Berry and Lincoln: Frontier Merchants by Zarel C. Spears and Robert S. Barton (A Book Review)

Abraham LincolnThis delightful book published in 1947 is considered a classic in Abraham Lincoln literature, and is fairly rarely found on the book market.  The subtitle “The Store that ‘Winked Out,’” is in reference to Lincoln’s famous quote about how at one time he was a partner in a general store and that it sort of fell out of existence (winked out).  Lincoln’s time as a storekeeper is generally given short mention in the big full life biographies of him, and usually to state that Lincoln’s partner died a drunkard and Lincoln, in his famous honesty, took on and eventually paid all debts.

Spears and Barton have dug into the scant information available and come up with a somewhat different and certainly better-rounded picture.  They fill out the portrait of William F. Berry to an extent no one has ever done, in part because Zarel C. Spears is a descendant of the Berry clan.  This historical relationship possibly influences the writing to a degree, but Spears and Berry document their story well and so it seems that their tale has considerable merit.

In short, Lincoln found himself a 22 year old stranded in the tiny hamlet of New Salem, Illinois in 1832.  Largely by chance he entered into a partnership with William Berry, another young man whom Lincoln had known from their just completed tours in the Black Hawk wars.  The partnership survived several twists and turns, and a move to a larger building across the muddy street, before “winking out” in 1834.  The store never made much money, as there was stiff competition in a town whose peak population was only around 100 people.

The authors do a good job of piecing together the limited records of the day, finding court records of notes signed and suits against those notes (notes are essentially IOUs and were commonly used in the cash-poor wilderness prior to the advent of a formal banking system).  In reconstructing the debt burden, the authors find that most of the debt was attributable to Lincoln himself.  This isn’t surprising given that he had no money at the time and thus needed to move forward on credit.  Berry actually came from a fairly influential family in the area and co-signed Lincoln’s notes and at one point actually put his house up as collateral on one debt (for $250) that had come due in order to protect his own half interest in the store.  Income to the store was meager in the best of times and both partners worked other jobs to keep their heads above water – Lincoln as postmaster and a surveyor, Berry as constable.  Berry also started college, but after one year he was back home and had died from some illness (many suspect drunkenness but the authors, while not disputing it, suggest otherwise).  In his last few weeks home before Berry’s death the store was sold at auction to pay off the debts.  Not long after Lincoln began his first of four terms in the Illinois state legislature.

The book is a fascinating and in-depth look at this little known period in Lincoln (and Berry)’s lives.  The authors do justice to both of these men, as well as give us an insight into the hardships of frontier life in the antebellum period of American history.

More about Abraham Lincoln.

Follow me by subscribing by email on the home page.  And feel free to “Like” my Facebook author’s page and connect on LinkedIn.  Share with your friends using the buttons below.

4 thoughts on “Berry and Lincoln: Frontier Merchants by Zarel C. Spears and Robert S. Barton (A Book Review)

    • Yes, one of his many early jobs in which he tried to make ends meet. It was interesting to see how the authors attempted to “set the record straight,” in large part because one of them was a descendant.

      I have over 700 Lincoln titles in my collection and quite a few are fairly obscure. It makes for interesting reading.

Leave a Reply