Lincoln artifact retraces his steps to childhood home

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Staff Writer


GRANDVIEW – Fresh from their late 2015 investigation into the 16th President’s rail-splitter, which had lain hidden locally until its journey to the Indiana State Museum, the Spencer County Historical Society has a new relic on its radar. A powder horn dating back to the 1832 Black Hawk War has resurfaced after passing through the hands of eight owners, the first being a 23-year-old militia volunteer by the name of Abraham Lincoln. Since its current owner brought the artifact forward, society members Steve Sisley, Tom Brauns, Steve Haaff, Darrell Stephens and Charlie Finecy hit the books to trace the horn’s 185-year-old journey.

The powder horn, which Lincoln would have used to store gunpowder during his militia service, was unlikely to have ever lent itself to a shot in anger. By his own admission, the president never saw action during the brief conflict. Nevertheless, this martial artifact does represent an important time in Lincoln’s life.

Black Hawk, war chief of the Sauk, led a group of his people along with Meskawis and Kickapoos across the Mississippi River into Illinois, hoping to peacefully resettle lands lost in the disputed 1804 Treaty of St. Louis.

Interpreting this action as hostile, United States authorities mobilized a local militia.

The unit opened fire on a delegation of Native Americans, sparking reprisals and ultimately open war.

Around 9,000 citizens volunteered for militia service, among them a young and ambitious Abraham and several friends from New Salem, Ill. His popularity among his fellow recruits netted him election as captain of the 31st Regiment of Militia of Sangamon County.

Though he saw no fighting, the future president’s military tenure was not entirely passive. Assistant Professor of History Patrick J. Jung related a story in his research of the Black Hawk War in which Lincoln was challenged to a wrestling match for the right to an ideal camping spot. While Abe’s wrestling prowess was well attested, the story holds that he was bested in this contest.

He was not spared from the reality of war however. Lincoln was charged with burial detail, poring over the battlefields to recover the dead. The first such instance was after the Battle of Stillman’s Run, where 275 militia were driven back and a dozen killed. The war ultimately took the lives of 77 on the U.S. side and 450 to 600 of Black Hawk’s defeated tribes, including non-combatants on both sides.

Another aspect of Lincoln’s time in the war has been retold in several accounts, relating to an intervention on behalf of a native that had approached his unit. As the story goes, an elderly man from the neutral Potawatomi Nation came upon Lincoln’s camp and his men immediately sought to execute him as a spy. Lincoln reportedly put himself between his men and the wanderer and placed him under protection, despite the protestations of his comrades.

Later in life, as a U.S. Representative arguing against the Mexican-American War, Lincoln joked about his service during the conflict.

“By the way, Mr. Speaker, did you know I am a military Hero? Yes sir; in the days of the Black Hawk war, I fought, bled, and came away.... I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes; and, although I never fainted from loss of blood, I can truly say I was often very hungry.”

As he began his rise to prominence however, many physical reminders of his early frontier life were left behind. According to the research of the Spencer County Historical Society, Lincoln held onto his militia-issue powder horn for until 1837, when he gave it to a long-time friend and fellow militiaman, Jack Armstrong.

The two first met after Lincoln’s arrival in New Salem, Ill., and whatever differences the two might have had were worked out in short order when Lincoln and Armstrong competed in a rough wrestling bout.

“They became really good friends and Lincoln even lived with the Armstrong family for a while, because he was broke,” said Brauns.

Armstrong thus became the second owner of Lincoln’s powder horn, and kept it in his possession until his death in 1854. The horn then passed to his grandson, also named Jack Armstrong.

By the early 20th century, the memory of Abraham Lincoln had begun to move beyond the bitter divisions of the American Civil War and the partisan divides of Reconstruction. His story, and artifacts of his life, were taking on newfound significance as the country embraced his legacy. In 1927, the younger Armstrong decided to sell Lincoln’s powder horn to Claude D. Kitchell, an aspiring Lincoln historian and collector.

The historical society determined that at some point before 1945, Kitchell had sold the horn to Ray Marsh of Rockport, who brought it home to Spencer County. It is from Marsh that much of the horn’s history came to be certified.

In 1956, Ray Marsh decided to sell the powder horn to Rockport resident Stanley Murry, and he included a notarized statement detailing how he came by the relic, listing all the owners back to Lincoln himself. After Murry’s death, the horn passed to his wife, Lizzie.

Brauns explained that over the years, Lizzie became quite close to her neighbors, the Harmon family, including Carl Harmon Sr. and his son, Carl Harmon Jr. She ultimately gifted the horn to the younger Harmon in 1976. Coincidentally, Harmon Jr. received the horn at the same age Lincoln did at the time of the Black Hawk War, age 23.

He kept the horn safe for 41 years, but when he heard about the historical society’s work with the Lincoln mallet, he decided to give them a chance to explore this well-preserved piece of history. Tracing the unusual journey of the Lincoln artifact, which had unwittingly retraced the president’s steps from Illinois back to his childhood home, has been a focus of the historical society’s energies ever since.

“We’ve done the best we can to connect all the dots,” said Brauns.