A small, abandoned cemetery in the middle of a mobile home subdivision off Tates Creek Road has been found to contain the family graves of the man who gave Abraham Lincoln some of his first jobs.
Denton Offutt was a well-known horse trainer who left Lexington for New Salem, Ill., where he hired the future president to crew a flatboat and later manage his general store and mill.
It was at that store, according to legend, that 22-year-old Lincoln earned his nickname “Honest Abe” by walking several miles to return change to a customer he accidentally overcharged.
“You can’t pick up an Abraham Lincoln book that doesn’t have Offutt in it,” said Ernestine Hamm of the Jessamine County Historical Society, who has launched an effort to restore the cemetery.
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The late William Townsend, a Lexington lawyer and renowned Lincoln scholar, devoted a whole chapter to Offutt and his influence in his 1955 book, “Lincoln and the Bluegrass.”
It describes how Offutt’s parents, Samuel and Elizabeth Offutt, came by ox cart from Maryland to settle along Hickman Creek on a large tract now in both Jessamine and Fayette counties. There they built a log house and raised Denton, who was born there, and his six brothers and three sisters.
Local historians had suspected the overgrown cemetery held Offutt graves, but only recently got access. The lot that includes the cemetery sold a few months ago, and the new owner has been supportive of the restoration, Hamm said.
“When we found it, it was just a large pile of stones,” Hamm said of the graveyard, which has an easement preventing digging or construction within 30 feet of graves. The Offutts owned slaves, so it is possible their unmarked graves are nearby.
Only Elizabeth’s headstone was unbroken. Hamm collected 46 fragments and pieced together the headstones of Samuel, his sons Zedekiah and Azra and Azra’s wife, Antoinette. There also is a stone marked “M. Watts,” whose relationship to the family is unknown, and a partial stone with only a date of 1850. It isn’t Denton’s grave, because he didn’t die until about 1860.
By researching old records, Townsend found a lot of information about the Offutts, who were renowned horse breeders. Samuel created one of the area’s best stock farms, built a fine house near Hickman Creek and a cemetery in his orchard.
Townsend wrote of how Antoinette died of cholera in 1829 and her husband, who was educated as a doctor at Transylvania University, never recovered from the loss. He would sit in the orchard by her grave, and in 1831 committed suicide by hanging himself. But Townsend gave no indication he knew the location of these events that he discovered in old records and newspaper accounts.
Denton Offutt met Lincoln, then 22, when both Kentuckians resettled on the Illinois frontier in 1831. Offutt hired John Hanks to crew a flatboat of goods he needed delivered to New Orleans. Hanks brought along Lincoln, his young cousin.
By the end of the trip, Offutt was so impressed with Lincoln’s strength and brains that he hired him to manage his new mill and general store. Lincoln lived in the back room.
While in that job, Townsend says Lincoln acquired a wide reputation that helped get him elected to the Illinois legislature and later Congress. But the store didn’t last long: In less than a year, Offutt went broke and returned to Kentucky.
Back in Lexington, Offutt moved in with his brother, Otho, and his wife, Mary, on what is now Waterwild Farm on Russell Cave Road. The farm and circa 1830 house is now owned by Madelyn and Jamie Millard, former president of the Lexington History Museum.
Denton Offutt, a natural businessman, became famous for his ability to tame wild horses. He even got a letter of recommendation for his skill from Henry Clay, the Lexington statesman and horse breeder.
“I knew it was somewhere in the northern Jessamine County, but I didn’t know exactly where,” Jamie Millard said as he looked over the cemetery.
Hamm said she has talked to Offutt descendants who are excited about the cemetery’s discovery. She hopes they will install a fence to protect it.
Millard said Lincoln and Offutt were both known to have been in Lexington one weekend in 1847, when the future president was visiting his wife’s family and Offutt was selling horses at Cheapside’s court day. “We’ve always wondered if Lincoln would have come to Denton’s home, which is now our home,” he said.
Lincoln and Offutt occasionally corresponded until 1860, when Offutt wrote that he was ill. Not long before that, he had sent the future president some advice through Tom McNeely, whose family he had known back in Illinois:
“Tell Lincoln to get out of his rascally business of politics and law and do something honest, like taming horses,” Offutt said.
When Lincoln met McNeely and heard the message, he was said to have laughed out loud and replied, “That’s just like Offutt.”