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Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009 06:34 pm

Search for Springfield roots

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The north side of the Springfield square in 1859.
PHOTO COURTESTY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY

A different kind of Lincoln bicentennial celebration is being held in Springfield, starting March 7. It encourages everyone to search their family roots and see if they reach back to Springfield during Lincoln’s time, or even back to the Lincolns themselves. Rudy Davenport, a member of the Springfield contingent of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, says “about a year and a half ago, we were discussing ideas (for celebrations) that would really be reflective of the community that would celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in the spirit of Lincoln.” Someone suggested holding a “family reunion” for descendants of people who lived in Springfield during Lincoln’s time.

“The aim is to celebrate Springfield’s legacy,” Davenport says. “We did not want it to be reflective of the centennial of Lincoln,” when whites had an exclusive celebration at one location and blacks had another. “We really wanted something that would have people of color well represented…that would be reflective of Lincoln and representative of something he would have liked to have seen during his time as a celebration.”

While the “family reunion” for descendants of Lincoln-era Springfieldians will be held this fall (at an undetermined date), organizers have scheduled a March 7 genealogy workshop for the public to prepare for it.

“There are people who know they have ancestors from Springfield,” says City Historian Curtis Mann, “but there are many others who probably don’t. So, in order to build up enough interest, we thought we’d have this kickoff event to talk about genealogy and get people working on their family history for this event in the fall.”

During the fall family reunion, organizers want to record descendants’ family lore “and any lore about Lincoln,” Mann says. “But we also want to know about everybody. Springfield wasn’t just about Lincoln and his lawyer buddies…. The idea is to learn what (stories) are out there. A lot of the county histories are full of information about the rich and famous people, but not so much the common day laborers, shopkeepers, and the like.”

Connie McGee’s story is a perfect example. According to her family’s oral history, McGee is related to William Donnegan, who was Lincoln’s shoemaker, a Springfield conductor on the Underground Railroad and one of two lynching victims of the 1908 race riots.

“I think my family has been here since 1843,” says McGee, a lifelong Springfieldian.
McGee has a tape recording of her great-aunt discussing the race riots and “telling how our family responded in fear,” she says. (McGee remembers her grandmother’s stories about the riots, too.) The aunt discusses William Donnegan’s hanging, his involvement in the Underground Railroad and she details another family link to the Lincolns.

“She said my great-great aunt, Narcissus Donnegan, was a laundress for the Lincolns and would take her niece when she went to the Lincolns’ home,” McGee says. “She said when Narcissus didn’t bring her niece, Lincoln asked about the little girl.”

I’d always heard my family had an association to Lincoln. A little research proved we did. It turns out that my great-great-great-great uncle, James Primm, stiffed him for a $200 loan. Primm and his brother were land speculators who bought too much, went into debt, and in 1857 borrowed money from James’ friend, former Governor Joel Matteson, and Lincoln. My uncle put up a lot of land he owned in Lincoln, Ill., as collateral on Lincoln’s loan.

Lincoln got the Lincoln lot, my uncle went to prison for debt, and the incident was so interesting that an early Lincoln historian wrote an article about it.

Not quite the link I was looking for, but hey, it’s a good story.

The free March 7 genealogy workshop is open to anybody interested in their family history or local history. Springfield historian Dick Hart will discuss what the city was like when Lincoln lived here and Anthony Landis, who has researched Springfield’s African-American history and the race riot, will discuss how blacks can research their genealogy. Representatives from several local institutions will discuss how participants can use their genealogy resources to find any Lincoln-era ancestors. The workshop will be held at the Dove Conference Center in the Prairie Heart Institute at Sixth and Mason Streets from 8:30 a.m. to noon.

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