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Lincoln the Boatman

February 14, 2018

In February 1831 Abraham Lincoln was 22 years old.  That month his cousin made arrangements with Denton Offutt that he, Lincoln, and Lincoln’s stepbrother would pilot a flatboat and deliver cargo to New Orleans come spring.  They were to arrive near Springfield after the snow was gone.  There Offutt was supposed to have a flatboat and cargo ready for them.

Flooding had made it too difficult to reach Springfield by land.  The trio bought a canoe and paddled their way down the Sangamon River with the naïve expectation that Offutt would conscientiously fulfill his part of the deal.  When they arrived, there was no flatboat waiting for them.  Perhaps Offutt had meant to get things ready by the time they arrived, but he was too busy consuming alcohol to attend to business.  Instead, he hired the three young men at $12 a month to fell trees, haul logs, and, after the local sawmill had made the logs into planks and gunwales, construct an 80 by 18 foot flatboat.

After four weeks labor they were able to launch with a cargo of barreled pork, live hogs, and corn.  They probably breathed a sigh of relief that they were finally on their way.  The worst was over, or so they hoped.

On April 19 the flatboat became stuck on a milldam near New Salem.  As the front end hung out high and dry, the rear was slowly sinking.  If corrective action were not taken, the cargo and perhaps even the boat would soon be lost.

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