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Arizona’s glittering silver inkwell

An ornate, 25-pound sterling silver inkwell — one of the grandest   gifts Abraham Lincoln ever received.

An ornate, 25-pound sterling silver inkwell — one of the grandest gifts Abraham Lincoln ever received.

Colonel Charles D. Poston, self-named “Father of Arizona,” commissioned the opulent treasure while serving as Arizona Territory’s first delegate to Congress. He presented it to the president in March 1865, as a gift of appreciation for splitting New Mexico Territory in half to create Arizona in 1863.

The inkwell, designed by Tiffany & Co. of New York, was cast from more than 400 ounces of silver ore from the Cerro Colorado mine near Arivaca, southwest of Tucson.

The mine was owned by brevet Major Samuel Heintzelman and his partners in the Sonora Mining and Exploration Company (including Poston). State Historian Thomas Farish called it the richest mine in the territory, worked by Spaniards as early as the 1750s.

Poston designed the gift to publicize Arizona’s mines, making it flashy enough to draw lots of attention. From the look of it, he did his job well. The glittering, gaudy desk ornament drips with symbolism.

In the center is a replica of the newly completed U.S. Capitol Dome with a statue of Lady Columbia perched on top, wearing a toga and carrying a sword. An Indian sits on one side, said to be looking toward to the future, and opposite him is a frontiersman looking back at the past.

Engraved plates on the base spell out the names Abraham Lincoln and Charles D. Poston. The phrases “E. Pluribus Unum,” and “Ditat Deus” (the Arizona state motto, “God Enriches”) encircle the center inkwell, just below the dome. All this shining opulence is then suspended on four ball-and-claw feet.

Ever the showman, Poston never missed an opportunity to call attention to the outstanding mineral opportunities of the region. He had contracted “Gold Rush Fever” in 1851, and left his wife and baby in Kentucky to become a San Francisco customs clerk. When he lost his elected post, he went out exploring for old Spanish mines with German mining engineer Herman Ehrenberg.

After a shipwreck and an unsuccessful trip to the area that gave Arizona its name, Poston visited the deserted presidio at Tubac and found “promising color” (rich ore) in the hills nearby. Once successful, the Sonora Exploration and Mining Company needed law, order and protection from Apaches. They desperately needed a separate territorial government closer to their mines.

The Lincoln inkwell was a token of appreciation for a goal Poston strived for since 1856, but it was also an advertisement for Arizona, land of mineral riches. No other pioneer mining boomers left such a legacy; it ensured that history would never erase his name.

The inkwell has not been forgotten either. After all, no big piece of jewelry ever goes unnoticed. Mary Lincoln Isham, Lincoln’s granddaughter, donated the inkwell to the Library of Congress in 1937.

It is sometimes loaned out for display at major exhibits, and even came to Arizona once in the 1960s.

Many of us would like to see it come back, just so we can see Poston’s dream close-up.

- Jim Turner, Arizona historian. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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