Illinois: New Salem Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This Illinois State Historic Site is a re-creation of the original town that existed from 1829 to 1839. It primarily consists of reconstructed log homes as determined by survey plans and interviews with town residents. The site had completely reverted to a prairie by the time that reconstruction started.

Site Office

New Salem State Historic Site

R.R. 1, Box 244A

Petersburg, IL 62675

ph.: (217) 632-4000

Web site: www.lincolnsnewsalem.com

New Salem is a reconstructed prairie town that owes its present existence to the fact that Abraham Lincoln lived there from 1831 to 1837, on his way to becoming the sixteenth U.S. president. The village existed for only a decade or so and in its prime was home to about twenty-five families. It lies on a bluff one hundred feet above the Sangamon River.

Origins of New Salem

The town originated in 1828 when the property was bought by John M. Camron. He and his uncle, James Rutledge, petitioned the General Assembly of Illinois in 1829 for permission to dam the Sangamon River in order to establish a saw and grist mill. The two were in business together and had tried unsuccessfully to dam the waters of Concord Creek a few miles away. Because that site did not work, they relocated to a new point on the Sangamon River and were successful at establishing the mill. It is this site that became New Salem.

The site seemed an appropriate place for a town. It lay on a bluff above a river and near a road connecting Springfield with Havana. It also lay in the center of a very promising agricultural area. Even the name of the river–Sangamon, an Indian word meaning the land of plenty to eat–reflected this promise.

On October 23, 1829, a surveyor, Reuben Harrison, laid out the town. Land sold for about ten dollars a lot, and by January, 1830, the first store was established by Samuel Hill and John McNeil. Later that same year Henry Onstot built his cooper shop, and William Clary started a ferry to make the mill and the town accessible from the eastern side of the river.

Potential for Growth

The town was well equipped for its size and had potential for growth. Among the people who settled in New Salem in 1831 were a doctor and a cobbler. The town also added a hotel/tavern and two stores, at one of which Abraham Lincoln worked as a clerk. In 1832 the new residents included another doctor, a hatter, a tanner, a wheelwright/woodworker, and a blacksmith. The town also had a carding mill and a school that also served as a church building.

In the early 1830’s the basic needs of most of the settlers could be met in New Salem. The mill was a beacon to farmers who would come from miles away to have their grain ground and trade their goods. The grinding process took several hours, and to pass the time farmers and their families would picnic in the area of the mill and buy goods in the store while they waited for their grain. The town residents were able to buy goods they needed at the stores, employ the services of the skilled blacksmith and cobbler, and receive treatment, if needed, from the town doctors. The town also was a stagecoach stop and had a post office. New Salem seemed to be well on its way to becoming a thriving river town.

It was to this prosperous town that Abraham Lincoln came via the Sangamon River. To earn some money, he and a few other men had taken jobs to pole a flatboat loaded with farm goods from Springfield up the Sangamon River, then down the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. At New Salem the heavily laden craft was caught on the mill dam and in danger of sinking. It was Lincoln who solved the problem by unloading the boat, draining out the water that had collected in it, and guiding it across the dam. The owner of the flatboat, Denton Offutt, was very impressed with the young Abraham Lincoln. He asked Lincoln to clerk in the new store he had decided to establish in New Salem later that year.

Abraham Lincoln in New Salem

In 1831, when Lincoln moved to New Salem, he had been in Illinois for only a little more than a year. Lincoln, his father, stepmother, and siblings had moved to Illinois from Indiana in 1830, enticed by the reports of good land. The Lincolns set up a new homestead near the banks of the Sangamon River a few miles from Decatur, Illinois. Lincoln lived with his family for approximately a year to help establish the new homestead and then decided to set out on his own. He was twenty-two.

During the six years he lived in New Salem, Lincoln had a variety of occupations, often holding more than one job at a time. Offutt’s store did not last very long, but Lincoln decided to stay in New Salem because the town held such promise. He also enjoyed the people there. After his rural upbringing, this was Lincoln’s first contact with organized community life. In New Salem Lincoln voted in an election for the first time; he made lifelong friends there and learned how to deal with people of many different backgrounds.

A few months after arriving in New Salem, Lincoln announced his candidacy as a member of the Whig Party for the state legislature, but he was not elected. Later that same year, 1832, Lincoln volunteered to fight in the Black Hawk War and was chosen captain of his company. (The war was fought between Indians, under the direction of Chief Black Hawk, and settlers, over the issue of land.) Lincoln served for eighty days and returned to New Salem.

In 1832 Lincoln also became a shopkeeper. Because he needed to earn a living, he bought a portion of a store from Rowan Herndon. William Berry owned the other half. In 1833 Lincoln and Berry bought out another store owner in New Salem and moved their store into a building across the street from the original one. This is what is today known as the second Berry-Lincoln store.

Lincoln and his partner had purchased the store and its goods on credit, and Lincoln was plagued with the debt from this business venture for years after the store failed and Berry died. Lincoln remained in New Salem and was named postmaster in 1833, a position he held until the post office was moved to Petersburg in 1836. As postmaster it is estimated that Lincoln earned between twenty-five and thirty dollars a year. This amount was based upon the gross receipts of the office.

Lincoln the Surveyor

Another job Lincoln held while in New Salem was that of surveyor, which he started in January, 1834. When there was work, surveyors earned nearly three dollars a day. Because the land in Illinois was being settled so rapidly, surveyors were in demand. Lincoln secured a position as deputy surveyor to John Calhoun, the county surveyor, and borrowed books from Calhoun in order to learn the trade. Lincoln bought a horse on credit, and equipped with a few surveying tools, started his assignments in the northern part of what is now Menard County and the southern part of Mason County.

In addition to holding down his various jobs, Lincoln studied law, history, and literature, largely through extensive, independent reading, and was active in the New Salem Debating Society. He also is said to have been engaged to the local tavern owner’s daughter, Ann Rutledge, who died before they could marry; however, many Lincoln scholars doubt that the two were romantically involved.

Lincoln ran for state representative again in 1834. This time he was elected, and he won a second term in 1836. Returning to New Salem when the legislature was not in session, he continued his law studies, and he was admitted to the bar on March 1, 1837. In April of that year he moved to Springfield, which had recently replaced Vandalia as the state capital, to practice law.

Failed Aspirations as a River Town

New Salem had been a rapidly developing town during Lincoln’s residency. There was much excitement in the area when in the spring of 1832 the Talisman, a ninety-five-foot-long steamboat, was able to navigate the Sangamon River passing New Salem on its way to Springfield. Groups of local settlers followed the steamboat along the river banks. Most had never before seen such a large boat. Many people thought New Salem would become a thriving river town, just as St. Louis.

This, however, was not to be. The Talisman was able to navigate the Sangamon River successfully only with great difficulty. The Sangamon River did not run deep enough for large boats, and it was filled with sandbars and snags. The Talisman, in fact, was able to sail past New Salem on its way back to the Illinois River only after part of the mill dam was temporarily dismantled. No other large boats were able to navigate the Sangamon River to Springfield until 1961, and even then it was difficult.

Within a few years New Salem began its decline. In May, 1836, the post office was moved from New Salem to Petersburg, two miles away. Many of the residents sold their property and moved. The final blow came in February, 1839, when a new county, Menard, was created and Petersburg was named the county seat. Eventually the Bale family, who had owned and operated the saw and grist mill since 1832, owned the entire tract of land called New Salem.

New Salem in the Twentieth Century

In 1906 the sixty-acre tract of land was purchased by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst and given in trust to the Old Salem Chautauqua Association, a group which for years maintained an interest in the site. The Old Salem Lincoln League was formed in 1917 to continue to do research and expand public interest in New Salem. In 1919 the Chautauqua Association gave the site to the state of Illinois. Construction of several cabins began at the site, but they were later removed because they were not authentic reproductions of the town of New Salem.

The Illinois General Assembly appropriated fifty thousand dollars in 1931 for improvements at the site. The English Brothers, general contractors from Champaign, Illinois, started the reconstruction of twelve cabins on original foundations in late 1932. The Civilian Conservation Corps reconstructed several other buildings and added many of the public and service facilities for the site.

At the time of reconstruction there was scarcely any evidence of the buildings that stood on the spot almost a century earlier. Excavations revealed foundation outlines of buildings. Survey records and written accounts by original residents of the town aided in the reconstruction of many of the main structures of the town. When the pioneers moved from the town decades earlier, many of them dismantled their homes and took the homes along. Only one original building, the Henry Onstot Cooper Shop, which had been moved to Petersburg, two miles up the Sangamon River, still existed. It was returned to its original site in New Salem. Many of the furnishings in the buildings date from the period, and some were once the property of the original New Salem residents.

A Living Museum

New Salem today is a living museum serving as a memorial to the sixteenth U.S. president. It has been recreated in the way Lincoln saw it. Gardens have been replanted in the style in which many residents probably kept them in the 1830’s. Outside the doctors’ residences, for example, herb gardens have been planted. The doctors used herbs to treat ailments. Trees and other shrubs have been added to the site to complete its authenticity.

A replica of the Talisman operates, seasonally taking tourists for river rides. A visitors’ center offers a laser-disc presentation of the history of New Salem. In the evenings of summer months, the “Great American People Show,” a theatrical presentation depicting the life of Abraham Lincoln, is performed.

For Further Information
  • Barton, William E. “Abraham Lincoln and New Salem.” The Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 19, no. 3-4 (1927). The text of an address delivered before the Mississippi Valley Historical Association and the Illinois State Historical Society on their journey to New Salem, May 8, 1926.
  • Chandler, Josephine Craven. “New Salem: Early Chapter in Lincoln’s Life.” The Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 12, no. 4 (1930). A lengthy, detailed essay on Lincoln’s life in New Salem.
  • Davis, James Edward. Frontier Illinois. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. A history of the trans-Appalachain frontier and Illinois history from 1778 to 1865.
  • Thomas, Benjamin P. Lincoln’s New Salem. Springfield, Ill.: Abraham Lincoln Association, 1934. A comprehensive account of New Salem and its residents. It may be difficult to locate this book, but the search is well worth it.
  • Wilson, D. Ray. Illinois Historical Tour Guide. Carpentersville, Ill.: Crossroads Communications, 1991. Includes a thoughtful chapter on Springfield and the surrounding area, including New Salem.
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