Lincolnís Missing Years

March 2010


Many recall that Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky, practiced law in Springfield, Illinois, and ended his days in Washington, DC. But not many know about Lincolnís years in New Salem, Illinois. Twenty-two-year-old Lincoln literally stumbled upon New Salem in April 1831 when the flatboat he was navigating to New Orleans became stranded on the New Salem milldam. Lincoln impressed the gathered villagers when he craftily drained the water from the vessel using an auger and cleared the flatboat from the dam. Onlooker Denton Offutt was so impressed with Lincolnís ingenuity that he offered Lincoln a clerk position in his goods store, assumable upon Lincolnís return.


Lincoln arrived back in New Salem in July 1831. He soon discovered his natural networking abilities. On August 1, New Salemís voting day, Lincoln hung out at the polls all day, entertaining his fellow townsmen with his storytelling and building friendships that would soon guide him onto his own political track.


The following April, the Black Hawk War called Lincoln away to Northern Illinois and Wisconsin. His election to captain by his fellow militiamen became one of Lincolnís proudest memories. When Lincoln returned to New Salem in mid-July, he ran for state legislature and lost. His abbreviated campaigning time hindered his chances of election. Shortly after, Lincoln purchased a goods store with friend William Berry. Although sales were slow and the store soon went bankrupt, Lincoln built strong friendships with his customers and earned the moniker Honest Abe. Through his now numerous connections, enterprising Lincoln was appointed postmaster in May 1833. To supplement this small income, Lincoln taught himself surveying and began working as deputy county surveyor that summer. William Berry died shortly thereafter and it took Lincoln 15 years to pay off the debt from the bankrupt Lincoln-Berry store. In 1834 and 1836, Lincoln served in the Illinois state legislature, improving his income significantly.


Throughout his New Salem days while working his varied jobs, Lincoln studied voraciously. He could often be found sitting at the base of a tree with book in hand, scooting around the tree throughout the day as the sunlight shifted. He read during slow times at the store, read on horseback while delivering mail, and studied in the evenings with schoolmaster Mentor Graham. Graham was so esteemed by Lincoln that he was an honored guest at Lincolnís first presidential inauguration. Lincolnís insatiable appetite for learning motivated him to make the 20-mile journey to Springfield regularly to borrow law books from future law partner John T. Stuart. Lincoln was granted a license to practice law in September 1836. He relocated to Springfield in April 1837 after spending six life-defining years in New Salem.