Lincoln the Surveyor

Back Home Next

  Article taken from "Backsights" Magazine published by Surveyors Historical Society


by Carl Sandburg

‘In the fall of 1833 came Abraham Lincoln’s entry into the most highly technical and responsible work he had known. Writing of it later, he said, "The Surveyor of Sangamon [County] offered to depute to A[braham] that portion of his work which was within his part of the county. He accepted, procured a compass and chain, studied Flint, and Gibson a little, and went at it. This procured bread and kept soul and body together." There were farm sections, roads and towns needing their boundary lines marked clear and beyond doubt on maps - more than the county surveyor, John Calhoun, could handle. On the suggestion of Pollard Simmons, a farmer and Democratic politician living near New Salem, Calhoun, a Jackson Democrat, appointed Lincoln, who went 18 miles to Springfield to make sure he wasn’t tied up politically and could speak as he pleased.

Then for six weeks, daytime and often all of nighttime, he had his head deep in Gibson’s Theory and Practice of Surveying and Flint’s Treatise on Geometry, Trigonometry and Rectangular Surveying. From decimal fractions one book ran on onto logarithms, the use of mathematical instruments, operating the chain, circumferentor, surveying by intersections, changing the scale of maps, leveling, methods for mensuration of areas. Many nights, said Mentor Graham’s daughter, she woke at midnight to see Lincoln and her father by the fire, figuring and explaining, her mother sometimes bringing fresh firewood for better lighting. On some nights he worked alone till daylight and it wore him down. He was fagged, and friends said he looked like a hard drinker after a two weeks’ spree. Good people said, "You’re killing yourself."

In six weeks, however, he had mastered his books, and Calhoun put him to work on the north end of Sangamon County. The open air and sun helped as he worked in the field and timberland with compass and measurements. His pay was $2.50 for "establishing" a quarter section of land, $2.00 for a half-quarter, 25 cents to 37½ cents for small town lots. He surveyed the towns of Petersburg, Bath, New Boston, Albany, Huron, and others. He surveyed roads, school sections, pieces of farm land from four-acre plots to 160-acre farms. His surveys became known for care and accuracy and he was called on to settle boundary disputes. In Petersburg, however, he laid out one street crooked. Running it straight and regular, it would have put the house of Jemima Elmore and her family into the street. Lincoln knew her to be working a small farm with her children and she was the widow of Private Travice Elmore, honorable in service in Lincoln’s company in the Black Hawk War.

For his surveying trips he had bought a horse, saddle and bridle from William Watkins for $57.886, and for nonpayment Watkins on April 26, 1834, got judgement in court and levied on Lincoln’s personal possessions. It looked as though he would lose his surveying instruments. Then Bill Green showed up and turned in a horse on the Watkins judgment - and James Short came from Sand Ridge to the auction Lincoln was too sad to attend and bid in the saddle, bridle, compass and other surveying instruments. When Short brought them to Lincoln it hit him as another surprise in his young life. Short liked Lincoln as a serious student, a pleasant joker, and said that on the farm "he husks two loads of corn to my one."’

- Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years (New York, 1926), p. 44-46.


Back Home Next