Lincoln's New Salem:
The Remains and Resurrection of a Frontier Village
The town of New Salem was platted in 1829, and was the third Euro-American village to be settled in the 1500-square mile area known as the “Sangamo Country” during the early nineteenth century. Reverend John Camron and his uncle James Rutledge built a mill on the Sangamon River in 1829, and had the town surveyed that fall. New Salem served as a commercial service center anchored by the mill, which provided both grain and lumber milling for area farmers recently-arrived from the Upland South. At its peak during the mid-1830s the town was inhabited by 100-150 people and included several stores, a tavern, a blacksmith, a cooper, a shoemaker, a hatter, and a carding mill. New Salem was short lived, however, and was almost entirely abandoned by 1840.
LINCOLN AT NEW SALEM
Much of what has been remembered and preserved at New Salem is due to the former presence Abraham Lincoln. In the summer of 1831, the twenty-one-year-old Lincoln was hired to run a small dry goods store, then owned by an entrepreneur named Denton Offutt. New Salem became an important place in Lincoln’s life. It was his first home apart from his parents, and it was here that he began piecing together a professional career. When he first arrived, he entered the storekeeping business. Offutt’s store closed about a year later, and Lincoln purchased his own stock of wholesale goods in partnership with William Berry. In early 1833, the two rented a frame store building and ran an unsuccessful business there until mid-1834. Lincoln also served as the postmaster of New Salem between 1833 and 1836. As his retail business faltered, Lincoln began working as a land surveyor. He was elected to the legislature in 1834, and spent much of his time at the state capital of Vandalia. In the spring of 1837, he moved to Springfield to practice law.
THE REPLICA VILLAGE
Today, the site of New Salem is maintained by the State of Illinois as a replicated 1830s commercial village. That replica, visited by over 500,000 people annually, represents an amalgam of oral traditions, primary documents, and the archaeological record. During the 1930s, the State conducted archival and archaeological research prior to the construction of 22 horizontal log homes and businesses, often located on the exact sites of structures built during the 1830s. The early archaeological efforts were quite crude by today’s standards, and while some excavation records exist, few of the millions of artifacts that were unearthed have been lost. The first round of archaeology at New Salem was concluded in 1948, and no substantive work was conducted for almost 50 years.
Modern archaeology returned to the site in 1995, and four field seasons were conducted by the Sangamo Archaeological Center through 2006. FICAS now maintains the original research from those investigations. Read more about the findings below: