depository for all archaeological findings," Hedrick said.

He added that Mazrim's upcoming book, which covers archaeologists' 10 years of discoveries at New Salem, will be "a significant publication for (the historic site)."

"It will be used to help redesign the interpretive materials," Hedrick said.

"It's exciting," Schwartz added. "There is a lot here that has to be looked at and puzzled through, and the whole process of what it means will be ongoing. It's wonderful to see the outline here, the footprint."

Ann Gorman can be reached through the metro desk at 788-1519.

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