- 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
The Lincolns began their life in Indiana occupying a shelter fourteen feet wide and open on one side, with a roof of poles, slabs, and leaves sloping down to a back wall that was a single log lying on the ground- an arrangement known as a half-faced camp. The floor was the earth strewn with leaves, which were swept out and replaced when they became pulverized by the tread of feet, and the beds were heaps of brush covered with skins and possibly a blanket or two brought from Kentucky. Day and night a fire burned at the open front, not only for warmth and cooking but to frighten off the wolves and panthers that howled and wailed round the camp. When the wind was wrong, the Lincolns’ home was filled with smoke; when it was right, more heat went outside than in.
Although no exact record exists, it is clear that sometime during their first year they moved from the halffaced camp into a simple but well-built log cabin. It was larger than any the Lincolns had ever lived in until that time—eighteen feet wide and twenty feet long. A rude ladder of pegs driven into the walls led up to a loft beneath the roof. The bark was left on the log walls, and the roof was made of poles and slabs. There were no windows, and a bearskin draped across the low entrance served as a door to keep out the cold. The “cats and clay” (twigs and earth) chimney frequently caught fire and crumbled in dirt and ashes on the hearth.
The family’s food that winter consisted almost entirely of game, which was plentiful in the thickets only a few yards from the camp: turkeys, deer, squirrels, and rabbits. Abe recalled, in 1860, that a few days before his eighth birthday he had killed a turkey “with a rifle-gun” and “never since pulled a trigger on any larger game.” The family had no vegetables that first winter, and they soon ran out of meal. No one bathed until spring came and warmed the waters of Little Pigeon Creek.
Often the Lincolns did not have enough to eat. Almost every biographer has told the story of Abe’s muttering “These are mighty poor blessings,” after his father had said grace over a meal that consisted only of potatoes. At one time, a settler in the region, Mrs. Josiah Crawford, was so concerned about little Sally Lincoln that she took her into her home for a while to make sure that she was being fed. It was Mrs. Crawford who later told of calling on the Lincolns and being served a slice of raw sweet potato, all they could offer in observance of the customary pioneer hospitality.
Indeed, in his fourteen years in Indiana, Tom Lincoln seldom had five dollars to spare. The currency in circulation on the frontier at that time—“shinplasters” (notes on local banks) and “cut money,” the name given to wedges or “bits” cut from silver, eight to a dollar—was often not worth its face value. Lincoln waited a whole year before he journeyed through the woods to Vincennes and entered his claim at the land office, paying the preliminary installment of $16 on the full price of $320 for 160 acres, and by the time he left Indiana he had paid for only half the 80 acres for which he finally succeeded in getting a patent.
In the spring and summer of 1817, Tom Lincoln cleared a few acres for a crop. Such clearing was accomplished by girdling the largest trees and letting them die and by felling others and setting fire to them where they lay. After the great butts had smouldered into charred pieces small enough to be broken into chunks and snaked away with an ox and chain, Nancy Lincoln and her children planted corn and pumpkins between the stumps and dead tree trunks wherever they could grub out roots and sprouts with an axe and grubbing hoe. All that spring their faces were black with soot and their eyes smarted until the smouldering logs were removed; but all about them in the woods the dogwood, hawthorn, wild plum, and crabapple blossomed, the breath of honeysuckle and locust blooms was in the air, and blue and yellow flags, wild roses, and swamp lilies came into flower. Life was not so bad as it had been in the winter. They even had company: Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s uncle and aunt, Thomas and Betsy Sparrow, came up from Kentucky with Abe’s cousin, Dennis Hanks, and occupied what Dennis, then aged seventeen, would later describe as “that Darne little half-face camp.”
The Lincolns’ second winter in Indiana was little better than their first. The cabin was lighted only by the fire on the hearth. Sometimes, for more light, they burned bear’s grease in a metal, dipper-shaped lamp hung from a wall. Again their food was mainly birds and animals, usually fried. They had a little corn that winter, but never enough, and the only mill, Huffman’s, a horse-powered affair, was seventeen miles away. Going to the mill was a diversion, but it was as time-consuming, though not as tedious, as pounding out the kernels of corn in a hollow hardwood stump with a stone or an axehead. Eventually Tom would grow enough wheat for the luxury of a cake on Sundays and would acquire hogs and a cow, along with a household cat to catch rats and mice; but that second winter there were no domestic animals on the place, and the breast meat of the wild turkey substituted for bread when there was no cornmeal for baking into hoecake at the fireplace.