SPRINGFIELD –The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum has obtained an amazing trove of documents that trace one southern Illinois family’s history, from arriving in America to surviving fires and floods to suffering tragic losses in war.
The centerpiece of the collection is a rare 1796 atlas that family patriarch Samuel Spence, a sea captain originally from Scotland, brought with him to Illinois in 1838. The atlas is inscribed with family history and notes, and much of it has been hand colored.
The collection also includes about 800 manuscripts and hundreds of photographs and newspaper clippings about the family and the communities around them – Olmsted, Mound City, Cairo and more.
“The Spence family has a colorful history, but what really sets this collection apart is its incredible detail. Anyone studying it will get an in-depth picture of daily life in southern Illinois from the state’s early days to the modern era,” said Alan Lowe, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. “Everyone with an interest in Illinois history owes the Spence family a debt of gratitude.”
When the Spences arrived in 1838, they settled on the Ohio River just north of its confluence with the Mississippi, near today’s town of Olmsted.
A journal recounts the misery of their early years. “I am very much dissatisfied with this place. No money and am unable to go to work on account of the family’s sickness. No kind of hearty victuals to be had for love or money,” wrote one of the Spences.
Eventually the family prospered. Documents list purchases at the store they ran (everything from peas and beans to scissors and a “molasses faucet”) and their donation of land to monks founding a priory. Later photos and diplomas show family trips and young women studying to be secretaries and nurses.
Later still, two adventurous Spence brothers became airmail pilots and then sailors traveling the world. Both died during World War II when the merchant ships on which they served were torpedoed by German submarines. The collection also includes their sister’s many anguished letters asking officials for information.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, at 212 N. Sixth St. in Springfield, is dedicated to telling the story of America’s 16th president through old-fashioned scholarship and modern technology. It also serves as the state historical library.
The library holds an unparalleled collection of Lincoln material, as well as some 12 million items pertaining to other aspects of Illinois history. Meanwhile, the museum uses traditional exhibits, eye-catching special effects and innovative story-telling techniques to educate visitors.