The Sangamo Frontier
History and Archaeology in the Shadow of Lincoln
When Abraham Lincoln moved to Illinois’ Sangamo Country in 1831, he found a pioneer community transforming from a cluster of log houses along an ancient trail to a community of new towns and state roads. But two of the towns vanished in a matter of years, and many of the activities and lifestyles that shaped them were almost entirely forgotten. In The Sangamo Frontier, archaeologist Robert Mazrim unearths the buried history of this early American community, breathing new life into a region that still rests in Lincoln’s shadow.
Named after a shallow river that cuts through the prairies of central Illinois, the Sangamo Country—an area that now encompasses the capital city of Springfield and present-day Sangamon County—was first colonized after the War of 1812. For the past fifteen years, Mazrim has conducted dozens of excavations there, digging up pieces of pioneer life, from hand-forged iron and locally made crockery to pewter spoons and Staffordshire teacups. And here, in beautifully illustrated stories of each dig, he shows how each of these small artifacts can teach us something about the lifestyles of people who lived on the frontier nearly two hundred years ago. Allowing us to see past the changed modern landscape and the clichés of pioneer history, Mazrim deftly uses his findings to portray the homes, farms, taverns, and pottery shops where Lincoln’s neighbors once lived and worked.
Drawing readers into the thrill of discovery, The Sangamo Frontier inaugurates a new kind of archaeological history that both enhances and challenges our written history. It imbues today’s landscape with an authentic ghostliness that will reawaken the curiosity of anyone interested in the forgotten people and places that helped shape our nation.
“Until I was introduced to Robert Mazrim’s splendid book I had never heard of Sangamo Town—which was not surprising since it had lived out its life and vanished by 1850. While towns of the ancient world tended to last for centuries, in America progress means that very little is built for permanence. We shovel away the past with scarcely a word of regret. The author’s study of Sangamo County not only makes fascinating reading but also serves as classic demonstration of the elements that, when woven together, bring the lost past to life. There are many other lost towns from Virginia to California, every one of which can provide scholars and students with an exercise in archaeohistorical deduction—but first they must read Robert Mazrim’s The Sangamo Frontier.”
“In The Sangamo Frontier, the culmination of years of determined and loving detection, the archaeologist Robert Mazrim brings a searchlight to bear on the region’s early material culture and documentary sources. We accompany him on painstaking excavations that inform a study graced by shrewd scholarship and assured revisionism. Mazrim exposes the complex layers of Native American, French, and early American habitation. He rescues extinct settlements. He corrects misinterpretations and mislabeled sites, not least in Lincoln’s New Salem. He shows the remarkable—because routine—presence of fine imported pottery in frontier log houses. His readers will not see the Land of Lincoln in quite the same way again.”
“Robert Mazrim makes archaeology interesting for a broad audience in the way that Carl Sagan did for astronomy and Stephen Jay Gould did for paleontology and natural history. He breaks new ground in studying frontier history using the findings from various digs in central Illinois. And his study comes at a fortuitous time as Illinois and the nation prepare to celebrate the Lincoln Bicentennial.”