Abe Lincoln Named a Town for Himself and Christened it with Watermelons

The founding and maintenance of the United States by its presidents led to the subsequent naming of cities, towns, schools, roads, bridges, and buildings in their honor.

Perhaps the most obvious example pertains to George Washington, namesake of our nation’s capital; not to mention, it seems like every community in every corner of the country has a Washington Street of some varying length and prominence.

James Monroe with Washington shares the distinction of having a national capital named for him: Monrovia, Liberia. Here in the US at the state level there’s Jefferson City, MO (Thomas Jefferson); Madison, WI (James Madison); Jackson, MS (Andrew Jackson); and innumerable counties nationwide named for every one of these men and others. The list continues on through the forward trajectory of history.

This trend seems to have peaked after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, prompting a wave of locations, public spaces, and memorials named for the 35th president. With the founding and incorporation of towns essentially at a standstill since westward expansion in the 19th and 20th centuries, most modern presidents lend their monikers to the likes of battleships, airports, and national parks.

There was only one president, though, actively took part in the naming of a city and put pen to paper, scribing its name identically to his.

“You better not do that, for I never knew anything named Lincoln that amounted to much…”

(While the capital city Lincoln, NE was indeed named for Honest Abe, he had no part in its naming.)

Lincoln, IL was established as the county seat of Logan County, situated so exactly in the middle of the state it was as if the town were platted by a seasoned surveyor.

In fact it was Abraham Lincoln who assisted in plotting out each tract of land for settlers to cultivate, using lessons learned while briefly employed as a prairie surveyor several years prior.

In the early-to-mid 1800s, the pioneers and settlers were blazing westward from a number of places for a number of reasons. Some were Southern gentry looking to till new soil and cash in on the lucrative cotton market. Some were New Englanders bent on preaching the evils of slavery in the heartland. Some were entrepreneurial spirits looking to strike it rich with the California gold rush. Some were hoping to make the best of free land allotments by the government in the Pacific Northwest on the condition they farm it for an extended period of time. Some were European immigrants escaping famine, overpopulation, or economic hardship from Ireland, Germany, and the countries of Scandinavia.

For many, the launching point west began in Missouri, by way of Illinois. Riverways were indirect and some weren’t navigable. Railroads were still up and coming and tracks were relatively limited. Soon these routes would become interconnected and lead to an even more explosive surge westward.

As part of a plan to link the swelling lakefront city of Chicago with other westerly hubs like St. Louis, a railroad was proposed between Springfield, IL and Bloomington, IL which directly boosted the value of the land between the two cities.

A joint venture by three men called the Town Site Company “purchased the land from Isaac and Joseph B. Loose for $1,350”1 in 1853 and turned to one of the men’s lawyer friend, Abraham Lincoln, to draw up the necessary papers. “Mr. Lincoln drew all the deeds and papers and the document of Aug. 24, 1853, which contained for the first time the word ‘Lincoln,’ was also drawn by Mr. Lincoln in Mr. Lincoln’s office in Springfield.”2

Abraham Lincoln, 1857/ Image via Public Domain

Though Lincoln, the town, states on its website “There is some controversy over who had the original idea to name the town Lincoln… Unfortunately, no one knows who named the town Lincoln,” poet-historian Carl Sandburg notes in his voluminous biography of the president that it was the men of the Town Site Company who instructed Lincoln, the man, to name if for himself.

To this Lincoln replied, employing his signature self-deprecating humor that made him a favorite frontier storyteller, “‘You better not do that, for I never knew anything named Lincoln that amounted to much.’ Then he wrote in the name of Lincoln, and it was so spelled out on the maps and railroad time tables.”3

In his classic quirky fashion, the way bottles of wine are broken over the bow of boats before their maiden voyages Abraham Lincoln christened the town by using, of all things, watermelon juice.

As recounted to Congressman Lawrence Beaumont Stringer, “Mr. Lincoln purchased two watermelons, at about the noon hour, brought them, one under each arm, to the new square, invited Messrs. Latham, Gillett and Hickox to help him dispose of them, with the remark ‘Now we’ll christen the new town.’”4

There stands today a statue of a slice of watermelon near the railroad depot as a testament to Lincoln’s participation in the founding and naming of Lincoln, IL.

1 City of Lincoln. “Lincoln History.” lincolnil.gov.https://www.lincolnil.gov/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=45&Itemid=68

2Stringer, Lawrence Beaumont, History of Logan County: A Record of its Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement (Chicago, Pioneer Pub. Co., 1911), p. 567

3Sandburg, Carl, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years II (New York, Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1926) p. 45

4Stringer, Lawrence Beaumont, History of Logan County: A Record of its Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement (Chicago, Pioneer Pub. Co., 1911), p. 568

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