John George Nicolay.

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his strong arms to the tavern, and working over him until he revived.
It is a curious fact that this act of common humanity was regarded as
something remarkable in the neighborhood; the grateful sot himself
always said "it was mighty clever of Abe to tote me so far that cold
night." It was also considered an eccentricity that he hated and
preached against cruelty to animals. Some of his comrades remember
still his bursts of righteous wrath, when a boy, against the wanton
murder of turtles and other creatures. He was evidently of better and
finer clay than his fellows, even in those wild and ignorant days. At
home he was the life of the singularly assorted household, which
consisted, besides his parents and himself, of his own sister, Mrs.
Lincoln's two girls and boy, Dennis Hanks, the legacy of the dying
Sparrow family, and John Hanks (son of the carpenter Joseph with whom
Thomas Lincoln learned his trade), who came from Kentucky several
years after the others. It was probably as much the inexhaustible good
nature and kindly helpfulness of young Abraham which kept the peace
among all these heterogeneous elements, effervescing with youth and
confined in a one-roomed cabin, as it was the Christian sweetness and
firmness of the woman of the house. It was a happy and united
household: brothers and sisters and cousins living peacefully under
the gentle rule of the good stepmother, but all acknowledging from a
very early period the supremacy in goodness and cleverness of their
big brother Abraham. Mrs. Lincoln, not long before her death, gave
striking testimony of his winning and loyal character. She said to Mr.
Herndon: "I can say, what scarcely one mother in a thousand can say,
Abe never gave me a cross word or look, and never refused in fact or
appearance to do anything I asked him. His mind and mine - what little
I had - seemed to run together.... I had a son John, who was raised
with Abe. Both were good boys, but I must say, both now being dead,
that Abe was the best boy I ever saw or expect to see." Such were the
beginnings of this remarkable career, sacred as we see from childhood,
to duty and to human kindliness.

"We are making no claim of early saintship for him. He was merely a
good boy, with sufficient wickedness to prove his humanity. One of his
employers, undazzled by recent history, faithfully remembers that
young Abe liked his dinner and his pay better than his work: there is
surely nothing alien to ordinary mortality in this. It is also
reported that he sometimes impeded the celerity of harvest operations
by making burlesque speeches, or worse than that, comic sermons, from
the top of some tempting stump, to the delight of the hired hands and
the exasperation of the farmer. His budding talents as a writer were
not always used discreetly. He was too much given to scribbling coarse
satires and chronicles, in prose, and in something which had to him
and his friends the air of verse. From this arose occasional heart-
burnings and feuds, in which Abraham bore his part according to the
custom of the country. Despite his Quaker ancestry and his natural
love of peace, he was no non-resistant, and when he once entered upon
a quarrel the opponent usually had the worst of it. But he was
generous and placable, and some of his best friends were those with
whom he had had differences, and had settled them in the way then
prevalent, - in a ring of serious spectators, calmly and judicially
ruminant, under the shade of some spreading oak, at the edge of the
timber. Before we close our sketch of this period of Lincoln's life,
it may not be amiss to glance for a moment at the state of society
among the people with whom his lot was cast in these important years.

In most respects there had been little moral or material improvement
since the early settlement of the country. Their houses were usually
of one room, built of round logs with the bark on. We have known a man
to gain the sobriquet of "Split-log Mitchell" by indulging in the
luxury of building a cabin of square-hewn timbers. Their dress was
still mostly of tanned deer-hide, a material to the last degree
uncomfortable when the wearer was caught in a shower. Their shoes were
of the same, and a good Western authority calls a wet moccasin "a
decent way of going barefoot." About the time, however, when Lincoln
grew to manhood, garments of wool and of tow began to be worn, dyed
with the juice of the butternut or white walnut, and the hides of
neat-cattle began to be tanned. But for a good while it was only the
women who indulged in these novelties. There was little public
worship. Occasionally an itinerant preacher visited a county, and the
settlers for miles around would go nearly in mass to the meeting. If a
man was possessed of a wagon, the family rode luxuriously; but as a
rule the men walked and the women went on horseback with the little
children in their arms. It was considered no violation of the
sanctities of the occasion to carry a rifle and take advantage of any
game which might be stirring during the long walk. Arriving at the
place of meeting, which was some log cabin if the weather was foul, or
the shade of a tree if it was fair, the assembled worshipers threw
their provisions into a common store and picnicked in neighborly
companionship. The preacher would then take off his coat, and go at
his work with an energy unknown to our days.

There were few other social meetings. Men came together for
"raisings," where a house was built in a day; for "log-rollings,"
where tons of excellent timber were piled together and wastefully
burned; for wolf-hunts, where a tall pole was erected in the midst of
a prairie or clearing, and a great circle of hunters formed around it,
sometimes of miles in diameter, which, gradually contracting with
shouts and yells, drove all the game in the woods together at the pole
for slaughter; and for horse-races, which bore little resemblance to
those magnificent exhibitions which are the boast of Kentucky at this
time. In these affairs the women naturally took no part; but weddings,
which were entertainments scarcely less rude and boisterous, were
their own peculiar province. These festivities lasted rarely less than
twenty-four hours. The guests assembled in the morning. There was a
race for the whisky bottle; a midday dinner; an afternoon of rough
games and outrageous practical jokes; a supper and dance at night,
interrupted by the successive withdrawals of the bride and of the
groom, attended with ceremonies and jests of more than Rabelaisian
crudeness; and a noisy dispersal next day.

[Sidenote: O. H. Smith, "Early Indiana Trials," p. 285.]

The one point at which they instinctively clung to civilization was
their regard for law and reverence for courts of justice. Yet these
were of the simplest character and totally devoid of any adventitious
accessories. An early jurist of the country writes: "I was Circuit
Prosecuting Attorney at the time of the trials at the falls of Fall
Creek, where Pendleton now stands. Four of the prisoners were
convicted of murder, and three of them hung, for killing Indians. The
court was held in a double log cabin, the grand jury sat upon a log in
the woods, and the foreman signed the bills of indictment, which I had
prepared, upon his knee; there was not a petit juror that had shoes
on; all wore moccasins, and were belted around the waist, and carried
side-knives used by the hunters." Yet amidst all this apparent
savagery we see justice was done, and the law vindicated even against
the bitterest prejudices of these pioneer jurymen.

[Sidenote: Lamon, p. 44.]

They were full of strange superstitions. The belief in witchcraft had
long ago passed away with the smoke of the fagots from old and New
England, but it survived far into this century in Kentucky and the
lower halves of Indiana and Illinois - touched with a peculiar tinge of
African magic. The pioneers believed in it for good and evil. Their
veterinary practice was mostly by charms and incantations; and when a
person believed himself bewitched, a shot at the image of the witch
with a bullet melted out of a half-dollar was the favorite curative
agency. Luck was an active divinity in their apprehension, powerful
for blessing or bane, announced by homely signs, to be placated by
quaint ceremonies. A dog crossing the hunter's path spoiled his day,
unless he instantly hooked his little fingers together, and pulled
till the animal disappeared. They were familiar with the ever-
recurring mystification of the witch-hazel, or divining-rod; and the
"cure by faith" was as well known to them as it has since become in a
more sophisticated state of society. The commonest occurrences were
heralds of death and doom. A bird lighting in a window, a dog baying
at certain hours, the cough of a horse in the direction of a child,
the sight, or worse still, the touch of a dead snake, heralded
domestic woe. A wagon driving past the house with a load of baskets
was a warning of atmospheric disturbance. A vague and ignorant
astronomy governed their plantings and sowings, the breeding of their
cattle, and all farm-work. They must fell trees for fence-rails before
noon, and in the waxing of the moon. Fences built when there was no
moon would give way; but that was the proper season for planting
potatoes and other vegetables whose fruit grows underground; those
which bore their product in the air must be planted when the moon
shone. The magical power of the moon was wide in its influence; it
extended to the most minute details of life.

[Sidenote: Lamon, p. 52.]

Among these people, and in all essential respects one of them, Abraham
Lincoln passed his childhood and youth. He was not remarkably
precocious. His mind was slow in acquisition, and his powers of
reasoning and rhetoric improved constantly to the end of his life, at
a rate of progress marvelously regular and sustained. But there was
that about him, even at the age of nineteen years, which might well
justify his admiring friends in presaging for him an unusual career.
He had read every book he could find, and could "spell down" the whole
county at their orthographical contests. By dint of constant practice
he had acquired an admirably clear and serviceable handwriting. He
occasionally astounded his companions by such glimpses of occult
science as that the world is round and that the sun is relatively
stationary. He wrote, for his own amusement and edification, essays on
politics, of which gentlemen of standing who had been favored with a
perusal said with authority, at the cross-roads grocery, "The world
can't beat it." One or two of these compositions got into print and
vastly increased the author's local fame. He was also a magnanimous
boy, with a larger and kindlier spirit than common. His generosity,
courage, and capability of discerning two sides to a dispute, were
remarkable even then, and won him the admiration of those to whom such
qualities were unknown. But perhaps, after all, the thing which gained
and fixed his mastery over his fellows was to a great degree his
gigantic stature and strength. He attained his full growth, six feet
and four inches, two years before he came of age. He rarely met with a
man he could not easily handle. His strength is still a tradition in
Spencer County. One aged man says that he has seen him pick up and
carry away a chicken-house weighing six hundred pounds. At another
time, seeing some men preparing a contrivance for lifting some large
posts, Abe quickly shouldered the posts and took them where they were
needed. One of his employers says, "He could sink an axe deeper into
wood than any man I ever saw." With strength like this and a brain to
direct it, a man was a born leader in that country and at that time.
There are, of course, foolish stories extant that Abraham used to
boast, and that others used to predict, that he would be President
some day. The same thing is daily said of thousands of boys who will
never be constables. But there is evidence that he felt too large for
the life of a farmhand on Pigeon Creek, and his thoughts naturally
turned, after the manner of restless boys in the West, to the river,
as the avenue of escape from the narrow life of the woods. He once
asked an old friend to give him a recommendation to some steamboat on
the Ohio, but desisted from his purpose on being reminded that his
father had the right to dispose of his time for a year or so more. But
in 1828 an opportunity offered for a little glimpse of the world
outside, and the boy gladly embraced it. He was hired by Mr. Gentry,
the proprietor of the neighboring village of Gentryville, to accompany
his son with a flat-boat of produce to New Orleans and intermediate
landings. The voyage was made successfully, and Abraham gained great
credit for his management and sale of the cargo. The only important
incident of the trip occurred at the plantation of Madame Duchesne, a
few miles below Baton Rouge. The young merchants had tied up for the
night and were asleep in the cabin, when they were aroused by
shuffling footsteps, which proved to be a gang of marauding negroes,
coming to rob the boat. Abraham instantly attacked them with a club,
knocked several overboard and put the rest to flight; flushed with
battle, he and Allen Gentry carried the war into the enemy's country,
and pursued the retreating Africans some distance in the darkness.
They then returned to the boat, bleeding but victorious, and hastily
swung into the stream and floated down the river till daylight.
Lincoln's exertion in later years for the welfare of the African race
showed that this nocturnal battle had not led him to any hasty and
hostile generalizations.

The next autumn, John Hanks, the steadiest and most trustworthy of his
family, went to Illinois. Though an illiterate and rather dull man, he
had a good deal of solidity of character and consequently some
influence and consideration in the household. He settled in Macon
County, and was so well pleased with the country, and especially with
its admirable distribution into prairie and timber, that he sent
repeated messages to his friends in Indiana to come out and join him.
Thomas Lincoln was always ready to move. He had probably by this time
despaired of ever owning any unencumbered real estate in Indiana, and
the younger members of the family had little to bind them to the place
where they saw nothing in the future but hard work and poor living.
Thomas Lincoln handed over his farm to Mr. Gentry, sold his crop of
corn and hogs, packed his household goods and those of his children
and sons-in-law into a single wagon, drawn by two yoke of oxen, the
combined wealth of himself and Dennis Hanks, and started for the new
State. His daughter Sarah or Nancy, for she was called by both names,
who married Aaron Grigsby a few years before, had died in childbirth.
The emigrating family consisted of the Lincolns, John Johnston, Mrs.
Lincoln's son, and her daughters, Mrs. Hall and Mrs. Hanks, with their

Two weeks of weary tramping over forest roads and muddy prairie, and
the dangerous fording of streams swollen by the February thaws,
brought the party to John Hanks's place near Decatur. He met them with
a frank and energetic welcome. He had already selected a piece of
ground for them a few miles from his own, and had the logs ready for
their house. They numbered men enough to build without calling in
their neighbors, and immediately put up a cabin on the north fork of
the Sangamon River. The family thus housed and sheltered, one more bit
of filial work remained for Abraham before assuming his virile
independence. With the assistance of John Hanks he plowed fifteen
acres, and split, from the tall walnut-trees of the primeval forest,
enough rails to surround them with a fence. Little did either dream,
while engaged in this work, that the day would come when the
appearance of John Hanks in a public meeting, with two of these rails
on his shoulder, would electrify a State convention, and kindle
throughout the country a contagious and passionate enthusiasm, whose
results would reach to endless generations.



[Sidenote: Roy. J. M. Sturtevant, "Address to Old Settlers of Morgan

[Sidenote: Thomas Buckles, of McLean County.]

[Sidenote: J.C. Power, "Early Settlers of Sangamon County," p. 62.]

[Sidenote: "Old Times in McLean County," p. 414.]


The Lincolns arrived in Illinois just in time to entitle themselves to
be called pioneers. When, in after years, associations of "Old
Settlers" began to be formed in Central Illinois, the qualification
for membership agreed upon by common consent was a residence in the
country before "the winter of the deep snow." This was in 1830-31, a
season of such extraordinary severity that it has formed for half a
century a recognized date in the middle counties of Illinois, among
those to whom in those days diaries and journals were unknown. The
snowfall began in the Christmas holidays and continued until the snow
was three feet deep on level ground. Then came a cold rain, freezing
as it fell, until a thick crust of ice gathered over the snow. The
weather became intensely cold, the mercury sinking to twelve degrees
below zero, Fahrenheit, and remaining there for two weeks. The storm
came on with such suddenness that all who were abroad had great
trouble in reaching their homes, and many perished. One man relates
that he and a friend or two were out in a hunting party with an ox-
team. They had collected a wagon-load of game and were on their way
home when the storm struck them. After they had gone four miles they
were compelled to abandon their wagon; the snow fell in heavy masses
"as if thrown from a scoop-shovel"; arriving within two miles of their
habitation, they were forced to trust to the instinct of their
animals, and reached home hanging to the tails of their steers. Not
all were so fortunate. Some were found weeks afterwards in the snow-
drifts, their flesh gnawed by famished wolves; and the fate of others
was unknown until the late spring sunshine revealed their resting-
places. To those who escaped, the winter was tedious and terrible. It
is hard for us to understand the isolation to which such weather
condemned the pioneer. For weeks they remained in their cabins hoping
for some mitigation of the frost. When at last they were driven out by
the fear of famine, the labor of establishing communications was
enormous. They finally made roads by "wallowing through the snow," as
an Illinois historian expresses it, and going patiently over the same
track until the snow was trampled hard and rounded like a turnpike.
These roads lasted far into the spring, when the snow had melted from
the plains, and wound for miles like threads of silver over the rich
black loam of the prairies. After that winter game was never again so
plentiful in the State. Much still remained, of course, but it never
recovered entirely from the rigors of that season and the stupid
enterprise of the pioneer hunters, who, when they came out of their
snow-beleaguered cabins, began chasing and killing the starved deer by
herds. It was easy work; the crust of the snow was strong enough to
bear the weight of men and dogs, but the slender hoofs of the deer
would after a few bounds pierce the treacherous surface. This
destructive slaughter went on until the game grew too lean to be worth
the killing. All sorts of wild animals grew scarce from that winter.
Old settlers say that the slow cowardly breed of prairie wolves, which
used to be caught and killed as readily as sheep, disappeared about
that time and none but the fleeter and stronger survived.

Only once since then has nature shown such extravagant severity in
Illinois, and that was on a day in the winter of 1836, known to
Illinoisans as "the sudden change." At noon on the 20th of December,
after a warm and rainy morning, the ground being covered with mud and
slush, the temperature fell instantly forty degrees. A man riding into
Springfield for a marriage license says a roaring and crackling wind
came upon him and the rain-drops dripping from his bridle-reins and
beard changed in a second into jingling icicles. He rode hastily into
the town and arrived in a few minutes at his destination; but his
clothes were frozen like sheet iron, and man and saddle had to be
taken into the house together to be thawed apart. Geese and chickens
were caught by the feet and wings and frozen to the wet ground. A
drove of a thousand hogs, which were being driven to St. Louis, rushed
together for warmth, and became piled in a great heap. Those inside
smothered and those outside froze, and the ghastly pyramid remained
there on the prairie for weeks: the drovers barely escaped with their
lives. Men killed their horses, disemboweled them, and crept into the
cavity of their bodies to escape the murderous wind. [Footnote:
Although the old settlers of Sangamon County are acquainted with these
facts, and we have often heard them and many others like them from the
lips of eye-witnesses, we have preferred to cite only these incidents
of the sudden change which are given in the careful and conscientious
compilation entitled "The Early Settlers of Sangamon County," by John
Carroll Power.]

The pioneer period of Illinois was ending as Thomas Lincoln and his
tall boy drove their ox-team over the Indiana line. The population of
the State had grown to 157,447. It still clung to the wooded borders
of the water-courses; scattered settlements were to be found all along
the Mississippi and its affluents, from where Cairo struggled for life
in the swamps of the Ohio to the bustling and busy mining camps which
the recent discovery of lead had brought to Galena. A line of villages
from Alton to Peoria dotted the woodland which the Illinois River had
stretched, like a green baldric, diagonally across the bosom of the
State. Then there were long reaches of wilderness before you came to
Fort Dearborn, where there was nothing as yet to give promise of that
miraculous growth which was soon to make Chicago a proverb to the
world. There were a few settlements in the fertile region called the
Military Tract; the southern part of the State was getting itself
settled here and there. People were coming in freely to the Sangamon
country. But a grassy solitude stretched from Galena to Chicago, and
the upper half of the State was generally a wilderness. The earlier
emigrants, principally of the poorer class of Southern farmers,
shunned the prairies with something of a superstitious dread. They
preferred to pass the first years of their occupation in the wasteful
and laborious work of clearing a patch of timber for corn, rather than
enter upon those rich savannas which were ready to break into
fertility at the slightest provocation of culture. Even so late as
1835, writes J. F. Speed, "no one dreamed the prairies would ever be
occupied." It was thought they would be used perpetually as grazing-
fields for stock. For years the long processions of "movers" wound,
over those fertile and neglected plains, taking no hint of the wealth
suggested by the rank luxuriance of vegetable growth around them, the
carpet of brilliant flowers spread over the verdant knolls, the
strong, succulent grass that waved in the breeze, full of warm and
vital odor, as high as the waist of a man. In after years, when the
emigration from the Northern and Eastern States began to pour in, the
prairies were rapidly taken up, and the relative growth and importance
of the two sections of the State were immediately reversed. Governor
Ford, writing about 1847, attributes this result to the fact that the
best class of Southern people were slow to emigrate to a State where
they could not take their slaves; while the settlers from the North,
not being debarred by the State Constitution from bringing their
property with them, were of a different class. "The northern part of
the State was settled in the first instance by wealthy farmers,
enterprising merchants, millers, and manufacturers. They made farms,
built mills, churches, school-houses, towns, and cities, and
constructed roads and bridges as if by magic; so that although the
settlements in the southern part of the State are from twenty to fifty
years in advance on the score of age, yet are they ten years behind in
point of wealth and all the appliances of a higher civilization."

[Sidenote: Thomas Ford, "History of Illinois," p. 280.]

At the time which we are specially considering, however, the few

Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 4 of 31)