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The 2005 Excavations at New Salem: Lincoln's Property at New Salem


Traditionally, it has been believed that Abraham Lincoln owned no property at New Salem. Instead, it was generally assumed that he lived and worked in the store buildings that he rented, or that he stayed with friends. In 1995, Thomas Schwartz rediscovered a Sangamon County Sheriff’s sale document dating to 1835, which indicates that the young Lincoln actually owned property in the village, in partnership with an unnamed individual. Further, the document mentions a “house” located on the lot. This indicates that Lincoln owned improved property long before his purchase of the home in downtown Springfield.

Unfortunately, the lots mentioned in the document (“Lots 16 and 17 north of Main Street”) are not included in the original 1829 plat of New Salem. Instead, these lots appear to have been added to the town after the 1829 survey - perhaps to encompass improved property in order to give that property a legal description prior to its sale.

Using archaeological data and the natural topography on which the town was located, the geometry of the original plat was reexamined. A resurvey of the village concluded that Lots 16 and 17 must have been located in the northeastern portion of the town, and not coincidentally, in the vicinity of the “Offutt Store” where Lincoln clerked in 1831.


Further research revealed that Lincoln and another clerk at the store – Charles Maltby - may have bought Offutt’s property in 1832. The two had planned to operate a warehouse at New Salem, to serve as a distribution and shipping point for steamboats on the Sangamon River. The shallow river soon dashed any hopes of steamboat travel in the area, and the Black Hawk War pulled Lincoln away from the project during the summer of 1832. 

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"February 21st 1835 - on one set of surveying instruments one horse saddle and Bridle and the undivided Half of Lots No, 16 & 17 North of Main street New Salem. The property of Abraham Lincoln."

"The above property levied on was sold this day for $81.00 the sale of the house and lots was stayed by order of the Plaintiff March 7th 1835."

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Overlay of additional lots "16 and 17" onto 1829 village plat and modern topography. 

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Section of undisturbed 1830s cellar fill intersected by 1930s store replica foundation.

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Artifacts found in undisturbed cellar fill associated with Offutt's Store.

In the spring of 2005, the Sangamo Archaeological Center began work at several locations in and around the property apparently owned by Offutt and Lincoln. These were conducted around and beneath the current "Offutt Store" and "Clary Grocery" replicas.



The investigations resulted in several new findings. The excavations found a portion of the original cellar that was once located beneath the Offutt Store. Most of that feature had been destroyed by the 1933 construction of the current replica, but the intact portion of the cellar produced a small sample of architectural and storekeeping-related artifacts. Flooring nails, lath nails, and plaster indicate that the original building was much more finished that the current replica, and would have included milled plank flooring and plastered walls. 


Behind the Offutt Store was found the well-preserved archaeological remains of an early nineteenth century brick kiln or “clamp”, used to manufacture soft mud brick. Several of the buildings at New Salem were equipped with brick fireplaces, and some of those bricks may have been made behind the Offutt Store, perhaps while Lincoln was working there. Beneath the kiln was found a layer of broken storekeeping goods such as crockery jugs and glass tumblers. This indicates that the construction of the kiln postdates the development of storekeeping debris around the yard, and places its use closer to the era of Lincoln’s ownership. 

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Excavation view of the brick clamp found behind the store.

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