Sunday, January 31, 2016

My Grandfather, Abraham Lincoln's Carpenter

In 1831, thirty years before he moved into the White House as the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln settled in the fledgling frontier village of New Salem nestled along the banks of Illinois' Sangamon River.

Only 22 years old when he arrived, Lincoln's six years in New Salem would play a formative role in nurturing his experience in business, law, and politics. During his short time in town he would encounter both professional failures and successes that would set him on his historic trajectory.

Arrival in New Salem
The story of Lincoln's arrival in New Salem highlights his nascent leadership abilities. While sailing down the Sangamon on his way to New Orleans his flatboat got stuck on the dam near New Salem's watermill.

Lincoln expertly directed his companions to unload the heavy cargo, righted the vessel, and safely nudged it through the predicament. After observing Lincoln's calm and considered fix under pressure, a local townsman offered him a job as a clerk in a soon-to-be-opened New Salem store. The job offer was enough to entice Lincoln to return and settle in the town.1

In 1832, my 5th great-grandparents Robert and Sarah (Elliott) Johnston along with their three children moved to New Salem from Kentucky. Robert was an expert craftsman, with particular expertise as a wheelwright, woodworker, and cabinetmaker.

Robert built a modest log home for his family and set up shop serving the needs of the small community. According to the State Historic Site for Lincoln's New Salem, he also "repaired furnishings and implements for local residents and made wooden gears for the two mills in town." Robert was the town's go-to craftsman; an indispensable role in the pre-Home Depot days.

Robert Johnston's New Salem home
Rebuilt in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps
Photo used with permission, courtesy of 50 Plus DC
Success and Failure
Earliest known image of Abraham Lincoln (1846).
Library of Congress, public domain
That same year, Lincoln returned to New Salem from military service in the Black Hawk War and made his first foray into politics. He ran for a seat with the Illinois General Assembly as a Whig Party candidate, but was defeated finishing a distant "eighth in a field of thirteen candidates."2

Lincoln set his political ambitions aside and took a turn as a businessman. He bought a stake in a general store that he co-owned and operated with William Berry. It was a difficult business and, over the years, the Berry-Lincoln store had two separate locations in New Salem. It was while operating the general store that Lincoln garnered his reputation as "Honest Abe" for his principled dealings with customers.

A piece of lore suggests that Lincoln mistakenly used the wrong counterweight when measuring out a customer's order for tea leaves on the scale. Later that evening, having realized that he had overcharged her, Lincoln walked the considerable distance to the customer's house to provide her with the balance of tea due.3

My own family has a piece of lore that has passed down through the years. A third great-granddaughter of Robert Johnston wrote, "That in our family it is known that Robert Johnston...built the counter and shelves in Abraham Lincoln's store."

Perhaps it seems obvious that such a role would fall to the town's sole woodworker, but to have the family history passed along suggests that the Johnston family remembered a specific connection to Lincoln and the work that Robert did in his shop. Regrettably, we don't know in which of Lincoln's stores Robert built the counter and shelves (perhaps both).

Lincoln lived in the back room of the general store. By candlelight, he would pour over law books late into the evening, building his understanding of the American legal system. Despite his book smarts and rapport with townsfolk, the general store business struggled as New Salem began to dwindle. Debt accumulated and eventually, as Lincoln recalled, "the store winked out."4

Lincoln's study of the law no doubt helped him to win political victory in 1834, finally securing a seat in the Illinois General Assembly as the representative for Sangamon County. Two years later he earned his license to practice law and left the dying village of New Salem for Springfield where his political fortunes continued to rise.

The Johnston family would remain in New Salem for several more years. They were devout Cumberland Presbyterians, and it was remembered that "Mrs. Johnston often experienced a common spiritual exercise called the shakes."What a colorful piece of history to have documented about an ancestor!

Some family histories suggest that Robert was an ardent Whig, "who voted, always, for Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, and that platform of government, which favored commerce, and building national waterways and highways."6

This same family history hints at the unfortunate demise of New Salem. The river eventually dried up bringing shipping to a halt and devastated the economy. Many townsfolk owed money to Robert who in turn owed money to the local storekeeper. Robert sued to try and collect the monies owed to him, but without any success. Like everyone else, the Johnstons gave up on the village and left.

I don't know what became of them. I don't know where Robert or Sarah Johnston lived out their final days or where they were buried. Their daughter, my 4th great-grandmother Amanda (Johnston) Hawks, recalled her father's service in the War of 1812 and that he was part of a line of dedicated American veterans, but didn't divulge their final whereabouts.

The memory of New Salem was one of hardship, and pride in having been carpenter for one of America's most cherished men before he was a legend.

1Lincoln's New Salem 1830-1837
2"Lincoln Chronology." National Park Service.
3"A Tour of Abraham Lincoln's New Salem." Illinois Channel TV.
4Lincoln, Abraham. (2012). The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln. Philip Van Doren Stern (Ed.). Random House.
5Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site.
6Robert M. Johnston Genealogy. My Family Online.

No comments:

Post a Comment