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Historians: Lincoln owned second home
Rediscovered writ shows he owned New Salem house

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 formative years.

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, important person.

"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 picture."

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 Vandalia.

"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 at 788-1519.

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