- 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
The next spring, Davis, Lincoln and Campbell again came to Paris together, but Lincoln had his own buggy. It rained all the way from Danville. “We can’t ride anywhere without its raining,” Davis complained. “Pete,” one of his horses, had been hurt at the stable in Danville and the Judge was annoyed at the hostler. To cap it all, the stage driver blundered: “The Danville stage came in & passed through town just as I was leaving Court—when lo and behold the key was lost & the mail passed on to Marshall, with, I have no doubt, a letter from your own sweet self. The Postmaster says, on the stage’s return tomorrow, that he is in hopes to open the mail…Lincoln got a letter from his wife. She says…[her baby] has the nursing sore mouth—child 18 mos. old. I guess she ought to have quit nursing some time ago.”
From Paris the circuit went to Shelbyville, Shelby County, seventy miles away, population 385; it took at least two days to reach it. On the way Davis had to pass through Charleston, the seat of Coles County, which was not on his circuit. In good weather he enjoyed the first half of the trip. “The country between Paris & Charleston,” he asserted, “is handsomer than any I have ever seen in the State & if Yankees instead of Kentuckians and Tennesseans had the control of it, it would blossom as the rose.”
In November, 1851, Davis, Lincoln and Campbell avoided an overnight stop in Charleston by taking three days to go to Shelbyville and staying at farm houses. But the next spring they found a pleasant, comfortable inn at Charleston with a good supper and a clean bed. “The old tavern keeper asked a blessing at the table.” The following day’s ride to Shelbyville, however, exhausted them. “My horses were very tired,” Davis reported. “Mr. Lincoln’s old horse nearly gave out.” Davis began to grumble that Paris and Shelbyville should be taken off his circuit.
“Shelbyville,” Davis wrote in 1848, “is as ragged and dilapidated a place as you ever saw—no improvements for ten years.” But the tavern then was tolerable and the food first rate. Even when it rained for several days Davis stayed comfortably in his room reading novels and playing whist with Judge Treat. When court adjourned the Judge led the lawyers on a fishing trip on the Kaskaskia River. And some very clever, gentlemanly people then lived in Shelbyville; Davis reported a party for the court and bar at Colonel Prentiss’ home. “The entertainment was elegant—Parlors handsomely furnished—Supper at ten—Roast Pig, Ham, Turkeys, Custard, Coffee, Tea & a variety of Cakes and Pies—Wines & liquors on the side board—Card tables, &c &c.” Davis also described a dance. The young ladies and gentlemen seemed well dressed. “The music, everybody said, was good but the fiddler was drunk. The town was full of people & 2 drunken men in their shirt sleeves pushed their way through and came into the dance. I assure you everything looked democratish enough to have suited the most fastidious.”
From Shelbyville they went to Sullivan, the seat of Moultrie County. It was a small town, “not any better than Clinton,” Davis reported. “The people are the regular hunting shirt Tennesseans.” The twenty-mile ride to reach it was sometimes unpleasant. Davis described an all-day trip there in the rain; with a buffalo robe, umbrella and overcoat, he claimed that he kept from getting wet. In time they learned to stop at farms on the way. “Lincoln, Anthony Thornton, Campbell & Moulton and myself went (last Sunday morning) to Mr. John Wards about five miles from Shelbyville,” Davis wrote. “Whiled away several hours, got a fine dinner, & about 3 o’clock started for Sullivan where we got about 6 o’clock.”
As usual the tavern at Sullivan was bad and they tried to stay somewhere else: “We found Mrs. Elder with a very sick headache and abed. We went to a tavern but I only got supper. Really got vexed on account of [bad] stable for my horses. Went to Mrs. Elder’s & slept & next morning got breakfast at tavern & afterwards took all our meals & slept at Mrs. Elder’s. The tavern was so tough that I should have been in a bad humor to have staid there.”
With joy, Davis drove from Sullivan to Decatur, the seat of Macon County, his “old stamping ground.” “I left [Sullivan] yesterday morning with Campbell—Lincoln in his buggy—& we got to Decatur about 3 o’clk,” he wrote, a distance of about 25 miles. “You can’t imagine how well I feel, to get round my old haunts. The Tavern is first rate and the people old friends.” At first Mr. Crone ran the brick inn but later Davis wrote, “Mr. Elliott keeps the tavern which is as good as that kept by Mr. Crone. Everything is clean and neat. I got a straw bed for the first time.” By June, when he arrived on his spring circuit, the weather was beginning to be warm. “Slept without my flannel shirt; also took my drawers off,” he reported, asking Sarah if she couldn’t make him a light flannel nightgown. Once he took a bath in his room, his first in two weeks.
Last on the circuit came Taylorville, the seat of government in Christian County. Davis first went there as a lawyer in 1848. “I left Decatur last Sunday morning with Mr. Benedict…in the rain,” he wrote, “and went over a blind road and poor country to Taylorville, which is a new place but prettily laid out and tastefully arranged with trees & shrubs…The tavern is kept by Col. Bond who married a sister of Mrs. Ewing in Bloomington.”