- 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
Two years later, when he was nineteen, Abe set out on a flatboat from Rockport, Indiana, bound for New Orleans with a cargo of farm produce. He went with Allen Gentry, son of James Gentry, the richest man in the region, and the father paid Abe eight dollars a month to work the bow oar and keep his son company. Abe was well over six feet tall and famous for his strength, but his reputation for sobriety and good sense had as much to do with Gentry’s hiring him as his physical prowess. On the downriver voyage, Lincoln’s muscles and courage stood him and his companion in good stead; while tied up at a plantation landing two days’ journey above New Orleans, the flatboat was attacked by a gang of Negroes intent upon robbery, and Abe threw several of them into the river and drove off the rest.
In 1829, the year following the flatboat journey, the once kind and good-natured young man passed through a strange period of torment, found himself at outs with many of his old friends in the backwoods of southern Indiana, and engaged in malicious pranks at their expense. Several circumstances may account for the change in his nature, which lasted almost a year. For one thing, the Lincoln cabin had become even more crowded: Dennis Hanks had married Abe’s stepsister Elizabeth and Squire Hall had married Matilda, and they and their children were always in and out of the Lincoln home and sometimes living in it; and Cousin John Hanks had come up from Kentucky and moved in on the family. As Abe himself might have said, using an expression still current in that region of Indiana, “There wasn’t room to cuss the cat without gittin’ its hairs in your teeth.” There is also a possibility that Abe had had a romantic attachment to Anna Roby (the girl he had helped in the spelling bee). Anna was now married to Allen Gentry. Certainly the flatboat journey with Allen had shown Abe that “to go on the river” was one way of escaping the cabined and confined life that he was leading, but Uncle Billy Wood was adamant and refused to recommend him to a steamboat captain until he was twenty-one. Finally, Abe’s sister Sally, married to Aaron Grigsby, had died in childbirth, and Abe was blaming the Grigsby family for neglecting her.
The results of the young man’s mood were dramatic. When a double marriage ceremony was held at the home of Reuben Grigsby, Abe was not invited to either the wedding or the infare—a repetition of the festivities, which commonly took place on the following day at the home of the bridegroom’s father. In that time and place weddings and infares were both somewhat bawdy occasions at which, each time, the new husband and wife were put to bed in a ribald ceremony. The uninvited Abe managed to arrange, through a confederate, to get the brides and bridegrooms into the wrong marriage beds and afterward wrote a crude narrative about the misadventure entitled “The Chronicles of Reuben.” Not content with lampooning the Grigsbys in his “Chronicles,” he made fun of his friend, big-nosed Josiah Crawford, as well. “Some were playing on harps,” he wrote, “some on viols, and some blowing on rams’ horns, and chief of them was Josiah, blowing his bugle and making a sound so great the neighborhood hills and valleys echoed.” As if this were not enough, he wrote an even more offensive and ribald poem about William Grigsby, brother of the bridegrooms, suggesting that no girl would ever have him for a husband because he was sexually inadequate. William Grigsby challenged Abe to a fight, but Abe refused to meet him, on the grounds that Grigsby was no match for him. Abe’s stepbrother, Johnny Johnston, fought in his place, and was being badly thrashed when Abe finally intervened, shouting, “I’m the big buck of this lick!” and offering to take on not only all Grigsbys but all comers among the spectators. Apparently there were no takers, and the crowd dispersed.
In the fall of 1829, Tom Lincoln’s decision to move to Illinois gave Abe something to look forward to and seemed to bring an end to his obstreperous behavior, though Tom still had difficulty in obtaining a “letter of dismission” from the Little Pigeon Baptist Church, of which the Grigsbys were pillars. However, after the Lincolns were gone and tempers had cooled, old residents seemed to remember Abe with more pleasure than pain. When she was interviewed thirty-six years later, Mrs. Crawford, whose husband had been the butt of Abe’s ridicule in “The Chronicles of Reuben,” remembered only young Lincoln’s “pleasant” manner; she was able to recite the “Chronicles” from memory.
On March 1, 1830, when Abe had just turned twenty-one, the Lincoln family left their Indiana home, conveying their belongings in a wagon drawn by four oxen from Gentryville to Vincennes, across the Wabash, and thence westward into Illinois. Some months after their arrival in Illinois, the Lincolns left their first home there and moved on into Coles County. Abe did not accompany them. He settled in New Salem alone and at last became his own man.