Ultimate History of Pro Wrestling - A Time Line of Every Major Event in Pro Wrestling History - 1831

By: Karl Stern (@dragonkingkarl, @wiwcool, karl@whenitwascool.com)

Much of the text of this entry comes from issue 82 of the DragonKing Press Newsletter available as a downloadable .pdf in the digital downloads section.


1831:  Abraham Lincoln has his famous match at Denton Offut's General Store in New Salem, IL with John Jack Armstrong.  The most credible version of the story has the match ending in a draw after Armstrong fouls Lincoln for a throw.  Lincoln and Armstrong eventually become friends and both continue to wrestle.

The Abraham Lincoln Research Site has this to say about the match:

...The Clary's Grove boys... were a loud, reckless, frontier crowd who enjoyed fighting and drinking. They boasted they could wrestle better and hit harder than any other group throughout Illinois.   At times they could also be generous and good-natured. Their leader was a man named Jack Armstrong.

Denton Offutt, in whose store Lincoln was a clerk, bragged that his employee was mentally and physically superior to any of the Clary's Grove boys. He openly said Lincoln could whip any man in the community. Hearing of Offutt's boasting, Jack Armstrong challenged Lincoln to a wrestling match. Lincoln accepted.

The entire town turned out for the fight. Offutt bet $10 Lincoln would win. Other residents wagered money, drinks, even trinkets and knives. Lincoln was 6' 4" and weighed 185 pounds, but Jack Armstrong was an experienced, formidable opponent. Although he was smaller than Lincoln, he was as strong as an ox. The stage was set.

For a time, the two scufflers circled each other warily. They did some grappling and twisting, but neither man could throw the other to the ground.  Slowly, Armstrong began to get the worst of it. Finally, Lincoln grabbed the bully by the neck, held him at arm's length, and shook him like a little boy...

Jack Armstrong was impressed with Abraham Lincoln's display of courage. He came forward, took Lincoln's hand and shook it heartily. He looked at his friends and said, "Boys, Abe Lincoln is the best fellow that ever broke into this settlement. He shall be one of us." From then on, Abraham Lincoln and Jack Armstrong were the best of friends! Lincoln had a calming influence on the whole gang of Clary's Grove boys, and his charisma had the effect of repressing their violence...

... In Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln by Douglas L. Wilson, a wrestling match eyewitness, Rowan Herndon, said that "after striving a long time without either man prevailing, Lincoln said: 'Jack, let's quit. I can't throw you - you can't throw me.' Armstrong agreed and the matter was ended in fun." 

Abe Lincoln vs Jack Armstrong.jpg

Another website called Mr. Lincoln and Friends had this to say about the match:

“There was a big fellow named Jack Armstrong, strong as a Russian bear, that I could not put down; nor could he get me on the ground,” Mr. Lincoln once recalled. “I suppose you have heard of Lincoln’s wrestling match with Jack Armstrong. I saw part of that. [Jack] Armstrong was one of the Clary Grove gang and it was their habit to initiate newcomers into town. Lincoln was tall, ungainly, awkward, and was bantered by this crowd,” recalled New Salem resident Daniel Green Burner...

...“They went at it, and Lincoln just fooled with Armstrong until he had tired him completely out. Then he swung his long leg over Armstrong’s neck and made Armstrong run around holding him up in that position. Jack finally begged off, admitting he was beaten and offered Lincoln the $10, which Lincoln refused to take."...

... John T. Stuart, who was Mr. Lincoln’s mentor and first law partner [said] “The champion of the clan, Jack Armstrong was selected to wrestle with Lincoln and to show him that although six feet three he was no man at all compared with the ‘Boys.’ It did not take Jack long to discover that he had got hold of the wrong customer; and when it was evident that Lincoln was getting the better of their champion the whole Band pitched in and gave Lincoln several blows which had no very salutary effect on the strength of his legs. Lincoln however took all this in perfect good humor and by laughing and joking displayed such an excellent disposition that he at once won their hearts and was invited to become one of the company. This was the turning point in Lincoln’s life.”

... Historian Douglas L. Wilson wrote: “Though not the technical winner of the match, Abraham Lincoln came away with other prizes. He acquitted himself well in the eyes of the community at large. He made a friend of Armstrong and established himself as a favorite with the rough-and-ready crowd in the neighborhood of New Salem. Armstrong’s friendship came to mean much, including a family with whom to lodge from time to time and someone, in Hannah Armstrong, to launder and mend his clothes. The goodwill of the Clary’s Grove boys earned him the captain-ship of the local militia unit and a first taste of leadership when, some months later, he was summoned to duty in the Black Hawk War. In addition to being captain of their company, Lincoln distinguished himself by upholding their honor in the obligatory wrestling matches that enlivened the long and largely uneventful bivouacs of the volunteers.”

William O. Stoddard wrote: “The episode was full of important consequences to Abraham Lincoln. His courage and prowess had been thoroughly tested and had made a deep impression upon the minds of his rough neighbors. He was in no danger of further challengers from any of them, and Jack Armstrong avowed himself the fast friend of the man who had given him so good a shaking. The further results were only a question of time, for the wrestling match which was not won by either of the contestants gained for Abe Lincoln a strong and devoted, if somewhat turbulent, constituency.”

...Mr. Lincoln later told a friend that the “Clary boys intended to whip [him] & run him off.”...

John Jack Armstrong.jpg

John Jack Armstrong 1803-1857

Abraham Lincoln.JPG

Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865

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