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family called Sparrow. They had endured together the trials of pioneer
life; their close relations continued for many years after, and were
cemented by frequent intermarriage.

Mrs. Lincoln's mother was named Lucy Hanks; her sisters were Betty,
Polly, and Nancy who married Thomas Sparrow, Jesse Friend, and Levi
Hall. The childhood of Nancy was passed with the Sparrows, and she was
oftener called by their name than by her own. The whole family
connection was composed of people so little given to letters that it
is hard to determine the proper names and relationships of the younger
members amid the tangle of traditional cousinships. [Footnote: The
Hanks family seem to have gone from Pennsylvania and thence to
Kentucky about the same time with the Lincolns. They also belonged to
the Communion of Friends. - "Historical Collections of Gwynnedd," by H.
M. Jenkins.] Those who went to Indiana with Thomas Lincoln, and grew
up with his children, are the only ones that need demand our

There was no hint of future glory in the wedding or the bringing home
of Nancy Lincoln. All accounts represent her as a handsome young woman
of twenty-three, of appearance and intellect superior to her lowly
fortunes. She could read and write, - a remarkable accomplishment in
her circle, - and even taught her husband to form the letters of his
name. He had no such valuable wedding gift to bestow upon her; he
brought her to a little house in Elizabethtown, where he and she and
want dwelt together in fourteen feet square. The next year a daughter
was born to them; and the next the young carpenter, not finding his
work remunerative enough for his growing needs, removed to a little
farm which he had bought on the easy terms then prevalent in Kentucky.
It was on the Big South Fork of Nolin Creek, in what was then Hardin
and is now La Rue County, three miles from Hodgensville. The ground
had nothing attractive about it but its cheapness. It was hardly more
grateful than the rocky hill slopes of New England. It required full
as earnest and intelligent industry to persuade a living out of those
barren hillocks and weedy hollows, covered with stunted and scrubby
underbrush, as it would amid the rocks and sands of the northern

Thomas Lincoln settled down in this dismal solitude to a deeper
poverty than any of his name had ever known; and there, in the midst
of the most unpromising circumstances that ever witnessed the advent
of a hero into this world, Abraham Lincoln was born on the 12th day of
February, 1809.

Four years later, Thomas Lincoln purchased a fine farm of 238 acres on
Knob Creek, near where it flows into the Rolling Fork, and succeeded
in getting a portion of it into cultivation. The title, however,
remained in him only a little while, and after his property had passed
out of his control he looked about for another place to establish

[Illustration: This Certificate, or Marriage List (here shown in
reduced fac-simile), written by the Rev. Jesse Head, was lost sight of
for many years, and about 1886 was discovered through the efforts of
W. F. Booker, Clerk of Washington County, Kentucky.]

Of all these years of Abraham Lincoln's early childhood we know almost
nothing. He lived a solitary life in the woods, returning from his
lonesome little games to his cheerless home. He never talked of these
days to his most intimate friends. [Transcriber's Note: Lengthy
footnote (2) relocated to chapter end.] Once, when asked what he
remembered about the war with Great Britain, he replied: "Nothing but
this. I had been fishing one day and caught a little fish which I was
taking home. I met a soldier in the road, and, having been always told
at home that we must be good to the soldiers, I gave him my fish."
This is only a faint glimpse, but what it shows is rather
pleasant - the generous child and the patriotic household. But there is
no question that these first years of his life had their lasting
effect upon the temperament of this great mirthful and melancholy man.
He had little schooling. He accompanied his sister Sarah [Footnote:
This daughter of Thomas Lincoln is sometimes called Nancy and
sometimes Sarah. She seems to have borne the former name during her
mother's life-time, and to have taken her stepmother's name after Mr.
Lincoln's second marriage.] to the only schools that existed in their
neighborhood, one kept by Zachariah Riney, another by Caleb Hazel,
where he learned his alphabet and a little more. But of all those
advantages for the cultivation of a young mind and spirit which every
home now offers to its children, the books, toys, ingenious games, and
daily devotion of parental love, he knew absolutely nothing.

[Relocated Footnote: Soon after Mr. Lincoln arrived in Washington in
1861, he received the following letter from one of his Virginia
kinsmen, the last communication which ever came from them. It was
written on paper adorned with a portrait of Jefferson Davis, and was
inclosed in an envelope emblazoned with the Confederate flag:

"To ABRAHAM LINCOLN, Esq., _President of the Northern Confederacy_.

"SIR: Having just returned from a trip through Virginia, North
Carolina, and Tennessee, permit me to inform you that you will get
whipped out of your boots. To-day I met a gentleman from Anna,
Illinois, and although he voted for you he says that the moment your
troops leave Cairo they will get the spots knocked out of them. My
dear sir, these are facts which time will prove to be correct.

"I am, sir, with every consideration, yours respectfully,


"Of the Staunton stock of Lincolns."

There was a young Abraham Lincoln on the Confederate side in the
Shenandoah distinguished for his courage and ferocity. He lay in wait
and shot a Drunkard preacher, whom he suspected of furnishing
information to the Union army. (Letter from Samuel W. Pennypacker.)]

[Relocated Footnote: In giving to the wife of the pioneer Lincoln the
name of Mary Shipley we follow the tradition in his family. The Hon.
J. L. Nall, of Missouri, grandson of Nancy (Lincoln) Brumfield,
Abraham Lincoln's youngest child, has given us so clear a statement of
the case that we cannot hesitate to accept it, although it conflicts
with equally positive statements from other sources. The late Gideon
Welles, Secretary of the Navy, who gave much intelligent effort to
genealogical researches, was convinced that the Abraham Lincoln who
married Miss Hannah Winters, a daughter of Ann Boone, sister of the
famous Daniel, was the President's grandfather. Waddell's "Annals of
Augusta County" says he married Elizabeth Winter, a cousin of Daniel
Boone. The Boone and Lincoln families were large and there were
frequent intermarriages among them, and the patriarchal name of
Abraham was a favorite one. There was still another Lincoln, Hannaniah
by name, who was also intimately associated with the Boones. His
signature appears on the surveyor's certificate for Abraham Lincoln's
land in Jefferson County, and he joined Daniel Boone in 1798 in the
purchase of the tract of land on the Missouri River where Boone died.
(Letter from Richard V. B. Lincoln, printed in the "Williamsport
[Pa.] Banner," Feb. 25, 1881.)]

[Relocated Footnote: In the possession of Colonel Reuben T. Durrett,
of Louisville, a gentleman who has made the early history of his State
a subject of careful study, and to whom we are greatly indebted for
information in regard to the settlement of the Lincolns in Kentucky.
He gives the following list of lands in that State owned by Abraham

1. Four hundred acres on Long Run, a branch of Floyd's Fork, in
Jefferson County, entered May 29, 1780, and surveyed May 7, 1785. We
have in our possession the original patent issued by Governor Garrard,
of Kentucky, to Abraham Lincoln for this property. It was found by
Col. A. C. Matthews, of the 99th Illinois, in 1863, at an abandoned
residence near Indianola, Texas.

2. Eight hundred acres on Green River, near Green River Lick, entered
June 7, 1780, and surveyed October 12, 1784.

3. Five hundred acres in Campbell County, date of entry not known, but
surveyed September 27, 1798, and patented June 30, 1799 - the survey
and patent evidently following his entry after his death. It is
possible that this was the five-hundred-acre tract found in Boone's
field-book, in the possession of Lyman C. Draper, Esq., Secretary of
the Wisconsin Historical Society, and erroneously supposed by some to
have been in Mercer County. Boone was a deputy of Colonel Thomas
Marshall, Surveyor of Fayette County.]

[Relocated Footnote (1): The following is a copy of the marriage bond:

"Know all men by these presents, that we, Thomas Lincoln and Richard
Berry, are held and firmly bound unto his Excellency, the Governor of
Kentucky, in the just and full sum of fifty pounds current money to the
payment of which well and truly to be made to the said Governor and his
successors, we bind ourselves, our heirs, etc., jointly and severally,
firmly by these presents, sealed with our seals and dated this 10th day
of June, 1806. The condition of the above obligation is such that
whereas there is a marriage shortly intended between the above bound
Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks, for which a license has issued, now if
there be no lawful cause to obstruct the said marriage, then this
obligation to be void, else to remain in full force and virtue in law.

"_Witness_, JOHN H. PARROTT, Guardian."

Richard Berry was a connection of Lincoln; his wife was a Shipley.]

[Relocated Footnote (2): There is still living (1886) near Knob Creek
in Kentucky, at the age of eighty, a man who claims to have known
Abraham Lincoln in his childhood - Austin Gollaher. He says he used to
play with Abe Lincoln in the shavings of his father's carpenter shop.
He tells a story which, if accurate, entitles him to the civic crown
which the Romans used to give to one who saved the life of a citizen.
When Gollaher was eleven and Lincoln eight the two boys were in the
woods in pursuit of partridges; in trying to "coon" across Knob Creek
on a log, Lincoln fell in and Gollaher fished him out with a sycamore
branch - a service to the Republic, the value of which it would be
difficult to compute.]



[Sidenote: 1818.]

By the time the boy Abraham had attained his seventh year, the social
condition of Kentucky had changed considerably from the early pioneer
days. Life had assumed a more settled and orderly course. The old
barbarous equality of the earlier time was gone; a difference of
classes began to be seen. Those who held slaves assumed a distinct
social superiority over those who did not. Thomas Lincoln, concluding
that Kentucky was no country for a poor man, determined to seek his
fortune in Indiana. He had heard of rich and unoccupied lands in Perry
County in that State, and thither he determined to go. He built a rude
raft, loaded it with his kit of tools and four hundred gallons of
whisky, and trusted his fortunes to the winding water-courses. He met
with only one accident on his way: his raft capsized in the Ohio
River, but he fished up his kit of tools and most of the ardent
spirits, and arrived safely at the place of a settler named Posey,
with whom he left his odd invoice of household goods for the
wilderness, while he started on foot to look for a home in the dense
forest. He selected a spot which pleased him in his first day's
journey. He then walked back to Knob Creek and brought his family on
to their new home. No humbler cavalcade ever invaded the Indiana
timber. Besides his wife and two children, his earthly possessions
were of the slightest, for the backs of two borrowed horses sufficed
for the load. Insufficient bedding and clothing, a few pans and
kettles, were their sole movable wealth. They relied on Lincoln's kit
of tools for their furniture, and on his rifle for their food. At
Posey's they hired a wagon and literally hewed a path through the
wilderness to their new habitation near Little Pigeon Creek, a mile
and a half east of Gentryville, in a rich and fertile forest country.

Thomas Lincoln, with the assistance of his wife and children, built a
temporary shelter of the sort called in the frontier language "a half-
faced camp"; merely a shed of poles, which defended the inmates on
three sides from foul weather, but left them open to its inclemency in
front. For a whole year his family lived in this wretched fold, while
he was clearing a little patch of ground for planting corn, and
building a rough cabin for a permanent residence. They moved into the
latter before it was half completed; for by this time the Sparrows had
followed the Lincolns from Kentucky, and the half-faced camp was given
up to them. But the rude cabin seemed so spacious and comfortable
after the squalor of "the camp," that Thomas Lincoln did no further
work on it for a long time. He left it for a year or two without
doors, or windows, or floor. The battle for existence allowed him no
time for such superfluities. He raised enough corn to support life;
the dense forest around him abounded in every form of feathered game;
a little way from his cabin an open glade was full of deer-licks, and
an hour or two of idle waiting was generally rewarded by a shot at a
fine deer, which would furnish meat for a week, and material for
breeches and shoes. His cabin was like that of other pioneers. A few
three-legged stools; a bedstead made of poles stuck between the logs
in the angle of the cabin, the outside corner supported by a crotched
stick driven into the ground; the table, a huge hewed log standing on
four legs; a pot, kettle, and skillet, and a few tin and pewter dishes
were all the furniture. The boy Abraham climbed at night to his bed of
leaves in the loft, by a ladder of wooden pins driven into the logs.

This life has been vaunted by poets and romancers as a happy and
healthful one. Even Dennis Hanks, speaking of his youthful days when
his only home was the half-faced camp, says, "I tell you, Billy, I
enjoyed myself better then than I ever have since." But we may
distrust the reminiscences of old settlers, who see their youth in the
flattering light of distance. The life was neither enjoyable nor
wholesome. The rank woods were full of malaria, and singular epidemics
from time to time ravaged the settlements. In the autumn of 1818 the
little community of Pigeon Creek was almost exterminated by a
frightful pestilence called the milk-sickness, or, in the dialect of
the country, "the milk-sick." It is a mysterious disease which has
been the theme of endless wrangling among Western physicians, and the
difficulty of ascertaining anything about it has been greatly
increased by the local sensitiveness which forbids any one to admit
that any well-defined case has ever been seen in his neighborhood,
"although just over the creek (or in the next county) they have had it
bad." It seems to have been a malignant form of fever - attributed
variously to malaria and to the eating of poisonous herbs by the
cattle - attacking cattle as well as human beings, attended with
violent retching and a burning sensation in the stomach, often
terminating fatally on the third day. In many cases those who
apparently recovered lingered for years with health seriously
impaired. Among the Pioneers of Pigeon Creek, so ill-fed, ill-housed,
and uncared for, there was little prospect of recovery from such a
grave disorder. The Sparrows, husband and wife, died early in October,
and Nancy Hanks Lincoln followed them after an interval of a few days.
Thomas Lincoln made the coffins for his dead "out of green lumber cut
with a whipsaw," and they were all buried, with scant ceremony, in a
little clearing of the forest. It is related of young Abraham, that he
sorrowed most of all that his mother should have been laid away with
such maimed rites, and that he contrived several months later to have
a wandering preacher named David Elkin brought to the settlement, to
deliver a funeral sermon over her grave, already white with the early
winter snows. [Footnote: A stone has been placed over the site of the
grave "by P. E. Studebaker, of South Bend, Indiana." The stone bears
the following inscription: "Nancy Hanks Lincoln, mother of President
Lincoln, died October 5th, A. D. 1818, aged 35 years. Erected by a
friend of her martyred son, 1879."]

This was the dreariest winter of his life, for before the next
December came his father had brought from Kentucky a new wife, who was
to change the lot of all the desolate little family very much for the
better. Sarah Bush had been an acquaintance of Thomas Lincoln before
his first marriage; she had, it is said, rejected him to marry one
Johnston, the jailer at Elizabethtown, who had died, leaving her with
three children, a boy and two girls. When Lincoln's widowhood had
lasted a year, he went down to Elizabethtown to begin again the wooing
broken off so many years before. He wasted no time in preliminaries,
but promptly made his wishes known, and the next morning they were
married. It was growing late in the autumn, and the pioneer probably
dreaded another lonely winter on Pigeon Creek. Mrs. Johnston was not
altogether portionless. She had a store of household goods which
filled a four-horse wagon borrowed of Ralph Grume, Thomas Lincoln's
brother-in-law, to transport the bride to Indiana. It took little time
for this energetic and honest Christian woman to make her influence
felt, even in those discouraging surroundings, and Thomas Lincoln and
the children were the better for her coming all the rest of their
lives. The lack of doors and floors was at once corrected. Her honest
pride inspired her husband to greater thrift and industry. The goods
she brought with her compelled some effort at harmony in the other
fittings of the house. She dressed the children in warmer clothing and
put them to sleep in comfortable beds. With this slight addition to
their resources the family were much improved in appearance, behavior,
and self-respect.


Thomas Lincoln joined the Baptist church at Little Pigeon in 1823; his
oldest child, Sarah, followed his example three years later. They were
known as active and consistent members of that communion. Lincoln was
himself a good carpenter when he chose to work at his trade; a walnut
table made by him is still preserved as part of the furniture of the
church to which he belonged.

[Sidenote: MS. letter from the Rev. T.V. Robertson, pastor of the
Little Pigeon Baptist church.]

Such a woman as Sarah Bush could not be careless of so important a
matter as the education of her children, and they made the best use of
the scanty opportunities the neighborhood afforded. "It was a wild
region," writes Mr. Lincoln, in one of those rare bits of
autobiography which he left behind him, "with many bears and other
wild animals still in the woods. There were some schools so-called,
but no qualification was ever required of a teacher beyond 'readin',
writin', and cipherin' to the Rule of Three.' If a straggler supposed
to understand Latin happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was
looked upon as a wizard. There was absolutely nothing to excite
ambition for education." But in the case of this ungainly boy there
was no necessity of any external incentive. A thirst for knowledge as
a means of rising in the world was innate in him. It had nothing to do
with that love of science for its own sake which has been so often
seen in lowly savants, who have sacrificed their lives to the pure
desire of knowing the works of God. All the little learning he ever
acquired he seized as a tool to better his condition. He learned his
letters that he might read books and see how men in the great world
outside of his woods had borne themselves in the fight for which he
longed. He learned to write, first, that he might have an
accomplishment his playmates had not; then that he might help his
elders by writing their letters, and enjoy the feeling of usefulness
which this gave him; and finally that he might copy what struck him in
his reading and thus make it his own for future use. He learned to
cipher certainly from no love of mathematics, but because it might
come in play in some more congenial business than the farm-work which
bounded the horizon of his contemporaries. Had it not been for that
interior spur which kept his clear spirit at its task, his schools
could have done little for him; for, counting his attendance under
Riney and Hazel in Kentucky, and under Dorsey, Crawford, and Swaney in
Indiana, it amounted to less than a year in all. The schools were much
alike. They were held in deserted cabins of round logs, with earthen
floors, and small holes for windows, sometimes illuminated by as much
light as could penetrate through panes of paper greased with lard. The
teachers were usually in keeping with their primitive surroundings.
The profession offered no rewards sufficient to attract men of
education or capacity. After a few months of desultory instruction
young Abraham knew all that these vagrant literati could teach him.
His last school-days were passed with one Swaney in 1826, who taught
at a distance of four and a half miles from the Lincoln cabin. The
nine miles of walking doubtless seemed to Thomas Lincoln a waste of
time, and the lad was put at steady work and saw no more of school.

But it is questionable whether he lost anything by being deprived of
the ministrations of the backwoods dominies. When his tasks ended, his
studies became the chief pleasure of his life. In all the intervals of
his work - in which he never took delight, knowing well enough that he
was born for something better than that - he read, wrote, and ciphered
incessantly. His reading was naturally limited by his opportunities,
for books were among the rarest of luxuries in that region and time.
But he read everything he could lay his hands upon, and he was
certainly fortunate in the few books of which he became the possessor.
It would hardly be possible to select a better handful of classics for
a youth in his circumstances than the few volumes he turned with a
nightly and daily hand - the Bible, "Aesop's Fables," "Robinson Crusoe,"
"The Pilgrim's Progress," a history of the United States, and Weem's
"Life of Washington." These were the best, and these he read over and
over till he knew them almost by heart. But his voracity for anything
printed was insatiable. He would sit in the twilight and read a
dictionary as long as he could see. He used to go to David Turnham's,
the town constable, and devour the "Revised Statutes of Indiana," as
boys in our day do the "Three Guardsmen." Of the books he did not own
he took voluminous notes, filling his copy-book with choice extracts,
and poring over them until they were fixed in his memory. He could not
afford to waste paper upon his original compositions. He would sit by
the fire at night and cover the wooden shovel with essays and
arithmetical exercises, which he would shave off and then begin again.
It is touching to think of this great-spirited child, battling year
after year against his evil star, wasting his ingenuity upon devices
and makeshifts, his high intelligence starving for want of the simple
appliances of education that are now offered gratis to the poorest and
most indifferent. He did a man's work from the time he left school;
his strength and stature were already far beyond those of ordinary
men. He wrought his appointed tasks ungrudgingly, though without
enthusiasm; but when his employer's day was over, his own began. John
Hanks says: "When Abe and I returned to the house from work he would
go to the cupboard, snatch a piece of corn-bread, take down a book,
sit down, cock his legs up as high as his head, and read." The picture
may be lacking in grace, but its truthfulness is beyond question. The
habit remained with him always. Some of his greatest work in later
years was done in this grotesque Western fashion, - "sitting on his

[Sidenote: W. H. Lamou "Life of Lincoln," p. 37.]

[Sidenote: Damon, p. 80.]

Otherwise his life at this time differed little from that of ordinary
farm-hands. His great strength and intelligence made him a valuable
laborer, and his unfailing good temper and flow of rude rustic wit
rendered him the most agreeable of comrades. He was always ready with
some kindly act or word for others. Once he saved the life of the town
drunkard, whom he found freezing by the roadside, by carrying him in

Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 3 of 31)