Lincoln: Logs to Logarithms

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Article taken from "Backsights" Magazine published by Surveyors Historical Society


by Neil Koos

No stranger to manual labor, Abraham Lincoln worked as a rail splitter, mill hand, farm laborer, store keeper, and corn husker; also postmaster, militiaman, appraiser, election clerk, surveyor, lawyer, humorist, politician and President.

When William Berry, a former partner, died on short notice, he left Lincoln in debt, due to joint obligations, in the amount of &1,100. Lincoln scaled down his study of law books and in the fall of 1833 (at age 24) "entered into the most technical and responsible work he had known. John Calhoun, County surveyor of Sangamon County, Illinois had more work than he could handle and appointed Lincoln to mark farm sections, roads and towns, Lincoln procured a compass and chain, then for six weeks, day and night he had his head deep in Gibson's Theory and Practice of Surveying and Flint's Treatise on Geometry, Trigonometry and Rectangular Surveying. From decimal fractions one book ran on into logarithms, the use of mathematical instruments, operating the chain, circumferenter, surveying by intersections, changing the scale of maps, leveling, methods of mensuration of areas.

"Some nights he worked alone 'til daylight and it wore him down. He was so fagged that his friends said he looked like a hard drinker after a two week's binge.

"In six weeks he had mastered his books and went to work. The open air and sun helped as he worked in field and timberland with compass and chain. His pay was $2.50 for a quarter section, $2.00 for half a quarter, 25 cents to 37 1/2 cents for a small town lot. He surveyed the towns of Petersburg, Bath, New Boston, Albany, Huron and others. He surveyed roads, school sections, pieces of farm land from four acres to 160 acres. His surveys became known for care and accuracy and he was called on to settle boundary disputes.

"In Petersburg, however, he laid out one street crooked. If he had run it straight it would have bout the house of Jemima Elmore and her family into the street. Lincoln knew her to be working a small farm with her children and she was the widow of Private Travis Elmore honorable in the service in Lincoln's company in the Black Hawk Wars.

"For his surveying trips he bought a horse, saddle and bridle for $57.86 and in April, 1834 Watkins, the seller, got judgement in court and levied on Lincoln's personal possessions. It looked as if he would lose his surveying instruments when Bill Greene showed up and turned in a horse on the Watkins' judgement and James Short came to the auction, that Lincoln was too sad to attend, and bid in the saddle, bridle, compass and other surveying instruments and gave them back to Lincoln."

Lincoln's true love was law and politics but said his surveying "produced bread and kept body and soul together." The rest is history.

-From Lincoln: Logs to Logarithms, by Neil Koos, RPLS. Reference: Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln, The Prairie Years. Reprinted from The Texas Land Surveyor, Feb. 1993.




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