PETERSBURG - Crowds gathered under
trees Saturday at Lincoln's New Salem State Historic
Site to hear a noted historian recount the famous
wrestling match in 1831 between Abraham Lincoln and Jack
They also watched as Petersburg's Porta High School
wrestlers, past and present, grappled on a grassy patch,
not far from where the contest occurred.
"There's no question about it - one of the most
important sporting events in history took place down
this lane," said Mike Chapman, author of "The Sport of
Chapman retired in 2002 from a 35-year journalism
career, having written over 600 articles about
wrestling. He's also authored 16 books, many about the
sport, and is the executive director of the
International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Newton,
Lincoln moved to the small village to clerk at Denton
Offutt's store. Offutt admired Lincoln's strength,
Chapman said, and boasted to another storekeeper,
William Clary, that Abe was the "strongest man he knew."
In those days, Chapman explained, dice throwing,
boxing and wrestling were common forms of entertainment.
And wrestling was the best way to determine what a man
was made of.
Armstrong was considered the toughest of the young
men from nearby Clary's Grove. Talk of a confrontation
between him and Lincoln spread, bets were wagered and
eventually the two agreed to the challenge.Several
versions of the competition have been recorded. Some say
Lincoln won, while others say it was a draw. Despite
their differences - Abe was taller and leaner, Jack was
slightly older and more experienced - they were evenly
matched, Chapman said.
He noted that at least one account claims Armstrong
stomped on Lincoln's foot and it turned into "good old,
backyard barn-style wrestling."
"I think it got pretty rowdy," Chapman said.
Regardless of the outcome, Lincoln proved he could
defend himself, and his wrestling prowess is said to
have gained him the respect of the rough-and-tumble
Clary's Grove boys and residents of New Salem.
"They accepted Lincoln as one of their own; it was a
turning point for him. Whatever happened, Jack and Abe
became very good friends," Chapman said. He pointed out
that years later, Lincoln defended Armstrong's son,
Duff, in a murder trial, in which Duff was found
Jeff Hill, Porta wrestling coach and junior high
principal, recalled hearing about the historical match
when he was a youngster. A poster depicting the event
hangs in the Porta locker room, and Hill encourages his
team members to read and write book reports about the
"That's what builds tradition," he said.
Since 1991, Porta has racked up 309 wins, 75 losses
and 33 all-state qualifiers.
Nine-year-old Rex Bohall of Brooklyn, N.Y. watched
intently as Porta wrestlers Matt Lounsberry, Vince
Hudspeth, David Devine, Toby Turek and Bobby Calhoun
paired off, demonstrating various wrestling moves and
styles, while they tried to throw each other to the
"I didn't know anything about Lincoln as a wrestler,"
said Rex's father, Steve.
Ryan Williamson, also 9, recently moved to
Springfield from Phoenix. Ryan said he'd learned a lot
about Lincoln at the Lincoln Presidential Library and
Museum in Springfield, but he didn't know about the bout
with Armstrong until he toured the reconstructed
frontier settlement Saturday.
"I thought it was very interesting. I liked it a
lot," Ryan said of the presentation, which was part of
the "What's Cooking" event held this weekend at New
About 7,000 people travel to Iowa's International
Wrestling Institute and Museum annually, which opened in
1998. In the lobby, visitors are greeted by a
larger-than-life-size mural of the legendary New Salem
Chapman, who will return to New Salem today, believes
wrestling teaches courage, strength and respect.
"Lincoln exhibited all three," he said.
Hill has seen those characteristics develop in the
students he's coached, some of whom are pursuing
military, law enforcement, education and other careers.
"They want their bodies to be in the best condition,"
Hill said. "But they also have to be able to take
defeat; they have to shake their opponent's hand and
say, 'Good match.' It's part of being human and growing
New Salem is located on Illinois 97, about two miles
south of Petersburg and 20 miles north of Springfield.
Ann Gorman can be reached through the metro desk at