Visiting Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site
Abraham Lincoln lived six years in the village of New Salem, Illinois, prior to moving to Springfield and rising to national prominence.
In 1829, two men, James Rutledge and John M. Camron, built a grist and sawmill on the Sangamon River in central Illinois. The two also founded the village of New Salem at the site, a village that quickly became a center of commerce for the area, with general stores, a blacksmith shop, a cooper, a post office, and a carding and wool mill among the businesses.
In 1831, businessman Denton Offutt hired 22 year old Abraham Lincoln and two others to help him take a flatboat of goods down the Sangamon, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers down to New Orleans. The New Salem residents got their first look at Lincoln as he led the effort to free the flatboat after it got stuck on the mill dam. Offutt thought the town had business opportunities, one of which would be a general store. Impressed with how Lincoln had freed the flatboat, Offutt offered Lincoln a job in the future general store after they returned from New Orleans. At the end of July, Lincoln returned to New Salem and took up residence there.
During his time in New Salem, Lincoln worked in, as well as partially owned general stores along with business partner William Berry. He also was a surveyor, postmaster, and served in the
militia in the Black Hawk War. He became a familiar and popular figure in the town, readily joining in the social life there. He was elected to two terms in the state legislature. Lincoln was also noted for his constant reading as he self educated himself (he had had only about a year of formal schooling) on all manner of subjects. He was self taught as a surveyor, as well as in law. His law self education was good enough for him to be admitted to the Illinois Bar in March of 1837. New Salem was also the location of the highly disputed purported romance between Ann Rutledge and Lincoln; she died in 1835.
In April of 1837, newly minted lawyer Abraham Lincoln left New Salem for the state capitol in Springfield, about 20 miles away. Though the town was only eight years old in 1837, it was already in decline. Petersburg, Illinois, about two miles away, was founded in 1833 (the site was surveyed by Lincoln) and began to grow rapidly; the New Salem post office was moved to Petersburg in 1836. By 1840, almost all the residents of New Salem had relocated to Petersburg or elsewhere, marking the end of New Salem as a town.
With the election of Abraham Lincoln as President, there was renewed interest in New Salem, which continued long after Lincoln’s death. Former residents aided in mapping the old town, and there was interest in preserving the site. In 1906, William Randolph Hearst bought the site for $11,000 and deeded it to an organization called the Old Salem Chautauqua Association for $1. Work began on restoring the vanished village. Using accounts from former residents, period documents, and archaeological excavations, the old building foundations were found. The process of building reconstructed structures on their original foundations began.
In 1919, the site was given to the State of Illinois, and the scientific and historic study and restoration continued. In 1922, the cooper shop of former resident Henry Onstot was found intact in Petersburg. Onstot had moved the building to the nearby town when he left New Salem in 1840, where it remained for the next 82 years. The shop was moved back to New Salem and placed back on its original foundation. It is the only original building at the site. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, much of the restoration work was done by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which included replacing some of the previously restored buildings with better replacements.
Visiting Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site
Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site is located at 15588 History Lane, about two miles south of Petersburg. The site has a visitor center with a film about Lincoln’s time in New Salem, as well as period artifacts, many of which were gathered from descendents of New Salem residents. Lincoln’s surveyor’s tools are on display as well. Visitors can walk at their leisure on self guided tours through the grounds to view the 23 buildings. Costumed interpreters are present in some of the buildings. The site is open year round, seven days a week from May through October and on Wednesday through Sunday the rest of the year; closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Days. In addition to the historic exhibits, the 700 acre mostly wooded site also has hiking trails and a campground.
Lincoln by David Herbert Donald
New Salem: A History of Lincoln’s Alma Mater by Joseph M. Di Cola
Amazon affiliate links: We may earn a small commission from purchases made from Amazon.com links at no cost to our visitors. For more info, please read our affiliate disclosure.