Seth Kinman's father, James Kinman, ran a ferry across the West Branch Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania, in an area then called Uniontown, now called Allenwood in Gregg Township, Union County. James also was a millwright and an inn-keeper, whose forebears were Quakers from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Seth's mother, Eleanor Bower Kinman, was of German descent whose family lived in Reading, Pennsylvania. Seth was born in Uniontown in 1815. While in Pennsylvania, he learned to read and write "I could form good letters with a pen but I never learned to spell well." In 1830 his father took the family and migrated to Tazewell County, Illinois.
In his autobiography, Seth states that his father fought in the Blackhawk War in Illinois in 1832. He also claimed that his father and Abraham Lincoln fought together in the war, became friends afterward, and that Seth met the future president during Lincoln's circuit-riding days in Illinois. At about the same time the Kinmans acquired a rifle, known as "Old Cotton Bale," that Seth kept throughout his life. The rifle had a 4 ft (1.2 m) long barrel and "is supposed to have killed Gen'l Peckenham" at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. With some skepticism, Anspach relates a long history of the rifle, gleaned from a 1864 local newspaper story on Kinman, of a renegade Kentucky sniper shooting the British general while carrying on a conversation with American General Andrew Jackson.
Seth spent ten years working in his father's mill in Illinois, sawing lumber and grinding grain. After his father's death in 1839 he sold the mill and tried farming. He married Anna Maria Sharpless, of Catawissa, Pennsylvania, in 1840 and they had five children together: James (1842), Carlin, who is sometimes called Calvin (1846), Austin (1847), Ellen (1849), and Roderick (1851). Anna Maria and two of their sons, James and Austin, died during the winter of 1852-53, while Seth was in California.
By 1848 Kinman was operating the Eagle Hotel in Pekin, Illinois, on the Illinois River. The hotel was known less for its comforts than for Kinman's rendition of the fiddle tune Arkansas Traveler.A traveler came off a steamboat one day and went to the Eagle Hotel. There had been a little western "scrimmage" at the "Eagle" the night before, and though things had not been put in order, the proprietor, Seth Kinman, was sitting in front of the door, playing his favorite tune, the "Arkansaw Traveler", with the greatest self-satisfaction.
The stranger, stopping, said to Seth: "Are you the proprietor here?" Seth, without resting his bow, replied- "Wall, I reckon I be, stranger". "Do you keep tavern?""Of course I do: I keep tavern like h—l," said Seth, fiddling away with all his might, "Just pile in: hang your freight on the floor, and make yourself at home." "The boys," continued Seth, "have been having a little fun, but if there is a whole table or plate in the house, I'll get you some cold hash toward night." The stranger didn't like this peculiarly western reception, so took his departure, leaving Kinman still enjoying his violin.
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