Monday, July 19, 2010
The Lincoln Muster Roll
This morning, July 19, 2010, The Papers of Abraham Lincoln has announced the discovery of a new Lincoln document, a muster roll of Captain Jacob M. Early’s militia company from the Black Hawk War. The document is interesting because of its early date (1832), unusual nature (Lincoln filled out only part of the document – the rest is in another hand), and especially because of its history: the muster roll survived the Donner Party.
In the summer of 1832, Early commanded a company of volunteers from Sangamon County, Illinois, which included Abraham Lincoln (Private No. 4 on the list) and James F. Reed (No. 5). At some point after the unit disbanded, the roll came into the possession of Reed, who was a friend of Early’s and an administrator of his estate.
The story of the roll’s subsequent history is pieced together from two separate newspaper articles published 10 years apart. According to what Patty Reed Lewis told their authors, her father took a number of documents with him when he set out for California, including the roll and other papers from the Black Hawk War. In September 1846, after the disastrous crossing of the Great Salt Lake Desert, Reed was compelled to abandon two of his wagons. He cached their contents, but his wife saved the papers and other heirlooms, carrying them in a small carpet bag. The following February, when the First Relief rescued Margret Reed from the Donner Lake camp, she again saved the documents, this time carrying them in her bosom. These details are from a 1909 article about Lincoln by Edwin A. Sherman and from Evelyn Wells' 1919 series of articles about the Reeds and the Donner Party. Both appeared in the San Francisco Call and used facsimiles of the Reed papers as illustrations.
I first learned of the muster roll's existence about 1995, when I discovered the Wells article. It was a great story, but was it true? I had no idea, so I filed the information away for future reference. Over the years more details turned up: the roll was not among the Reed papers at Sutter’s Fort, as I'd assumed; I found the the Sherman article; discovered that the elusive Black Hawk War documents were at the California State Library; and eventually stumbled on the Papers of Abraham Lincoln website. Last February, around Presidents Day, I started to blog about Lincoln and the Donner Party and revisited the Lincoln papers website. There’s a form you can fill out online to report possible new Lincoln documents, so I gave as much information as I could and hit “send.” After a few weeks I got a phone call acknowledging receipt of the information, and a few weeks after that a call from Dan Stowell, the director of the project. After due investigation and analysis, the roll passed muster – the handwriting, or rather, part of it, was identified as Abraham Lincoln’s. Dan told me that this is one of the oldest Lincoln documents in existence and that only about a dozen predate it.
But I never did finish that blog about Lincoln and the Donner Party.