Lincoln's life in New Salem has been known with a considerable degree of fullness to biographers. But the episode which must have seemed to Lincoln himself to transcend all other experiences in that brief but important period—his love for Ann Rutledge has been the subject of conjecture, confusion, and doubt. Eminent students have denied altogether the reality of Lincoln's passion for Ann; others have accepted the tradition in general outline.
Now it becomes possible to reveal in full light and at first hand the story—so full of tenderness and hope, so tragic in its close—which has hitherto rested on contestable report. Not only did Lincoln and Ann hold each other dear; the actual letters which passed between them remain. We have also a diary kept by Ann's cousin and intimate, 'Mat' Cameron, naively recording her observations of the courtship. With these precious letters and Mat's unstudied diary have been preserved other fresh and valuable memorabilia of Lincoln. We have letters which he wrote to John Calhoun, former Surveyor of Sangamon County, Illinois, who employed Lincoln and was closely associated with him during the New Salem years; a memorandum written by Calhoun's daughter Sally in 1848, embodying her father's recollections of Lincoln and containing characteristic anecdotes; and, finally, books owned and freely annotated by Lincoln himself, which have descended to me. These materials, never before known or published, form a collection of unique value.
Before presenting these precious memorials it is important to fill in the original setting of the story.
New Salem, Illinois, was a rude log settlement on the Sangamon River, not many miles northwest of Springfield. The town had been established by two families who were related by marriage. James Rutledge, a native of South Carolina, was a kindly, generous man of deeply ingrained religious principles. In January 1808, he had married Mary Ann Miller. They had nine children; Ann, the third child, was born in January 1813, while the family lived in Kentucky; Sally, the youngest, was born in the Tavern at New Salem, October 20, 1829. A sister of Mrs. Rutledge married Thomas Cameron; their son, the Reverend John M. Cameron, born in Kentucky in 1791, and ten years younger than James Rutledge, was thus his nephew by marriage.
The two families decided to move from Kentucky and to settle in Illinois. In February 1828, they bought adjoining farms in a little community at Sand Ridge, a short distance from the later site of New Salem. On the nearby Concord Creek, Cameron erected a small gristmill. But with the coming of summer the flow of water was so meager that the two men decided to look for a better location.
They followed the heavily wooded road that skirted the Sangamon until they reached an abrupt turn of the river from southwest to north. Rising from the river—beautiful at this sudden sweep—was 'a promintory of land that shot out like a peninsula a hundred feet high and approachable only from the west— the brow of the ridge 250 feet broad, gradually widening as it extended westwardly.' They climbed the steep bluff and looked out over the surrounding country. To the west lay a darkly tangled forest, and beyond that broad meadows veined with many little streams that hurried long to empty into the Sangamon. All about lay hills dense with timber—ash, elm, oak, hickory, and basswood—while below the river curved about the wooded point. Here it was decided to settle. Two bins of rather pretentious size were erected to house the eleven Rutledges and the thirteen Camerons. The two families moved from Sand Ridge to the new community on July 9, 1828. A grist and lumber-mill took shape, and then a dam, which cost heroic effort. The mill and the two substantial bins attracted other settlers, and the community began to expand. While new dwellings were in the course of construction the hospitable Rutledge shared his home with the settlers. From this practice he conceived the idea of turning the cabin into a tavern and general store, where meals and supplies could be served to the stragglers who drifted in and out. Finally the settlement assumed the outlines of a village, and its founders, not forgetting their Bibles, christened it New Salem. On Christmas day, 1829, the post office was established.
The people of New Salem were their own carpenters, masons, wheelwrights, and cobblers. The few shoes worn were generally made from the hides of steers, and kept well rubbed with heated mutton tallow to exclude water. 'Vittles' were cooked in black three-legged pots which hung on hooks over the flames on the open hearth. Corn pone was baked in covered iron ovens which sat in the hot coals. Diet varied little; pork, corn pone, hominy, mush, and flapjacks, with sorghum molasses for 'long sweetening' in beverages, were the principal articles of food. Milk could seldom be obtained, and potatoes were a luxury, often eaten raw.
Tables and chairs were for the most part crude slabs, roughhewn with an axe. Hickory was the favorite wood for furniture and for the staves of barrels and buckets; baskets were made of white oak splits. One family in New Salem owned a shaving horse and foot lathe for turning posts. The women grew proficient in making chairs. They 'biled' the backs to make them pliable, then bent them into the desired shape. 'Settin'' chairs had curved backs and rocking-chairs had straight backs. Beds were formed of interlacing rawhide strips suspended from wooden frames. Over the rawhide, straw ticks were spread, or, in families which had the good fortune to own them, feather beds. For the men, board bunks and straw mattresses were provided.
Most citizens of New Salem had never seen a piano or an organ, and their only musical instruments were the jew's-harp and a solitary fiddle. Even at church they sang without accompaniment. The women all had spinning wheels and roughhewn looms, often made by their menfolk, with which they spun their flax into bed linens. Starch had not been introduced in backwoods households, and the voluminous petticoats were made to stand out by the use of a cooked paste made from gluten.
Of the twenty cabins which the town boasted in its heyday, not one was painted either inside or out. The only newspapers or periodicals were those which occasionally found their way to New Salem from other settlements. Light was provided either by whale-oil lamps or tallow candles. Sometimes, when bears intruded in orchards or gardens, the men 'kilt' them with pitchforks or guns; then the candles were made of bear fat.
A certain morning in April, 1831, was the occasion of an incident which brought the entire population of New Salem to the river bank. On the Rutledge mill dam a flatboat had stranded, its snub nose hanging perilously over the water. On the boat was a grotesque figure, tall and gangling to a degree surpassing anything which the people of New Salem had ever seen. His buckskin trousers, much too wide, were rolled up, revealing long bare legs and great feet, blue from the cold water in which he stood. A linsey-woolsey shirt—a size too small—and a rusty, low-crowned felt hat with a broad brim completed his costume.