282. Robert B. Rutledge to William H. Herndon.
[ca. November 1, 1866]
Believing that any authentic statements connected with the early life and history of the beloved Abraham Lincoln should belong to the great American people, I submit the following replies to the interrogatories contained in your recent letter. I trust largely to your courtesy as a gentleman, to your honesty and integrity as a historian, and to your skill in writing for the public, to enlarge wherever my statements seem obscure, and to condense and remove whatever seems superfluous. Above all I trust to your honor and your sense of right and consistency, to exclude from print anything which in your judgment may injuriously affect the surviving actors in the great drama which you propose to re-enact once more.
Many of my statements are made from memory with the aid of association of events; and should you discover that the date, location and circumstances, of the events here named should be contradictory to those named from other sources, I beg you to consider well the testimony in each case, and make up your history from those statements, which may appear to you best fitted to remove all doubt as to their correctness.
You ask 1st When did you first become acquainted with Lincoln, where was it, and what was he doing?
I answer. In the year 1830 or 1831 in the town of New Salem Illinois. He was at that time a clerk in the store of Denton Offatt having just returned with Offatt from New Orleans with whom he had gone on a flat boat as a hand to that city. At that time he boarded with John Cameron, a partner of my father in laying out
382the town of New Salem, and in building a mill on the Sangamon river. At that period New Salem was a small village of not more than ten or fifteen families, who lived in log cabins, and who were as sociable and familiar as persons are, who find themselves thus isolated from the great world outside. The mill was a saw and grist mill — was the first one built on the Sangamon river, and supplied a large section of country with its meal, flour and lumber. At times when it was necessary to construct a dam to afford the proper water power, word would be sent through the neighborhood and the people would come ten and fifteen miles en masse, and assist gratuitously in the work.
On such occasions Mr Lincoln was ever ready to work with his stalwart hand, and to assist in constructing or repairing the dams or mill, raising houses in the village &c, and this too when he had no personal interest in the success of the enterprise.
This is mentioned here as an illustration of the generosity and nobleness of the settlers at that early day. It also shows an element of the character of the people among whom Mr. Lincoln received his first impressions and may assist in proving that he was then, and why he always appeared afterwards, one of the people, and an ardent sympathizer with the masses.
It has been stated that Mr Offatt owend or had an interest in the mill and that Mr Lincoln was employed to assist in taking care of the new enterprise. This is a mistake — James Rutledge and John Cameron partners, first commenced erecting a mill on Concord creek about six miles below New Salem, where they owned the land, but large inducements being offered and the proprietors fearing a scarcity of water removed to New Salem in 1828 and built the mill and laid out the town. Neither Mr Lincoln or Mr Offatt had any pecuniary interest in it. It belonged solely to Rutledge and Cameron and Mr Lincoln only assisted in repairing it as other neighbors did, gratuitously. He was at this time the clerk of Mr Offatt who Kept a general country store including dry-goods, groceries, and all the varieties which belong to such an establishment
You ask 2nd Did he board with you — Your father and family — how long — when — and all about it.
On Mr Lincolns arrival at New Salem he boarded with John Cameron along with Offatt. He afterwards boarded with my father, during the years 1833 & 1834 as appears, from papers still in possession of the family. I am satisfied he boarded with us both prior and subsequent to the years named, but so long a time has intervened that I cannot fix the date with precise certainty.
You ask 3rd. In regard to my father and the family.
My father was born in South Carolina, removed to Kentucky and from thence to White Co Illinois in 1816. The first three children Jane, John and Ann were born in Kentucky, the later six were born in Illinois — David. Robert, Nancy and Margaret born in White Co, and William and Sarah in Sangamon Co. My father removed to Sangamon Co in 1825 and died in Menard Co which was formerly a part of Sangamon Co Decr 3rd 1835
4th You make some pertinent inquiries concerning my sister and the relations
383which existed between herself and Mr Lincoln. My sister Ann was born January 7th 1813 and died August 25th 1835. She was born in Kentucky and died in Menard Co Ills. In 1830 my sister being then but 17 years of age a stranger calling himself John McNeil came to New Salem. He boarded with Mr Cameron and was keeping a store with a Samuel Hill. A friendship grew up between McNeil and Ann which ripened apace and resulted in an engagement to marry — McNeil's real name was McNamar. It seems that his father had failed in business and his son, a very young man had determined to make a fortune, pay off his father's debts and restore him to his former social and financial standing. With this view he left his home clandestinely, and in order to avoid pursuit by his parents changed his name. His conduct was strictly hightoned, honest and moral, and his object, whatever any may think of the deception which he practised in changing his name, entirely praiseworthy.
He prospered in business and pending his engagement with Ann, he revealed his true name, returned to Ohio to relieve his parents from their embarrassments, and to bring the family with him to Illinois. On his return to Ohio, several years having elapsed, he found his father in declining health or dead, and perhaps the circumstances of the family prevented his immediate return to New Salem. At all events he was absent two or three years.
In the mean time Mr Lincoln paid his addresses to Ann, continued his visits and attentions regularly and those resulted in an engagement to marry, conditional to an honorable release from the contract with McNamar. There is no kind of doubt as to the existence of this engagement David Rutledge urged Ann to consummate it, but she refused until such time as she could see McNamar — inform him of the change in her feelings, and seek an honorable release.
Mr Lincoln lived in the village, McNamar did not return and in August 1835 Ann sickened and died. The effect upon Mr Lincoln's mind was terrible; he became plunged in despair, and many of his friends feared that reason would desert her throne. His extraordinary emotions were regarded as strong evidence of the existence of the tenderest relations between himself and the deceased. McNamar however, returned to Illinois in the fall after Ann's death.
5th. Ann was as before stated 17 years old in 1830. My age at the same time was 12. She went to school to Minter Graham, who was a successful and popular teacher, in 1832 and 1833. My sister was esteemed the brightest mind of the family, was studious, devoted to her duties of whatever character, and possessed a remarkably amiable and lovable disposition. She had light hair and blue eyes.
6th Question — I have already written you in relation to my acquaintance with Samuel Hill, Offatt, Green & others. Perhaps too much credit is awarded William Green for Mr Lincoln's Knowledge of grammar. Mr Lincoln clerked for Offatt in 1831 & 1832. James Rutledge owend an interest in a grocery in New Salem — a remnant of a stock belonging to Rutledge and Sinco.
384Berry. Mr Lincoln only had possession a very short time and never gave it his personal attention. He soon sold out to Berry — who gave his note to Lincoln for the amount, who paid Rutledge with Berry's note Soon after Berry failed and after awhile Lincoln came to Rutledge and Made him a tender to pay half the note. This Rutledge utterly refused to accept from Mr L, alleging that he had taken Berry's note for the debt and if he could not make it out of him, he would not accept it at all. About this time Mr Lincoln was employed in surveying, he having learned the science, and being engaged in a good business in the profession.
7th My father moved to and laid out the town of New Salem in the summer of 1829. I moved in 1836 with my mother and elder brother from Menard Co to Fulton Co Illinois, and from thence in the fall of 1837 to Van Buren Co Iowa. My father was born in South Carolina May 11th 1781, and died in Menard Co Illinois December 3rd 1835, being about 54 years of age.
8th I cannot give you a satisfactory reply to many items embraced in this inquiry for the lack of dates or circumstances corroborating them. Many things said of him and done by him are indellibly fixed in my mind but the absence of the proper surroundings impels me to withhold them.
Mr Lincoln studied Kirkham's Grammar — the valuable copy which he delighted to peruse is now in my possession.
His enjoyment of a joke was very intense; and all that has been said in truth of his disposition is no exaggeration.
About the year 1832 or 1833 Mr Lincoln made his first effort at public speaking. A debating club of which James Rutledge was President was organized and held regular meetings — as he arose to speak his tall form towered above the little assembly. Both hands were thrust down deep in the pockets of his pantaloons. A perceptible smile at once lit up the faces of the audience for all anticipated the relation of some humorous story. But he opened up the discussion in splendid style to the infinite astonishment of his friends. As he warmed with his subject his hands would forsake his pockets and would enforce his ideas by awkward gestures; but would very soon seek their easy resting place. He pursued the question with reason and argument so pithy and forcible that all were amazed. The President at his fireside after the meeting remarked to his wife that there was more in Abe's head
385than wit and fun, that he was already a fine speaker; that all he lacked was culture to enable him to reach the high destiny which he Knew was in store for him. From that time Mr Rutledge took a deeper interest in him.
Soon after Mr Rutledge urged him to announce himself as a candidate for the Legislature. This he at first declined to do, averring that it was impossible to be elected. It was suggested that a canvass of the County would bring him prominently before the people and in time would do him good. He reluctantly yielded to the solicitations of his friends and made a partial canvass. The result, though he was defeated was highly gratifying to him and astonished even his most ardent admirers.
At the next election he was placed as a candidate for Assembly on the regular Whig ticket, and was triumphantly elected in a district profoundly Democratic.
In illustration of his goodness and nobleness of heart, the following incident is related:
"Ab Trout," a poor barefooted boy was engaged one cold winter day in chopping a pile of logs from an old house or stable which had been pulled down. The wood was dry and hard and the boy was hard at work, when Lincoln came up and asked what he got for the job, and what he would do with the money? "Ab" said $1.00 and pointing to his naked feet said, "A pair of shoes." Abe told him to go in and warm and he would chop a while for him. The boy delayed a little, but Lincoln finished the work, threw down his axe and told him to go and buy the shoes.
In the early times of which we write an appeal was often made to physical strength to settle controversies. To illustrate this feature of the society in which Mr Lincoln was mingling it may be well to relate an incident.
Two neighbors, Henry Clark and Ben Wilcox had had a lawsuit. The defeated declared that although he was beaten in the suit, he could whip his opponent. This was a formal challenge and was at once carried to the ears of the victor — Wilcox
and as promptly accepted. The time, place and seconds were chosen with due regularity — Mr Lincoln being Clark's and John Brewer Wilcox's second. The parties met, stripped themselves all but their breeches, went in and Mr Lincoln's principal was beautifully whipped. These combats were conducted with as much ceremony and punctiliousness as ever graced the duelling ground. After the conflict the seconds conducted their respective principals to the river washed off the blood, and assisted them to dress. During this performance, the second of the party opposed to Mr Lincoln remarked — "Well Abe, my man has whipped yours, and I can whip you." Now this challenge came from a man who was very small in size.
386Mr Lincoln agreed to fight provided he would "chalk out his size on Mr Lincoln's person, and every blow struck outside of that mark should be counted foul". After this sally there was the best possible humor and all parties were as orderly as if they had been engaged in the most harmless amusement.
In all matters of dispute about horse-racing or any of the popular pastimes of the day, Mr Lincoln's Judgement was final to all that region of country. People relied implicitly upon his honesty, integrity, and impartiality.
Very soon after Mr Lincolns coming to New Salem and while clerking for Offatt, Offatt made a bet with William Clary that Abe could throw down in a wrestle any man in the county. This bet was taken, and Jack Armstrong, a rough, and the best fighter in Sangamon, was pitted against him. The match took place in front of Offatt's store. All the men of the village and quite a number from the surrounding country were assembled Armstrong was a man in the prime of life, square built, muscular and strong as an ox. The contest began and Jack soon found so worthy an antagonist that he "broke his holt," caught Abe by the leg, and would have brought him to the ground, had not Mr Lincoln seized him by the throat and thrust him at arms length from him. Jack having played foul, there was every prospect of a general fight. At this time James Rutledge having heard of the dificulty, ran into the crowd and through the influence which he exerted over all parties, succeeded in quieting the disturbance and preventing a fight.
His physical strength proved of vast utility to him in his many arduous labors, up to the time he became President, and a man of less iron frame, would have sunk under the enormous burdens laid upon him during four years, marked by Executive cares that have no parallel in history.
After this wrestling match Jack Armstrong and his crowd became the warmest friends and staunchest supporters of Mr Lincoln.
This Jack Armstrong was father of the boy, who was some years afterwards arrested and tried for the murder of young Metzger,
Mr Lincoln never forgot the friends with whom he was associated in early life. Soon after his nomination for the Presidency, some grand-children of James Rutledge circulated the report that Mr Lincoln had left their grandfathers house without paying his board bill. These boys were reared under copperhead influences and continued in the faith during the war. This slanderous report reached the ears of Mrs Rutledge widow of James Rutledge and whom he always called "Aunt Polly". She took immediate steps to correct the infamous libel and caused a letter to be written Mr Lincoln. Mr Lincoln at once wrote Mrs Rutledge expressing his thanks for her Kindness and the interest manifested in his behalf, recurring with warm expressions of remembrance to the many happy days spent under her roof.
While Mr Lincoln was engaged in surveying he wore jeans pantaloons "foxed" or covered on the forepart and below the Knees behind with buckskin. This added
387to the warmth, protected against rain and rendered them more durable in performing the labor necessary to his calling. His other clothing was such as worn by all the inhabitants of the village.
Trials of strength were very common among the pioneers. Lifting weights, as heavy timbers piled one upon another was a favorite pastime, and no workman in the neighborhood could at all cope with Mr Lincoln in this direction. I have seen him frequently take a barrel of whiskey by the chimes and lift it up to his face as if to drink out of the bung-hole.
This feat he could accomplish with the greatest ease. I never saw him taste or drink a drop of any kind of spiritous liquors
I am Very Respectfully
R. B. Rutledge
I have omitted an incident in the early life of Mr Lincoln which I will here relate
The only man who was ever successful in bringing Lincoln to the ground in a wrestle was Lorenzo D Thompson, a very large and powerful man. This match took place at Beardstown Ills, the general rendezvous while waiting for orders to march against Black Hawk and his warriors — In this match Lincoln was taken by surprise and in the first trial Thompson brought him to the ground but in two successive matches Lincoln came off victorious
R. B. R.
Wintersett Iowa Oct 22nd 1866.
Having seen the statements made by R B Rutledge in reference to the early life of Abraham Lincoln and having Known Mr Lincoln & been an eye-witness to the events as narrated, from my boyhood, I take pleasure in saying they are literally true.
As to the relation existing between Mr. Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, I have every reason to believe that it was of the tenderest character, as I Know of my own Knowledge that he made regular visits to her. — During her last illness he visited her sick chamber and on his return stopped at my house. It was very evident that he was much distressed. I was not surprised when it was rumored subsequently that his reason was in danger. It was generally understood that Mr Lincoln and Ann Rutledge were engaged to be married. She was a very amiable & lovable woman and it was deemed a very suitable match — one in which the parties were in every way worthy of each other
(Signed) John Jones
Library of Congress: Herndon-Weik Collection. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress. Washington, D.C. 2923 — 37; Huntington Library: LN2408, 1:306 — 23