Abraham Lincoln’s paper trail

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Bouncing down an empty country road, past browning cotton fields lined with signs advertising church services and cheap guns, historian John A. Lupton hunches over a minivan’s steering wheel and ignores his aching back.

He has been traveling for six days -- covering five states and more than 1,400 miles -- in a mentally exhilarating and physically exhausting pursuit of anything handwritten by Abraham Lincoln, as well as documents addressed to him: a frayed envelope the president addressed to a Confederate sympathizer; a dirty sheet of paper filled with the grumblings of a cotton farmer; a faded journal entry with notes about property rights that Lincoln scrawled in the margins.

It’s been a good trip so far. Lupton and his colleague Erika Nunamaker have tracked down 33 documents.


Over the last seven years, more than 11,000 pieces of paper with Lincoln’s elegant script -- and nearly 28,000 documents addressed to him -- have been found. After the pair scan the papers onto their laptops, they return the originals to their owners, and move on to find the next yellowing scrap.

Lupton thinks there are tens of thousands of papers left to discover. Maybe more.

Curled up in the passenger seat, Nunamaker studies a paperback atlas to trace their journey. She rubs her queasy stomach and tries to ignore a bout of carsickness from days of driving along winding back roads.

“Gosh, I hope our luck holds,” Nunamaker says. “We haven’t seen a single forgery yet. Not like Florida.”

Lincoln may be our most studied president, and is reportedly the subject of more books than any American. But that doesn’t stop this road-weary pair and 10 other scholars from the Illinois-based Papers of Abraham Lincoln from fanning out on road trips four times a year.

It’s part of an experiment in historical studies: to unify the great moments of a great man’s life with the most mundane times captured on thousands of pieces of paper.

Lupton, 41, has spent more than two decades studying Lincoln’s handwriting, figuring out when the man was thoughtful (by the neat, careful pen strokes) or tired (by the script’s jagged lines). Nunamaker, who carries a worn picture of the 16th president in her wallet, has long been entranced by his private life.

“It’s my dream,” says Nunamaker, 28. “How many people can say they transcribe his words every day?”

In her eyes, and those of her colleagues, even the tiniest messages can be telling. The team has located hundreds of hastily signed military commissions. By tracing their origins, the scholars determined that Lincoln used such busy work to help stay awake at night while he cared for his ailing son.

They’ve digitally scanned Lincoln’s terse responses on scores of petitions from political operatives seeking government office. Over time, they’ve deduced that Lincoln relied heavily on his Cabinet to fill government jobs.

They’ve transcribed dozens of letters from the families of jailed Confederates and Unionists, pleading for leniency. Lincoln’s quirky and approving responses -- telling men they could be free after swearing an oath to support the United States -- were often written on the back of those letters.

“How can you really know a man unless you look at the sum of his work?” Lupton says. “And I do mean the entire sum.”

Lincoln worked as a lawyer for nearly 25 years, generating reams of court filings and business correspondence. There were so many Lincoln documents floating around that in the days after his assassination in 1865, people raided courthouses and government offices to clip off his signature. For some, it was a treasured memento; for others, a way to cash in on his death.

The papers project began in the 1980s, when three scholars funded by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency in Springfield started to hunt for every legal document and court case that Lincoln handled.

Lupton, considered one of the country’s leading experts on Lincoln’s signature, joined the team in 1991 as a graduate student intern. Poring over dusty legal ledgers, Lupton realized he had a talent for piecing together clues. While reading through pre-Civil War letters, Lupton and the team found mentions of Lincoln getting paid in a case involving bankers accused of bilking shareholders. Court documents elsewhere noted that the case had been moved to southern Illinois.

It was enough for Lupton and two other researchers to camp in the Macoupin County records office and flip through century-old judgments and water-stained contracts, page by page.

A month later, they uncovered a gem: a 43-page legal argument, written by Lincoln. It was the longest known document in Lincoln’s own hand.

From studying the handwriting, Lupton was able to surmise that Lincoln felt so passionate about defending the railroad’s questionable financiers that he wrote the document in one sitting. At the beginning, the elegant scrawl was meticulous. As his hand apparently swelled from fatigue, the letters became shaky enough to seem like they were written on horseback.

His signature was missing -- possibly cut off by an amateur collector.

“Anyone can find a Lincoln document when it’s signed A. Lincoln on the bottom,” Lupton says. “But finding his name hidden in an unrelated letter? Or recognizing his handwriting? That’s a real challenge.”

After the Lincoln Legal Papers project was published on DVD in 2000 -- a collection of nearly 100,000 legal documents -- the historic preservation group expanded its hunt.

Lincoln scholars and Springfield residents suggested places for the team to search. So did museums, government agencies and private collectors from across the country. Operating on an average annual budget of $500,000 -- paid for by state, federal and private funds -- the team started mapping out travel plans and making appointments.

Lupton routinely checks with state historical archives, on the off chance they may have something of interest. Before he and Nunamaker hit the road on this trip, the director of the Arkansas History Commission and State Archives called with good news: The center had a few Lincoln documents, including a recently transcribed 1864 letter written to Lincoln by Arkansas Gov. Isaac Murphy.

Intrigued, Lupton and Nunamaker added the Arkansas archives to the end of their tour.

As the black minivan cruises along a highway south of Little Rock, Lupton and Nunamaker sip bottles of tea and excitedly recount some of their recent finds.

A county museum in Brownsville, Tenn., had three appointments for government jobs that Lincoln had approved. At the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis, a couple of floors below a shrunken-head exhibit, Lupton and Nunamaker studied a letter from a politician: He wanted Lincoln to exempt him from a law so he could sell his cotton for more money. Lincoln scribbled a brief denial on the back of the letter.

The letter “helps show that Lincoln was very particular about following the law, when some historians of his era portrayed him as a man who flouted the law when it suited his whims,” Nunamaker says.

The afternoon winter sun is glaringly bright as Lupton pulls off the highway and into the archives’ parking lot. At the main reference desk, archivist Russell P. Baker explains that the director isn’t available. But Baker says she has asked him to get the letter and other documents the pair might want to see.

As Lupton browses the archives’ shelves and Nunamaker paces anxiously in a nearby conference room, Baker steps into a concrete vault and pulls out a slim folder. A couple of minutes later, he hands it to the younger Lincolnphile.

Nunamaker slips on a pair of white cotton gloves and opens the folder. It isn’t the Murphy letter that she was expecting. Her eyes grow wide and her face flushes pink as she gazes upon a controversial footnote of American history: an original of a proposed, but never ratified, 13th Amendment, which was an attempt to avoid the Civil War by making slavery permanently legal in the South.

With the proposed amendment is a certificate of authentication, signed by the U.S. secretary of State. There’s also a single-page letter from Lincoln, asking the Arkansas governor for the state Legislature’s approval.

“John! Look!” Nunamaker shrieks, as she runs out of the conference room toward her partner. With shaking hands, she raises the open folder toward him. “It’s the ghost amendment!”

Prior to Little Rock, the team had tracked down only one of the 34 original copies that Lincoln sent to the country’s governors, and seven of his accompanying letter. Lupton slides a jeweler’s loupe over Lincoln’s signature to search for signs of forgery.

“Tracers and forgers tend to stop halfway through the name and go back over the letters to fix their mistakes,” Lupton says. “I look at the angle of the signature. His ‘A’ in Abraham would be lower than the ‘Linco.’ And there’s always a slight break in the letters, a slight lift in the final ‘ln.’ ”

The handwriting was steady and neat. The black ink bled outward, as the tip of Lincoln’s pen must have pressed firmly against the page.

The signature was real. As were all the documents in the folder, Lupton says.

Baker, the archivist, leaves to retrieve the document that the Illinois researchers came to examine: the letter from Gov. Murphy. With a giddy grin, Lupton follows Baker.

“We’re also looking for other documents that mention Lincoln,” Lupton says. “Something that might point to papers he signed or read. Things you may not have, but someone else might. Can you help us?”

Baker nods as he ducks into the vault, where tens of thousands of documents and publications sit neatly on metal shelves.

Waiting outside, Lupton eyes the library’s long row of wooden card-catalog drawers and shelf after shelf filled with reference books.

Somewhere here, Lupton hopes, another clue to Lincoln’s past could be hidden -- just waiting for him to find it.