Abraham Lincoln left home in 1831 to work in New Salem, Illinois. The brag of Denton Offutt, his employer, that young Lincoln could “outrun, whip, or throw down any man in Sangamon county” could not go unchallenged for long.
Lincoln Encounters the “Clary’s Grove Boys.”
“a name and standing of his own”
Lincoln’s Wrestle with Armstrong.
IN the neighborhood of the village, or rather a few miles to the south-west, lay a strip of timber called Clary’s Grove. The boys who lived there were a terror to the entire region—seemingly a necessary product of frontier civilization. They were friendly and goodnatured; they could trench a pond, dig a bog, build a house; they could pray and fight, make a village or create a state. They would do almost anything for sport or fun, love or necessity. Though rude and rough, though life’s forces ran over the edge of the bowl, foaming and sparkling in pure deviltry for deviltry’s sake, yet place before them a poor man who needed their aid, a lame or sick man, a defenceless woman, a widow, or an orphaned child, they melted into sympathy and charity at once. They gave all they had, and willingly toiled or played cards for more. Though there never was under the sun a more generous parcel of rowdies, a stranger’s introduction was likely to be the most unpleasant part of his acquaintance with them. They conceded leadership to one Jack Armstrong, a hardy, strong, and well-developed specimen of physical manhood, and under him they were in the habit of “cleaning out” New Salem whenever his order went forth to do so.
Offut and “Bill” Clary—the latter skeptical of Lincoln’s strength and agility—ended a heated discussion in the store one day over the new clerk’s ability to meet the tactics of Clary’s Grove, by a bet of ten dollars that Jack Armstrong was, in the language of the day, “a better man than Lincoln.”
The new clerk strongly opposed this sort of an introduction, but after much entreaty from Offut, at last consented to make his bow to the social lions of the town in this unusual way. He was now six feet four inches high, and weighed, as his friend and confidant, William Greene, tells us with impressive precision, “two hundred and fourteen pounds.” The contest was to be a friendly one and fairly conducted. All New Salem adjourned to the scene of the wrestle. Money, whiskey, knives, and all manner of property were staked on the result.
It is unnecessary to go into the details of the encounter. Everyone knows how it ended; how at last the tall and angular rail-splitter, enraged at the suspicion of foul tactics, and profiting by his height and the length of his arms, fairly lifted the great bully by the throat and shook him like a rag; how by this act he established himself solidly in the esteem of all New Salem, and secured the respectful admiration and friendship of the very man whom he had so thoroughly vanquished.
From this time forward Jack Armstrong, his wife Hannah, and all the other Armstrongs became his warm and trusted friends. None stood readier than they to rally to his support, none more willing to lend a helping hand. Lincoln appreciated their friendship and support, and in after years proved his gratitude by saving one member of the family from the gallows.
— William H. Herndon, Herndon’s Lincoln (1890).
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