Thursday, July 22, 2010

More about the New Donner Party-related Lincoln Document

After yesterday's post, I received a friendly email with additional information from Kristin Johnson, a librarian who has studied the Donner Party for almost 20 years. Kristin sent the joint press release of the California State Library and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, which details the story of how this document came to the attention of Lincoln experts who studied the handwriting and other details. Evidently, it was Kristin herself who brought the documents to the attention of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln project, as she writes on her own blog.

In addition, Kristin passed along the newspaper article that caught her eyes a few years ago, alerting her to the possible existence of these materials. Published in The San Francisco Call as part of its special coverage of the Lincoln centennial in 1909, there is even a photograph of one muster roll.

Two thoughts. This is how many discoveries are made in archived materials. Someone researching one topic comes across items which may very much interest someone studying a different topic. The Donner Party and Abraham Lincoln are two largely unrelated focuses within US History -- though clearly we now see they is a relationship between the two. An experienced researcher about the Donner Party realized that it might interest experienced Lincoln researchers, and discovering an online way of sharing these documents, passed it along. I hope that I and other Lincoln students are as sensitive when we conduct our research if we come across material that might interest people studying other, seemingly unrelated, historical subjects.

Second, after reading the newspaper article, I am a bit disturbed that no Lincoln researchers had discovered these materials, or at least pursued them. Given the extensive coverage of Lincoln during the 1909 centennial celebration of his birth, this newspaper article should have been read by at least some Lincoln researchers. Certainly much of the centennial coverage was redundant, and some of it was probably exaggerated; this does not diminish the need to carefully pore over the extant resources when doing research, even recognizing the huge Lincoln bibliography. The obvious sources, such as periodicals published around February 1909, should have come to someone's attention in the Lincoln field -- which hasn't lacked for participants -- in the subsequent years long before the 2009 bicentennial. [Perhaps my frustration over this is heightened by my current reading of a Lincoln-related book -- which I will not name -- that has a very disappointing and limited bibliography.]

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Lincoln and the Donner Party

Earlier today, I noticed that a very odd search was lighting up Internet search engines: Abraham Lincoln Donner Party. As interested as I am with all things Lincoln, I ignored it, assuming that it had something to do with a random subplot in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (which I have not yet read).

I was wrong.

Proving yet again that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, researchers have discovered a document associated with Lincoln that was carried to California by members of the infamous Donner Party. James Reed, who was a member of the Donner Party (before being exiled for killing someone else in the group during an argument), was also a volunteer in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War, serving in the same unit as Abraham Lincoln. Somehow Reed came to possess muster rolls from that time, including some with Lincoln's name and possessions, and one that experts say has a heading written in Lincoln's own hand.

During these years, Lincoln was frequently called upon in New Salem to be a recording clerk during elections (as is evident if you browse the early documents in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln). So it seems likely that Lincoln, among the volunteers, might have served as a clerk in this situation too. The news stories are silent on whether Lincoln wrote out the muster itself or just the title. In the CNN video, which shows Lincoln's name on one such muster, I must confess that I see similarities of Lincoln's handwriting with his famous signature -- of course, it does not have the familiar tie between the initial "A" and "L" of Lincoln, that are so famous. A cursory search of early documents in the Library of Congress shows at least one nearly contemporaneous example of a Lincoln signature without that tie. But I'm not a handwriting expert.

Surely in the coming months, experts will posit the extent of Lincoln's involvement in the production of the newly recognized document -- which has been in the California State Library for decades. They will also, no doubt, comment on the $85 horse and $15 of equipment he evidently owned at the time. And one can only imagine what they might speculate about the military tent given to Lincoln for the duration of the conflict.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Brief Video on Lincoln's Leadership

I had planned a formal mea culpa for my lengthy silence on this blog, but that is beyond my patience tonight. Instead, enjoy this video, courtesy of The Washington Post, in which Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn comments on Abraham Lincoln's search for meaning as the key to his effective leadership as president.

In particular, I like Koehn's opening comments about how Lincoln used the process of writing to carefully develop his ideas and understanding of the situation. Surely leaders may gain information and insight in different ways, but this was one of the central ways Lincoln gained his. Usually his best decisions emerge after he had carefully written about them, such as the Emancipation Proclamation, which Koehn rightly highlights.

Of course, Lincoln's process was not limited to a private act of writing. There is much anecdotal evidence that he liked to bounce ideas off of people as he was mulling them over. Perhaps the best of this is lost to history -- in particular the many private evening conversations he had with William Seward, who fancied himself a powerful prime minister in the early days, but who instead may have become a capable confidant and adviser to Lincoln -- unlike others, he seems to have told few stories about his evening chats with Lincoln in his home.