Abraham Lincoln, River Rat

While kayaking the river late one recent summer afternoon, I took a break in the shade on a sand bar. Tired from traversing log jams and portaging shallow areas, I laid back and started to drift away.

It was then that a tall bearded stranger wearing a straw hat approached.

He was carrying a strange package that looked to be a very old handwritten volume, well worn and carefully secured with a leather strap.  “I hear you write a column?” He inquired.

“Well, yes,” I replied, “in my spare time.”

Then he said, matter of factly, “This is for you… it was left at the Nine Gal…may be a story here” And he walked away.

I wondered what a Nine Gal was, but starving as I usually am for material, I accepted the package. I opened it up and couldn’t believe what I read.


Journal of the Sangamo

Here in my hands was the long lost journal, rumored to be written by Abraham Lincoln himself, that tells the unfortunate and long forgotten story of a man and his enduring yet largely unrequited love for a river. And here for the first time, I share with you some of Abe’s reflections on his life on and love for the Sangamon River.

Abe’s first experience of the Sangamon River was in March of 1830 when his father, Thomas, moved his family from Indiana to land he had purchased along the river west of Decatur. At that time the river was called the Sangamo. Abe, then 21, helped clear the land, build their cabin, and split rails for their fence with his axe. Abe recorded his feelings in an early entry:

I am called by this enchanting river, beckoning me westward away from Father’s homestead. I know I am destined for far more than splitting rails and building cabins.  The Sangamo holds my destiny; calling me toward a future yet unknown.

That Spring Abe, his stepbrother John Johnston and cousin John Hanks, were indeed called by the Sangamo. They were hired by Denton Offutt of New Salem to carry a load of cargo down the river and on to New Orleans. Abe left the family’s homestead by way of the Sangamo River for Sangamo Town just west of Springfield, never to return. In his journal, Abe recalled:

After the great winter of the deepest snow I have yet seen, land travel was impractical during the thaw, so the Sangamo became our transportation. We purchased a canoe and paddled downriver to Sangamo Town where we cut the trees and crafted a flatboat, 80 feet long and 18 feet wide.  

On the way downriver after loading the cargo in the flatboat, it became lodged on a milldam at New Salem. It began taking on water and listing forward. While many thought it was hopeless, Abe applied an ingenuity for which he was to become well known. Abe wrote of this mishap:

I had determined that this troublesome mill dam would not impede our progress. After offloading our cargo, I procured an auger from the cooper at New Salem and proceeded to drill a hole in the bow to drain the water.  As the craft righted, I plugged the hole, allowing it to rise and clear the mill dam so we were soon on our way. This and our successful trading venture in New Orleans convinced me that with some ingenuity, the Sangamo holds the key to bringing commerce and trade to Central Illinois.

To demonstrate the commercial viability of the Sangamo, in March of the next year Abe successfully piloted the 150 ton steamer Talisman upriver from Beardstown to Springfield. Abe reflected after this trip:

I humbly submit that no man in Central Illinois was as capable, as committed to such a task. While I helped in the pilot house, most enjoyable to me was cutting away the logs that blocked our path. Filled with the promise of the Sangamo fulfilling its destiny, never have I swung my axe with such fervor and excitement!

But it was not to be. Low water forced the Talisman to make a hasty exit back down the Sangamon to avoid becoming a long term resident. Yet Abe’s sense of destiny for the Sangamo was not deterred. In 1832 as a candidate for the Illinois General Assembly, Lincoln published his first political announcement, which stressed the improvement of the navigability of the Sangamo. In his journal, Abe wrote

All of the people look to rail! Do they not realize that rail is far too costly for our government’s resources? Investing resources in improving the Sangamo to carry commerce is a far better option for the people of Central Illinois.

Abe’s platform as a legislative candidate and once elected his initial legislative proposals to improve the Sangamo went nowhere. Then the railroads came to Central Illinois, making commerce on the low, slow flowing Sangamo all but obsolete. Yet Abe remained committed to his beloved Sangamo.

In 1848, he patented a unique type of craft that could navigate low water, derived from his earlier experience at New Salem Mill Dam. In fact, Abe is the only President to have a U.S. Patent on file. But this craft was never constructed beyond a scale model that sat in the law office he shared with William Herndon in Springfield.

Years later, while riding the 8th Judicial Circuit in 1852, Abe made his last entry in his Sangamo Journal during an extended stay at the Nine Gal Tavern in Mahomet, waiting for Sangamo floodwaters to subside,

Herndon laughs at my invention, but it will revolutionize river travel, opening the American frontier by way of rivers like my beloved Sangamo. Mr. Davidson, the proprietor here, also scoffs at my love for the Sangamo. I told him that the Sangamo is a river of the people and for the people that shall never perish from this earth! Davidson responded:  “Abe, I have a feeling you are destined for far greater achievements than navigation on the Sangamo.” Such nonsense! But what else can one expect from a man with nine redheaded daughters! Far greater achievements, indeed! What destiny might I have that could be more important than my beloved Sangamo?

I closed the journal.

Sometimes walking down by the Sangamon River late at night, I hear the distinct sound of axe on log. And kayaking the next day, I note intriguingly that some of the trees that block my passage along the river have been cleared.

And I wonder to myself, what destiny, indeed?

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, July 12, 2012 by Scott Hays

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