- Historic Sites
“there I Grew Up”
So Abraham Lincoln summed up his boyhood in Indiana. Posterity has made of it a romantic legend, spent in a dark, smoky, crowded, deep in the wilderness
October 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 6
A popular linage of Abe Lincoln as a boy is l liai of a gangling figure sprawled before a (ireplace, losi in the pages of a book. This image is probably as unrealistic as ihe story of George Washington and the cherry tree. There was no room for sprawling in the mean, overcrowded lillle home in the Indiana woods that was ihe besl Abe’s all-but-desiitule father could provide, and even a lad gifted with the powers of concentrai ion attributed to Lincoln could hardly have lost himself reading in a cabin that seldom housed less than eight people.
According to a widely accepted account, it was in the autumn of 1816 that Thomas Lincoln, leaving his wife and two children behind at his Kentucky farm, set oil for Indiana to look for a new place to settle. On a poplar-log raft laden with tools, barrels of whiskey, and other belongings, he floated down the Rolling Fork to Salt River and on to the Ohio, where he crossed over to the Indiana shore at what is now Troy. Thence he made his way up Anderson’s Creek about as far as present-day Huffman, to Francis Posey’s farm, and from that place journeyed afoot through the woods on his quest.
Only a few months before Tom Lincoln’s first trip to Indiana, a young man named Jonathan Jennings and forty-two farmers, preachers, and lawyers had drawn up the first constitution for the new state in the capital of Corydon, about forty miles due east of Posey’s farm. On the Wabash River, seventy miles to the west of the farm, George Rapp’s Germans from Pennsylvania were industriously building the community of Harmonie, a town that Robert Owen would soon purchase and rechristen New Harmony. About the same distance directly to the northwest was Vincennes, where forty years earlier George Rogers Clark had won a Revolutionary War battle over the British, and where William Henry Harrison had recently relinquished his authority of a dozen years as governor of Indiana Territory. Vincennes, in existence as a post on the Wabash for almost a century, had a population of approximately 3,000 French and Americans in 1816. For twelve years it had been the home of a newspaper, The Western Sun , and it was graced by a brick courthouse and several fine houses, among them Harrison’s Grouseland on a high bank above the river. But the country that Tom Lincoln was exploring, though not far from Vincennes, was still a wilderness with none of these blessings of civilization.
Tom Lincoln, like most of the 64,000 inhabitants of Indiana in 1816, the ones who cleared the forests and cultivated small farms, was of southern origin, of good yeoman slock, but uneducated and poor. No doubt he came to Indiana to better his condition in life, which had been deplorable in Kentucky, but he was too stolid to be described as ambitious and was moving Io Indiana out of quiet desperation more, than anything else. Although he may have been vaguely aware that it was futile for him to compete any longer in a southern society where a man without money or talents was hardly better oil than a Negro slave, it is pure romanticism to contend that he disapproved of slavery, loi in I lardin Comity. Kentucky, lie had been a member of the Patrollers, whose duty was to capture and whip any blacks found “strolling” without permits. Aged thirty-eight in 1816, Tom Lincoln was a hunter by preference, a carpenter by trade, and a farmer of necessity.
Having lost all his tools and some of his whiskey overboard from his raft on the Salt River, Lincoln left the Posey farm equipped with a gun, an axe, and a hunting knife, and plunged alone into the deep gloom of the Indiana forest, where there lived at that lime but one white person for every four square miles. He had to hack his way through the undergrowth of sumac, dogwood, and grapevines, which were matted so thick that an axe or knife slipping from his hands would quickly have been lost in them; he had little more than his woodsman’s instincts to guide him. For even on a bright day the forest was submerged in shadow and the position of the sun was difficult to determine through the interlacing brandies of hundred-loot sycamores, oak. hackberry. poplar, sweet gum. and hickory. When at last he found a place that suited his fancy, a mile from Little Pigeon Creek and some sixteen miles north of the settlement of Rockport on the Ohio, he marked out a daim with blazes and brush heaps and returned to Kentucky for his wife, Nancy. and his two children, nine-year-old Sally and seven-year-old Abe.
In December, 1816, this family of four rode on two horses from their Kentucky farm to the Ohio River. They were ferried across the river and up Anderson’s Creek to Posey’s farm, where they borrowed two oxen and a conveyance of some kind. It was probably a sled, for in those days stout heavy sleds were commonly used, winter and stimmet, in the woods where the going was rough. From Posey’s farm they packed through the forest with all their worldly possessions, making a path for the oxen by chopping away underbrush, felling small trees, and turning aside when their way was blocked by tree trunks too big for them to attack. of these there were many. Tom Lincoln paused once in the journey to measure one of them, an oak. The trunk at about the height of little Abe’s head was twenty-four feet in circumference.