- Historic Sites
Riding The Circuit With Lincoln
A new picture of prairie lawyers coping with bad roads and worse inns on the Illinois frontier, drawn from David Davis’ letters
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
When court had adjourned in Pªkin, Lincoln and Davis drove to Metamora, the county seat of Woodford County, about twenty miles away. It was a small town and the tavern “Traveller’s Home,” had bad beds and worse food. “The tavern at Woodford is miserable,” Davis complained, “but it may be that Mr. Cross [the Court Clerk] may take compassion on us & take us to his house.”
After two or three days, the court’s work was done and the itinerant bar moved to Bloomington, thirty miles away. That town was growing fast. In 1848 Davis reported: “The town authorities have just taken the census…The town is nearly 1,150…It is believed that, if houses were built, by the census of 1850 (two years hence) there would be 1,500 people.” Actually the count of that year showed a population of nearly 1,600.
“They are running crazy at Bloomington with property,” Davis declared in the fall of 1851. Two weeks later Davis, as agent for his relative, Levi Davis, sold Lincoln two Bloomington lots for $325.08. Two railroads had been authorized by the legislature to be constructed through the town. But the first frenzy of the land boom soon subsided. Lincoln held his lots five years and then sold them for $400.
When court was in session in Bloomington the Davises, from their earliest days there, had held a “court party” at their home for the lawyers. Sarah once wrote the Judge that she had secured some delicious oranges which, with some apples, she was saving for his court party. Years later an elderly woman who in her youth had participated in these parties told how Sarah, at Lincoln’s request, sang “The Charming Woman”:
After a week at Bloomington the circuit moved on to Mt. Pulaski, the county seat of Logan County, population 360. It was forty miles from Bloomington, a long day’s ride. While making his spring circuit with Lincoln in 1851, Davis wrote: “The tavern at Pulaski is perhaps the hardest place you ever saw. A new landlord by the name of Cass, just married—everything dirty & the eating Horrible . Judge Robbins, Lincoln, Stuart & everybody else from Springfield [were there.] The old woman looked as we would suppose the witch of Endor looked. She had a grown daughter who waited on the table—table greasy—table cloth greasy—floor greasy and everything else ditto. The girl was dressed in red calico with a black silk cardinal over it, with a wreath of artificial flowers (two full blown roses & little things in proportion) around her head. Waiting among greasy things. Think of it. I wonder if she ever washed herself. I guess the dirt must be half an inch thick all over her. The Lawyers thought she was dying to get married, but of course on such a subject as that I would not venture an opinion.” This description gives the stage setting for Davis’ amazement over the fact that, while others on the circuit complained about the food and beds, Lincoln never seemed to mind them. At the table, Lincoln was pre-occupied; buried in his own thoughts. “He thought more than any man I have ever known,” said William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and biographer.
“Lincoln & myself left Pulaski last evening about 5 o’clk & came 15 miles & stayed at Mr. Walker’s,” Davis reported. They were on their way to Clinton, population 367, the county seat of DeWitt County. The next morning they rode the remaining ten miles into Clinton where Lincoln, Gridley, Scott [John M. Scott, a young lawyer of Bloomington] and the Judge all stayed at Mrs. Hills’. “I found out,” the Judge informed his wife, “that Mrs. Hills’ was a dirty place—plenty of bedbugs, &c, &c.” A few years before he had written: “This thing of traveling in Illinois and being eaten up by bed bugs and mosquitoes (fleas you know don’t trouble me much) is not what it is cracked up to be.”
In 1851 Davis hurriedly finished court in Clinton in two days and set out for Monticello, another very small town, the county seat of Piatt County. En route Davis, Lincoln, and Campbell couldn’t resist stopping overnight at Mr. Richter’s tavern at Marion [now DeWitt] where the Judge had “a neat, clean bed—a great luxury,” he assured Sarah. They were distressed however because “a poor bound girl” in the house was pregnant, “one of the boys tho t to be the father.”
The next spring the Judge and bar had a disagreeable ride in the rain to reach Monticello. Finally they came to the Sangamon River about a mile from town. “Could not cross,” the Judge reported. “For two hours stayed in rain waiting for Ferryman. Swam the horses & took the buggy over straddle a canoe and we went over ourselves very comfortably in the Canoe.” They did not arrive at Monticello until 3 o’clock and had “quite a Court” for two days.