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Stage-set History

Lincoln’s New Salem (we think)

See Illinois (unpublished)


Not much more than a tourist brochure with pretensions, I suppose—if the tourist brochures were better. New Salem is an interesting place, less because of what it isn't, and what is was meant to be. 


Readers curious to learn more about what is was should consult Benjamin P. Thomas’s Lincoln’s New Salem. Published in 1934, a revised edition was put out by the Southern Illinois University Press in 1988. Out-dated in some respects—archeologists have added considerably to the record about the place since the 1930s—the book remains what critic and historian John Hallwas calls the a “superb achievement” and “a stylistic gem.” (Thomas, remember, also was the author of what was for many years considered the best one-volume biography of Lincoln.)


Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site is some 20 miles northwest of Springfield, on a bluff overlooking the Sangamon River valley. It attracts the most visitors of all of Illinois’s state-owned historic sites; in the mid-1990s some 600,000 visitors a year plodded through it, which was fully a fifth of all the traffic at Illinois’s more than 50 state-owned historic sites. Clearly there is something special about the place, even allowing for the fact that many of those thousands of visitors are schoolchildren dragooned for outings. Certainly, New Salem is popular with teachers, who can let their charges run wild without fear of breaking a mood, as at his tomb, or a chair, as at his house.


Before it was an historic site, New Salem was a village. It sprouted almost overnight, in 1828, and flourished for about ten years, at its peak achieving a population of not quite three hundred inhabitants. Lincoln arrived there in the summer of 1831 at the age of 22, in what was his first foray into the world as an adult. While a New Salemite he clerked in Dennis Offut’s grocery store and enlisted to fight in the Black Hawk War, both for money more than adventure. Upon his return from the fighting in 1832, he asked the village’s voters if he might represent them in the state legislature; they said no. He ran again and won in 1834 and was re-elected two years later.


The more colorful incidents from Lincoln’s time there—the wrestling matches with the Clary Grove boys, the walking to borrow books—have proved irresistible to novelists, poets, and filmmakers. None looms larger that the supposed romance between Lincoln and Ann Rutledge. In 1832, Lincoln boarded for a time at James Rutledge’s tavern, where he became acquainted with the proprietor’s 19-year-old daughter Ann. A smitten Lincoln, who at that point had dared no romance with a woman, withheld his suit because Ann was betrothed to another man. Her engagement was doomed, unfortunately, and so was Ann. She fell ill with fever and died at 22, leaving Lincoln, some intimates said, forever scarred.


Ann appeared on the stage with Lincoln for the first time in William Herndon’s 1888 biography of Lincoln. Herndon based the tale on recollections of neighbors and friends. Evidence so long after the event was held suspect, as were Herndon’s motives in collecting it; many assumed he concocted or at least dramatized the incident to belittle Lincoln’s widow Mary, whom he loathed.


Accurately or not, Ann—she is on a first-name basis with almost everyone these days—is widely recalled as Lincoln’s Lost Love. As such she has attained a posthumous stature that rivals that of Lincoln’s wife. (Tourists can ride into central Illinois aboard an Amtrak train named the Ann Rutledge; there is not so much as a bus named after Mary Todd.) Her grave is in the nearby town of Petersburg, to whose tourism industry she is as essential as Lincoln is to Springfield’s. Springfield was for years divided into pro- and anti-Ann factions, which coincided almost perfectly with the long-standing anti- and pro-Mary Todd factions; when Edgar Lee Masters poo-poohed the Ann Rutledge story in his 1931 biography Lincoln: The Man, pro-Anns demanded that the quotation from his Spoon River that had been carved into her new headstone in Oakland Cemetery be expunged.


Historians remain more circumspect about Ann; most concede that the couple probably had a relationship, but its intensity or the permanence of its effect on Lincoln remain matters of speculation. It hardly matters. As historian Benjamin Thomas wrote resignedly, “It has be­come part of American folklore, and popular opinion re­sents any effort to disprove it.”


The young Lincoln had a future. New Salem, alas, did not, and in April of 1837, he left the village for a law career in the capital city, eighteen miles away. Meanwhile, nearby Petersburg sucked commerce out of New Salem. The village was soon abandoned, its presence betrayed only by foundation stones, forgotten by all but local historians until the 1870s. It was then that biographers—Ward Hill Lamon, Herndon, Ida Tarbell—began to explain Lincoln in terms of his heredity and early social environment.


It was not only biographers who became fascinated with New Salem. Publisher William Randolph Hearst had an abiding interest in Lincoln and bought the New Salem site in 1906. Hearst conveyed it in trust to the Old Salem Chautauqua Association, which in turn conveyed it to the State of Illinois in 1919, with the intention of seeing it made a memorial to Lincoln’s early years.


Much of the reconstruction of the town and its buildings was done by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The research that guided the CCC’s work was fastidious by the standards of the day. The work drew on land surveys, real estate records, maps, and the recollections of the still-living residents. Cabin sites were determined—old cellars and foundation stones helped here—after which the buildings themselves were recreated. How much the result looks like the village Lincoln knew is impossible to say. The only indisputably authentic elements of the reconstruction were a few pieces of original furniture that were donated by descendants of Lincoln’s old neighbors, and the shell of the Onstot cooper shop, which had been moved to Petersburg and was reassembled in 1922 on its original site.


The reconstructed New Salem inevitably has an air of the stage set, and indeed the first version of the modern village was exactly that. In 1917, Petersburg’s Old Salem Lincoln League organized a pageant depicting episodes in Lincoln’s life as part of the state’s centennial celebrations, and as a backdrop for the show erected cabins on the sites of three stores, a tavern, and a house. Plainly inauthentic, these cabins were subsequently torn down. The 1930s version of the village that stands today looks authentic enough to have served as backdrop for made-for-TV movies set in the period.


As a center for historic interpretation, there is no place in Illinois quite like New Salem. It is an ongoing exposition of 19th century village life in Illinois, offering visitors a chance to witness such events as a mustering of the local militia complete with a parade, marching drills, and weapons demonstrations. Visitors not only watch such demonstrations, they can get hands-on experience in workshops designed to teach them about the day-to-day life of Illinois’s pioneer settlers—how to make wooden wall sconces, candle lanterns, or stick chairs, how to cook over an open-hearth, how to make straw hats and weave cloth, even how to divine the secrets in the bumps on people’s heads.


Keeping the show going requires the help of dozens of volunteers from the area. It is hard work. Not pioneer housewife faced a chore as daunting as docenting on a typical spring day, when as many as 70 school buses disgorge children whose energy often exceeds their curiosity. Visitors may not always get a feel for frontier life but the site interpreters often do; cabins are not heated, and on colder days never get as warm as 50 degrees even with a fire roaring in the hearth.


Docents are volunteers. So are the farmers who work the fields with horse teams, and the craftsmen who demonstrate such traditional nineteenth-century arts and crafts as rope-making, tin-smithing, and the manufacture of rifles and powder horns. Area sheep even donate to the project, in the form of wool used by village spinners in their demonstrations.


At New Salem, those who can are expected to teach. The site is an ongoing workshop in the arcane arts of the historic site interpreter. In lectures and workshops, experts offer tips on sprinkling an interpretation with 1830s phrases and the proper use of period accents. Larger issues are ventilated here too. Should the priority of a recreated site be education or economics? Entertainment or enlightenment? Who decides? Does history—and this is a particularly knotty question at sites owned by the taxpayers, as New Salem is—belong to the people or the professionals? A recent former director of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which runs New Salem, liked to remind people that such sites were competing with Disneyland, Wisconsin resorts, casino boats, and the like. “You can’t have display boxes [at his­toric sites] anymore,” she told a reporter, “and expect people to go home thrilled.” But are thrills what visitors to an historic site should expect?


Authenticity may be more appropriate than excitement, but it is no easier to pull off. Visitors’ 21st century experience colors their perceptions of the 19th. The typical tourist tends to see the hearth as a fireplace, not a cook stove, the oxcart as a theme park ride, not a truck. To take visitors closer to the actual, the experts use two basic approaches. One approach derives from the lecture platform, in which an expert in the form of a guide simply instructs the visitor on what she sees. The other approach is modeled on the theatrical stage. Interpreters dress in periodic costume and affect period speech and mannerisms; in the fully developed versions they interact with the public in character. (Interpreters at the Lincoln Log Cabin State Park, eight miles south of Charleston in east-central Illinois, portray members of the Lincoln family and neighbors on a daily basis during the summer months, doing daily activities common to an 1840s farm and talking to visitors in a period dialect.) New Salem’s site managers in recent years have used a blend of the two that they call “interpretive theater,” in which first- and third-person interpretation is combined with re-enact­ments of such events from New Salem’s past as weddings and temperance sermons.


While it might be possible, within reasonable limits, to recreate New Salem as a place, it is harder to recreate New Salem as an experience. The modern version is lacking the dirt, the pestilential insects, the near-constant stink of smoke and dung that typified the original. Even with more faithful attention paid to such detail, the visitors would still be mere spectators. The village would be a more accurate sort of museum diorama, but still a diorama.


New Salem may not look exactly as it did in 1830s but it does look exactly as it did in the 1950s and the 1970s. The illusion of changelessness, of a place outside time, is one of the place’s more appealing traits but it is perhaps the least authentic of all the impressions one takes from New Salem, since the village’s own history illustrates just how evanescent was life on the frontier. Travel writer Bill Bryson visited in the late 1980s and found the faux village “impossibly quaint and appealing.” He adds what charmed visitors so often overlook, which is that if life there was in fact so appealing, New Salem would still be a real town and not a simulacrum of one. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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