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

From Flat Boat to the White House

Page 38

The first thing that Lincoln undertook worth mentioning and that started him on the way to the White House was his trip down the Sangamon on a flat boat loaded with produce. He was twenty-one years old at the time and dressed in buckskin trousers, butternut colored jeans coat checked shirt and straw hat. If the casual observer had been told that the young man was starting for the White House at Washington he would have probably said that the thing was impossible, but nevertheless such were the facts in the case for inside of that checked shirt and jeans coat was an honest, generous and noble heart and inside of that straw hat was a head filled with good sense and the good Lord had blessed him with an indomitable will, a sound body and a good pair of eyes. As soon as the boat started down stream he spied out snags, sand bars, over hanging trees, and other obstructions to navigation and remembered them, which secured for him the position of pilot on a steamboat which ran up the Sangamon river the next year. Lincoln's boat floated down the Sangamon, Illinois and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans, where he sold the boat and produce for a good price. He remained in New Orleans long enough to visit the slave market and to see husband and wives, parents and children torn from each other and separated perhaps forever. He remembered these things and turning to his companions said, "If ever I get a chance I will strike that thing and strike it hard," meaning the institution of slavery. The time did come to strike and the slaves were set free. He went to the steam-boat landing to take passage to St. Louis, but instead of paying $40 dollars for passage and spending his time drinking, smoking and playing cards, as the other young men did, he went to the captain and asked him if he needed another hand on the boat. The captain told him to come around the next day and he would employ him, so he got his passage free and made a nice sum of money besides. When he reached St. Louis he found that the Illinois river steamboat had just left and that there would not be another for several days. He left his luggage with his partner and went across the county to Coles county to visit his parents, but he did not stay long as he was anxious to return to Salem and turn over the money to the man who had shipped the produce. That transaction showed the people that he was honest and capable and he immediately received enough employment as clerk and was afterwards appointed postmaster and surveyor. This was another step towards the White House. The next spring he was looking over the papers and saw that a steamboat was coming up the Sangamon as far as Springfield. Learning that the boat would reach Beardstown, Mr. Lincoln set out on foot for that place and when the steamer "The Talisman" landed and threw out her plank, he was the first person to step aboard. He offered his services to pilot the boat up the Sangamon telling the captain that he had navigated that stream in a flat boat and that he knew where all the obstructions were. So he was secured to pilot the boat to Springfield and back for $30. The running of a steamboat up the Sangamon River caused great excitement in Springfield and the country around., At that time no railroads had been built and the merchants and farmers had to haul their goods and produce to St. Louis-a distance of ninety-five miles. It took from ten days to two weeks to make the trip, but now they were to have a market at their door. When the legislature a few years before had passed a law declaring the Sangamon navigable, little was thought of it. Now Lincoln had taken a flat boat down stream and brought a steamboat up which demonstrated the fact to a certainty that the Sangamon was a navigable stream. Great crowds of people from all parts of the country came to see the steamboat as few had ever seen one. The steamer laid at the wharf at Springfield for more than a week and during that time Lincoln was the hero of the occasion. He got acquainted with more people during that week than he could have in three months traveling around the country. It was on this occasion that his friends brought him out for the legislature.

There was another circumstance connected with running the steamboat up the Sangamon that benefited Mr. Lincoln. It induced almost every man who had land on the river above high water to lay it out in town lots and Lincoln soon got some fat jobs in surveying. Mr. Lincoln had become very popular with the people and had been so fair and honorable in his dealing and would no doubt have been elected if the democrats had not put up grand old Peter Cartright, the Methodist circuit rider and camp meeting orator. Cartright had the advantage because he had preached in every church and schoolhouse and had lived in the county six years longer than Lincoln. He also had the advantage as he was forty-seven years old and Lincoln was only twenty-three. Cartright had already served a term in the legislature and was one of the best members of that body. Therefore the people sent him back with a small majority over Lincoln. That was the only time that Lincoln was ever beaten for office by the people, and the only time that Cartright was beaten was when he ran for Congress against Lincoln in 1846. I notice in Cartright's autobiography he fails to mention that he ever ran for congress. The only reason that I can account for it is that Uncle Peter always came out ahead in all of his anecdotes and incidents and he did not want posterity to know that he was ever beaten. It was unfortunate for the people that both of these noble men could not have been elected. Peter Cartright was an Andrew Jackson democrat and Lincoln was a Henry Clay whig.

Again I want to emphasize that it was Lincoln's first trip to New Orleans in a flat boat that was the first round on the ladder that lead to the Presidents chair. If he had not gone to new Orleans he would not have seen husbands and wives and little children separated a the auction block and it is not likely that his great heart would ever have been fired with a deathly hatred of slavery. Then if he had never gone down to New Orleans with a flat boat he would never have piloted that steamboat up the Sangamon to Springfield. It was this incident that put him on the track for the legislature. Logically that step lead him on to congress, then to fight with Douglas for a seat in the senate, and then, with a triumphal march to the presidential chair. It was all step by step up the ladder of fame from the flat boat to the highest office-the gift of the people-president of the United States.

Transcribed by:Rajean Gallagher



1902 Index

Copyright 2007 Jeanie Lowe & contributors
All rights reserved
Illinois Ancestors