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In the Footsteps of Lincoln - What do the formative years of abraham lincoln, who was reared among uneducated backwoodsmen of the kentucky and indiana frontier, reveal about the lawyer president who freed the slaves and saved the union?

The Hardin County courthouse in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, is the hub of a once-bustling town center that has fallen on hard times. A scattering of storefront shops tender their wares to a few indifferent patrons. A police cruiser circles warily, a keen glance thrown my way as I loiter about the historic square.

North of town, car dealerships, gas stations, and super retail outlets file along U.S. 31 before petering out in the rolling countryside. I turn right onto an insignificant road behind the new Wal-Mart. Over a low ridge, and surviving through a couple of tumultuous centuries, stands a rustic log cabin, constructed in part by the pioneer settler Thomas Lincoln in 1806. Thomas lived close by with his wife, Nancy, and two-year-old daughter, Sarah.

I step into a narrow corridor between the cabin and an adjacent building. Examining the aged logs and primitive mud caulking, I listen for ghosts trapped in the close confines of the passageway. Did little Sarah Lincoln scamper through the corridor where I now stood? Did Nancy call on her neighbors to share the latest family news?

For Nancy was carrying another child, a boy, who would begin his sojourn in the world some fifteen miles to the south. The boy would suffer tragedy in his youth, yet come out of the frontier to save the nation, free a race of people held in slavery, and shine the light of freedom into the far corners of the earth.

This child of Thomas and Nancy, named Abraham, would rise to the presidency as storm clouds of civil war were gathering. Few knew or had time to consider his obscure origins as the crisis of disunion settled over the land. But from these origins a man matured to whom was entrusted the inheritance of self-government, won through bloody revolution.

The English statesman William Gladstone, upon hearing Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address just months before the president's assassination, was moved to remark, "I am taken captive by so striking an utterance as this. I see in it the effect of sharp trial when rightly borne to raise men to a higher level of thought and feeling. ... Mr. Lincoln's words show that upon him anxiety and sorrow wrought their true effect. The address gives evidence of a moral elevation most rare in a statesman, or indeed in any man."

Yet for Lincoln, sharp trials rightly borne were not merely the occasions when history took note; they were the tempering experiences of boyhood, adolescence, and young manhood when the character needed by the age was forged.

Lincoln was twenty-one when he moved to Illinois. Behind him were seven formative years on the Kentucky frontier and fourteen years in the Indiana wilderness. Thus it is not in the Land of Lincoln we must look to fathom the man but to Kentucky and Indiana--and a life of trials far removed from those confronted by the aspiring Springfield lawyer.


Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809, in a log cabin on Nolin Creek three miles south of Hodgen's mill, today's Hodgenville, Kentucky. Abraham's grandfather came to Kentucky in 1782, following the trail cut by Daniel Boone seven years earlier. Thomas Lincoln continued the westward migration. He eventually purchased property in Elizabethtown but sold it for a loss on learning that the land title included fewer acres than he believed.

Inaccurate surveys and conflicting titles were vexing problems for many Kentucky pioneers--Thomas Lincoln more than most. Moving his young family to Nolin Creek near Hodgen's mill occasioned further litigation, which drove him to move to a third farm on Knob Creek, about ten miles northeast. This property eventually came under the cloud of an earlier claim as well.

Hodgen's mill has long since vanished, while Hodgenville has grown into a picturesque small town that honors Lincoln without the crass commercialism that could predictably be spawned by the memory of a famous man. There are no souvenir shops with plastic Abe figurines and imitation stovepipe hats, no Lincoln theme parks or Lincoln look-alikes trolling for tourist dollars.

Or so it seemed. The community does observe Lincoln Day on the second Saturday of October, I learned, which includes a Lincoln look-alike contest and draws some thirty thousand people. Otherwise, Hodgenville remembers the sixteenth president with a graceful statue in the town square, a small museum with dioramas of Lincoln's life, and historic parks at the location of his birthplace and boyhood home.

Lincoln's birthplace is now a national park, and a marble and granite memorial building encloses a reassembled cabin long believed to be the actual Lincoln home, a status now considered doubtful. The logs themselves changed hands several times, went on tour, and languished in a New York warehouse before an association of investors purchased both the logs and original property. The cabin was reassembled at or very near the original site and dedicated by President Taft in 1911.

In a fitting tribute to the Great Emancipator, a descendant of a Hodgenville slave now works as a ranger and guide for the park. "My great-great-great grandmother lived just about four miles from here," park ranger Patsy Cobb says. "She was 114 years old when she died in 1963."

Cobb walks me around the grounds, now upgraded with paved paths, interpretive displays, and a visitors center with the Lincoln Bible and a few period artifacts on display. Although the park today little suggests the time or experience of Lincoln, knowledge of what would come to pass from these beginnings lends emotion to any visit.

"I believe God always has somebody for the time He needs them," Cobb says with a thoughtful pause. "The first book Lincoln ever knew was the Bible, and that boy learned an early lesson about right and wrong. I believe it was his faith that he learned at a very young age that guided his decisions."

Annals of the poor

Abraham lived just two years on Nolin Creek before moving to Knob Creek farm. Lincoln later said that his earliest memories were of Knob Creek. Unlike later chroniclers, though, he had no romanticized images of his boyhood. He seemed painfully aware of the deficiencies of his upbringing and showed the greatest reticence in talking of his early background, his family, and most particularly, his mother.

"It is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life," Lincoln wrote in 1860, in response to inquiries following his nomination for president. "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.' That's my life, and that's all you or anyone else can make out of it."

If he ever discussed his boyhood or parents, said Lincoln's law partner and longtime associate William Herndon, "it was with great reluctance and the greatest reserve."

Lincoln's mother remains a shadowy figure. Nancy was illiterate, and she died when Abraham was ten, leaving few traces. Scholars have speculated that Lincoln's refusal to talk about his mother perhaps was due to her murky origins--she was raised by relatives and guardians-- and the suspicion that she was illegitimate. Yet there can be little doubt that this forgotten, unlettered pioneer woman shaped not only the pliant character of her son but, indirectly, the future course of American history.

Neighbors were unanimous in their estimation of Nancy Lincoln in later reminiscences. According to one, "she was a woman of deep religious feeling, of the most exemplary character, and most tenderly and affectionately devoted to her family."

Dennis Hanks, a nephew of Nancy and constant visitor to the Lincoln homestead in Indiana, offered a moving testimonial that cannot fail to suggest qualities of character known to posterity in the person of her famous son:

"She seemed to be unmovably calm; she was keen, shrewd, and smart, & I do say highly intellectual by nature. Her memory was strong, her perception was quick, her judgment was acute almost. She was spiritually and ideally inclined, not dull, not material, not heavy in thought feeling or action . ... She was one of the very best women in the whole race known for kindness, tenderness, charity, and love to the world."

Lincoln's near-total silence on his feelings toward his mother is one of many enigmas of this complex man. But he was hardly more forthcoming about his father, about whom accounts present a contradictory picture. In a rare reference in an 1848 letter, Lincoln refers to his father as "a wholly uneducated man," "an orphan at the age of six, in poverty, and in a new country."

In a brief autobiography prepared for the 1860 presidential campaign, Lincoln presented his father as but "a wandering laboring boy, [who] grew up litterally [sic] without education. He never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly sign his own name."

Yet contrary to the often-repeated view of Thomas as a ne'er-do-well, unsympathetic to his son's penchant for books over farm labor, the elder Lincoln was a property holder, respected juror, and churchgoer.

A member of the family into which Thomas married following Nancy's death declared that he "was one of the best men that ever lived. A sturdy, honest, God fearing man whom all the neighbors respected." Another in-law added, "Uncle Abe got his honesty, and his clean notions of living and his kind heart from his father. Maybe [the Hanks] family was smarter, but some of them couldn't hold a candle to Grandfather Lincoln when it came to morals."

From his father's colorful tales the boy caught glimpses of the broad world beyond the confines of home. "Thomas Lincoln was a brilliant storyteller," an Indiana neighbor recalled. "His chief earthly pleasure was to tell stories in a group of chums who paid homage to his wit by giving him the closest attention and the loudest applause."

While this endearing trait can be readily traced to his father, the elder Lincoln's staunch antislavery views were more significant. Slavery was fiercely debated on the Kentucky frontier, and the Lincolns eventually left their church over the issue and joined a breakaway antislavery congregation. The farm on Knob Creek probably first exposed the boy to the inhumanity practiced against this unfortunate population--and to the passions excited by the South's "peculiar institution."

An emerging awareness

I sit on the rustic porch of the Knob Creek Boyhood Home, joined by property owners Milburn Howard and Lois Wimsett. Their lilting Kentucky drawl and engaging openness underscore their deep roots in the community. The Lincoln cabin, a weathered and crumbling structure, stands on the original site--the logs taken from a neighboring homestead of Lincoln's time and reconstructed according to the remembrance of an early settler.

The farm's proximity to the Old Cumberland Road was a significant factor in the child's emerging awareness of the world around him. For traversing the road were local militias on the move, pioneers and their families making their way westward in search of a better life, and slaves, shackled and marching grimly toward a cruel destiny. In front of the Boyhood Home, U.S. 31 largely follows the pioneer road of Lincoln's time, and in the prolonged intervals between passing cars, the quiet of the early afternoon conjures spirits of long-lost days.

"There was a well beside Knob Creek" says Howard. "It used to be a lot deeper, and travelers would stop to water their animals. They had to provide an overnight campsite, and this gave young Abe a chance to hear many stories."

"He was born with an inquisitive mind," adds Wimsett. "If he heard of something he couldn't understand, he'd turn it over in his mind until he could make sense of it."

I poke my head inside the cabin. The close quarters of a one-room cabin meant that adult concerns--frustration over land titles, anger over slavery, as well as the airing of common prejudices and opinions shared in conversation around the fire--were absorbed in some measure by the precociously bright Abraham.

Climbing into the back of Howard's pickup, I take a rollicking ride into the undisturbed world of Lincoln's earliest memories. Behind the cabin, large, flat fields run to steep "knobs" that rise to pointed crests. The round, heavily forested knobs, thick with game, and the rich pastures watered by creeks prone to flash flooding, must have offered both adventure and a formative education for the perceptive boy. We inch up a steep, severely eroded woods road, past an undisturbed pond overhung by a stupendous bee's nest, to a huge old oak.

"This was a boundary oak of the Lincoln property," Howard says. Today the massive tree, in the lost solitude of deep woods, is perhaps the only living witness to the passage of young Abraham Lincoln during his years in Kentucky--as silent about that time as the man who spent his boyhood under its spreading branches.

Abraham caught his first glimpses of life beyond the homestead in the company of his father. A trip to the mill must have been eagerly awaited, and the boy likely made many of them. Two miles from the cabin I turn onto an unmarked dirt road and pull up before a dilapidated barn. A couple of stray cows stand in the creek bed, relaxing in the shade. A "Critter Crossing" sign adds a touch of Kentucky charm. Projecting from the side of a bluff stands an old stone structure, overgrown with brambles and long abandoned. I slash my way through the bushes, scratched but elated by my find, eager to get a closer look.

According to local tradition, the structure, known as the Spring House, was built in the eighteenth century as an Indian lookout. From the testimony of residents whose families have lived in Hodgenville for generations, the dirt road is a portion of the original Old Cumberland Road, and the Spring House was a regular stop for travelers to Hodgen's mill. If so, the Spring House and an adjacent home, also dating to the eighteenth century, would have been familiar sites to travelers. They are likely the only existing structures in Kentucky that date from Lincoln's lifetime. Lincoln himself reportedly inquired of a Hodgenville visitor to the White House if the old stone house was still standing, adding that he remembered it well.

Learning 'by littles'

Lincoln's world extended at least two miles west along the road to a subscription school he attended briefly with his sister. Although only learning "by littles," as he later described his infrequent schooling, young Abraham was not deprived relative to other pioneer children in Kentucky. The fact that his parents took advantage of the school speaks to their enlightened sense that learning was profitable, even though it contributed nothing to planting, harvesting, husbandry, or any of the other daily demands of pioneer life.

Abraham's principal textbook was Dilworth's Speller, which imparted lessons that reinforced the moral education the child received at home. Thus, for example, children were taught simple sentences such as "No man may put off the law of God," "My joy is in God all the day," or "A bad man is a foe of God."

Before Dilworth, of course, was the Bible--often the only book in many pioneer homes. It would be hard to overestimate the significance of this book in the character development of Abraham Lincoln. It could be seen even as a third parent in the Lincoln household, providing guidance, establishing boundaries, offering encouragement, and conveying wisdom into the paradoxes of human life.

Beyond its moral authority, the Bible expressed precepts in simple and direct language and surely imparted to Lincoln the eloquence and dignity of expression that lifts the sixteenth president above all other chief executives in our national history. Lincoln's use of the English language, the rolling cadences and stirring rhetoric, has become a holy grail of presidential speechwriters, yet springs from the commonest sources--Hebrew scripture and pioneer life.

In 1819, after five years at Knob Creek, the Lincoln family piled their belongings into a wagon and trudged north into the Indiana territory. Frustration with property disputes and bitterness over slavery drove them across the Ohio River to a land where ordinances excluded slavery and property titles were issued directly from the territorial, soon to be state, government.

Abraham Lincoln was nearly eight years old. Behind him were formative years that would prove inordinately significant as he rose to the national stage. He would return to Kentucky to find his wife, Mary Todd; his Illinois law partner, William Herndon; and his political mentor, Henry Clay. From these years dawned a deep-rooted hostility toward slavery, a condition that degraded master and slave alike. And from this time stirred an ambition that would not be proscribed by the harsh limitations of the frontier farm.

As the pioneer family hacked their way into the virgin forests and wintered in a primitive lean-to, young Abraham little imagined either the tragedies or arresting new perceptions of the unfolding national experiment that awaited him as he entered adolescence. From both would emerge a man who could bear the nation through the turmoil of civil war and reaffirm a national purpose--that a nation of self-governing citizens would not perish from the earth.n

The Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site (270-358-3137) is located three miles south of Hodgenville, Kentucky, on U.S. 31. The park is open Memorial Day through Labor Day from 8:00 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. and the remainder of the year from 8:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Lincoln's Boyhood Home at Knob Creek (502-549-3741) is located seven miles east of Hodgenville on U.S. 31 and is open from April 1 through November 1, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The author would like to thank the Kentucky Department of Travel ( for its assistance in the preparation of this article.

Eric P. Olsen is associate executive editor for The World & I. The author would like to dedicate this article to his son Lincoln, born February 6, 1984, the two hundredth birthday of Nancy Hanks Lincoln (February 6, 1784).
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Title Annotation:Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site
Author:olsen, eric p.
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:1U6KY
Date:Feb 1, 2001
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