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Full text of "Abraham Lincoln and Rock Island County"

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ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND ROCK ISLAND COUNTY. 



By J. B. Oakleaf. 

There has been considerable controversy in Rock Is- 
land County, through the press and by historians and old 
settlers, as to whether or not Abraham Lincoln ever 
visited Rock Island County subsequent to his services 
in the Black Hawk War. 

He was sworn into the service of the regular army in 
Rock Island County, having come up with the balance 
of the volunteers from Beardstown to the camp of General 
Atkinson below the mouth of the Rock River. He was 
here two days, and then the army went in search of Black 
Hawk, leaving the mouth of Rock River for Dixon Ferry. 

Rock Island was a strong Whig County and always 
supported the Whig party, and when Abraham Lincoln 
became prominent in matters political, he could always 
count on the votes from Rock Island County, but why 
he never found it convenient to come to Rock Island 
Cotmty, history does not record. If you will look at the 
map, you will find that Rock Island County is a hard 
place to reach from Springfield, or from any other point 
in the central part of the state, and equally hard to reach 
from the northwestern part of the state, there being no 
direct lines of travel. People going from the central or 
southern parts of the state to the northwestern part of 
the state would invariably go by steamboat or stage route 
to Peoria and from thence to the northwest, and Rock 
Island County was always passed by people going from 
one point of the state to another for the reason that it 
was out of the way. Even at this day we are equally 
handicapped, having no direct route to Springfield. We 
have to go either by way of Peoria or Beardstown or by 
way of Chapin on the Wabash railroad. 

202 



203 

The writer has made a thorough investigation to 
ascertain whether or not Abraham Lincoln ever visited 
the county. Mr. Phil Mitchell, of Rock Island, a mem- 
ber of our Historical Society and a man well versed in 
local history, feels confident that Abraham Lincoln was 
here at one time, being in Rock Island on the same day 
that Stephen A. Douglas happened to be there, Mr* 
Mitchell being an ardent admirer of Douglas and his 
brother an ardent admirer of Lincoln. Mr. Phil Mitchell 
heard Douglas speak and then after that he feels certain 
he heard Lincoln the same day, and he has searched the 
newspapers of that time but has been unable to find a 
single mention of Lincoln having been in this county. 
Abraham Lincoln surveyed the Town of Albany, on the 
Mississippi River, in Whiteside Coimty, about thirty 
miles above Moline, and, no doubt, came up from the 
lower part of the state, reaching Albany on the steam- 
boat, and it may be that while the boat was loading and 
unloading at Rock Island, he may have gone ashore, but 
if he did so, the fact has not been recorded. But that 
was a long time before Abraham Lincoln was known 
outside of his own immediate community, 

Although Mr. Lincoln never visited Rock Island County 
during any of his campaigns, or while campaigning for 
the cause he represented, there is much in Rock Island 
history that connects it with Abraham Lincoln. It was 
in this County that Dred Scott, the negro, was living at 
the time he was a servant of Dr. Emerson, a surgeon at 
Fort Armstrong, and it was on account of Dred Scott's resi- 
dence here and in Minnesota that he based his claim of be- 
ing a citizen, and the celebrated decision of Judge Taney 
placed in the hands of Abraham Lincoln a weapon of un- 
told value in representing his ideas of negro slavery and 
freedom. Then, again, it was in Rock Island County that 
the Mississippi was first spanned by a bridge, and Abraham 
Lincoln was one of the counsel employed by the bridge 
company to resist the suit brought by the St. Louis Cham- 
ber of Commerce to declare the bridge an obstruction to 



204 

navigation. Mr. Lincoln was successful in defending the 
interest of the bridge company, and, through his suc- 
cessful defense of the interest of the bridge company, re- 
ceived his first large fee as a lawyer, and Rock Island 
County can rightfully claim that it contributed largely 
to Lincoln's fame as a successful lawyer. 

There are those who now contend that Lincoln cer- 
tainly must have been in this county at the time of, or 
prior to, the suit, which was in September, 1857, for the 
reason that it would have been impossible for him to have 
made such an excellent argument as to the effect of the 
current of the river had he not personally made his own 
observations. He expected to be in Rock Island, for in 
August, 1857, he wrote to U. S. Senator William Grimes 
as follows : 

^ ^ Dear Sir:— 

Yours of the 14th is received and I am much 
obliged for the legal information you give. 

You can scarcely be more anxious than I that the 
next election in Iowa should result in favor of the 
Republicans. 

I lost nearly all the working-part of last year giving 
my time to the canvass, and I am altogether too poor 
to lose two years together. 

I am engaged in a suit in the United States Court at 
Chicago in which the Rock Island Bridge Company is 
a party. The trial is to commence on the 8th of Sep- 
tember and probably will last two or three weeks. Dur- 
ing the trial it is not improbable that all hands will 
come over and take a look at the bridge and if it were 
possible to make it hit right I could then speak at 
Davenport. My courts go right on without cessa- 
tion until late in November. Write me again, point- 
ing out the more striking points of difference between 
your old and new constitutions, and also whether the 
Democratic and Republican party lines were drawn 
in the adoption of it, and which were for and which 



205 

were against it. If, by possibility, I could get over 
among you it might be of some advantage to know 
these things in advance. 

Yours very truly, 

A. Lincoln." 

But no one has been able to find any mention in the 
Rock Island or Davenport papers of any speech that 
Lincoln made in either place at that or any other time. 
It is true he made an excellent argument, and on reading 
it now one would surely believe that Lincoln made his 
own observations as to the effects of the current of the 
river. But, in reading Mr. Wallace's famous book, Ben 
Hur, one would surely believe that Mr. Wallace had been 
to the Holy Land, but the fact is he never set foot in the 
Holy Land prior to writing that book. 

One of the best authorities the writer has for believing 
that Abraham Lincoln did not come to Rock Island at 
the time of trying the bridge suit is a letter which he 
received from O. P. Wharton, who died in May last in 
California, and in the next Quarterly the writer will pre- 
sent an article on Oliver P. Wharton, upon whose death 
Mr. Paul Selby becomes the sole survivor of the ** Decatur 
Convention.** In August, 1907, in reply to an inquiry 
from the writer as to whether or not he knew of Lincoln's 
presence in Rock Island County at the time of the bridge 
suit, Mr. Wharton stated that he was then the publisher 
of the Rock Island Advertiser, a strong Whig paper, and 
he was the Secretary of the meeting at the time of the 
laying of the comer stone of the draw pier of the bridge, 
and that he was also a witness in the case, his deposition 
having been taken for that purpose. Mr. Joseph Knox 
was local counsel for the Bridge Company and Mr. Whar- 
ton stated that if Lincoln had come to Rock Island he 
would have known of the fact, and was positive that Mr. 
Lincoln did not visit Rock Island. 

It is now for those who hold the affirmative to prove 
that Abraham Lincoln was in Rock Island subsequent to 



206 

the Black Hawk War, for it is impossible to prove a nega- 
tive. 

Daniel Webster, at the time Lincoln was in Congress, 
had become interested in lands in Rock Island County, 
and, according to Ben Perley Poore, Mr. Webster was a 
client of Mr. Lincoln, having employed Mr. Lincoln to 
give his opinion on a question of title, and Mr. Webster 
states that all Lincoln charged him was ten dollars. Evi- 
dently the question was not a very weighty one and I 
presume Lincoln answered it offhand. 

So in summing up, we of Rock Island County, feel 
proud that we had something to do in bringing Lincoln 
before the people. It was upon the petition of citizens 
of Rock Island County that Governor Reynolds issued 
a call for volunteers, of whom Lincoln became one, and 
to Rock Island County belongs the honor of his military 
experience. 

Mr. Lincoln was also attorney for several who attempted 
to preempt land on Rock Island, now the seat of the Govern- 
ment Arsenal, being the island lying between Davenport 
and the Cities of Moline and Rock Island, and, in writing 
to Mr. Brackett on the 18th of May, 1857, Lincoln says: 
*'One of your letters had one dollar in it and another ten. 
I paid two to the Registrar and pocketed the other nine.'' 

This may not be interesting to the readers of the Quart- 
erly, but the writer can assure them that he would be 
pleased if some one could come forward with the proof 
to show that Abraham Lincoln had visited Rock Island 
County subsequent to his services in the Black Hawk 
War.