October 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 6
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
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.
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.
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.
Lincoln’s formal schooling in Indiana—a few months when he was ten and another month or two when he was twelve and again when he was fourteen—was no better and no worse than the schooling of most backwoods boys in the state in that period. The schools he attended—first Andrew Crawford’s and then Azel Dorsey’s and William Sweeney’s—were “blab schools,” where the children studied aloud. Abe learned simple arithmetic and how to read and write from Pike’s Arithmetic and Dilworth’s Spelling Book ; and by studying and memorizing the speeches of famous men he mastered a kind of oratory. In spite of his remarkable talent for mimicry, however, he never mastered his own tongue, retaining all his life some of the pronunciations of the southern Indiana pioneer; for example, witnesses noted in 1860 that he began his famous Cooper Union speech with “Mr. Cheerman …” In school he was especially proficient in spelling, and on one occasion, during a spelling bee, helped a schoolmate, Anna Roby, by placing a finger over his eye to signal that “defied” was spelled with an i, not a y.
Most of Abe’s learning, however, he got for himself from books and newspapers that he borrowed from neighbors, like Josiah Crawford, whose copy of Weems’s Life of Washington was soaked with rain when Abe left it in a chink in the cabin wall overnight and who required Abe to pay for the damage by pulling fodder on his farm. Lincoln walked frequently to Judge John Pitcher’s law office in Rockport, sixteen miles away, to read the Judge’s newspapers and law books, and he also walked to Boonville, an equal distance, to listen to the courtroom oratory of John A. Brackenridge, the Warrick County prosecutor. It was probably in the home of Alfred Grass in Rockport that the legendary image of Abe reading by firelight was originated. When he was nineteen, Abe stayed in the Grass home for a week or two while he was loading a fiatboat in preparation for his first trip to New Orleans. Many years later, Dr. John Grass of Denver, son of Alfred Grass, recalled that Lincoln often read till midnight in their home, lying on his back with his head toward the fireplace. Most of the other reminiscences of Abe’s reading have the out-of-doors as their setting. Those who hired him often chided him when they found him resting in a cornfield or leaning on his axehandle reading a book. One of his employers complained that the boy not only wasted his own time at work but inspired idleness in the other hired hands, for at the slightest urging Abe would spin a yarn or get up on a stump and read a speech from Scott’s Lessons in Elocution, Or A Selection Of Pieces In Prose and Verse For The Improvement of Youth In Reading And Speaking .
Because Abe’s father never cleared more than twenty acres round the cabin, putting half in corn and the rest in wheat, oats, and meadow, there was hardly enough work at home to keep Abe busy, and consequently he hired out to neighbors for plowing, splitting rails, daubing the chinks of log cabins with clay. Among his employers were Josiah Crawford, John Romine, David Turnham, and William Wood, all of whom contributed their reminiscences to the story of his youth long afterward. It was Romine who quoted Abe’s famous remark, “My father taught me to work but he never taught me to like it.” Mrs. Crawford said of him years later that “he was no hand to pitch in at work like killing snakes.” William Wood, known to Abe as “Uncle Billy,” seems to have recognized more than the others the potentialities of the young man and was responsible for dissuading him from making a career of steamboating on the Ohio River. For a time young Abe clerked in William Jones’s store in nearby Gentryville, where he read the newspapers that Jones subscribed to. In the spring and summer of his eighteenth year, 1826, he worked for thirty-seven cents a day on James Taylor’s farm near the mouth of Anderson’s Creek, sixteen miles from his home.
Although he was glad then to be out from under the surveillance of his father, with whom he was never congenial, Lincoln afterward remembered his labors for Taylor as the roughest a young man could be made to do. They included not only the heavy chores of the Taylor farm—plowing, planting, hoeing, reaping, and hog-butchering—but also assisting Taylor in the operation of a ferry near the mouth of Anderson’s Creek. Even so, Abe found time to build a scow for himself, and occasionally took passengers off passing steamboats that could not stop for a landing. On one occasion he was given a whole dollar for this service, the first dollar he ever earned in less than a day. His independent enterprise finally landed him in a Kentucky court, where he was charged with operating a ferry without a license. He argued his own case before Justice of the Peace Samuel Pate and won it on the grounds that he was not taking passengers “over” the river, as charged, but only meeting them in mid-stream and bringing them back to the Indiana shore.
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.
In the winter of 1850-51, while old Tom Lincoln lay dying in his dismal cabin, Abraham Lincoln, married and a lawyer in Springfield seventy miles away, ignored two letters about his father’s condition before he finally wrote, in answer to a third, “My business is such that I could hardly leave home now”; and five days later, when the old man died, he made no effort to attend the funeral. The usual explanation of this apparent lack of feeling is the mutual dislike that existed between father and son, but Abe Lincoln loved his stepmother and must have known that his presence at the death and funeral would have been a great comfort to her. What prevented his travelling those seventy miles was more likely a reluctance to visit his father’s wretched home, a reluctance that amounted to revulsion because it would remind him of the “loghole” in which he had grown up, across the Wabash in southern Indiana.
“Miserable little log-holes” were the words an English traveller used in 1819 to describe the backwoods cabins he saw in southern Indiana at the time Lincoln lived there. That half-faced camp and the dark little cabin left such an impression on Abraham Lincoln that, years later, when he was a candidate for the Presidency, his autobiographical account of those fourteen years in Indiana summed them up in four words: “There I grew up.” When his campaign biographer asked him to elaborate upon that period, he said: “Why, Scripps, it is a great piece of folly to try to make anything out of my early life. It can all be condensed into a single sentence and that sentence you will find in Gray’s Elegy —’The short and simple annals of the poor.’”
After his departure in 1830, Abraham Lincoln did not set foot on Indiana soil again until 1844, when he came to Rockport to make a speech for Henry Clay. At that time he spent a day in Gentryville as a guest in the home of his old employer, William Jones, and visited the Little Pigeon Creek neighborhood and the unmarked hollow in the earth that was the burial place of his mother and her friend Nancy Brooner. Afterward, he wrote a stilted, melancholy poem about the visit, which tells how he was “saddened with the view” and felt as if he were “living in a tomb.”
That was the last time he ever saW southern Indiana. On his way to his first inauguration he paused twice in the central part of the state, at Lafayette on February 11, 1861, and the next day, his fifty-second birthday, at Indianapolis. After his assassination, his funeral train wound its way slowly across the state to Springfield, Illinois, but it never went near Little Pigeon Creek, or the hillside grave near Tom Lincoln’s “darne little half-face camp.”