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The man who helped shape Lincoln’s frontier image

Steve Cottrell


Having a unique brand –– a political identity that resonates with voters –– is important when you’re a candidate. Take 1860, for instance, when a lanky, hollow-cheeked fellow from Illinois became a candidate for president.

If anyone had an image problem, it was gaunt Abraham Lincoln. Fortunately, a former Nevada City miner and merchant named Richard Oglesby came to the rescue and created a robust identity for the future president.

Oglesby arrived here in 1850 in search of gold, and the 26-year-old attorney from Illinois found it. But he also understood the economic principle of supply and demand and realized great wealth could be accumulated selling boots, shovels, beans, coffee and other necessities to miners at greatly inflated prices. For that, he acquired a wagon and team and made regular buying trips to Sacramento and Marysville.

Oglesby’s Store on Main Street was a financial success, but it burned to the ground in a devastating March 12, 1851, fire that left much of Nevada City in charred ruin. He estimated his losses at $2,500, but quickly rebuilt and operated the store until selling it several months later. Ads for Oglesby’s Store appeared in early editions of the Nevada (City) Journal –– a newspaper owned by Aaron Sargent.

The attorney-turned-entrepreneur left Nevada City with $5,400 in gold coin (personal wealth equivalent to nearly $185,000 today) and following a two-year trek through Europe returned to Illinois to practice law.

Prior to living here during the early days of the Gold Rush, Oglesby and Abraham Lincoln had become friends, a relationship that would lead to a lifelong association, politically and personally. Both were Kentucky natives who eventually settled in Illinois –– Lincoln to Springfield, Oglesby to Decatur.

In May 1860, when the Illinois Republican Party gathered in Decatur for its state convention to nominate a candidate for President of the United States, Lincoln’s campaign needed a spark, and that’s when Oglesby got creative.

He thought Lincoln should have an image reflecting strength and vitality –– a rugged, self-made frontiersman in touch with the common man. So he sent John Hanks, Lincoln’s cousin, to a farm outside Decatur with an assignment to return to the convention hall with two rails from a fence Lincoln and Hanks had constructed there in 1829-30. 

When Lincoln’s cousin returned with the fence rails, Oglesby attached a cloth banner to them. Hanks then held the rails and banner aloft as he paraded through the convention hall while Oglesby stood at the dais placing Lincoln’s name into nomination and describing his friend as a rugged rail-splitter ready to do battle for the Republican Party. Oglesby’s marketing ploy worked and Lincoln went from Decatur to the national convention in Chicago to secure the party’s nomination. 

Following the convention, campaign lithographs were commissioned showing Lincoln with a maul poised above his head, about to drive a wedge into a section of log. Today, it would be called “branding,” but when Oglesby turned Lincoln into the mythic-like rail splitter, he was just trying to help a friend.

In 1861, Oglesby became one of Lincoln’s generals and, in 1865, Governor of Illinois. Eight years later, he was sworn in as a U. S. Senator on the same day Nevada City attorney Aaron Sargent took the oath of office. Also assuming a senate seat that day was John Percival Jones from Nevada –– joining former Nevada County District Attorney William Morris Stewart, who had been a Nevada senator since 1865. 

The date was March 4, 1873 –– an important day in Nevada City history. With 74 senators representing 37 states, four had mined here during the Gold Rush, a coincidence of incalculable odds. Then, following Eugene Casserly’s resignation in November 1873, John Hager became a senator from California, meaning that five former Nevada City pick-and-shovel miners simultaneously served in the U.S Senate.

Richard James Oglesby –– known in history books as “Lincoln’s Rail Splitter” –– died April 24, 1899, at his estate in Elkhart, Illinois.

Steve Cottrell is a historian, former city councilman and mayor and a longtime Nevada City resident. He now lives in St. Augustine, Fla. He can be reached by emailing exnevadacitymayor@gmail.com.

About the Photo: 

Richard James Oglesby, (1824-1899), who mined for gold and owned a Main Street general store, later helped shape Abraham  Lincoln’s political image.