Erika Nunamaker ’01 joins a huge document hunt in search of the true Lincoln.
Story by Rebecca Welzenbach '07
Since the age of 16, Erika Rozinek Nunamaker ’01 has been in love with a tall, dark
stranger. But what started as a simple crush — a picture in her wallet, a trip to
his hometown — is now a daily pursuit. Nunamaker spends her days seeking out and poring
over his correspondence and other documents, hoping to reveal something new about
a man who left behind so many mysteries.
She isn’t alone in her intense curiosity. Millions have been drawn to the life of
Abraham Lincoln, widely heralded as America’s greatest president. But few people get
the kind of access to their hero that Nunamaker enjoys as a research associate for
the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project. Based in Lincoln’s “hometown,” Springfield,
Ill., the project may be the biggest ever document hunt. Its goal: to track down and
make a permanent record of everything written by or to Lincoln during his lifetime
To work with such documents is a dream come true for Nunamaker, who really does carry
Lincoln’s picture in her wallet. “In everything he does he seems to have been very
kind and honest,” she says. “There’s something that people can relate to about him.”
Erika Nunamaker stands in front of a portrait of Lincoln at the Old State Capitol
Building in Springfield, which is home to the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project.
Nunamaker suggests that Lincoln holds fascination because his personal life remains
largely unknown. “All the little pieces of evidence are dots that you can connect
to form different pictures,” she says. “People are just endlessly redoing the pictures.”
Robert Bray, the R. Forrest Colwell Professor of American Literature at IWU, is one
of those scholars working to connect the dots. Bray authored an award-winning biography
of Methodist evangelist Peter Cartwright, who ran against Lincoln for Congress, and
he is now at work on a book about Lincoln himself. He notes, “Lincoln said very little
about himself. This is one of the real negative facts of Lincoln studies. You have
to put his life together from what other people said about him.”
Bray helped introduce Nunamaker to the world of Lincoln studies as a student by encouraging
her to attend conferences and introducing her to fellow scholars. He says that the
Papers of Abraham Lincoln “will be one of the biggest things to come along in a long,
long time. I think it’s about as exciting as it gets in Lincoln studies.”
The project’s first phase encompassed Lincoln’s legal career. Phases two and three,
now under way, cover his pre-presidential life and White House years. The end product
will be an online database with a digital image of every document, each fully transcribed,
annotated and cross-referenced, to help readers make the most of the yellowed pages
and spidery 19th-century writing.
In 1953, Lincoln scholars combined forces to create The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. With the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, scholars like Nunamaker are building on that
success, the primary difference being that this is the first project of its kind to
be “born digital,” she says. Not only will that allow the collection to be made available
on the Internet, but additions to it can easily be added over time.
For now, Nunamaker is absorbed in the joy of discovery. She estimates that the project
is about a third of the way through its collection phase. Traveling in pairs, the
researchers make two-week trips to wherever there are documents — mostly in libraries,
museums and even private homes. Using laptops and scanners that they tote in large,
wheeled suitcases, Nunamaker and her colleagues capture high-resolution color images
of all the Lincoln letters, appointments, commissions, pardons, orders and resolutions
they can find.
Lincoln himself, according to legend, used to carry letters, bills and other documents
inside his stovepipe hat. Today those same papers are meticulously protected by most
libraries and museums. Privately owned documents are a different story. “A lot of
people frame their documents, and you don’t want them to,” Nunamaker says, because
of the paper damage caused by constant exposure to light. She remembers scanning one
document, a family heirloom, glued in the 1930s into a damaging frame. Unable to remove
the document from the frame backing, Nunamaker’s colleague suggested that the owner
take it to a professional conservator, who estimated the cost of restoration at $1,000.
Still, that’s pocket change in the world of Lincoln collectors. According to Susan
Krause, assistant editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, there has long been a brisk
market for such documents. Almost any signed Lincoln manuscript is worth thousands
of dollars. Abe’s reply to a girl who had urged him to grow whiskers — “Do you not
think people would call it a silly affection [sic] if I were to begin now?” — recently
sold for over a million dollars.
Because such documents are so valuable, museums and libraries are loath to ship them
to Springfield for scanning. And, for the researchers, the computer equipment they
use is difficult to check on an airplane. As a result, Nunamaker and her colleagues
always trek from city to city by car. “We go to such lengths for some of these documents,”
Nunamaker says. “On one trip to New Jersey and Pennsylvania, we drove 17 hours over
two days. We got to Toms River, New Jersey, and we scanned one appointment that was
signed by Abraham Lincoln.”
Those hours and miles add up when you take into account that the complete collection
will feature between 100,000 and 200,000 images. According to Krause, there is no
way to know the potential total: “We have researchers going through the National Archives
right now, and they’re coming up with new documents all the time.” There is also no
official record of privately owned documents, which remain unknown until owners come
forward with them.
Though the odds may be long, Nunamaker says, “I think we’re all secretly hoping” to
find a Lincoln diary or his correspondence with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. “The
personal letters are the most revealing,” but most of them are lost. In the few surviving
letters of the couple, “he’s so teasing and playful. [He and Mary] just seem kind
of happy together,” she says. Scholars hypothesize that the rest of those letters
may have been consumed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, when Mary was living there.
Other material may have been destroyed by Lincoln’s son, Robert, who was very protective
of his famously unstable mother. “It just breaks my heart,” Nunamaker says. “I think
Mary might have a better reputation if their letters could tell her side of the story.”
Seeking the essence of Lincoln’s world through first-hand sources is a habit Nunamaker
learned while double-majoring in history and English at IWU. She garnered honors for
research that used letters, diaries and newspapers to analyze the role women played
in the 1860 election that made Lincoln president, despite the fact that women at that
time couldn’t vote. Nunamaker’s final paper, “Trembling for the Nation: Illinois Women
and the Election of 1860,” led to a presentation at the Conference on Illinois History
in 2002 and was later published by the Journal of Illinois History. “That’s extremely uncommon, to have an undergraduate paper published in a history
journal,” notes Associate Professor of History April Schultz, her advisor on the project.
Nunamaker’s interest in women’s history also led her to a three-year internship at
Bloomington’s historic David Davis Mansion, built in 1872 by Davis, a Supreme Court
justice and Lincoln’s longtime friend. From putting together a marketing brochure
to creating her own women’s history tour as a field trip for her class, Nunamaker
“got familiar with how you run a small museum,” says Marcia Young, the site’s superintendent.
That included learning the museum’s approach to historical material. “We read everything
in the house as a document,” Young says, in order to share with visitors “the cultural
and social history that these artifacts tell us.” Learning that approach came in handy
during Nunamaker’s graduate studies at the University of Delaware and Henry DuPont
Winterthur Museum, where she earned a master’s degree in Early American Culture. Her
degree emphasized “reading” evidence such as furniture, decor and other artifacts
to understand the values of the people who used them. Her paper analyzing one of Lincoln’s
couches and what it reveals about his early career was published this spring in the
Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association.
Last fall, Nunamaker made a stop in Bloomington to scan Lincoln papers stored at the
McLean County Museum of History. The museum‘s collection includes facsimiles of some
Lincoln writings and two original letters.
These days, Nunamaker focuses on investigating documents, not furniture. When she’s
not traveling, her workdays are often spent at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library
and Museum, just a short walk away from her office in Springfield’s Old State Capitol
The museum, opened in 2005, has become a huge tourist attraction, but it is the library
that gives scholars a thrill, offering “the biggest Lincoln collection in Illinois,”
says Bryon Andreasen, a research historian for the library. “The only place that has
more than we do is the Library of Congress.” Andreasen is also gatekeeper to a vault
of Lincoln artifacts, ranging from the revolver of Lincoln’s bodyguard to Mrs. Lincoln’s
inaugural gown, to the tablecloth used at their wedding.
Nunamaker calls the museum’s abundance of material an “embarrassment of riches.” Krause
calls it “the mother lode.” That this treasure trove of invaluable documents and artifacts
is located in the heart of Illinois is no surprise to Bray, who notes that “Illinois
has been its spiritual home. Everyone who’s serious about writing about Lincoln comes
Young adds, “it’s wonderful for us” that Nunamaker chose to return to Illinois and
“share the benefits of the wonderful education she’s received.” Nunamaker’s ties to
the region are strong. She has remained close with professors and mentors, even returning
to IWU this spring to teach a history class on material culture.
While Nunamaker pursues her dream job, she is also gearing up for the 200th anniversary
of Lincoln’s birthday in 2009, helping plan events for a bicentennial celebration
in Lincoln, Ill., where she resides with her husband, Derek — a 2001 IWU graduate
who works in technology deployment services at State Farm Insurance.
That’s right: the Nunamakers live in Lincoln, Ill. But while Derek tolerates with
good humor the “other man” in his wife’s life, there are limits.
“I wanted to live on Lincoln Street,” Erika says, “but my husband said no.”
Editor’s Note: The story’s author, Rebecca Welzenbach ’07, started classes this fall
at the University of Michigan to earn a master’s of science in information. “My concentration
will be in archives and records management,” writes Rebecca, “so I’ll learn about
how to do basically what Erika Nunamaker does: protect and manage one-of-a-kind documents
so that people today and in the future can make use of them.” At Illinois Wesleyan,
Welzenbach majored in English literature, was chosen for both Phi Kappa Phi and Phi
Beta Kappa scholastic honors and served for two years as a writer in the University
To go to the Papers of Abraham Lincoln web site, click here.