New Salem was a frontier town founded in 1828 when James Rutledge and John Camron built a grist mill and started to sell building lots on the land overlooking the mill. In 1840 the county seat was located in nearby Petersburg and New Salem went into decline. It was abandoned in 1841 and soon the place where the town once stood was just pasture. In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps began to build replicas of the New Salem buildings on their original foundations. Why did they want to rebuild a short lived frontier town? The answer lies with a young man who left his parental home in 1831 and for 6 years made New Salem his home. That young man was called Abraham Lincoln and it was life in this town that helped to form the politician and President that he later became. While in New Salem, Lincoln worked as a shopkeeper, postmaster and land surveyor. In 1832 he also served as a captain in the Illinois Militia during the brief Black Hawk War. While living in New Salem Lincoln began his political career. He was defeated when he ran for the Illinois General Assembly in 1832 but he tried again in 1834 and that time he won. While living in New Salem, Lincoln decided to become a lawyer and began teaching himself law by reading law books such as Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England. He was admitted to the bar in 1836 and the following year he moved to Springfield to join a law practice.
Henry Onstot Cooper Shop & House
Henry Onstot was a cooper who arrived in New Salem from Kentucky in about 1830. A cooper was an important member of the community in those days as he made the barrels in which most produce was shipped. Onstot built his first house and cooper shop in the east of the town before taking over the tavern for 2 years. In 1835 he built a new house and cooper shop in the west of the town. In 1840, Onstot moved to nearby Petersburg where he re-assembled both his house and the cooper shop on Main Street. In 1922 the cooper shop building was rediscovered still standing in Petersburg. It was moved back to New Salem and re-erected on its original foundations. It is the only original building in New Salem. The reconstructed town is known as Abraham Lincoln’s New Salem. Click Tab 2 to see the interior of the Cooper Shop.
First Berry-Lincoln Store
James and Rowan Herndon arrived at New Salem in 1831 and they set about the task of building a store. In 1832 James sold his share of the store to William Berry. Rowan did not get on with Berry so he offered his share of the store to Abraham Lincoln. At that time Lincoln had yet to decide what he wanted to do, so he took Rowan Herdon’s share of the store to provide him with work and an income while he made up his mind.
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Robert Johnston Residence
Robert Johnston was a wheelwright, woodworker and cabinet maker who moved to New Salem with his family in 1832. They built a log cabin as their residence. Johnson’s work included repairing furnishings and implements for local people and making wooden gears for the two mills in town. Lincoln never owned a home in New Salem. Like most single young men of that era he did not have the means to build or buy his own home, so he slept at the store or at the tavern and had meals with local families.
Second Berry-Lincoln Store
The first Berry-Lincoln store lasted less than a year. In early 1833 a larger store with a better range of goods became available so Berry and Lincoln decided to move there. George Warburton had built the frame store in 1831 and briefly operated a mercantile business. After he sold the store it changed hands a number of times before Abraham Lincoln and William Berry took it over. The Berry-Lincoln store did not prosper. Lincoln admitted: ’Of course they did nothing but get deeper and deeper in debt. The store winked out’.
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Statue of Lincoln as Deputy Surveyor
Lincoln’s lack of success as a shopkeeper meant that he needed work to provide an income while he studied to be a lawyer. He did odd jobs around the town and from May 7, 1833 until the office was closed at the end of May 1836 he served as the postmaster of New Salem. Also, from 1833 to 1837 he was Deputy Surveyor of Sangamon County, Illinois. This life-size bronze statue depicts Lincoln working as Deputy Surveyor. The statue was designed by John McClarey of Decatur in Illinois and it was dedicated in October 2003.