Lincoln’s River


Lincoln Paddles the Sangamon

I stood upon the high bluff overlooking the Sangamon, about 100 steps from his log home. Young Abe Lincoln was there beside me, gazing wistfully downriver.

Abe obviously had far more important things on his mind than these simple surroundings.

Abe was 21, an adult, new voter, and free from whatever obligations he may have had as his father’s son. Back when he was 19, he had worked as a bowman on a flatboat journey to New Orleans so he knew something of the world beyond. He knew this little Sangamon River connected him to the Illinois River, the Mississippi, and on to the entire “riverine West”.

Abe only existed in my mind of course, but he actually stood right there – 186 years earlier – in the early months of 1831. And as I stood there I could feel his presence; I could feel what he must have felt. I’ve felt this feeling often from my own bluff overlooking the Sangamon, gazing downriver.

This is the story of Abraham Lincoln on the Sangamon River; Lincoln’s River.

The Sangamon was a central part of Lincoln’s early life, his life as a state legislator, his thinking and his ideas.  Lincoln would even invent and patent a watercraft custom-designed to traverse the low waters of the Sangamon, the only president in history to hold a US Patent.

Lincoln’s Sangamon story begins with his family’s move to the River from southern Indiana. While in Southern Indiana, he worked for store owner James Gentry who would occasionally arrange flatboat trips from there down the Ohio to the Mississippi and on to New Orleans to sell off stockpiles of the region’s produce, a 1,279 mile journey. In 1828, at 19 years of age, Lincoln eagerly signed on as a bowman on one of these trips with Gentry’s 21 year old son Alan.

According to Richard Campenella’s book “Lincoln in New Orleans”, this trip “offered Abe the most exciting and important experience of his Indiana years and would influence his intellectual fiber in significant ways.” In particular, it likely played a role in Lincoln’s disenchantment with the simple frontier life and set his sights on bigger things.

In March of 1830, the Lincolns and several relatives moved from Southern Indiana to a new homestead located “about 10 miles west of Decatur and about 100 steps from the Sangamon River and on the north side of it on a kind of bluff” as described years later by his cousin John Hanks. Campanella relates that for Lincoln: “this new homestead offered access to the entire riverine West, just a few steps below the bluff.”

His family prospered in their new homestead on the Sangamon, with Abe helping to build a log cabin, a smokehouse, a barn, split-rail fencing and helping plant 15 acres of corn. Abe thrived in the ways of frontier life, but was already gaining a larger reputation. That summer, a political candidate came to town and made a speech on internal improvements, and according to the later recollection of cousin Hanks “It was a bad one and I said Abe could beat it. I turned down a box and Abe made his speech” – one which many historians now identify as being Abraham Lincoln’s first political speech. His subject? The navigability of the Sangamon River.

Despite prosperous beginnings, later that year the Lincoln family suffered “an affliction with augue and fever” which was followed by the “Winter of the Deep Snow”, when over three feet of snow blanketed the region.

Thomas Lincoln had been reluctant to leave Indiana, and by spring of 1831, he had determined that the move to Illinois had set the family backward and he plotted to move yet again. Abraham was not excited. According to Campanella, “The wintry confinement, the dreary prospect of another move and another cycle of land clearing and cabin building prompted the newly independent Abraham to cast his eyes to the wider world he first experienced two years earlier. His outlet was the little river flowing below their bluff, the Sangamon.”

So there Abraham stood in early 1831, gazing wistfully downriver.

It was not long after that when his cousin John Hanks came by with an offer Abe couldn’t refuse. A man by the name of Denton Offutt wanted them to pilot a flatboat to New Orleans. Abe and John were to meet up with him in Springfield.

The melting of the heavy snow prohibited travel by land, so Abe and his cousin purchased a canoe. And on Tuesday, March 1, 1831, John Hanks and Abraham Lincoln shoved off on the Sangamon River from what is now Lincoln’s Homestead State Park. Abe and his cousin paddled down the Sangamon River, away from his previous life as the son of his father to begin an entirely new life that was to take him places he never could have imagined.


Ghost Town on the River

I sat to Abe’s left. He was the dealer. I looked into his mischievous, yet pleasantly playful eyes and decided to beg, so I just said “pass”.

Abe then dealt out another three cards to his cousin and John Johnston, the others sitting at the table at Jacob Carman’s Tavern on the corner of Mill and Bridge Streets, one of the first businesses that had recently opened in the newly platted Sangamo Town.

Abe turned up a new trump card, said “Take it!” John scored a point and play began.

We spent many an evening playing Abe’s favorite game of Seven-Up at Jacob Carman’s Tavern while camped just outside of Sangamo Town on the banks of the Sangamon River. We were building a flatboat, an unexpected diversion for our planned trip to down the Sangamon and on to New Orleans. Playing Seven Up was just our diversion to a diversion.

*    *    *

At least that’s how I would have remembered it, had I actually been there.

In fact there is no there anymore. 172 years ago, Sangamo Town was swallowed by the tall grass of a prairie on a high bluff overlooking the Sangamon River.

It was March of 1831. Abe Lincoln and his cousin John Hanks were canoeing downriver on the Sangamon, leaving Abe’s homestead up near Decatur behind. They pulled off the Sangamon at Judy’s Ferry east of Springfield to meet their third crewmember, Abe’s stepbrother John D. Johnston, the three then walked into town to track down Denton Offutt, who had arranged with them to “take a boatload of stock and provisions to New Orleans”. They would go by flatboat from New Salem, by way of the Sangamon River, then the Illinois and then down the Mississippi, Huck Finn style, right through the middle of the young country.

Flatboating was something of a “craze” in the early 1830’s, being the primary means of transporting goods from much of the newly settled farmlands of the Midwest to markets beyond.

Offutt was a businessman, trader, and opportunist. The three found him at the Buckhorn Inn, a favorite Springfield watering hole, sleeping off a drunken night. He had the cargo for New Orleans all right but “too many deep potations with new-comers who daily thronged the Buckhorn had interfered with the execution of Offutt’s plans.” Meaning that he had neglected to secure a flatboat for the voyage.

Regretful and probably embarrassed, Offutt offered to pay the three young men twelve dollars per month to build a flatboat from scratch. While this would set them behind by six weeks, it was paying work. They took the deal.

The crew set off for a site “about 7 miles northwest of the city of Springfield.” at the confluence of Spring Creek and the Sangamon River, known as “Congress Land”, a patch of old-growth forest “with innumerable flat-boats growing in their primal timber.” According to Lincoln, they constructed a “shantee-shed about 90 feet from the river” and “camped in a camp on the Sangamon River, done our own cooking, mending, and washing.”

And they began to build their flatboat. They spent days cutting trees and used a “country saw-mill” at nearby Sangamo Town to cut them into lumber to build their flatboat. Lincoln boarded some nights in town with the Jacob Carman family.

Years later, Carman recalled Abe as “funny, jokey, humorous, full of yarns and stories. Frequently quoting poetry and reciting prose-like orations.” John Roll, another local merchant said “local folks would seat themselves on a log bench (which became known as “Abe’s log”) outside Shepherds’ gristmill in Sangamo Town during morning, noon and evening breaks to hear Lincoln’s jokes and stories.”

Abe must have looked every bit the young frontier pioneer. Years later, Roll recalled Abe’s appearance during his time at Sangamo Town: “It seemed that everything was too short for him. His pantaloons lacked four or five inches of reaching the ground. He wore a drab-colored wool hat, pretty well-worn, small-crowned and broad-brimmed – he was the rawest, most primitive looking specimen of humanity I ever saw. Tall, bony, and as homely as he has ever been pictured.”

In the Spring of 1831, Lincoln was in the small audience that had gathered to see a traveling magician who had stopped by Carman’s Tavern. The magician asked to borrow Abe’s hat, into which he was going to break several eggs. Abe declined, as the story goes, not because he was concerned for his hat, but for the magician’s eggs.

But Lincoln was also known to be a learned man. Carman recalled that Lincoln was “a very intelligent young man, his conversation very often about books such as Shakespeare and other histories. He talked about politics considerable. He was a John Q Adams man, opposed to slavery and said he thought it a curse to the land.”

Sangamo Town on the Sangamon River has since become part of the lore of Lincoln.

Moses Broadwell who had purchased the land and founded the town, had intended for Sangamo Town to be the county seat of the newly formed Sangamon County, but it was not to be. As the story goes, in March of 1825, Andrew Elliott, proprietor of Springfield’s Buckhorn Tavern, guided County Commissioners to each prospective site. He chose the most undesirable, circuitous route instead of following a well blazed trail that led directly to Sangamo Town. The commissioners thought highly of Sangamo Town, but decided its inaccessibility made it a poor choice for the seat of government, and the fate of Sangamo Town was sealed.

In 1845, Sangamo Town was formally vacated by the Illinois legislature and abandoned. But on Lincoln’s death in 1865, every detail of his pioneer days began to take shape as part of the legend and lore of Lincoln. And the town where Abe built the floatboat was now fading into this legend. According to Ida Tarbell, writing in the “Early Life of Abraham Lincoln” in 1897, “Sangamo Town, where Mr. Lincoln built the flatboat, has, since his day, completely disappeared from the earth.”

An entire town, abandoned at the close of the frontier era, had basically been lost, if not forgotten. According to archeologist Robert Mazrim: “just about everything regarding the place was a cipher – the location, the layout, the number of buildings that were actually built there, the duration of their occupation, and the things that went on inside them. The paper record really only told us that a town existed.” According to Mazrim, “All that is left is archeology.”

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On a warm morning in June, 1994, Mazrim drove his truck down a narrow dirt lane that led to the river. He only knew that Sangamo Town could exist anywhere on this 320 acre parcel once owned by Moses Broadwell.

Mazrim: “I parked the truck along the edge of a large field situated very near the edge of the river valley itself. The field was not in cultivation and was instead covered in shoulder-high grass. I waded along through the grass taking 15 inch deep shovel tests of the soil.” His first two dozen shovel tests yielded nothing. But the next yielded a “patch of swirled grays, browns and blacks, which represented a backfilled excavation into the subsoil.”

Here, the soil produced a pearlware cup and the stem of a smoking pipe, both of which dated to the time of Sangamo Town. “Someone was here, then, smoking tobacco.”

Mazrim went on to discover many artifacts and locate the entire plat of Sangamo Town on the bluff overlooking the river where Abe Lincoln once shared his tales, jokes, friendship, and even did the “cooking, mending and washing”.

Sangamo Town, still very much a long-abandoned ghost town with nothing visible remaining, its location long a cipher, had been found.


Abe Builds a Flatboat

March, 1831. Abe, John Hanks and John Johnston were constructing their flatboat beside the Sangamon River at their encampment just outside of Sangamo Town.

This was no simple Huck-Finn style flatboat. Coming in at 80 feet long and 18 feet wide, Abe and his team were building this flatboat “for a substantial load and an experienced crew of four”.

The construction process followed standard flatboat construction, well-known at the time: “Lay down the two gunwhales … lay girders across and join them … lay and join two end girders at bow and stern … lay and join streamers across the girders … lay planks across the streamers and pin them down to form the floor … caulk all seams.”

Crowds came down to the Sangamon River from Sangamo Town to watch construction unfold. While constructing the flatboat, Abe directed some co-workers to create a dugout canoe for side-excursions during the trip, typical for Mississippi flatboat voyages.

As the tale is told, when they completed the canoe, the two workers enthusiastically jumped in, but the unstable craft slipped out from underneath them, dumping them into the cold and turbulent waters of the Sangamon created by the melting “Winter of the Great Snow” earlier that year. They were quickly swept downriver.

As if by instinct, the crowd turned to Lincoln, who urged the workers over to an overhanging old elm tree. They hung on, clinging as they shivered in the cold water, straining against the current. Lincoln instructed a few bystanders to tie a rope to a log and drop it in the current while holding the rope securely at the bank. When ready, a young man hopped on the log but quickly fell in, was taken downstream and grasped onto the overhanging elm tree with the others.

They drew the log back in and now Abe himself hopped on, carefully drifting out toward the tree, his freezing long legs submerged in the Sangamon wrapped tightly around the log. He grasped the other three men, secured them to the log and signaled the villagers to haul all four back to shore.

The dramatic log rescue reportedly “made a hero of Abe all along the Sangamon River, and local inhabitants never tired of telling of the daring exploit.”

Work on the flatboat progressed.

Six weeks later, it was ready for the journey. The launch of the flatboat was a rousing public event attracting crowds from all around. According to one account, it “was the occasion of much political chat and buncombe in which the Whig Party and Andrew Jackson alike were, strangely enough, lauded to the skies”. Abe apparently took part in the fiery political rhetoric finding “a good field for practice and debate.”

Preparing for launch, they loaded the floatboat with “sides of bacon, sacks of corn, pork in barrels, and live hogs and then swung their flatboat out into the stream”.

By Tuesday, April 19, 1831, Abe, Hanks, Johnston and Offutt left Sangamo Town and were “poling down the wending Sangamon River.” According to Lincoln himself, they were “as a sort of floating driftwood on the great freshit produced in the thawing of that snow.”


Flatboating on the Sangamon River

I hopped out of Louis’s shiny black Mini-Cooper along Highway 123 near New Salem. He was hosting me around the area and we had pulled over by a historical marker.

There it was: Abe Lincoln’s flatboat. It sat there alone on the nicely mown grassy roadside, floorboards rotting and weeds growing up inside. Still, it was an impressive vessel, constructed using the latest technological advances of 1831: no nails, no iron.

It mostly resembles a modern-day pontoon boat; like a small, low log cabin built on a barge. Two forked logs protrude up like antennae from the roof near the front and one at the center of the back.

A flatboat’s crew of 4 or 5 spent most of their time on the cabin’s roof; the cabin being used for storing Midwestern farm goods to be sold in New Orleans in a journey that could take from 4 to 6 weeks. The crew steered this craft using two “sweeps” or 30 to 55 foot long logs mounted in the front Y’s and a 30 to 55 foot rudder on the rear. These large front sweeps gave such flatboats the nickname “Mississippi Broadhorns”.

As interesting as it seemed, my first thought was: that’s a heck of a way to get to New Orleans! All things considered, I’d rather take Louis’s Mini.

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Anyone that’s been there can tell you that the Sangamon is a quite beautiful, tranquil river, but like many rivers, it can also be temperamental and quite moody. In his book, “Lincoln in New Orleans,” Richard Campanella described it as the “tortuous Sangamon.”

So it’s probably not difficult to imagine that navigating a flatboat measuring 80 feet long and 18 feet wide down the Sangamon River might pose a few challenges.

While flatboats were all the rage for getting the goods of the Midwest downriver to the markets of New Orleans, they had not quite yet been established as viable for navigation down the Sangamon River. Denton Offutt’s excursion with Abe, his cousin and stepbrother was among the first.

It didn’t go well.

The town of New Salem was formed when James Rutledge and John Camron were granted permission to build a mill dam on the Sangamon River. This somewhat simple dam was built of “two elongated wooden trough-like structures filled with rocks”, which “diverted a focused outlet of water” to one side where they built their water wheel. Much of the Sangamon’s water flowed right over top of this “low-head dam” creating a serious river hazard, as it remained nearly invisible from upstream.

Only 16 miles into their 1600-plus mile journey, Lincoln and his crew approached New Salem. As they did, their flatboat “jolted to a stop with a sickening thud.” They had found the Rutledge/Camron dam.

With part of the bow pressing forward out over the dam and the stern being forced downward, the river crept up onto the rear deck and starting flowing into the lower holds, sinking it further. As this happened, the boat became heavier and the gunwales (sides) bent down dangerously.

A crowd down from New Salem formed on the bank to gawk as the tragedy unfolded just as a “striking six-foot-four stranger” took charge.

Abe commandeered an empty flatboat and they swiftly started to transfer cargo. As they did so, Abe augured a hole into their flatboat’s hull up near the bow. As they continued to unload the cargo and the load lightened, the stern of their flatboat “sprang upwards” sloshing the water inside up toward the bow, where it drained out the hole.

The load lightened even further and the crew was able to pry the flatboat over top of the dam and safely on down river.

Abe became a local hero among New Salem residents who “were suitably impressed by this singular young man and his cleverness.”

As for Offutt, he too was “profoundly impressed” with Lincoln’s ingenuity and declared to the crowd that he would build a steamboat to plow the Sangamon River with none other than Abe Lincoln as captain. But that is another installment.

Beyond New Salem, our crew guided their flatboat down the Sangamon through undulating terrain until it was joined by Salt Creek. There, the river turns westward into a narrow valley where – as Lincoln himself described it, the river meandered wildly “in a zig-zag pattern forming complete peninsulas.”  Campanella writes that “the little river wended for over sixty miles within the thirty mile long valley.”

Along this stretch, there was weakening current, logs and sandbars which slowed the expedition to speeds barely faster than a brisk walk. Lincoln himself recalled of this part of the voyage, “The water was lower than it had been since the breaking of winter in February which made drifted timber a constant obstruction.”

Lincoln may not have been enamored with the romance of his flatboat voyage on the Sangamon River. According to Philip Clark, a fellow flatboater also making the downriver trip at the same time as Lincoln, “Lincoln told me he thought he could better his situation, as he had no liking for the flatboat business.” Clark goes on to say “He was at all times, even in those cheerless times, aspiring to better knowledge and better position.”

The flatboat would have reached Beardstown in about three days, a popular flatboaters’ stop. From there, it would be over 1500 more river miles on to New Orleans.

*   *  *

Lewis and I stood down by the mill site on the Sangamon River near New Salem. Weeds and grass grow over the reconstructed mill dam and the river now flows far off to the East, barely visible. As I looked down on the mill dam among the weeds on dry land, I tried to imagine an 80 by 18 foot flatboat navigating over it. It wasn’t difficult to imagine such a craft hung up there.

A few weeks later my wife Carol and I put in our canoe at the Gudgel Bridge just upriver from New Salem with about 30 other fellow Sangamon River enthusiasts. I know from my own experience that the Sangamon is a beautiful, but nonetheless temperamental and moody river. A few days earlier, just before a heavy rainfall, the river was down so far that Scott (not me), the trip leader, had to mark the narrow channel of only a few feet wide with brightly colored flags so canoes and kayaks wouldn’t run aground.

Paddling this stretch of the Sangamon downstream towards New Salem, I pondered thoughts of Lincoln and his 80 by 18 foot flatboat as we paddled around log obstructions and pushed our canoe across unseen sandbars we were hung up on.

No, it wasn’t at all difficult to relate the challenges faced during Lincoln’s flatboat experience on the “tortuous Sangamon” back in 1831.

It must have been quite the journey.


Lincoln in New Orleans

April 23, 1831. The flatboat journey down the Sangamon was completed. After stopping off at Beardstown, Abe and the flatboat crew of four resumed their journey. They glided past Alton, St. Louis, Cairo, Vicksburg and Natchez. By historian Richard Campanella’s estimate, using current and flow estimates from the time and general knowledge of progress and time spent on the river per day, they most likely arrived in New Orleans on May 12.

Quick Factcheck: the flatboat that Lewis and I had visited alongside Highway 123 isn’t really Abe Lincoln’s flatboat. It’s actually a scale replica, smaller than the original by half, and built by a bunch of intrepid and committed volunteers in the 1980’s seeking to reenact part of Abe’s voyage. Still, it does make for an impressive roadside stop; that part is factual. And they did use 1830’s technology to recreate the craft, albeit in the 1980s.

We also know it must be a replica because Abe and his crew, like nearly all flatboat crews of the day, dismantled their craft once they sold off all of their cargo and then sold the timbers to homebuilders in the rapidly burgeoning metropolis of New Orleans. Abe’s flatboat was most likely reborn as an early New Orleans log home.

Although there are scant records of this trip and Lincoln never related this journey firsthand, the impacts of Lincoln’s visit to New Orleans are both legendary and mythic. Especially as it relates to Lincoln’s experience of the institution of slavery. Once they arrived, Abe and his crew likely lingered in New Orleans for as long a month.

Only a short walk inland, at the corner of St. Louis and Chartres Streets stood Hewlett’s Exchange, billed as the largest slave market in the South. During 1831, an average of 91 slaves per month arrived for auction at Hewlett’s. Lincoln undoubtedly picked up the local Louisiana Courant with advertisements for “real estate” such as Matilda with a “mild and humble disposition” and Juliana as “active, intelligent and fully guaranteed”.

Lincoln had been to New Orleans on a previous flatboat trip in 1828 yet, as Michael Blumenthal writes, “his anger was hardly softened by familiarity, but instead intensified.”

After his experience of the slave market, Lincoln reportedly said: “By God boys, let’s get away from this. If ever I get a change to hit that thing (meaning slavery) I’ll hit it hard.”

According to Abe’s law partner John Herndon – in a much later interview: “In New Orleans, Lincoln beheld the true horrors of human slavery. He saw negroes in chains, maltreated, whipped and scourged. Slavery ran the iron into him, then and there.”

Abe’s cousin John Hanks related that while they were in New Orleans, Abe’s talk against slavery was vociferous, with “the fear of our good ol’ deacon back in Indiana. We were afeared of getting into trouble about his talking so much, and we coaxed him with all our might to be quieter-like down there, for it wouldn’t do any good no-how.”

Hanks also related that while in New Orleans they visited “a voodoo negress, an old fortune-teller”. During this meeting she became very excited, exclaiming to Lincoln “You will be President. And all the negroes will be free!”

One can’t say how a single experience shapes a person, and ultimately can affect the outcomes of American history, but we do know that Lincoln’s flatboat journey to New Orleans, along with his previous journey, were Lincoln’s only travels into the deep slave-holding South where he would have directly experienced the horrors of slavery. And we do know that this journey hardened his anti-slavery beliefs.

A journey that began on our Sangamon River, and one that continues with Lincoln’s return to Illinois and a new life in New Salem along the Sangamon River as our story of Lincoln’s River continues.