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Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009 10:30 am

The Lincolns’ first home in Illinois

Decatur site gets new study and a makeover

This is one of many depictions of what the Lincoln family cabin near Decatur looked like. Standing in front of it are John and Dennis Hanks, Abraham’s second cousins.
ILLUSTRATION Courtesy of Decatur's Lincoln Heritage Project

When Abraham Lincoln, his father, stepmother, and step-brother first came to Illinois from Indiana, they settled in a log cabin about three miles west of Decatur on the Sangamon River. The history of that long-gone cabin is a tangle of folklore and interesting facts.

The city of Decatur, through its Lincoln Heritage Project, commissioned a makeover and study of the cabin site, located in the state-owned Lincoln Memorial Homestead Park. So, for the first time, experts are unraveling the cabin’s true story, which ends in mystery.

“The Lincolns came to Illinois in March 1830 with a group of about 13 extended family members,” says Kim Bauer, director of the Lincoln Heritage Project. The Lincolns came because John Hanks, Abraham’s second cousin and “one of his favorite relations of all time,” moved there earlier and wrote Abraham’s father proclaiming the area’s cheap, plentiful, fruitful land, Bauer says. “Hanks made (Illinois) sound so good that eventually Thomas (Abraham’s father) determined he wanted to move.”

Because the previous winter had been very wet, their trip here was slowed by the copious mud. “They stayed the night at the square in Decatur…at that time it was a little village of a few dozen huts and cabins,” Bauer says. “Illinois was still a frontier.”

It took 21-year-old Abe, his father, his step-brother, and cousins John and Dennis Hanks about four days to construct the cabin. They may also have built a smokehouse and outbuilding, but that’s uncertain. “They broke about 10 acres of sod and planted ‘sod corn,’ and (Abraham) helped cut those famous split rails they used to encircle the ground,” Bauer says.

Then they got sick — really sick. The whole family came down with “ague,” or fever, chills and shakes, often caused by malaria.

“Some accounts say that Sarah (Abe’s stepmother) couldn’t even get out of bed to bring somebody water because she was so sick. They were desperately ill,” says Sue Massie, with Massie Massie and Associates, a Springfield landscape planning and landscape architecture firm that is the project’s prime consultant.

To make matters worse, that winter was the worst in ages. It became known as the “Winter of the Deep Snow.” Old settlers considered it a point of pride to have immigrated before then and survived it.

“The Lincolns were extremely miserable (that winter),” says Bauer. “They basically ran out of foodstuffs. They hadn’t been able to save enough of the corn and meal to sustain themselves…. They were frozen in and livestock and game were decimated.” Abraham rode to nearby homes seeking food for his family.

The next March, barely a year after their arrival, they’d had enough. Thomas and Sarah Lincoln moved to south of Effingham and Abraham went his own way, taking a job as a flatboatman and ending up in New Salem.

After Abe’s assassination 34 years later, “a lot of things associated with him almost became enshrined and this cabin became one of those,” says Floyd Mansberger, director of Fever River Research in Springfield, which is conducting an archaeological and archival assessment of the cabin site.

While Mansberger says “there’s a lot of folklore associated with the cabin and it’s hard to tell what’s true and what isn’t,” he’s pieced together some facts. Shortly after Lincoln’s burial, one or both of the Hanks brothers carefully deconstructed the cabin, rebuilt it and exhibited it at the Illinois Sanitary Fair in Chicago. “From there it went to Boston and sat on the Boston Common for several months,” Mansberger says. “From Boston it went to P.T. Barnum’s Museum in New York City, and then it disappeared.” There’s evidence John Hanks planned to exhibit the cabin in Europe, but the paper trail ends there.

Mansberger and his team didn’t find any evidence of the cabin when they surveyed the park site, but that’s not surprising, he says. “You have to keep in mind this kind of short-term cabin is a very ephemeral kind of thing to find archaeologically. They didn’t leave a lot of evidence on the landscape.”

There are illustrations and primitive photos of the cabin, but their authenticity is suspect. Based on research, Mansberger believes “it was a fairly primitive cabin, typical of the period of early settlers. It had one room. Its dimensions are hard to say, 18 by 20-foot square, something like that. It had one story, maybe with a small loft…, and a ‘stick in the mud’ chimney-fireplace complex off one end. It’s a very typical, first generation, quickly built structure that was needed for immediate occupation.”

Although original renovation plans for the site included building a replica cabin, Bauer said that was scratched due to funding and security concerns. Instead, Massie says current plans include recreating a deteriorating 1940s or ’50s monument at the site and doing “a nice job of interpreting what’s at the site now,” through informative signs and possibly handouts.

She hopes the interpretive information will be available at the site this summer.


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