SANDRIDGE: Lincoln’s Home Away from Home during the New Salem Years

SANDRIDGE: Lincoln’s Home Away from Home during the New Salem Years

By Guy Fraker

The seminal role of New Salem in Abraham Lincoln’s maturation and development is well known.  The concurrent influence of the nearby Sandridge area and its people during these formative years is not as well known.


Sandridge encompasses approximately 10 square miles, 7 miles north and west of New Salem.  It is mostly an area of flat terrain, now almost all agricultural land, with few residents or settlements, which adds to the neighborhood’s ambience.  It is bounded on the north and east by the Sangamon River and on the west by the northeast corner of Cass County.  This Sandridge is not to be confused with Sand Ridge State Forest, in Mason County, north and east of Havana.


Sandridge’s most prominent topographical feature is the ridge for which the area is named.  It is located in the eastern third of the ten square mile area.  It is shaped like a half-moon, running in a northwesterly direction from its southern tip, then northeasterly along its narrow length to its northern tip.  It is roughly 75 to 100 feet in height.  In Lincoln’s time, the area was mostly prairie except for the timbered ridge.  Concord Creek is the other notable feature of the area, flowing first north and then east to its confluence with the Sangamon River.  When Lincoln arrived in New Salem in 1831, Sandridge was part of Sangamon County.  Many of the people who played a significant role in Lincoln’s life during these years lived in Sandridge.  This is the story of the place, its people, and Lincoln during the 1830s.


James Rutledge, his brother William, and their nephew John Camron (sometimes spelled “Cameron”) were early settlers in Sandridge, arriving in 1825.  The Rutledges had pulled up stakes in their native South Carolina and headed west, picking up Camron in Georgia, and continuing across Tennessee to Henderson, Kentucky.  They settled there for several years.  James met and married Mary Ann in 1813, and three children were born to them in Kentucky, one of whom was daughter Ann.  She would later be linked romantically with Abraham Lincoln.  The entourage that arrived in Sandridge was a tightly knit group.  James’ wife and Camron’s mother were sisters, and Camron’s sister was to marry William Rutledge, brother of James.  In 1826, Camron purchased 80 acres in Sandridge and later James Rutledge purchased an adjacent 80.  Concord Creek ran through these tracts.  Camron and James planned to build a gristmill on the creek.  However, the depth and flow were inadequate, so two years later they purchased a more suitable site on the larger Sangamon River.  They built a grist and saw mill there, powered by a dam that they constructed in and across the river at that point.  The purchase included the bluff and an adjacent acreage above, upon which they founded and platted the Village of New Salem.  Rutledge built a large log structure on the bluff which he converted into a tavern.  Camron built a log home there also.


After Lincoln arrived upon the scene, he occasionally boarded with Camron.  He boarded more frequently with the James Rutledge family, including Ann, thus forming close ties with her and her family.

A man named John McNeil arrived in 1829 and also boarded at the Rutledge Tavern. He had worked his way from his native New York to the Midwest, settling in New Salem.  There he started a store in partnership with Samuel Hill, another resident of the village.  In 1831 he purchased 40 acres in Sandridge from John Camron, and a year later 40 more acres from James Rutledge.  He then sold his interest in the store to Hill and announced his plan to return to New York to retrieve his parents and siblings.  He then disclosed that his real name was John McNamar, and that he had assumed an alias so he could not be traced by his family, as he attempted to earn a fortune in the “west.”  During his time in New Salem he courted Ann Rutledge and they became engaged.  Having confidence and faith in the betrothal, she accepted his reason for departing for the east.  After initial correspondence, there was no further communication of any kind from him.  During the many months of his absence, with no word from him, Ann’s feeling for him began to wane, and a friendship with the family’s boarder, Lincoln, began to blossom.


During this period the Rutledge family’s situation changed dramatically.  The family’s time in New Salem was surprisingly short.  Rutledge’s sale of the 40 acres to McNamar occurred in July of 1832, and in November he sold the tavern.  Earlier that fall, his wife moved to Sandridge to work as a housekeeper for a landowner there named James Short, also known as “Uncle Jimmie,” until the rest of her family could join her in Sandridge.  Ultimately, they settled on the 40 acres that the absent landlord John McNamar had purchased from Camron.


At that time, Lincoln was adrift in New Salem having consecutively opened and closed two stores whose stock he had purchased, mostly on credit.  Both of these operations failed and left Lincoln with heavy debt, all he had to show for these ill-fated ventures.  It took him years to pay the indebtedness off, which was a factor in his earning the sobriquet “Honest Abe.”  He was rescued from this financial quagmire by two political appointments he received in 1833, the Postmaster of New Salem and, later that year, Assistant County Surveyor.  Both these appointments were made by the dominant Democratic Party under pressure from influential New Salem residents, a measure of Lincoln’s rising stature in the community.


The Postmaster’s job included working in the post office, and delivering the mail to the surrounding vicinity.  This gave him the additional benefit of broadly expanding his acquaintances in the area.  Each county had an official surveyor at the time.  Sangamon County’s was John C. Calhoun, a prominent Democrat in Springfield.  Calhoun offered the position of his assistant to Lincoln.  When he was offered the job, Lincoln sought and received an assurance that his political future as a Whig would not be affected by the appointment.  Lincoln’s assignment was primarily northern Sangamon County, much of which was Sandridge.  It was not until 1839, with Lincoln the Legislator playing a substantial role, that three new counties were carved out of Sangamon, which was the largest county in the state at that time.  One of these three was Menard, including Sandridge and New Salem.


He quickly mastered the relatively complex geometry necessary to do surveying, thus launching yet another career.  A considerable amount of his survey work was in Sandridge.  His duties as Assistant County Surveyor included mapping and laying out roads in the area.  He surveyed the town of Huron, just east of Miller’s Crossing of the Sangamon, at the north end of Sandridge.  This town site was never developed.  Landowners in the area also engaged him for private work.  His first survey in Sandridge was for Reason Shipley, a landowner there.


The weeks required for these jobs did not allow time for travel back and forth from New Salem.  Acquaintances and friends from his time in the area provided him room and board during the time that he was working there, including stays in the homes of David Rice Short, William and James Short, Henry McHenry, the Miller brothers, and Kay Watkins, all of whom lived near Miller’s Ferry.  The most frequent residences in which he stayed were those of Jack and Hannah Armstrong and Uncle Jimmie Short, with whom he had become acquainted.


The Armstrongs were acquaintances from his past, and he stayed with them weeks at a time in Sandridge.  Lincoln’s relationship with them arose out of an event that occurred soon after his arrival in New Salem – his legendary wrestling match with Jack.  Lincoln’s move to New Salem resulted from a fortuitous accident in April of 1831.  A man named Dennis Offut had engaged Lincoln and his cousin John Hanks, to take a flatboat load of produce to New Orleans via the Sangamon, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers.  The venture was threatened when the large flatboat they were operating down the Sangamon became stuck on the Rutledge dam.  Lincoln’s demonstrated ingenuity in dislodging the boat saved the cargo and allowed the journey to continue.  Offut was so impressed that he offered Lincoln a job in the store he was planning to build in New Salem, when Lincoln returned from the journey to New Orleans.


At this time, Jack Armstrong was the leader of a band of ruffians from nearby Clary’s Grove.  They occasionally invaded New Salem to wreak havoc on the community with their drinking, carousing, and fighting.  Offut, somewhat of a loudmouth and braggart, noted the remarkable strength of Lincoln, so he pressed him to engage in a wrestling match with Armstrong.  Reluctantly, Lincoln agreed to do so.  The match was in the nature of a sporting event, not a hostile fight.  Many of the locals attended and betting on the two contestants was quite heavy.  The match took place near the location of the store on the edge of the bluff, looming over the dam and river.  There are several variations recounting the outcome of the match, but all concur that Lincoln and Armstrong emerged from the match as close friends.  When Lincoln enlisted in the Black Hawk War, his military unit included the men from Clary’s Grove.  Led by Armstrong, they elected Lincoln captain of the company, an honor which he always characterized as one of the highest that he had ever received.  Armstrong became one of three sergeants in the unit in 1832.


Lincoln spent many weeks at the Armstrong’s during the periods while he was surveying in Sandridge.  He became like a member of the family, rocking the cradle of their son William, known as “Duff.”  They not only fed him, but Hannah did his laundry for him and sewed many of his shirts.  One of his surveys was for Russell Godby, who paid Lincoln with two deer skins for the survey he had performed for Godby.  Hannah sewed one of these on each of the legs of his pants as “foxing”, for protection from the briers while surveying.

The relationship between Lincoln and the Armstrongs continued after his New Salem days.  On August 29, 1857, Duff was at a whiskey camp outside of a religious camp meeting in Walker’s Grove in Mason County. The sites are located in the gently rolling countryside known as the “Mason County Hill.”  Late in the evening Duff engaged in a fight with James Metzger.  Later, Metzger got into an altercation with James Norris in which he received another blow to the head.  He died several days later, having suffered a fatal skull fracture in these fights.  Duff was charged with using a weapon, called a “slung shot,” which consisted of a skin wrapped around balls of lead fused with liquid zinc poured over them.  The device was attached to a thong on one end which went around the wrist of the assailant on the other end.  It was then to be swung like a club.  The key witness to the altercation between Duff and Metzger, Charles Allen, testified that he saw the entire incident unfold because the moon was high in the sky, “shining brightly.”  The co-defendant, Nelson, not represented by Lincoln, was separately tried in Mason County and was convicted, receiving a sentence of 8 years.


Early in the case Lincoln obtained a change of venue for Duff to Cass County. This  strategy was frequently used by Lincoln.  Other than obtaining the change, Lincoln was not yet fully involved in the case, until May 6, 1858.  That day he arrived in Beardstown, Illinois, to try a divorce, and ran into Hannah.  She prevailed upon him to take the defense of the murder case which was set for trial the next day, leaving Lincoln with little time to prepare the case for trial.  The trial is famously known as the “Almanac Trial.”  In Lincoln’s cross examination he pounded away at Allen’s description of the bright moonlight.  After the close of the prosecution’s case, Lincoln placed into evidence an almanac which showed that the moon was low in the sky at the time of the fight, contrary to Allen’s testimony.  Lincoln’s closing argument relied on the evidence from the almanac and also his longtime relationship with Hannah, including the fact that Lincoln had rocked Duff in his cradle years before.  Duff’s father, Jack, had died between the occurrence of the crime and the trial, so Lincoln emphasized the characterization of Hannah as a poor widow.  The case has been frequently used in movies and television shows, the most noted of which was Henry Fonda’s portrayal of Lincoln in “Young Mr. Lincoln” in 1939.  The courtroom in which this case was tried is located on the second floor of the municipal building in Beardstown.  It is the only courtroom in which Lincoln appeared that is still actively in use.


When Duff was acquitted, Hannah remembered Lincoln’s tears after the verdict was rendered.  She also recalled attending one of his rare “Discovery and Inventions” lectures in 1858 in Springfield, which in fact was delivered in early 1859.  Hannah recalled that she went to see Lincoln shortly before he left for Washington.  Herndon’s notes of his interview of Hannah state, “the boys got up a story on me that I went to sleep with Abe &c – , I replied to the Joke that it was not every woman who had the good fortune of sleeping with the President.”  Her obituary published in the Bloomington, Illinois Pantagraph stated, “He (Lincoln) often stopped at her house and she thought as much of him as a brother.  In fact, in early days it is said that the martyred President was a lover of the deceased.”  Obviously, this characterization of their relationship borders on gossip.  But there are known facts which reflect the close ties between them.

In 1863, Duff, while in the Union Army, became afflicted with rheumatism.  Hannah, who was illiterate, engaged a friend to write to Lincoln, asking if he would obtain Duff’s discharge.  The response was a telegram to Hannah, dated September 18th, 1863, “Mrs. Hannah Armstrong, Petersburg, Illinois.  I have just ordered a discharge of your boy William, as you say, now at Louisville, KY.  A. Lincoln.”  This was their last communication.  The Armstrongs had moved to Mason County where Jack died in 1857.  Hannah married Samuel Wilcox, who died in 1870 in Mason County.  She moved to Winterset, in Madison County, Iowa to live with her brother, John (“Fiddler”) Jones, another character from the New Salem era, who had also been in Lincoln’s unit in the Black Hawk War.  Hannah died there in 1890, and her body was returned to Illinois where she was buried in Petersberg’s Oakland Cemetery as “Hannah Wilcox.”


The closeness of Lincoln to the Armstrong’s, particularly Hannah, led to speculation and occasional banter about the nature of Lincoln’s relationship with her, and the paternity of her son DuffOne New Salem resident remembered that Jack “use to plague Abe a great deal a bout his – Abe’s son which he had by Mrs. Armstrong; but that it was a joke.”  There were also rumors about Lincoln and Elizabeth Able, the wife of Bennett Able, who had a daughter, which gossip claimed, “looked like Lincoln.”   These shocking examples of neighborhood gossip are not offered for the truth of the rumors, but to illustrate the rough frontier environment from which Lincoln emerged when he moved to the relative gentility of Springfield.


It also demonstrates the kindness of these people towards each other.  Lincoln could not have gotten by and developed as he did without the support of these friends and neighbors.  During the entire period that he was in New Salem and Sandridge, he never had a residence to call his own.  Instead he relied on these frontier families to supply his needs.  These stories also confirm something about Lincoln.  He never forgot those kindnesses and repaid them when the opportunity arose.


During this period, Lincoln’s substantial indebtedness, accumulated from his unsuccessful ventures as a storekeeper, formed an obstacle in his efforts to advance himself socially, economically, and politically.  The debt finally caught up with him when a creditor took a judgment against him, in the amount of $154.  He did not participate in the proceedings because he had no money and no defense to the actions against him.  After the judgment was entered, the court ordered the Sheriff to seize his possessions, including his horse and his surveying tools.  Obviously this loss would cripple his ability to earn a living.  The Sheriff took possession of these and held a sale.  Without Lincoln’s knowledge, his old friend, “Uncle Jimmie Short” stepped forward, purchased these items at the judicial sale, and returned them to Lincoln.  Years later when Lincoln was President, Short was in serious financial straits and Lincoln returned the favor by appointing him Supervisor of the Round Valley Indian Reservation in California, with a then substantial salary of $1,800 a year.

Lincoln made frequent visits to the Rutledge home where he and Ann spent many hours walking the landscape of Sandridge together.  Lincoln’s law partner and early biographer, William Herndon, in interviewing a number of one-time New Salem residents, uncovered the story of a romance between the two.  His lectures and writings about the interviews brought attention to the relationship.  Some scholars in the mid-twentieth century displayed substantial skepticism about this romance.  This skepticism was erased and generally disappeared because of the exceptional scholarship in the second-half of the twentieth century by Douglas L. Wilson and others.  Wilson combed the Herndon interviews of New Salem residents.  He compiled a score card with three questions about the relationship.  The first question was whether Lincoln loved or courted Ann.  Twenty-two witnesses said, “Yes.”  The second question was whether Lincoln “grieved exceptionally at her death.”  There were seventeen that said “yes,” and zero said “no.” Seven had no opinion.  The third question was, “If they had an understanding about marriage?”  There the count was fifteen “yes” and two said “no.”  Seven had no opinion.


The budding romance between Ann and Lincoln blossomed fully after the family moved to Sandridge.  Lincoln made frequent visits to Ann, which further tightened the bond between them.  The tragedy of Ann’s death from typhoid in August of 1835 devastated Lincoln.  When it became clear that she would not survive her disease, he was summoned to her bedside at the Rutledge home in Sandridge.  They were left alone for that final visit, as Lincoln saw her for the last time.  He emerged grief-stricken from the cabin and staggered over to a nearby oak tree, sobbing beneath it.  Ann was buried a few days later in Old Concord Cemetery, a service that was attended by Lincoln.  Many local contemporaries told of the smothering grief that engulfed Lincoln.  He would frequently trudge the four miles from New Salem to the cemetery alone with his thoughts, as he mourned his inconsolable loss.  It is said that, years later, he went there one more time before he left for Washington.  William Herndon visited the cemetery in 1866.  He described the ambience that can still be felt there today.  He wrote, “The village of the dead is a sad and solemn place and when out in the country it is especially so.”

The cemetery contains many other New Salem residents.  Jack Armstrong and his father, James, are buried there.  Ann’s father died of typhoid in 1835, and he is buried next to her, as is her brother, David, who became an attorney after being educated at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, only to die in 1842.  Ann’s other suitor, John McNamar, buried his mother there in 1845.  The Clarys, the Armstrongs, and Samuel Berry are also buried there.  Ann’s mother, widowed by her husband’s death in 1835, ultimately moved to Birmingham, Iowa, to be near her son, Robert.  She died there in 1878, at the age of 91, and is buried in Bethel Cemetery in that town.


The Old Concord Cemetery, no longer active, is remarkably unspoiled.  It was replaced by a second cemetery, the Concord Cemetery, after the closing of Old Concord Cemetery.  There is no road touching Old Concord’s location, adding to its remoteness.  The author went there alone, along simple, winding rural roads, trying to find the cemetery, which he finally located.  Turning off the road, he drove about a quarter of a mile along a narrow stretch of grass running parallel to Concord Creek.  He spotted the pioneer cemetery and walked up the gentle rise to it.  It was a cold January day, with temperatures in the 20s, made colder by a blustery wind.  Upon reaching the burial ground, he pried opened the rusty gate in the surrounding fence.  Once in, he stopped and looked around from its modest elevation.  There was virtually nothing else in sight, except a modest 19th Century home a quarter-of-a-mile away.  He found his way through 30 to 40 aging stones, to the graves of Ann, James, and David.  He was standing at Ann’s grave, a place to which Lincoln had made many trips.  In that desolate setting, the presence of Lincoln was palpable.  Ann’s gravestone, more recently placed there, bears the legend, “I cannot bear to think of her out here alone in the storm.”



Author’s Note:  The author wishes to acknowledge three people whose works have been instrumental in the preservation of the history of Sandridge and the Armstrongs.  The first is Raymond Montgomery of Petersburg, Illinois, the most influential voice in preserving the history of the area.  Born and raised on Sandridge, he has known descendants of the players in the Lincoln story there and has spent a lifetime studying the history of the area.  His wonderful book, Beyond the Shadows, self-published in 2006, is the most authoritative volume on the subject.  Second is Douglas L. Wilson, the noted Lincoln scholar from Knox College.  He and his co-author, Rodney O. Davis, published Herndon’s Informants, which is the encyclopedic compilation and transcription of the interviews and letters collected from sources by Herndon in researching for his biography of Lincoln.  The book includes reminiscences and materials about Lincoln, by people who knew him during his New Salem and Sandridge days, including the quotes included herein.  In 1990, Wilson painstakingly compiled maps of five Townships, entitled “The Neighborhood of Lincoln’s New Salem,” noting the ownership of hundreds and hundreds of tracts in the 1830s and 1840s.  The third is Doug Kirby, a descendant of Duff Armstrong.  His in-depth research of the story of Duff’s life adds substantial facts to the story of the crime and its aftermath.

Guy Fraker is an attorney in Bloomington, Illinois.  He has written two books on “Lincoln’s” Eighth Judicial Circuit.

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