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

Anecdotes of Lincoln

Page 71

There are many incidents in the early life of Lincoln which have never appeared in print. The unwritten history, which the people of Old Salem are acquainted with and which will be handed down by tradition, and most of the incidents which we relate we know or heard old settlers relate.

The early settlers of Menard (though it was Sangamon then) were comprised of two classes. The first class was made up of good men of excellent morals, who came to the country to make a home for themselves and children. Their first effort (after building the cabins) was to look after the social and religious welfare of the people. They were the law abiding citizens, who laid the foundation on which their children built. These men never took part in the drunken brawls and fights which the people who formed the second class always engaged in. The first class were always respected even by the rowdies.

The second class were more in favor of a physical specimen of manhood and while they at their homes were good neighbors, kind and accommodating, when they went to town or before they got in town the devil got into them and they were ready for a fight. I recollect one time of seeing about a dozen of them just ready to start home. They were on their horses and trying to pull each other off when Little John Wiseman said to Greasy George Miller - "George, you have torn my shirt." "Yes," said George, "and I can tear your hide too." That was enough. They all got down and hitched their horses and formed a ring and the crowd all stopped to see fair play. The two combatants shook hands and then stepped back eight or ten feet and at the word "go" rushed at each other. These fights only differed from the prize fights that are being fought weekly in our cities in one respect. A prize fight is fought according to rules, while the Old Salem battles had no rules. They were strike, gouge, bite, kick, anyway to win.

But to come back to the early settlement of Salem, south of Salem there was a settlement called Wolf and it goes by that name yet because its people were a little wolfish in their make-up. West of Salem were Clary's Grove and Little Grove, the Green, Armstrong and Watkins neighborhoods. North of Salem before Petersburg had come into prominence were Concord, Sand Ridge and east of the Sangamon were New Market, Sugar Grove, Indian Point and Athens. All of these communities met at Salem every Saturday to trade and to hear what was going on in the different localities. It was about this time that Lincoln was pursuing the occupation of surveyor in Salem though he clerked in a grocery store a short time before. He was a quiet soul. His first employment was on the brow of the hill where the three trees grow out of the cellar. Gov. Palmer said at the Old Salem Chautauqua that Lincoln planted these trees. This is a mistake. Thousands who know better believe that the trees cannot be over twenty-five years old. The building had been torn away for forty years. In a short time the boys began to size up "Uncle Abe" and concluded to try his metal, so they consulted and made him an alternative. First he was to run a foot race was a man from Wolf. "Trot him out," said Abe. Second he was to wrestle with a man from Little Grove. "All right," said Abe. Third, he must fight a man from Sand Ridge. "Nothing wrong about that," said Abe.

An expert foot racer from Wolf was distanced in the race. After a few minutes rest a Little Grove man stripped for the wrestle. "What holds do you prefer?" "Suit yourself," said Abe. "Catch-as-catch-can," said the man from the Grove. They stood about twenty feet apart and went at each other like two rams. Abe's opponent was a short, heavy set fellow and came with his head down expecting to butt Abe and upset him, but Abe was not built that way. He stepped aside and caught the fellow by the nap of the neck, threw him heels over head and gave him a fall hard enough to break every bone in his body. This woke the boys up and they retired again to consult. Abe was now getting mad. "Bring in your man from Sand Ridge," said he. "I can do him up in three shakes of a sheep's tail, and I can whip the whole pack of you if you give me ten minutes between fights." The committee now came forward and gave him the right hand of fellowship and said, "You have sand in your craw and we will take you into our crowd as you are worthy to associate with us." From that time on Abe was king among them. His word was law. He was their judge in horse and foot races and all of them would have fought for him if Abe had shown the "white feather."

Lincoln never drank liquor of any kind and never chewed or smoked. We never heard him swear, though Judge Weldon said at the Salem Chautauqua that once in his life when excited he said, "By Jing."

Amusements in those early days were confined to playing marbles and in pitching quoits. The quoits were flat rocks in which the country abounded. Marbles were Abe's best hold. Many times did I gather up the marbles as he scattered them in all directions.

Bowling Green, a justice of the peace, lived a half mile north of Salem. He took a liking to Lincoln. He lent him his law books and encouraged him to read law. My father kept the log tavern from 1832 to 1835 and he with Bowling Green probably had as much to do with the shaping of the destiny of Lincoln as any other men in Salem.

Bowling Green was a large, fleshy man and weighed 300 pounds, in 1843. He went to spend a Sunday evening with a neighbor, named Bennett Able, and while there had a stroke of apoplexy and fell dead. It was in the winter time. He was buried on the hill-side just north of his home. In the spring the Masons came down from Springfield one Sunday, uncovered the grave and had their ceremonies. Lincoln was the orator of the occasion. He referred to Green as the friend of his early youth and told how much he owed to the men over whose grave they stood.

Lincoln moved to Springfield in 1837 and was soon the head of the bar. All lawyers in those days were intellectual giants. We asked Robert Lincoln a few years ago if the lawyers of Chicago compared with those in his father's time. He said: "No. All the good lawyers are now retained by railroads and corporations and do not practice in lower courts." Lincoln practiced in Menard County until he was elected president. It was like a reunion when he came. His friends would surround him and he would call them by their given names. It was John, Bill, Joe and so on. His power before a Menard County jury was irresistible, though he had to contend with Baker, Logan, Stewart, Edwards, McConnell, Douglass and Hardin. His style of oratory was grand beyond description. He would first lay the foundation and then build the structure and leave no part unguarded. Then he would carry everything before him. He was no bulldozer and never took advantage of his opponent. He seemed unconscious of his power. It appeared as if a mighty pent-up body of matter was let loose, and as if some terrible cyclone was tearing through the forest. Everything gave way to his splendid eloquence. It was in these early days that he fitted himself, like Moses and David, for the grand work he was to perform in after years.

Transcribed by:Brenda Hamilton Johnson



1902 Index

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Illinois Ancestors