Abraham Lincoln to Justin H. Butterfield, 10 August 18521Springfield Illinois
August 10 1852 Hon J Butterfield Commr[Commissioner] of the Gen Land office Washington City Dear Sir
When the Land office was opened here on the 26th July last for the entry of lands which had been withdrawn from market in consequence of the Central RailRoad more than one application was made for nearly or quite every tract so that a public auction had to take place2 At this auction a large number of tracts were run up very high some to between nine & ten Dollars per acre and struck off it being well understood at the time that the successful bidders had no intention of taking the lands and paying for them at their bids The next day or two after the last day of this Public auction to wit on the 31st July 1852 John T Stuart who had made no application before applied to the Register to enter at the minimum price of the lands bid off and forfeited as above the South East half of Section 28 the W[West]½ of Sec[Section] 29 the entire Sec 32 and the N[North]½ of Sec 33 all in township No[Number] 20 North of Range No 2 west of the 3d principal meredian— and tendered payment for the same The Register refused to
<Page 2>allow the entry & purchase but gave Stuart a certificate of the facts of the application and tender No other application was made for these lands on that day Some days after this these lands were again put up at public auction and all bid off at a Dollar & twenty five cents per acre under a combination doubtless among those who were concerned in making and forfeiting the former exorbitant bids. These last sales the Register & Receiver have ratified so far as in them lies and Stuart and I as interested with him wish to contest their legality and to insist on Stuarts’ legal right to have the lands upon his application
Will you please do or advise us how todo what ever may be necessary to insure us a fair hearing of our caseYour obt[obedient] servantA. LincolnP. S Lest I be misunderstood I wish to say I do not intend by any thing I have said in the above letter to cast any censure upon the Register or Receiver here A. L. Again since writing the above I have been applied to by Mr William J Black who made an application and tender on the same day precisely as Stuart did (and whose claim in all respects is like Stuarts) for the entire Sec 27 the South half of Sec 33 and the entire Sec 34 in the same township & Range as Stuarts application3
<Page 3>I wish his case to be considered with StuartsYours &c[etc.] A Lincoln4
1This letter is attributed to Abraham Lincoln but is not in his hand.
Neither Roy P. Basler, editor of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, nor the project editors have discovered the whereabouts of the original letter in Lincoln’s hand. In December 1933, Paul W. Gates, a professor of history at Bucknell University, who was conducting research in the Bureau of Land Management Records on the Illinois Central Railroad and federal land policy at the time, located this handwritten transcription of the letter enclosed in a letter from Richard M. Young, attorney for William J. Black, to John Wilson, Justin H. Butterfield’s successor as commissioner of the U.S. General Land Office, and sent it to the Abraham Lincoln Association. In 1953, Basler reported the original as missing. Project editors conducted a thorough search for the document in the Records of the Bureau of Land Management Records at the National Archives and did not locate it. In the absence of the original, project editors have adopted the handwritten letter provided by Gates and used by Basler.
Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 2:135; Paul W. Gates to Benjamin P. Thomas, 31 December 1933, Abraham Lincoln Association Files, Lincoln Collection, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Springfield, IL; Allan G. Bogue, Margaret Beattie Bogue, Walter LaFeber, and Joel Silbey, “Paul Wallace Gates (1901-1999),” AHA Perspectives 37 (May 1999), https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-1999/in-memoriam-paul-wallace-gates, accessed 5 November 2021; Paul W. Gates, Illinois Central Railroad and its Colonization Work (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934).
2After several failed attempts to build a north-south railroad in Illinois, a successful campaign to build such a railroad began in 1850, when the U.S. Congress, at the behest of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, granted the state nearly 2.6 million acres of federal land. The grant included alternate 640-acre sections of public land adjacent to and within six miles of both sides of the two-hundred-foot-wide right-of-way. The legislation gave the Illinois General Assembly the right to dispose of the land to help pay for the construction of the railroad. In February 1851, the General Assembly chartered the Illinois Central Railroad to sell the land and build the railroad.
When Congress enacted or was considering legislation for railroad land grants, it was the practice of the U.S. General Land Office to withdraw from sale the public lands within the proposed boundaries of the grant until railroad officials selected the lands, appraised them, and set up a system for public sale. The General Land Office did this to prevent settlers or speculators from anticipating the route and entering the lands. Illinois Central officials were deliberate in selecting the lands and placing them on sale, and many citizens in Illinois had become restive over their perceived slowness.
“An Act Granting the Right of Way, and Making a Grant of Land to the States of Illinois, Mississippi, and Alabama, in Aid of the Construction of a Railroad from Chicago to Mobile,” 20 September 1850, Statutes at Large of the United States 9 (1862):466-67; “An Act to Incorporate the Illinois Central Railroad Company,” 10 February 1851, Private Laws of Illinois (1851), 61-74; Paul W. Gates, The Farmer’s Age: Agriculture 1815-1860 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960), 89, 90, 91.
4In May 1854, Commissioner Wilson ruled that John T. Stuart’s application was void and that Turner R. King and Walter Davis, register and receiver, respectively, of the U.S. General Office in Springfield, were correct in refusing Stuart’s application. Wilson recorded his ruling on Stuart’s application in a letter dated May 2, 1854 and addressed to General Land Office officials in Springfield. Basler quotes this letter in part in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Wilson’s ruling on Black’s application is unknown.
Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 2:135.
Copy of Handwritten Transcription, 3 page(s), Abraham Lincoln Association Files, Lincoln Collection, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (Springfield, IL).