Looking for Lincoln in Nauvoo, Illinois

Nauvoo, Illinois was founded by Joseph Smith and his Mormon followers in 1839 after they were chased out of Missouri.  The group arrived at a marshy, overgrown spot of land and decided to make a go of it on the banks of the Mississippi River.  I arrive over 175 years later to find a charming, quaint village bustling with activity.  It’s a summer weekend and the place is packed with Latter Day Saints campers, seekers, wedding guests, and me.  The small unorganized state park is absolutely full and I can’t find an attendant or a camp host anywhere.  After driving the loop three times, dragging my faithful little teardrop behind me, I head to the visitor center.  The friendly tour guides direct me to Peter’s Place, an RV park just on the other side of the village.

After settling into my new digs at Peter’s Place, I go looking for Lincoln.  I cannot find Abe anywhere.  He is not downtown, he is not in Nauvoo State Park, and he is not at Peter’s Place.  Where in the heck is Abraham Lincoln and what is his connection to Joseph Smith?  I go back to the visitor center at the Joseph Smith Historic Site, stamp my national park passport with the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Trail cancellation stamp, pay for a tour, and join the group of Mormons on a Joseph Smith pilgrimage.  I am the only tourist on a quest to find Abe.  Everyone else is looking for Smith who is apparently buried here.

It turns out that Abraham Lincoln never, ever went to Nauvoo.  The only connection Lincoln has with Joseph Smith is that Abraham Lincoln was an Illinois legislator when Nauvoo’s city charter was approved.  Hmmm.  Well at least I discovered why I couldn’t find Ole Abe.  And I got a cancellation stamp!


Looking for Lincoln in Quincy, Illinois

Quincy, Illinois is a pleasant town located on the mighty Mississippi River and it was the site of the sixth Lincoln-Douglas debate.  In 1858, Illinois was a “free” state and Missouri, directly across the Mississippi from Quincy, was a “slave” state.  On October 13, 1858, thousands of spectators came to listen as Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas argued mostly about the slavery issue.

Located on the corner of the square where the debate was held, the History Museum showcases a presidential papers collection focusing on Abraham Lincoln. One fascinating exhibit is a set of political cartoons from the presidential election of 1860.  I enjoyed the artwork as much as the satire.  I also grabbed up a national park passport cancellation stamp as well as a “bonus” stamp.

In 1822, John Wood became the first settler in Quincy, Illinois when he purchased land that was part of a military settlement.  He originally named the town “Bluffs”; however, it was renamed Quincy in 1825 after President John Quincy Adams.  Wood was mayor of Quincy three times before becoming governor of the state of Illinois in 1860.  While he was governor, he was allowed to govern from his home in Quincy leaving the Governors Mansion in Springfield vacant.  Wood and Abraham Lincoln were political allies and friends.  They were both against slavery and worked together to help form the Republican party.  When Lincoln was chosen as the Republican candidate for president of the United States, Wood allowed him to use the Governors Mansion in Springfield as a campaign office.  Currently, the John Wood Mansion in Quincy is available for guided tours.


Looking for Lincoln in Pittsfield, Illinois

Riding the circuit was a common practice for judges and lawyers in the 19th century.  As communities began popping up in sparsely populated areas, judges and lawyers would travel from county to county to hold court sessions.  Abraham Lincoln, based in Springfield, Illinois, rode the 8th Judicial Circuit for three months twice a year.  Weather often made travel difficult.  Lincoln would stay with friends or sometimes a tavern.  Taverns during Lincoln’s time were a type of inexpensive hotel, often dirty and seedy; not like the taverns of today.

Pittsfield, Illinois, the county seat for Pike County, was a regular stop for Abraham Lincoln when he was a lawyer riding the circuit.  I’m sure Lincoln enjoyed his time in Pittsfield.  He had close friendships with several of Pittsfield’s citizens; three would later move to Washington D.C. to work with President Lincoln in the White House.  The charming community has a rich heritage of Lincoln connections and a unique way to share it.

Pittsfield’s Talking House Tour is fun, entertaining, and amusing.  The tour begins at the Pittsfield Visitor Center where you pick up a driving tour map.  Then the fun begins!  Continue driving your car from house to house, stopping at each one and tuning the car radio to the FM station indicated on the map.  Through the car’s speakers, an occupant of the house from Lincoln’s time tells stories of their relationship with the circuit-riding lawyer.  For example, at the Scanland House, Mrs. Scanland tells about an occasion when her turkey dinner got cold because Abe and her husband, Mayor Scanlan, were at the local drug store telling tales and chewing the fat.  It’s wonderful to look at a house where Lincoln was often a guest and listen to stories about him.  It’s not hard to imagine that the year is 1852 and Abraham Lincoln is in town for the twice-a-year court session.

If Lincoln is in town, most likely he can be found in the William Watson Hotel lobby gabbing, discussing politics, and chatting it up with the locals.  Although he usually stayed in friend’s homes, Abe would often pop in to the William Watson for a visit with Pittsfield’s citizens.  Since it is still a wonderfully delightful boutique hotel, I took the opportunity to stay in the “Lincoln Suite” overnight.  The experience was simply lovely.  If you are ever in Pittsfield, Illinois, (which I recommend you make a point to go) I encourage you to stay at the William Watson Hotel.  The attention to detail, terrific service from the staff, a coffee shop right next door, and affordable rates makes for a great place to rest your head for the night.  And don’t forget: Abraham Lincoln hung out here!

Lucky me!  I stayed in the beautiful Lincoln Suite at the charming and comfortable William Watson Hotel!

Looking for Lincoln in Bloomington, Illinois

Abraham Lincoln is almost as easy to find in Bloomington, Illinois as he is in his hometown of Springfield.  Bloomington was the home of Lincoln’s great friend and political ally, Judge David Davis.  Davis was a traveling circuit lawyer turned judge when Lincoln was traveling the same circuit as a lawyer.  They were both Whigs and were instrumental in starting the Republican Party when the Whig party fell apart.  In 1860 Judge Davis acted as Lincoln’s campaign manager when he was nominated as the Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency.  President Lincoln appointed Judge David Davis to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1862.

Judge Davis arrived in Bloomington in 1836 and quickly established himself as a respected lawyer and politician.  He bought and sold land and began to make his fortune.  He built a house for his wife on a piece of land on the edge of town, then added to it as his family grew.  This would be the house that Abraham Lincoln would visit on his many trips to Bloomington.  Eventually, in 1872, seven years after Lincoln was assassinated, Davis tore down that house and built a thirty-six room mansion on the site.  The David Davis Mansion State Historic Site is available for tours; and you can obtain an Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area national park passport cancellation stamp.

An old courthouse on the square in downtown Bloomington is the home of the McLean County Museum of History.  After stamping your passport, you can find Abraham Lincoln in a corner room on the second floor.  A well-made video describes the real Abe through personal accounts from people who encountered Lincoln in Bloomington.  It’s worth a watch to get an idea of the personality of Honest Abe.  The museum also describes several of Lincoln’s cases when he was a circuit lawyer in Bloomington including a trial when Lincoln was the prosecuting attorney in a murder case.  Despite Lincoln’s five hour closing argument, he lost the case.  Abraham Lincoln also practiced family law.  He represented Mary Beard when she sued her husband for divorce on the grounds of cruelty to herself and her child.  She got her divorce and custody of her son and her ex-husband was ordered to pay for all court costs.

Looking for Lincoln in Jacksonville, Illinois

I found Abraham Lincoln on the Illinois College campus in Jacksonville, Illinois.  It was simple to locate the national park passport cancellation stamp in Tanner Hall.  However, it took some research to dig up the connection between the first university in Illinois and the 16th president of the United States.  Abraham did not attend Illinois College.  In fact, he didn’t attend any school.  As a child he taught himself to read with less than a year of formal schooling.  So why did I find him at Illinois College?

About the same time that Illinois College was conducting its first classes in 1830, a young adult Abe arrived in New Salem, about 30 miles from the school.  Lincoln developed close friendships with six of the Illinois College students including David Rutledge.  David had a sister, Ann, who fell in love and became engaged to young Abe.  Abe was set up to attend IC when Ann suddenly and sadly died from typhoid fever.  Devastated, Lincoln slipped into a dark suicidal depression.  By the time he emerged, the opportunity to attend a formal school was gone.

Another important friendship from Illinois College included Richard Yates.  Yates was equivalent to Abe’s campaign manager when Lincoln ran for president of the United States and later Yates became governor of Illinois during the Civil War.  Yates was invaluable as a political ally and advisor to Abraham Lincoln.

Perhaps the closest friendship with an Illinois College alumni was his relationship with William Herndon.  Although Abraham did not know Herndon during Herndon’s years at IC, they became colleagues and partners in a law office in Springfield, Illinois.  They remained partners until Lincoln left for the White House in 1861.

Illinois College is on a lovely, landscaped campus.  The private liberal arts university is a perfect setting to contemplate what would the U.S. be like if Abe had married Ann and received the education he so desired.  Would he have become president of the United States and Ann the First Lady instead of Mary?  I like to think so.  Surely it was destiny.


Looking for Lincoln in Alton, Illinois

Looking for Lincoln in Alton, Illinois is a bit of a search.  There are two places to obtain the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area cancellation stamp:  the Alton Visitor Center and the Alton Genealogy Library.  The stamps are identical.  As the name indicates the Visitor Center is a visitor center.  They sell t-shirts and coffee mugs, have loads of brochures for local attractions, and offer information on the area.  The Genealogy Library is a beautiful building in downtown Alton where folks research their ancestry.  But I’m searching for Abe.

I found Lincoln at Lincoln-Douglas Square, the site of the 7th and final debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas on October 15, 1858.  Douglas was Lincoln’s arch-nemesis.  Douglas was the incumbent Democratic senator and he was running against Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln.  Their series of seven debates centered on the issue of slavery.  Douglas was the instigator of the Kansas- Nebraska Act of 1854 which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  The Missouri Compromise was an act intended to retain a balance between free and slave states.  Basically, if a slave state (like Missouri) is admitted into the union then a free state (like Maine) must also be admitted.  And all territories above the Louisiana Purchase would be free.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed the new state to decide for itself if it wants to be free or slave.

In Alton, Illinois, Douglas attacked Lincoln’s House Divided Speech.  You know:  “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  Lincoln reminded Douglas that the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise.  Although Lincoln would lose his bid at senator, the Lincoln-Douglas debates put him in the national political headlights and he would become the Republican candidate for the presidential election of 1860.


Honestly, Abe?

IMG_0470Visiting the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park in Hodgenville, Kentucky is a confusing experience.  The longer I explore, the more questions I have.  The short movie in the visitor center indicates Abraham Lincoln only lived in Kentucky the first seven years of his life.  The ten minute film focuses on Abe’s parents, Nancy and Thomas Lincoln, and explains why Thomas and the Lincoln family moved from Sinking Spring Farm to Abraham’s boyhood home at Knob Creek two years later.  So why is there an historical park in Kentucky honoring Abraham Lincoln when he only lived in Kentucky the first seven years of his life?

Thomas and Nancy bought the 300 acre Sinking Spring Farm for $200 in December, 1808.  Baby Abe was born February 12, 1809 in a tiny, one-room log cabin. IMG_0472 A large, gaudy, pink granite and marble memorial building, eerily similar to the Lincoln memorial in Washington D.C., now stands, like a castle in a cornfield, near the site of the original log cabin.  I walk up the 56 steps representing the 56 years of Abraham Lincoln’s life, open the massive door, and enter the Roman, neoclassical style structure.  I feel like Alice passing through the rabbit hole.  The marble and granite structure surrounds a modest, wooden structure.  A simple, tiny, one-room log cabin is entombed inside the ornately carved memorial.  I quickly learn from the informative volunteer that the cabin is not baby Abe’s birth cabin.  It represents his birth cabin.

Living on the Kentucky frontier meant long hours for daddy Thomas plowing the stony, red clay-packed soil, harvesting just enough corn to feed the small family and few animals, and tramping through the dense woods in search of game.  Mommy Nancy spent her days caring for a toddler and an infant and preparing simple meals in a cast iron skillet over an open fireplace.  I take a walk along the Boundary Oak Trail to view the sinking spring that is the namesake of the farm.  Perhaps this fresh water spring hidden beneath American Chestnut trees is what drew the Lincoln’s to a simple, quiet, spare life on the frontier.

IMG_0474A short walk from the garish memorial is the Nancy Lincoln Inn.  I discover it is a store.  And it has always been a store.  The plaque  outside says that the store and the four small cabins nearby were built in 1928 to honor Abe’s mother, Nancy Lincoln.  Because Nancy only lived here for two years, the building was built to hold merchandise for sale, and the log cabins (in the style of baby Abe’s birth cabin)  were constructed to accommodate paying guests, I suspect that the Nancy Lincoln Inn was built with the intention of making a profit.  Nothing wrong with that.  The 1920s saw a huge growth in the tourism industry.  Why not grab the opportunity to sell lodging, candy, and cold beverages to people touring the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Park?  Cold beverage?  Great idea!  I purchase an ice cold, bottled, pure cane sugar Sarsaparillo and drive the ten miles to Knob Creek.

Soon after moving to the farm, Thomas Lincoln was involved in a lawsuit disputing ownership of the land.  In 1811, when little Abe was two years old, Thomas moved the Lincoln family ten miles to a 30 acre farm he leased on Knob Creek.  Abraham Lincoln’s earliest memories are at his boyhood home at Knob Creek.  Abe and his sister, Sarah, walked two miles to a school that did not have books or writing utensils.  Lessons were taught and learned by recitation.  It was at this school, near Knob Creek, that Abraham Lincoln developed his love for learning and appreciation for education.  Today Knob Creek still sits on the same road (although improved with asphalt and concrete) that young Abe may or may not have seen slaves being taken to market.  And yes, I tour the representative log cabin at Lincoln’s Boyhood Home at Knob Creek.  In 1816, Thomas Lincoln lost his lawsuit to regain Sinking Springs Farm and moved his family, including seven-year-old Abe, to Illinois.IMG_0477

Partly because I love hiking and partly because I love history, my favorite experience at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park is walking the short Big Sink Trail.  The Big Sink Trail is a .7 mile loop that meanders through the Kentucky woods of Abraham Lincoln’s early childhood.  Very few visitors to the park take advantage of the well-maintained trail and it is easy to block out the sounds of nearby cars, the smells of nearby restaurants, and the sight of overhead airplanes.  I can pretend, for half an hour, that I am a young Abe Lincoln, walking to school, hearing the sounds of birds twittering in the trees, smelling the wildflowers growing along the well-worn path, and seeing the leaves on the trees as they turn from green to red and drift slowly and gently to the ground.  As I walk through the peaceful Kentucky woods, I ponder the purpose of the park.

Abraham Lincoln is known to have said, “I cannot tell a lie”.  (Not sure if that is fact or fiction.  He was a politician!)  However, the historical park honoring his birth borders on the edge of gray.  Is this place, where Lincoln lived for only seven years, never to return to Kentucky, an accurate representation of Abe’s earliest years?  To keep Abe honest, I focus on the symbolism of the park.  Despite losing their farm, their home, and their livelihood, the Lincoln family persevered and, from these humble beginnings on the edge of the frontier, baby Abraham Lincoln eventually became the 16th president of the U.S.  Born in a modest, one-room log cabin, Lincoln died while living in the White House.  The simple cabin enshrined in an ornate memorial stands as a symbol of what all Americans can achieve with the basic core values of hard work, determination, and perseverance.