A President You’ve Heard of in a Town You Probably Haven’t

Between his childhood in Kentucky and his years in Springfield, Illinois, the later President Abraham Lincoln lived in the tiny river-front town of New Salem, Illinois. Lincoln first passed through New Salem on a flatboat, en route to New Orleans on the Sangamon River. He moved to New Salem shortly after when, in 1831 and at the age of 22, he was offered a job at a New Salem general store, purportedly for his good handling of the flat boat over the New Salem dam. Lincoln took on many roles during his years in New Salem. Among them, general store owner, post master, and deputy county surveyor. His success in these endeavors was moderate at best (his store failed and he lost his first election), but it was in New Salem that Lincoln began to study law and joined a debating club. In 1834, Lincoln ran for the state legislature for the second time and won. He left New Salem in 1837 as a lawyer and a successful politician. New Salem, itself, disappeared shortly thereafter.

“The village which had been growing rapidly when Lincoln arrived fades away as other towns around it grow. People will later say that New Salem existed only to help Lincoln become the man the country needed.”

New Salem Lincoln League

Of course, the town of New Salem has an interesting story of its own. It was platted in 1829 and abandoned 12 years later as its citizens, including Lincoln, moved on to other towns and opportunities. The town reverted to fields and woods until 1906, when it was purchased by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst donated the 60 acres where the town once stood to the Old Salem Chautauqua Association, spurring reconstruction efforts. The land was deeded to the state in 1919 and the state park was created in 1931. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps took on reconstruction of the village. Today, 23 of the buildings have been reconstructed, including houses, general stores, a school, a tavern, a wool carding mill, and a saw- and gristmill. The historic site offers a glimpse into an Illinois town that came and went almost as quickly as its best-known resident, President Abraham Lincoln.

Sources and Further Reading:

Visit Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site

Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site via Enjoy Illinois

The National Park Service has a wonderful, longer history about the New Salem site: Lincoln’s New Salem 1830-1837.

The New Salem Lincoln League is also a great source of information.

Interested in Lincoln sites? I’ve visited and written about several others! Check them out:

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