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Abraham Lincoln and The Clary’s Grove Boys

Lincoln Wins

While a clerk in a general store at New Salem, Ill., Lincoln gained the reputation of being a skillful and powerful wrestler. Near New Salem was a settlement known as Clary’s Grove, in which lived an organization known as “Clary’s Grove Boys.” They were rude in their manners and rough and boastful in their ways, being what would to-day be called “a set of rowdies.”

The leader of this organization, and the strongest of the lot, was a young man named Armstrong. It had been said that Lincoln could easily outdo any one of the Clary Grove boys in anything and the report naturally touched the pride of the Armstrong youth. He felt compelled to prove the truth or falsity of such a story, and accordingly a wrestling match was arranged between Lincoln and himself.

It was a great day in the village of New Salem and Clary’s Grove. The match was held on the ground in front of the store in which Lincoln had been clerking. There was much betting on the result, the odds being against Lincoln. Hardly, however, had the two wrestlers taken hold of each other before the Armstrong youth found that he had “met a foe worthy his steel.” The two wrestled long and hard, each doing his utmost to throw the other but to no avail. Both kept their feet; neither could throw the other. The Armstrong youth being convinced that he could not throw Lincoln, tried to “foul.” This resort to dishonest means to gain an advantage inflamed Lincoln with indignation, and he immediately caught young Armstrong by the throat, held him at arm’s length and “shook him like a child.”

Armstrong’s friends rushed to his rescue, and for a time it seemed as if Lincoln would be mobbed. But he held his own bravely and all alone, and by his daring excited the admiration of even those whose sympathies were with young Armstrong. What at one time seemed to result in a general fight resulted in a general handshake, even “Jack” Armstrong declaring that Lincoln was “the best fellow who ever broke into camp.”

13 Responses to “Abraham Lincoln and The Clary’s Grove Boys”

  • Eldon Clary, Jr.:

    William Price Clary was my great, great, great grandfather. William Jackson Clary was my great,great grandfather. My grandfather was also named William Jackson Clary.

  • Laura Teten:

    I’m an associate producer on a new series for the american heroes channel called american badasses, and one of our upcoming episodes features Abraham Lincoln. One of the stories we’re focusing on is of his early days in Illinois, interacting with the Clary’s Grove Boys, and wrestling Jack Armstrong and their subsequent relationship. I’m currently trying to track down archival images and illustrations of the event, Offut’s grocery store, Jack Armstrong. I came upon your site, particularly the drawing of the famed wrestling match, and wondered if you could provide any insight on who to reach out to so that we might feature it in our series? Additionally, and leads on other images related to this time in Lincoln’s life would be greatly appreciated!

    • admin:

      Hi Laura. I am not sure who to reach out to, but I have some info to send you, just need to locate it. I think it is on my backup hard drive which is packed away. I will locate it and email you what I have. Mainly photographs that I took a few years ago

    • Hello Ms. Laura Teten,

      Congratulations on your Lincoln series featuring The Clary’s Grove Boys. I am a great-grand-daughter of William Price ‘Bill’ Clary who wagered Mr. Offut $10 dollars that Bill’s cousin, Jack Armstong could whip Abe Lincoln. According to Royal Clary’s testimony, the wrestling match came to a stalemate and Bill intervened, pulled Jack aside and told him, “if you don’t get in there and whip his ass, I’m going to whip you both.” A plaque records this and hangs on a wall inside New Salem’s visitor center. The staff will gladly assist you in promoting the Clary Boys. Their assistance made my visit there splendid, and so I highly recommend them. Best Regards, Willie Gail Riddles-Rotzoll
      Please see:

      Contact Information Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site
      15588 History Lane
      Petersburg, Illinois 62675
      Fax: fax 217-632-4010
      Email: hpa.newsalem

  • Excerpt from “A Long Look” and “They Came To Texas”
    by Willeigh Gaiyle, Author

    Swirls of gray mist hugged the banks of the Sangamon River just behind Bill Clary’s Store and Tavern in New Salem, Illinois where sons of the frontier gathered to participate in all manner of rude sports.

    Physical strength was their ideal of manhood. Wrestling was their game of choice. Most prominent in history was the match between Abe Lincoln and Jack Armstrong.

    This day in 1833 brought not only different shades of memories and melancholia but the Leonid meteor storm of “,…the stars falling in great showers.” as it was later recalled by Walt Whitman”.

    Abe was solemn and said little as he helped the Greenes, Armstrongs and other Clary family members load the flat boat for the trip to the Republic of Texas.

    Little did Abe know as he bid farewell to his friend, William Price ‘Bill’ Clary and watched him disappear around a bend in the river, that except for a poem, “Me an’ Abe” written later by Carrie Douglas Wright, Clary would himself disappear from written records until c. 1840 census for Washington Co., Arkansas.

    The Clary family did not arrive in Texas until 1846 and were enumerated on the Smith Co. census roll of 1850. ‘Bill’ Clary raised two families before dying from pneumonia somewhere in Brazos Co., Texas in May, 1870. His actual burial site as yet unknown.

    What is known; is that the Clary family had the distinction of being aligned with many historically prominent families of both the United States, Ireland, Great Britain and Europe.

    I am proud that they came to Texas.

    Ref: Ralph and Star Rowland= “Clary Genealogy: Four early American lines and related families”

    The above spelling as written and recorded by Rowlands and libraries.

  • Lincoln soon became close friends with Armstrong and his wife, Hannah. He often stayed at their home, where he split rails, helped the Clary’s Grove farmers with their work and even studied surveying so he could establish the lines of their lands.

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