The Sangamo Frontier: History and Archaeology in the Shadow of Abraham Lincoln
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When Abraham Lincoln moved to Illinois’ Sangamo Country in 1831, he found a pioneer community transforming from a cluster of log houses along an ancient trail to a community of new towns and state roads. But two of the towns vanished in a matter of years, and many of the activities and lifestyles that shaped them were almost entirely forgotten. In The Sangamo Frontier, archaeologist Robert Mazrim unearths the buried history of this early American community, breathing new life into a region that still rests in Lincoln’s shadow.
Named after a shallow river that cuts through the prairies of central Illinois, the Sangamo Country—an area that now encompasses the capital city of Springfield and present-day Sangamon County—was first colonized after the War of 1812. For the past fifteen years, Mazrim has conducted dozens of excavations there, digging up pieces of pioneer life, from hand-forged iron and locally made crockery to pewter spoons and Staffordshire teacups. And here, in beautifully illustrated stories of each dig, he shows how each of these small artifacts can teach us something about the lifestyles of people who lived on the frontier nearly two hundred years ago. Allowing us to see past the changed modern landscape and the clichés of pioneer history, Mazrim deftly uses his findings to portray the homes, farms, taverns, and pottery shops where Lincoln’s neighbors once lived and worked.
Drawing readers into the thrill of discovery, The Sangamo Frontier inaugurates a new kind of archaeological history that both enhances and challenges our written history. It imbues today’s landscape with an authentic ghostliness that will reawaken the curiosity of anyone interested in the forgotten people and places that helped shape our nation.
primitive, dangerous (but potentially lucrative) conditions of the West by nonresidents interested in selling books, coupled with pitiful accounts of the hardships and privations of frontier living by those who were telling good stories to their grandchildren. Many of the passages in those publications actually betray such oversimpliﬁed and dramatized notions of wildness and hardship, however. Eliza Farnham, who was born in New York and who moved to Illinois in 1836,6 observed that the homes of
overlooking the old French villages. These farmers had little interest in establishing residential villages, and instead desired plenty of distance from their neighbors. Most families selected what would become 160 to 320 acre parcels of timbered high ground on which to construct a few cabins for the extended family. The result of what one nineteenth-century historian proudly deﬁned as “true Saxon instinct of ownership” was a diffuse distribution of the population: large tracts of land “claimed”
a family’s ethnic background would probably be expressed in the consumer products they had in the house. In the late 1990s, I spent a lot of time in the various curatorial facilities in Illinois, reexamining the artifact assemblages from as many frontier-context sites in Illinois that I could ﬁnd. The idea was to create a database of certain frequently appearing artifact types in order to look for any patterns in consumer behavior across Illinois during the frontier period. To provide an adequate
growing state and its population. On the public square in Springﬁeld 148 a new f ront ier f i g . 9 . 3 Early nineteenth-century image of a steam powered engine and passenger car used in advertisements for the Northern Cross Railroad in central Illinois. was constructed an impressive Greek revival statehouse, made of limestone quarried from the Sugar Creek valley. The same year, the Panic of 1837 signaled the beginning of a nationwide depression that persisted into the mid-1840s. During this
predates 1815 and is decorated in a Chinese landscape motif popular during the late eighteenth and very early nineteenth century (ﬁgure 10.4). This vessel may be one that the Lathams brought with them from Kentucky. Another Chinese inspired plate is decorated in the Blue Willow pattern, which was ﬁrst manufactured in the 1790s and is still made today. The remaining pearlware plates, printed in an inkier, deeper blue, depict pastoral European landscapes. Three are represented by fragments 163