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

Lincoln as Postmaster at Salem

Page 87

Samuel Hill was the first postmaster at Salem, Sangamon County, Ill. He was a merchant and kept the largest stock of goods in town. Whisky was among the goods and wares that were for sale in his store. Mr. Hill was a democrat and had received the appointment of postmaster under the administration of Andrew Jackson. The postoffice was in the same building and the same room where the goods were kept. The whisky was in the same room also. It was the custom in those times for most all of the merchants to sell whisky as they did sugar, coffee and tea. It was also the custom of the women in the town as well as in the country to go to the postoffice to get the mail for the family and there were often complaints made by them that they were compelled to wait an unreasonable length of time to get their mail. They stated that if a customer came into the store to get a gallon of whisky they would have to wait until the whisky was drawn before they were given their mail, and that, there was string competition among the merchants for the whisky business, but none in the postoffice business. So the people had to wait for their mail and they became disappointed with the way that Hill was running the postoffice and they got up a petition to have him put out and Mr. Lincoln appointed in his place. The petition was signed by the majority of the patrons of the office. At that time politics cut but little figure in the appointments of postmasters in small towns. The petition had to have the endorsement and recommendation of some postmaster who was known and well known at the department at Washington. The petition in question was sent by O. M. Ross, who was then postmaster at Havana. He was one of the oldest and best known postmasters in that part of the country, having been the first postmaster in Lewistown, which office he held until he moved to Havana. Upon examination he found that the petition was signed by some of the best known men in Salem. Ross himself knew Lincoln, so he sent the petition to Washington with the recommendation that Mr. Lincoln be appointed postmaster at Salem. About five weeks after the petition was sent to Washington, Mr. Lincoln received his appointment. At that time there were no railroads and it took a long time to get a letter to Washington and have the answer sent.

The duties at a postoffice in those early pioneer days were quite different from what they are at the present time and the work was much more laborious. For instance, a book had to be kept in which all letters sent from the office had to be registered, giving the name of the postoffice from which they wee received, the postoffice to which they were sent, the date and the amount of postage due on each letter and then a bill was made out to correspond with the register and sent with the letter. In those times we had no envelopes. A letter had to be wrapped in a piece of wrapping paper and tied with a piece of twine. Then a copy of those registered letters had to be drawn off every three months and sent to the department at Washington. This was called the postmaster's quarterly returns. It was a great deal of work. At that time there were no gold or steel pens and all the writing had to be done with a quill plucked from a turkey or goose. The postage on a letter at that time in the United States was 6 , 12 , 18 or 25 cents, according to the distance they were sent. All letters sent across the ocean were from 37 to 50 cents. No postage was paid on the letters when they left the office but was collected when the letter was delivered.

After Mr. Lincoln had kept the postoffice about two years in Salem the county of Sangamon was divided and the county of Menard formed. The county seat was located at Petersburg, which was two miles north of Salem, and soon after that was done the postoffice was removed to Petersburg. As Mr. Lincoln wanted the house and lot where he kept the postoffice he did not feel disposed to pull up stakes and go t Petersburg, so he resigned. He remained at Salem, keeping the house, which he had used for the postoffice, for a law office and lodging place.

At the time that Lincoln kept the postoffice in Salem, O. M. Ross had the contract of carrying the mail from Lewistown to Springfield twice a week. The postoffices between the two places wee Havana, Salem, Athens and Sangamon. The way he received his pay for the service was to receive a draft from the department at Washington, on the different offices on the route, and as Harvey was the mail carrier, these drafts were given to him to collect. He would have to call on some of the postmasters, ad may as three and four times before they could pay, but it was not so with Mr. Lincoln. He always had the money ready to pay as soon as the drafts were presented. He kept the postoffice money in a blue stocking laid away in a chest under the counter. When the drafts were presented he would unlock the chest, take out the blue stocking, pour out the money on the counter and commence to count it. It was all 6 , 12 , 25 and 50 cent pieces, just the same money that he had taken in.

When Mr. Lincoln resigned the office of postmaster at Salem, he had in his possession some 50 dollars, which was due the postoffice department. This money he kept ready to had over whenever called upon by the proper agent. In those times it was the custom for the department at Washington to send out an agent every year to look after the western offices and to settle up with the postmasters and carriers. Some several months after Lincoln had sent in his resignation, the agent called upon him for a settlement. When he called Mr. Lincoln was in his law office. When the agent presented the account Mr. Lincoln looked at it and presumed that it was all right, and went behind the counter and opened the chest and took the blue stocking from it. He poured the money on the counter and commenced to count it. It consisted of 6 , 12 , 25 and 50-cent pieces just the same money that he had received for postage. When the money was counted it agreed to a cent with the account that the agent presented. After they had settled and the money as paid over the agent remarked to Mr. Lincoln, "Now, Mr. Lincoln, you might as well have used that money as to have it wrapped up in that stocking and laid away in you chest where it could do no good." Mr. Lincoln straightened himself up and, looking the agent square in the face, said: "No, sir, I never make use of money that does not belong to me." Now that saying of Mr. Lincoln's "I never make use of money that does not belong to me," comes forcibly to my mind. How many men all over our land are today serving out terms in state prisons just because they did not adopt Mr. Lincoln's saying, "I never make use of money that does not belong to me."

Transcribed by:Brenda Hamilton Johnson



1902 Index

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Illinois Ancestors