- 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
That was the last winter that Nancy Hanks Lincoln endured the privations and loneliness of life in the Indiana woods, for the next October she became ill with a mysterious disease which the settlers called “the milk sick,” and after seven days of suffering she died. Previously she had taken care of Thomas and Betsy Sparrow, who had died at the summer’s end. When Nancy’s own turn came, Mrs. Nancy Brooner came up from her cabin on Little Pigeon Creek and spelled Tom and Dennis and Sally and Abe at looking after her. There was no doctor within thirty miles of the cabin, but even if there had been one at hand, he could have done nothing. No one knew how to cure “the milk sick”; no one knew that it was caused by the milk of cattle poisoned by eating white snakeroot; the pioneers knew only that cows and human beings became ill at the same time.
People lived intimately with death in those days; neither young nor old were spared its painful drama. Tom Lincoln made his wife’s coffin, and Abe, nine years old, whittled out the pegs that held the whipsawed planks together. They put Nancy’s body in the box, fastened the lid with Abe’s pegs, and carried it to a knoll where they had dug a hole for it. There was no preacher to read a service or say a prayer; almost a year passed before one came by the Little Pigeon Creek neighborhood and conducted a proper funeral ceremony. Two weeks after Nancy Lincoln died, Nancy Brooner died of the same illness and was buried beside her. No marker was set up then, nor in Tom Lincoln’s lifetime, nor in Abraham Lincoln’s either, and sixty years later, when Peter E. Studebaker of South Bend sent fifty dollars to Spencer County for a gravestone, no one could remember the relative positions of the two graves and a single mound was created over both.
The winter that came after the death of Abe’s mother was, if anything, worse than the first and second winters that the Lincolns spent in Indiana, and the following summer and fall were little better. Twelve-year-old Sally did all the cooking, and with no grown woman in the cabin to insist that the chores get done, the two men, Tom and Dennis, lived unrestrained in their passion for the semi-vagrant life of the hunter, while ten-year-old Abe went unwashed, unkempt, and undisciplined. Abe’s one major duty was to keep the fire on the hearth supplied with wood. It was an important responsibility, for there were no matches and relighting a dead fire with flint and steel was a painstaking process; but it was hardly a chore to keep a boy busy all the time and out of mischief. It is little wonder that Tom Lincoln, in spite of his contempt for “book-larnin’,” let Abe go to school for a short time that year.
In the winter of 1819-20, Tom Lincoln went back to Kentucky and returned with a second wife, Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow with three children—two girls and a boy, aged nine, seven, and five—and their coining crowded the dark cabin with eight people. (At one time, later on, there would be thirteen men, women, and children in the eighteen-by-twenty-foot home.) But the new wife could manage indolent Tom Lincoln and harum-scarum Dennis Hanks as Nancy Hanks Lincoln had never learned to do, and within a short time after her arrival the cabin had a window covered with greased paper, a floor of split logs, whitewash on the ceiling, and chairs instead of tree stumps to sit on. From Kentucky Sarah Lincoln brought a bureau, a bed, cooking utensils, and, among other niceties, knives and forks, which Abe and Sally had to learn to use.
Best of all, so far as Abe’s future was concerned, she brought love and understanding. Although she was herself a simple and untutored woman, she recognized in her rapidly growing stepson qualities that set him apart. By turns garrulous and quiet, he was loving and gentle, and at the same time full of mischief. Sarah Lincoln’s two youngest children, Matilda and Johnny Johnston, quickly developed a special fondness for the boy and followed him about wherever he went, begging him to carry them on his shoulders or sing their favorite song in his reedy soprano.
Once when Johnny came into the cabin with muddy bare feet and Sarah Bush Lincoln was not there, Abe held the child upside down and let him walk across the ceiling, leaving mystifying footprints on the new whitewash. On another occasion, the boys sewed a coonskin round Tom Lincoln’s yapping little yellow dog and turned him loose for the other dogs of Little Pigeon Creek to chase through the woods. They did not intend, however, that Tom’s cur should be killed, as it was when the other dogs caught up with it.
It was about this time that Abe began to borrow and read books whenever he could escape from the crowded cabin and visit other homes in the vicinity, and Sarah, recognizing that a mind such as his needed guidance, overcame her husband’s continuing contempt for “book-larnin’” and won for the boy a second and third term in school. Years later, when Lincoln spoke of his “angel mother,” it was to his stepmother that he was referring, in gratitude for what she did for him in those Indiana years.