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.

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