PETERSBURG - Archaeologists
searching for more evidence of the first building
Abraham Lincoln owned have unearthed a slate pencil, a
hand-forged iron chain link, window and bottle glass, a
shell button, pottery fragments and other items at
Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site.
"Finding that slate pencil was
a real treat. It's as close as we're going to get to a
Lincoln artifact," said Robert Mazrim, director of the
Sangamo Archaeological Center in Elkhart.
Lincoln arrived at New Salem by flatboat in 1831,
working first as a clerk in Offutt's shop. He later
operated a store with William Berry and served as a
postmaster and deputy surveyor before moving to
Springfield to practice law. The log village was
reconstructed in the 1930s and now is administered by
the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.
Thomas Schwartz, interim director of the Abraham
Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield,
recently discovered an 1830s document that revealed
Lincoln owned a half interest in two lots and a
structure in the frontier settlement.
Schwartz said the building would have been the first
Lincoln ever owned, and the archaeological investigation
"will give us more information about this important,
previously unknown chapter of Lincoln's life."
Mazrim, four crew members and a small group of
volunteers have been at the site for about six weeks.
The group, after studying archaeological and written
records and resurveying, is focusing on the area at the
east end of the village that encompasses the rebuilt
Offutt Store and the William Clary grocery.
Offutt opened his business in July 1831, but his
enterprises failed within a year, and he left for
Kentucky. It's believed that Lincoln and Charles Maltby,
another clerk at the store, may have purchased Offutt's
property in 1832.
Lincoln and Maltby apparently planned to operate a
warehouse at New Salem that would serve as a
distribution and shipping point for steamboats on the
nearby Sangamon River. However, the shallow river halted
steamboat travel in the area, and the Black Hawk War
took Lincoln from the project in the summer of 1832.
When he returned, Lincoln re-entered the retail
business, possibly using the Offutt building. Three
years later, he still owned the property, which,
according to Schwartz, may have served multiple
purposes, including as a storage area, residence or an
office for Lincoln's surveying work.
Mazrim believes the Offutt and Clary buildings
probably were part of "a business complex that was
pioneered by George Warburton (an early New Salem
resident), expanded by Offutt and then owned by Maltby
"We can say pretty confidently that Abraham Lincoln
owned this property in 1835," Mazrim said, noting that
Maltby left New Salem that year.
Schwartz watched Thursday as the archaeologists
carefully excavated using simple hand tools - trowels,
whisk brooms and shovels. Pouring bucket after bucket of
soil through mesh sieves, they hunted for what could be
tiny, but important, pieces of history.
"Good going," Mazrim remarked to the crew member who
dug up the chain link, noting that it might have been
made years ago at the blacksmith shop down the road.
David Brady, a history buff who works at the Prairie
Archives bookstore in Springfield and has joined Mazrim
on a dig in southern Illinois, volunteered to sift
through the dirt Friday.
"This gives you a different point of view, rather
than just reading old documents and newspaper accounts,"
During the project, Mazrim has learned that there
were plaster laths on the interior walls of the Offutt
"It was much less primitive than the (log) replica
portrays," he said. "It was much more modern, much more
finished, much more formal."
"It's something we'd never even considered here," New
Salem site manager David Hedrick said of the finding.
Another major discovery was the scatter of handmade
bricks found underground, surrounded by very burnt soil,
near the Clary store.
"There's absolutely no archival record or oral
tradition that there was any brick-making here," Mazrim
said. "As far as who made this brick, we don't really
Painstakingly scraping away at the earth, Mazrim
unburied what he calls "the earliest park litter," left
behind from the 1880s to 1920s by picnicking tourists
who came to see where Lincoln first worked. And a fellow
archaeologist Friday came across the base of a medicine
bottle that Mazrim said might have contained essence of
peppermint or British oil.
Mazrim said it's "amazing" that the artifacts - some
possibly part of the store's inventory - weren't
destroyed during the reconstruction of New Salem.
Schwartz thinks that his research, combined with the
archaeologists' work, indicates that Lincoln was "more
serious about the commercial enterprise and the
commercial viability of this whole area."
"It shows him invested in the community in a way that
the traditional story ignores," Schwartz said.
"Obviously, he was much more active than just standing
in the store, telling jokes and going bankrupt. This
shows a lot of hard work."
Hedrick said those involved with New Salem always try
to present "a true and accurate picture of what the
village looked like and was about." When archaeologists
do research at the historic site, the information
gathered helps interpret Lincoln's connection to New
Salem, he said.
"The task of figuring out Lincoln's involvement here
is never-ending," Hedrick said. "Every time
archaeologists solve an issue, it creates more questions
about what the true story is."
"Now that we know that this was Lincoln's, we have to
go back and relook at our whole understanding of Lincoln
and New Salem," agreed Schwartz, adding that some people
may examine the evidence and draw different conclusions.
Overall, however, he thinks people will concur with the
The archaeologists plan to wrap up their work by the
end of May.
"What artifacts we don't keep for display at the site
will go to the Illinois State Museum. They're the
depository for all archaeological findings," Hedrick
He added that Mazrim's upcoming book, which covers
archaeologists' 10 years of discoveries at New Salem,
will be "a significant publication for (the historic
"It will be used to help redesign the interpretive
materials," Hedrick said.
"It's exciting," Schwartz added. "There is a lot here
that has to be looked at and puzzled through, and the
whole process of what it means will be ongoing. It's
wonderful to see the outline here, the footprint."
Ann Gorman can be reached through the metro desk at