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Between rail splitting, shop-keeping and lawyering, one of Lincoln’s lesser-known professions was as county surveyor. Here, he combines skills, representing the widow Rhoda Hart in legal proceedings involving the sale of her deceased husband’s land against a competing family member’s claims. Lincoln and Hart prevailed.
Most of Lincoln’s surveys were made for town and county governments rather than individuals land holders. As a result, unlike those of George Washington, very few Lincoln surveys have ever come on the market. We find only two, without land plats, in major auction records of the last 40 years (one selling at the 1979 Sang auction, and again at Sotheby’s in 1987; and the other, now being offered privately for $32,500, but frankly, it has no visual appeal.) ABRAHAM LINCOLN.
Autograph memorandum and plat (completely in Lincoln’s hand), unsigned. [Springfield, Ill.], between October 1837 – June 1838. 1 p., 7¾ x 6¼ in.
Memorandum of the Real estate of Moses Hart, deceased
E. half S.W. quarter Sec. 24 Town 17 Road 7
W. half same “ “ “ “
E. “ N.W. “ Sec. 24 17 7
50 acres of S. end
E. S.W. “ 13 17 7
Wishes to sell all of the last mentioned tract and the North half of the last but one.
Below this is a plat showing sections and plots, to the right of which Lincoln writes,
“Prefers to sell on the premises…”
Lincoln began studying surveying in the fall of 1833 in New Salem, Illinois, and served as Sangamon County surveyor. On August 4, 1834, the 24-year-old Lincoln was elected to the Illinois General Assembly. He also began to study law, and received his license to practice law two years later. In April 1837, he left New Salem and settled in Springfield, the new state capital. He then joined John T. Stuart as a law partner. In some cases the two disciplines blended. For example, in 1834 Lincoln did a survey for one David Hart. Then he represented the Hart family in real estate and litigation matters.
In 1837, Lincoln represented Moses Hart’s widow Rhoda Hart. In October, he obtained by a court her right to sell the real estate that had belonged to her late husband. In October 1838, in pleadings Lincoln filed in Hart vs. Sackett, he wrote that Mrs. Hart had followed the Court’s instructions in selling the land, and now had to sue a neighbor to secure her rights pursuant to that permission: “Humbly sheweth unto your Honor your oratrix, Rhoda Hart Executrix of Moses Hart deceased, that at the last October term of this court an order was made by this court directing your oratrix to sell the real estate of the said Moses Hart deceased; that in obedience to the said order your oratrix has sold and conveyed the said real estate aforesaid in the parcels…” A final Court Order concluded the case in favor of Rhoda Hart. Based on the history of the case, Lincoln penned this document between late October 1837 and late June 1838. This time frame placed it only a few years after his surveying career.
More on Lincoln’s Career as a Surveyor
In the fall of 1833, Carl Sandburg wrote, Abraham Lincoln entered 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 appointed Lincoln.
Then for six weeks, daytime and often nighttime as well, Lincoln 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, and methods for mensuration of areas.
Many nights, said New Salem, Illinois, tutor 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. In six weeks, however, he had mastered his books, and Calhoun put him to work on the north end of Sangamon County. 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. Lincoln 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. For his surveying trips he had bought a horse, saddle and bridle from William Watkins for $57.86. The surveys produced by Lincoln and other surveyors consisted of textual descriptions with identifying meets and bounds. Some also contained plats maps depicting the divisions of land.
“In all,” writes historian Kenneth Winkle, assessing his career as a surveyor, “Lincoln divided at least five new towns into lots for various speculators. He thus became involved in the buying and selling of land, rather than simply working it with an axe or hoe, and he began to invest in local real estate…” As Robert Rutledge summed up Lincoln’s career as a surveyor, he “engaged in a good business in the profession.” Early Sangamon County surveying records are very fragmentary, so it is impossible to compile a complete list of Lincoln’s surveys, nor have many survived, but it remains a fascinating time in his career. Surveying is also something he shares with George Washington, who was engaged in the same profession early in his life.
Fine. Professionally reinforced at folds.