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The Sangamo Frontier

History and Archaeology in the Shadow of Lincoln

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.

362 pages | 42 halftones, 45 figures, 13 maps | 6 x 9 | © 2006


Chicago and Illinois

Geography: Cultural and Historical Geography

History: American History


“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.

Ivor Noel Hume, author of Something from the Cellar

“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.”

Richard Carwardine, author of Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power

“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.”

Thomas Schwartz, Illinois State Historian

"Those who value the study of Illinois history, historic sites, material culture, domestic life, historical archaeology, frontier communities, and the memory of Lincoln . . . will have a feast in reading these pages. . . . It is a groundbreaking work—quite literally—and a model for doing historic archaeology and what the things of the past can tell us about the people who made and used them in their daily lives. . . . There should be more such works."

Terry A. Barnhart | Journal of Illinois History

"A fascinating example of archaeological detective work. By following diverse research leads, Mazrim has constructed an intimate and accessible cultural history of life on the American frontier."

Charles E. Orser, Jr. | Journal of American History

"Written for both archaeologists and a general audience, The Sangamo Frontier is very enjoyable to read and Mazrim effectively makes the past come to life by vividly describing the context of the region and the material details of the study sites."

Mark Groover | Illinois Archaeology

"Mazrim takes the results of excavations on numerous related sites from a specific historic period and weaves them togehter into an informative and enjoyable narrative. . . . This book should be of interest to both the general reader and archaeologists alike. It makes for an enjoyable read, yet has enough information to make a useful addition to the reading list for any introductory archaeological methods class."

J. Eric Deetz | Illinois Antiquity

"An engaging forensic analysis of what occurred during the frontier era along the Edwards Trace in Illinois. . . . A wide range of readers should find Mazrim’s book appealing, including historians of the early Midwest, frontier and borderland experiences, state and local history, and public history."

Debra A. Reid | Annals of Iowa

"The strength of the book lies in its description of archaeological research, specifically, how an archaeological dig progresses and the resulting revelations about everyday life in the nineteenth century. . . . In challenging the image of the primitive frontier that has been so long with us, Mazrim provides a nuanced and perceptive evocation of everyday life in the Sangamo country."

Dan Monroe | Bulletin of the Illinois Geographical Society

Table of Contents


Introduction: Journey to Sangamo

Part 1: Americans, Frontiers, and Archaeology

1 The Making of an American Frontier

2 The Arrival of Archaeology and the Shadow of Lincoln

Part 2: Illinois in History

3 Before the Americans

4 The Americans

Part 3: Archaeology of the Frontier

5 At Home, 1800–1840

6 Under the House, Behind the House

7 Goods in the Forests

Part 4: The Origins of Sangamo

8 The Hole in the Map

9 A New Frontier

Part 5: The Archaeology of Sangamo

10 Overlooking Wilderness: Excavations at Elkhart Hill

11 Earthenware at Cotton Hill: The Ebey-Brunk Kiln Site

12 The Origins of a State Capital: The Iles Store Site

13 Moses’s Sangamo: Relocating a Lost Town

14 Exploring Moses’s Sangamo: Excavations at Sangamo Town

15 Lincoln’s New Salem: History and Archaeology

16 Behind Lincoln’s New Salem: Archaeology and Revisionism

17 The End of the Trail



Illinois State Historical Society: Russell Strange Memorial Book Award

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