Lincoln's Pittsfield

by Warren D. Winston

Carl Sandburg, poet and Lincoln biographer, once described Pittsfield, Illinois, as "an extraordinary little area" and he encouraged me to continue my research into the community. In 1959, this esteemed Lincoln scholar wrote to me, responding to a research paper that I had sent to him. The document, titled The Great Triumvirate — Lincoln, Hay, Nicolay, was my effort to document and promote our rich Lincoln heritage. It was also a story of the people in what we call "Lincoln's Pittsfield". Curl Sandburg, poei and Lincoln biographer, once described Pitisfield, Illinois, as "an extraordinary little area"

The people of Pike County influenced Abraham Lincoln's early legal and political career. John Hay and John George Nicolay befriended Lincoln while visiting Pittsfield many times riding the circuit and then worked with him closely during his presidency. Lincoln gave legal counsel to friend William Grimshaw, a Pittsfield attorney whom he represented in a federal court case. Grimshaw and Lincoln also served together in local court cases. Pittsfield founder Colonel William Ross and his wife'hosted Lincoln during his 1858 U.S. Senate campaign. Ross was also a local politician, representing Pike County in the State Senate. During the Civil War, President Lincoln called upon his old Griggsville friend, Ozias M. Hatch, to dispatch another secretary to assist Nicolay and Hay in their White House duties. Hatch sent a bright, young, Illinois College graduate from Griggsville, Charles Philbrick. John Greene Shastid's friendship with Lincoln grew stronger in the new frontier town of Pittsfield. Shastid had moved his young family to Pittsfield in 1836 from New Salem and his small frame home, built in 1838, still stands at 326 East Jefferson Street. Lincoln visited the residence often and enjoyed Mrs. Shastid's home cooked meals. Another Pittsfield attorney, Reuben Scanland, also hosted Abraham Lincoln in his home during the 1858 campaign.

The Lincoln Legal Papers Project has documented thirteen court cases in Pike County that involved Abraham Lincoln. Researchers are only beginning to identify homes of the participants in those legal disputes. We believe more Lincoln-era homes will be discovered. A walking tour of Pittsfield or Griggsville will probably be expanded to include new sites.


John Greene Shastid's grandson, Dr. Thomas Hall Shastid, provides us with a unique look into Abraham Lincoln's relationship with the Shastids and other Pike County families in his book My Second Life. John Shastid and his family knew Lincoln from their days at New Salem. They often visited his store and conversed with him on everyday occasions, much like any other member of the community. In January 1836 John Shastid moved his family from New Salem to Pittsfield. There were then only six houses in the little county seat, one of which Shastid purchased for his family. In 1838, Shastid built, with his own hands, "a considerable larger white one, a house that still stands and in which a quite remarkable person, though then unknown, was nevertheless on several occasions an honored guest. Abraham Lincoln, that is to say, although he still Sangamon County, not infrequently, as a circuit rider, made trips to Pittsfield on legal or other business.

One of Pittsfield's fondest tales of Abraham Lincoln occurred in Shastid's house at the corner of North Illinois and East Jefferson streets. Thomas Shastid recalled the tale: On one such occasion it happened that Grandfather Shastid had just come in from the country, where he had been hunting and had bagged a dozen quails (or wild pigeons). Wild meat was cheap meat as well as good meat then. It also happened, on that day, to be the only meat this family had. Grandfather's numerous progeny stood about, hungry, wide-eyed, waiting for the pigeons to finish broiling. All at once, as the custom was, somebody pushed the door open without knocking. And behold! There stood Abraham Lincoln. Abe sat down at their hearty invitation in the place of honor at the head of the table and soon the platter of pigeons was placed before him. At first Abe talked vivaciously. Then as he became absent-minded over his impending law-suit, he fell completely silent and ate voraciously. One by one the pigeons disappeared into the vast Lincolnian reservoir. A gesture from grandmother kept all the rest from calling for pigeon. After a short time Abe, still abstracted, reached out his fork for the very last pigeon, took it to his own plate, and began to eat it. Then my father, who at this time was still very young, burst suddenly into tears and cried out: "Abe Lincoln, you're an old hog!" Grandmother Shastid's observations also add to the local Lincoln lore. On one occasion, she asked Lincoln to view her flowers, at which he reportedly replied, "I will look at your flowers, Mother, but I really cannot understand what people see to admire in such things. I am somewhat deficient." Thomas Shastid concluded that, "From this I have often suspected that Lincoln was color-blind." This account may be the only existing documentation hinting that Lincoln suffered from this condition. Dr. Thomas Shastid was an eye doctor, or Ophthalmologist, and a trained observer of rare eye conditions.

Dr. Thomas Wesley Shastid, Thomas' father, purchased the old Star Hotel, 206 East Jefferson, on July 28, 1864, from George T. Edwards. The Star Hotel, a two story Greek Revival building, is very similar in design to the Milton Hay home on West Washington. The hotel is believed to have been built in the late 1840s. According to the Watson family, who purchased the property from Dr. Shastid, Mrs. Shastid told them, "Abraham Lincoln used to stay in this hotel when he was in Pittsfield". It is certainly of the Lincoln-era, and Mrs. Shastid would have been in a position to know. Jim and Linda Cherry are now restoring the home.


John George Nicolay, Whig Free Press publisher, was a young man when he met Abraham Lincoln in Pittsfield. Nicolay, born in Bavaria in 1832 and raised by Reverend and Mrs. Zachariah N. Garbutt, lived with them at 500 East Washington Street. The house was built in 1848. Nicolay lived with the Garbutts for nine years from 1848-1857. He came to live with the Garbutt's at age sixteen and the couple continued his upbringing as foster parents. John Nicolay eventually bought The Whig Free Press in 1854 at about the time Garbutt, also a one time owner of the newspaper, died.

According to Thomas Shastid, Nicolay met Abraham Lincoln on the Pittsfield square. In his book, Shastid described how his father introduced Lincoln to Nicolay:

Once, as my father was crossing the street from the printing-office to the Court-House yard he was met by a long, lanky, black-haired, gray-blue-eyed man, who needed some good printing and needed it quickly Abraham Lincoln. My father took him back to the shop and introduced to him young Nicolay. And this, I am sure was the first meeting of Lincoln with the lad who was to be instrumental in securing for him the nomination for the presidency, then during the campaign was to be his secretary, and again-after the election-was to become his private secretary at Washington and was to remain almost until the assassin's bullet had done its work, I have seen it stated that Lincoln first met Nicolay when the latter was assistant to the Secretary of State in Springfield [O. M. Hatch of Griggsville], or at least a casual visitor in his home. That, however, is undoubtedly a mistake.

In a way, Nicolay secured his own job as Lincoln's secretary by helping Lincoln to gain the Republican nomination. In February of 1860, Colonel Daniel B. Bush asked him to write an editorial on the upcoming presidential campaign for his Pike County Journal, Nicolay's own Whig Free Press successor. The Centennial issue of the Pike County Republican describes the editorial's significance in advocating.

Up to this time, Lincoln had been mentioned chiefly as a candidate for the vice presidency, with Seward for President... Come the National Convention in May, in the Wigwam at Chicago, Seward's eastern friends were powerful. The cause of Lincoln seemed hopeless. But back in the little town of Pittsfield Col. William Ross and other champions of Lincoln bethought themselves of Nicolay's editorial. The convention was deadlocked. Suddenly there was a change of sentiment. Many left the convention, never knowing what occasioned the change. Lincoln's friends had dug up Nicolay's editorial. They had it reprinted in hundreds of copies overnight. They circulated the editorial among the delegates. Lincoln was nominated on the third ballot, receiving 231 votes to Seward's 180.

Nicolay was with the President-elect when Lincoln made his "Farewell to Springfield" speech and accompanied Lincoln to Washington. John Nicolay retained his love for Pike County and returned to Pittsfield to marry his childhood sweetheart, Therena Bates, in her home on June 15, 1865 (the home was torn down years later to build the Pittsfield Post Office). After serving as United States Consul in Paris and working for a period as editor of The Chicago Republican, Nicolay returned to Pittsfield, eventually becoming a naturalized citizen in 1870.


John Hay's home, built between 1838 and 1843, at 322 West Washington Street, was owned by his uncle, attorney Milton Hay. According to John Hay's biography, young Hay moved from Warsaw, Illinois, in 1849, to live with his uncle and study classical languages at the John D. Thomson Academy, an institution that John Nicolay also attended. Kent and Kathy Zimmerman have recently restored this brick Greek Revival house for use as their home.

The Life and Letters of John Hay, published in 1915, reveal more about Hay the poet:

John Hay's poems fall into three classes. First, and most famous, are the Pike County Ballads—named for the Pike County where he spent much of his boyhood. There are six of these. 'Little Breeches' and 'Jim Bludso' rolled out spontaneously; the others seem rather the product of the impulse, common in artists, to follow up a happy stroke by repeating it with variations. In the complete edition of Hay's 'Poems,' put forth in 1890, 'Golyer' and The Pledge at Spunky Point' have been added. They are good., .for one of the reasons why dialect poems capture the public is their novelty.

Hay also maintained a Pike County connection in his poetry by basing characters on local residents. For example, Major Dorus Evelyn Bates, Therena's brother, served as the model for hero Tilmon Joy, celebrated in Hay's popular poem "Banty Tim." The biography also describes Hay's views of pioneer communities, writing that, "In long settled communities, having their accepted laws and creeds, their customs and special proprieties, it comes to be tacitly assumed that virtues and vices follow the line of social cleavage; but in a pioneer social medium like that which Hay describes, men are what they are."

Hay read law at his uncle's office when Milton left Pittsfield to practice in Springfield. After Lincoln's election, Nicolay suggested that Hay serve as his assistant secretary. Hay was with Lincoln at his deathbed following the assassination and he assisted Mrs. Lincoln with her affairs following the death. In his later career, Hay served as envoy to Paris, Charge d1 Affairs to Vienna, and legation secretary to Madrid. He briefly edited the Illinois State Journal and worked for a time at the New York Tribune. Authoring several novels, including America's first economic novel. The Breadwinners, Hay collaborated with Nicolay on a 4700-page life of Lincoln. Punctuating his career as statesman, President William McKinley appointed him Ambassador to the Court of St. James in London and later made Hay his Secretary of State. While Secretary of State, John Hay negotiated the Panama Canal Treaty, giving the United States "the right to build and defend" the Panama Canal, and authored the "The Open Door Notes," opening trade to China.


Ten years after Zachariah Garbutt's death from smallpox in 1855, his widow married Mr. George Purkitt. The home of Mrs. Phimelia Garbutt-Purkitt stands at the northwest corner of North Monroe and East Jefferson Streets. Dr. Thomas Hall Shastid remembered Mrs. Purkitt when she lived in this home. He wrote, Her foster son, Nicolay, remained in her home till 1857, at which time he was twenty-five years old. Mrs. Garbutt married George L. Purkitt in 1865. Shortly afterward she and her husband removed to North Monroe street, just across from my father's house...In this house., .she regaled me many a time with stories of her boys the only boys, the only children, that she ever had had. How proud she was, especially of Nicolay, the man who had "made" Lincoln president and "made" Hay America's chief diplomat.


The Reuben Scanland home, 402 West Washington Street, was built about 1850 and is across the street from the Milton (and John) Hay home. In the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (Volume 61, Number 3, Autumn 1968), Dr. Leroy H. Fisher writes in "Lincoln's 1858 Visit to Pittsfield, Illinois," about the Scanland family. Fisher writes, "On one occasion Mrs. Scanland prepared a special turkey dinner for Lincoln and her husband's political friends, but they did not return on time from a nearby drugstore where they were visiting. The dinner was cold when her guests finally arrived and sat down to eat, all because Lincoln had been telling stories for an amused crowd." In The Prairie Years II, Carl Sandburg added his spin on the story, writing, "The laziest man there ever was,' Mrs. Scanland scolded later, 'good for nothing except to tell stories.'" The present owners of the Scanland home, Sam and Marjorie Gamble, have recently discovered a news clipping from a Pike County paper. A letter from B. F. Bond, dated Chicago, Sunday, February 5, 1928, and printed in the newspaper, reveals more about the incident: So that the story goes, your mother, then Miss Susan J. Scanland, was a guest, at the home of her uncle, Reuben Scanland, who at the time was one of the leading attorneys of the Pike County bar, and also mayor of the City of Pittsfield. It was at the Scanland home that Mr. Lincoln and his party was entertained on this memorable event. A special turkey dinner had been prepared for the occasion, the hostess growing momentarily more disturbed lest her dinner grow cold, while Mr. Lincoln entertained the assembled guests with story after story.


East of the Pittsfield square, just beyond the city limits on Route 106, is the home of Colonel William Ross. Abraham Lincoln stayed at his home during his 1858 visit. It was built in 1845-1846, damaged by fire in 1896, and subsequently rebuilt. Jim and Noue Filbert, who extensively restored the home which had stood empty for generations, now own it. Leroy Fisher described that visit:

Another friend of many years was Colonel William Ross, who had helped found Pittsfield and named it after his old home in Massachusetts. Ross, born in 1792, was a veteran of the War of 1812. He had become acquainted with Lincoln in 1832, when both were in the Black Hawk War, and the relationship became close when Ross and Lincoln were members of the Illinois General Assembly from 1834 to 1842...Lincoln was returning to Pittsfield on the last day of September, 1858, to speak on the theme of his momentous campaign discussions with Douglas; the future of slavery in the United States. The coming of Lincoln was like the return of a favorite son, and their welcome for him could be none other than from the heart.

Ross and a party of Pittsfield Republicans met Lincoln in Florence and accompanied him to the palatial Ross home at the east edge of Pittsfield. While visiting, Lincoln and Ross spent time discussing politics and reminiscing about their mutual experiences and associations in the Black Hawk War and the Illinois General Assembly. On October 1, Lincoln attended a dinner at the Daniel H. Gilmer residence and spoke to a crowd in the town square, later sitting for a photo session in the courtyard.


In keeping with the custom of the day, Lincoln's 1858 campaign visit to Pittsfield warranted a cannon salute, which resulted in an unfortunate injury to Charles R. Lame, who lived at 409 East Fayette. Fisher recounts the accident: Lame, a former Whig turned Republican, and Robert C. Scanland, Lincoln's longtime friend, formed the committee to fire the cannon. Lame's duty was to swab the barrel with a wet sponge or cloth and ram the powder charge in place; Scanland's task was to fill the fuse hole with powder and stand ready with a lighted torch to ignite the cannon charge. They made at least one successful test firing and Lame had completed swabbing the hot barrel with water and was ramming a powder charge in place in preparation for the second one. Scanland, meanwhile, using but one hand, filled the fuse hole with powder, while in the other hand he held the lighted torch. To ensure that the powder in the fuse hole would not ignite and cause a premature explosion, he placed his thumb over the fuse hole, but quickly jerked it away because of the extreme heat of the cannon barrel. As a result of his sudden movement, sparks fell from the torch he held overhead and ignited the powder in the fuse hole. The explosion that followed in the cannon barrel burned Lame's face and caused the ramrod he was using to severely lacerate his right arm. The ramrod itself was hurled to Piper Lane, a block away, and imbedded in a tree. A group of volunteers carefully carried Lame to his house. Meanwhile, others informed his wife, who was with a group of town ladies making a flag to be displayed on the stand where Lincoln would speak later that day. After the day's events, Lincoln checked in on Lame, but was denied admission by his wife because Dr. J. H. Ledlie had ordered no visitors. Lincoln promised to have the photographer deliver a copy of the ambrotype photograph taken that day to the family.

A large crowd had gathered in the Pittsfield square for the Lincoln address, which was scheduled to begin at 2:00 in the afternoon. Lincoln supposedly spoke for two hours. His exact speech has never been located and newspaper accounts of the day have never been found. Lincoln reportedly left town after 5:00. He stayed the night at Aaron Tyler's farm in Griggsville before continuing his campaign trip. Tyler's home still stands and is now in the city limits.


William Grimshaw lived at 750 West Perry. This stately home was built in 1847, and is still in the Grimshaw family. Recently restored, it is an early Illinois showpiece of history and period furniture. Grimshaw and Lincoln had several court cases together. William Grimshaw was one of the founders of the Illinois Republican Party and a delegate to the 1847 Constitutional Convention. Because of the close relationship between the two, there is little doubt that Lincoln was a frequent guest in the Grimshaw home. The Lincoln Legal Papers Project has discovered a federal court case in which William Grimshaw hired Lincoln to represent him.

William Grimshaw was also the Chairman of the East School Building Committee. He hired Chicago architect John M. Van Osdel to design the structure. Osdel is often called Illinois' first architect and he designed The Palmer House in Chicago and the Governor's Mansion in Springfield. The Pittsfield East School became a school for the county. Parents could board their children in Pittsfield so that they could attend this outstanding institution.

While in Washington, Nicolay wrote to Grimshaw, his personal friend, and appointed him his "power of attorney" to handle his personal affairs. This charred document, written entirely by Nicolay, recently emerged in Pittsfield. A fire in Grimshaw's Pittsfield office destroyed many records from his early career. We can only surmise what yet-to-be-found letters between Grimshaw and Nicolay may tell of events in Pittsfield following Nicolay's departure for Washington in 1860. Grimshaw saved all of his documents from the 1847 Constitutional Convention which fortunately survived the fire. According to Tom Schwartz, State Historian, "the Grimshaw manuscript collection is the only surviving set of working papers from the 1847 Illinois Constitutional Convention". Through the generosity of the Grimshaw family and the cooperation of the Illinois State Historical Library, these historical documents will soon be microfilmed.


The Michael J. Noyes home, at 629 East Washington Street, was built in 1847. It is a two story red brick structure and has recently been restored by its present owners, Mr. and Mrs. Blake Roderick. Michael John Noyes, born March 30, 1791, in Landaff Township, New Hampshire, died in Pittsfield on April 29, 1867. In 1842 he started the first newspaper in Pike County, The Sucker and Farmer's Record, which was published weekly until 1846, when it was sold and succeeded by The Free Press. About four issues of The Sucker have survived and are located at the Illinois State Historical Library. Noyes was an avid, pro-Whig and had served in minor public office in Missouri before moving to Illinois. According to the Noyes family history, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech under the tree in Noyes' front yard.

The Pittsfield homes that Lincoln visited from 1838 to 1858 are now mostly restored as private residences and are elegant by current standards. These homes were also relatively palatial by contemporary standards, as well. Hosted by mostly pro-Whig supporters, Abraham Lincoln dined and slept in the finest homes in the community. Prominent attorneys, Milton Hay, Reuben Scanland, and William Grimshaw invited this lanky prairie attorney to private dinners in their homes. "Lincoln's Pittsfield" contains more preserved homes with a direct link to Lincoln's early career than possibly any town in Illinois. The Pittsfield families who befriended young Lincoln and even hired him as their attorney also extended to him their warm hospitality in these stately homes.

Abraham Lincoln showed his admiration and respect for Pike County by choosing three local young men to work and live in the White House: John Hay, John George Nicolay, and Charles Philbrick. Letters from Pittsfield traveled quickly from the Griggsville railroad station, on the Wabash main line, to the White House during the Civil War. Through his hard-working secretaries, news from Pittsfield no doubt reached the President. We know from a recently found letter that the family of Dr. Seeley, a Union physician, contacted Nicolay during the war to solicit his help in locating a southern camp where the doctor was confined. Nicolay's reply to Dr. Seeley, inquiring about his confinement, survived the war and was carefully preserved in the Seeley family Bible. Perhaps Nicolay shared this and other news with Lincoln.

As Abraham Lincoln walked the streets of Washington, he may have often thought about those young men from Pike County in Union uniforms. President Lincoln could easily have remembered walking the streets of Pittsfield on a warm summer evening along tree-shaded yards or telling his stories at a Pittsfield drug store. He enjoyed this town and he liked and trusted its people. Walk the streets that Abraham Lincoln walked, and you too shall discover "Lincoln's Pittsfield."