New Salem existed for only a very short time. By the time Lincoln was elected president, it only lived in memory. But, like Lincoln, New Salem became something of a legend. In the 1930s the village was reconstructed to show visitors what life was like in the 1830s.
From farm boy to lawyer
Lincoln came to New Salem at the age of 22 in 1831. Leaving family and friends behind, his move to New Salem offered him a place to learn and mature.
New Salem had been established less than five years when Lincoln arrived; it was young and growing community. Although he was not married and did not own a home here, Lincoln had the chance to try his hand at a variety of jobs while he lived at New Salem.
Denton Offutt, impressed by Lincoln’s work ethic when he hired him as a hand on a flatboat taking goods from Illinois to New Orleans, brought Lincoln to New Salem when he hired the young man to clerk at his store. An ambition young man, Lincoln enthusiastically applied himself to trying and learning new things.
Lincoln’s only military experience prior to the Civil War came when he enlisted in the militia to serve in the Black Hawk War which as fought mostly in northwestern Illinois. Although he did not participate in any fighting, his company (composed largely of men from the New Salem area) elected him captain. He would later claim this honor was his proudest election victory.
Lincoln’s first U.S. government post was as postmaster at New Salem. This job also helped with his education because it allowed him to read newspapers arriving in the mail.
Lincoln literally left his mark on the land of central Illinois. As deputy county surveyor, he did private land surveys and laid out the plats for nearby towns including Petersburg, Bath, and Huron. Lincoln was largely self-taught in this important skill, reading books on surveying.
Lincoln also became interested in politics while he lived at New Salem. He was elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 1834 and 1836 after an unsuccessful try in 1832.
Lincoln knew failure at New Salem, too. Besides his defeat in the election of 1832, his store business, in his words, “winked out,” leaving him with a debt he would pay down for years to come. And, according to reports collected after his assassination, he failed in love not once, but twice. The well-known story of the ill-fated Ann Rutledge, (whose father ran the Rutledge Tavern at New Salem) was apparently only one of Lincoln’s loves. Mary Owens, a well-educated woman from Kentucky, declined Lincoln’s attentions, later claiming that he was “deficient in those little links which make up the great chain of a woman’s happiness.”