Boyhood and Migration, 1815-1830
By R.D. Monroe, Ph.D.
Abraham Lincoln was born in Hardin County, Kentucky on February 12, 1809, to Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks. Thomas had been apprenticed as a carpenter after the death of his father and the passing of the family property to his eldest brother as required under the system of primogeniture. Thorough dint of hard work or with funds from his family, Thomas acquired enough money to purchase a farm, but his ownership was soon challenged. Kentucky had been surveyed in such a primitive manner that boundaries were never certain. After having the titles of two other farm parcels challenged, Thomas tired of Kentucky and in 1816 moved his family to southern Indiana. The federal government had surveyed Indiana in a manner that insured sound titles. Abraham Lincoln later explained his father's move as "partly on account of slavery; but chiefly on account of the difficulty in land titles." If distaste for slavery motivated Thomas Lincoln to leave Kentucky, it was probably anger at the influence of the planter class rather than concern for the lot of the slaves, as Thomas never expressed any moral qualms about the institution.
The Lincoln family's problems in Kentucky were not atypical for frontier settlers. Traditionally, the frontier has been portrayed as an agrarian idyll, a vision of sturdy and prosperous yeomen farmers serving as a bulwark of democracy. In fact, the frontier provided as many opportunities for failure as for success. Settlers were plagued by sickness and death to then unknown illnesses, the vagaries of the weather, faulty land titles, high interest rates, and crop failures. Dispossession and penury were not uncommon.
The Lincolns crossed the Ohio River and homesteaded near Little Pigeon Creek in Perry County, Indiana. Their family consisted of Thomas and Nancy, young Abraham, and his older sister Sarah. In a biographical sketch written in 1859, Lincoln recalled the scene: "We reached our new home about the time the State came into the Union. It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods."
Abraham was put to clearing timber so the land could be farmed. "A. though very young, was large of his age, and had an axe put into his hands at once; and from that till within his twenty third year, he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument -- less, of course, in plowing and harvesting seasons."
Lincoln endured a youth of rough conditions, of mind-numbing and muscle-straining manual labor, of prolonged physical exertion that gave him a physique so lean and muscular that doctors performing his post-assassination autopsy remarked upon it.
The perils of frontier life were brought home to the Lincolns in 1818 when the "milk sickness" visited southern Indiana. This illness spread through the milk of cows that had ingested the white snakeroot plant, and its symptoms included nausea, paralysis and eventual death. Nancy Hanks Lincoln was taken ill with it and died on October 5, 1818. Thomas Lincoln fashioned a crude coffin for her and Abraham, at the age of nine, helped bury his mother in a grave near the family cabin.
A year later Thomas married a widow, Sarah Bush Johnston, who became a second and much beloved mother to Abraham. But tragedy returned in 1828 when Lincoln's sister Sarah died in childbirth. These two deaths may have affected Lincoln deeply. He had a propensity for fatalism and melancholia that exhibited itself in moody silences, depression and a preference for maudlin poetry like William Knox's "Mortality."
As a youth, Lincoln received little formal education at so-called ABC schools. "There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education," Lincoln remembered. He was largely a self-educated man, all the more remarkable given his command of the English language. His time occupied with farm labor, Lincoln's father kept him constantly on the axe or the plow, and would hire Abraham out to neighbors as a day laborer and pocket the wages. One scholar has suggested that Lincoln's lifelong aversion to slavery may date from the frustration of working entirely for the benefit of another man - his father.
By 1830 Lincoln's restless father was ready to move again, and the family migrated to Illinois. Lincoln was then twenty-one years old. Lincoln biographer Albert J. Beveridge was not impressed with the young Lincoln: "it is clear that the Lincoln of youth, early and middle manhood showed few signs of the Lincoln of the second inaugural." Indeed, Lincoln was a crude frontier youth who gave little sign of future accomplishments.
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Faragher, John Mack. Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.
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Lincoln, Abraham. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Roy P. Basler, Ed., 9 vols. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953.
Marshall, James. Land Fever: Dispossession and the Frontier Myth. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1988.
Glenda Riley. The Female Frontier. Lawrence, KS: The University Press of Kansas, 1988.
©Copyright 2000 Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project