Pioneers of Menard & Mason Counties
Including Personal Reminiscens of Abraham Lincoln & Peter Cartwright
By T.G. Onstot, 1902

Reminiscenses of Lincoln

Page 17

In 1832 a large territory of land, known as the Black Hawk purchase, embracing the state of Iowa, was opened for settlement, and the tide of emigration set out that way.

In our earliest recollection, Iowa was the terminus of emigration, and when a man had cattle or milch cows for sale he drove them to the mines, which were adjacent. It was the only market. Some misunderstanding occurred and Black Hawk refused to vacate, the settlers were at the mercy of the Indian warriors. Volunteers were called for. As the requisite number did not answer, the call for a draft was ordered, and my father was drafted. Lincoln was the captain of a company. As my father had a family of small children, and could not well go, he hired a substitute, a young man who had come to Salem at the time by the name of John Hillis, who agreed to go in his place, my father giving him thirty dollars and his rifle. Lincoln's company left for the scene of action but never saw any Indians, as the dispute was settled and Black Hawk left the country. Thus ended Lincoln's military career, till by virtue of his authority as president, he was commander-in-chief of the army of the United States. We will now relate Lincoln's duel with James Shields. Shields was an Irishman, nervous and fidgety. The trouble was in 1842. A piece of poetry appeared in the Springfield Journal, which was rather personal and sarcastic on Shields, who was a bachelor. He swore vengeance on the unknown writer, who was known by Lincoln to be a lady of high standing. Shields grew more war-like, but could not find out who the author was. Lincoln, in a peculiar way, sent word to Shields that he was the man. Lincoln was attending court at Tremont at the time when he received a challenge from Shields who demanded satisfaction or blood.

Abe accepted the challenge for a duel and chose for weapons, broad swords, which were about the length and size of a mowing scythe. Shields protested against the weapons as not being fair, as he was a small stature, and his opponent had double the reach, but Lincoln had the choice of weapons, according to the code of dueling. There was an island opposite St. Louis and Illinois that was not supposed to belong to either, and here in early days many a bloody conflict took place and the principals were secure from arrest, and well had it earned the name of Bloody Island.

From Springfield to this historical spot was one hundred miles and the only means of conveyance was the overland route and two days were required for the journey. Both men and their friends started on the journey at the same time. Abe employed his time while waiting for Shields with his coat off, trimming up the under brush and humming "Yankee Doodle." In a short time the other parties arrived and their mutual friends began to arrange for the conflict.

Thanks to our advanced civilization, the "barbarous code" is no longer tolerated an the man who refuses a challenge is a braver man than the one who sends it. The Yankee way is to argue the man out of it and "he who runs away may live to fight another day." After the belligerents had left Springfield, John J. Hardin, of Jacksonville, one of the grandest men of Illinois, hearing of the circumstances, determined to prevent the carrying out of the program, and though they had several hours the start, and he had an equal distance to travel, set out for the race. But there was a road from Jacksonville, "a good broad highway leading down, and, there through the flush of morning light, as still and black as the steeds of night, was seen to pass, as with an eagle's flight, as if he knew the terrible need, he stretched away with the utmost speed." Before he finished the journey, his horse gave out and he procured another. "The heart of the master, the heart of the steed, were beating like prisoners assaulting their walls impatient to be where the battle field calls." Every nerve of the charger was strained to full play. Arriving on the ground just as the combatants were getting ready for battle, Hardin rushed in between them, and by curses compelled them to make friends and go home and not make such fools of themselves. Lincoln and Shields shook hands over the bloody chasm and were friends ever afterward.

The suspense at Petersburg where I then lived, was intense. There were no railroads, telegraphs or telephone, and it was three days before we were informed of the happy termination of the affair. There was only one opinion as to what the termination would have had the affair proceeded. Lincoln, by his superior skill and strength, would have disarmed his opponent. Shields rose to distinction, and was shot through the breast in the Mexican war and left for dead, but recovered and became a prominent politician in Illinois, went to the United States Senate, then went to Missouri where he was again elected to the senate, then to California where he was again sent to the senate. Thus he was senator from three states, and didn't have to buy his seat either as senators have to do now. Where was Lincoln's great power some may ask? It was because he was a man of the people. The common people from which he sprang; he always had their interest at heart and believed that this was a government of the people, and by the people. Though a lawyer by profession he never encouraged neighbors to spend their time and money in litigation. We were shown a letter by Ida Ball, of Menard county, where Mr. Bates had retained the services of Mr. Lincoln in a case against Mr. Hiccox about some wheat in which Lincoln wrote Bates: "I think if you would see Mr. Hiccox and have a talk with him you could fix this business up, which would be better than to have a lawsuit about it." How many lawyers in Petersburg would have given such advice, and yet this was the way of doing, "fix it up yourselves." In his debate with Douglas, Lincoln always had the advantage, and his arguments led to liberty and Douglas always led to human bondage. Human bondage could never be eulogized, it never could be sung while liberty and freedom has been sung by poets and bards wince creation. Ever since the morning stars sang together.

Lincoln, as a surveyor, as we recollect, did most of his work north of Petersburg, though Sangamon county ran to the Illinois river, and the north part of Mason county was in Tazewell county. He laid out the town of Bath. We never hear of any of his work but what gave satisfaction. My brother, R.J. Onstot, of Mason City, has a plat of Huron, a town at Miller's ferry on the Sangamon rive. The land was bought by a syndicate before Menard county was laid out and was held for a county seat. The plat is in good shape, the blocks run north and south. My brother values it very much, as it is Lincoln's own hand-writing. There was a town not far from Bill Smoot's by the name of New Market but these towns were only on paper, and when the county seat was located, the land upon which no new homes had been built were again used for farming. I well recall when the committee, which was appointed to locate, came through Salem, a large crowd following, there were twenty-five or thirty men on horseback, the only way men traveled then, with about a dozen dogs following. They stopped before my father's shop and listened to suggestions, but I think from the start they had made up their minds to locate the county house at Petersburg. When Mason county was laid out, little Menard was then about twenty miles square and Petersburg was in the center.

Lincoln's wonderful eloquence has never been surpassed. His Gettysburg speech has never been equaled, and it will go down to the coming generations as a model without a peer. When he wrote it he handed it to Seward, who looked it over and began to suggest errors and did not think it worthy of a state paper. Seward would have written five times as much, and not expressed one-half the meaning. His Cooper Institute speech was made before the most critical audience that ever assembled to hear a man speak. Lincoln was at first a little diffident but soon forgot his humble origin, and taking for his test: "Our fathers, when they founded the government, under which we live, understood this question just as well and even better than we did." After his speech he was warmly congratulated and the speech man him president. The western man without fame, was at once placed at the head of living statesmen which place he retained until the hour of his tragic death.

Transcribed by:Jeanie Lowe



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Illinois Ancestors