Thursday, October 15, 2020

Abraham Lincoln’s Early Boyhood in Kentucky.

The ancestors of Abraham Lincoln were of English descent. We find the earliest definite traces of them in Berks County, Pennsylvania, though this was almost certainly not the first place of their residence in this country. Their location, and their adherence to the Quaker faith, make it probable that the original emigration occurred under the auspices of William Penn, or at least in company with those who sympathized and shared in his colonizing movement. It was doubtless a branch of the same family that, leaving England under different religious impulses, but with the same adventurous and independent spirit, settled, at an earlier date, in Old Plymouth Colony. The separation may possibly have taken place this side of the Atlantic, and not beyond. Some of the same traits appear conspicuously in both these family groups. One tradition indeed affirms that the Pennsylvania branch was transplanted from Hingham, Massachusetts, and was derived from a common stock with Colonel Benjamin Lincoln, of Revolutionary fame. There is a noticeable coincidence in the general prevalence, among each American branch, of Scriptural names in christening—the Benjamin, Levi, and Ezra, of Massachusetts, having their counterpart in the Abraham, Thomas, and Josiah, of Virginia and Kentucky. The peculiarity is one to have been equally expected among sober Friends, and among zealous Puritans.

Berks County cannot have been very long the home of Mr. Lincoln's immediate progenitors. There can hardly have been more than a slender pioneer settlement there, up to the time that one or more of the number made another remove, not far from 1750, to what is now Rockingham County, Virginia. Old Berks was first settled about 1734,—then, too, as a German Colony—and was not organized as a county until 1752; before which date, according to family traditions, this removal to Virginia took place.

This, it will be observed, was pre-eminently a pioneer stock, evidently much in love with backwoods adventure, and constantly courting the dangers and hardships of forest-life.

Rockingham County, Virginia, though intersected by the beautiful valley of the Shenandoah, or rather by two valleys made by its chief forks, not very far from their junction, and inviting, by its natural resources, the advances of civilization, must nevertheless have been, at the time just mentioned, in the very heart of the wilderness. Now, it is one of the most productive counties of Virginia, having exceeded every other county in the State, according to the census of 1850, in its crops of wheat and hay. A branch of the family, it is understood, still remains there, to enjoy the benefits of so judicious a selection, and of the labors and imperfectly requited endurances of these first settlers. It was more than thirty years later than the arrival there of the Lincolns of Pennsylvania, that Rockingham county first had an organized political existence.

From this locality, about the year 1780, perhaps a little later, Abraham Lincoln, grandfather of the one who now bears that name, started westward across the Alleghenies, attracted by the accounts which had reached him of the wonderfully fertile and lovely country explored by Daniel Boone, on and near the Kentucky River. During all his lifetime, hitherto, he could have known little of any other kind of existence than that to which he had been educated as an adventurous frontiersman. The severe labor of preparing the heavily timbered lands of the Shenandoah for cultivation, the wild delights of hunting the then abundant game of the woods, and the exciting hazards of uncertain warfare with savage enemies, had been almost the sole occupations of his rough but healthful life. Perhaps the settlements around him had already begun to be too far advanced for the highest enjoyment of his characteristic mode of living: or possibly, with others, he aspired to the possession of more fertile fields, and to an easier subsistence, with new forest-expanses more eligible for the delights of the chase. Whatever the reason, he set out at the time just stated, with his wife and several young children, on his long journey across the mountains, and over the broad valleys intervening between the Shenandoah and the Kentucky Rivers.

At this date, and for ten or twelve years later, the present State of Kentucky formed part of the old Commonwealth of Virginia. "The dark and bloody ground," as afterward named for better reasons than the fiction which assigns this meaning to its Indian appellation, had then been but recently entered upon by the white man. Its first explorer, Daniel Boone, whose very name suggests a whole world of romance and adventure, had removed, when a mere boy, among the earlier emigrants from Eastern Pennsylvania, to Berks county. Here he must have been a contemporary resident and was perhaps an acquaintance, of some of the younger members of the Lincoln family. At all events, as substantially one of their own neighbors, they must have watched his later course with eager interest and sympathy and caught inspiration from his exploits. At eighteen, Boone had again emigrated, with his father as before, to the banks of the Yadkin, a mountain river in the north-west of North Carolina, at just about the same date as the removal of the Lincolns to Virginia. Some years later, Boone, in his hunting excursions, had passed over and admired large tracts of the wilderness north of his home, and especially along a branch of the Cumberland River, within the limits of what is now Kentucky. It was not until 1769, however, that, with five associates, he made the thorough exploration of the Kentucky valley, which resulted in the subsequent settlements there. The glowing descriptions which ultimately got abroad of the incredible richness and beauty of these new and remote forest-climes of Trans-Alleghenian Virginia, and of their alluring hunting-grounds, must have early reached the ears of the boyhood-companions of Daniel Boone and spread through the neighboring country. The stirring adventures of the pioneer hero, during the next five or six years, and the beginnings of substantial settlements in that far-west country, must have suggested new attractions thitherward (toward that place) to the more active and daring spirits, whose ideal of manhood Boone so nearly approached.

From the borders, in various directions, hundreds of miles away, emigration had now begun. These recruits were from that class of hardy frontiersmen most inured to the kind of toils they were to encounter anew in the Kentucky forests. They went forward, fearless of the dangers to be encountered from the numerous bands of Indians already recommencing hostilities, after a temporary pacification. Here was a common territory and place of meeting for the tribes, both of the North and the South, and here, before and after this date, there were many exciting adventures and deadly conflicts with these savages, whose favorite haunts had been thus unceremoniously invaded.

It was not far from the date of the disastrous battle of the Lower Blue Licks, that the grandfather of Mr. Lincoln, with his young family, reached the region which had perhaps long been the promised land of his dreams. This transmigration was certainly sometime later than 1778, and earlier than 1784, as circumstances hereafter to be stated will show. Boone, Kenton, Harrod, Floyd, and their brave associates, were still in the midst of the great struggles which have given them lasting memory in history. Lincoln was ambitious to share their fortunes and to fix his home in this more genial and opulent clime (a region considered with reference to its climate).

The exact place at which he settled is not known. It was somewhere on Floyd's Creek, and probably near its mouth, in what is now Bullitt County. The hopes which led to this change of his home were not destined to be fulfilled. He had made but a mere beginning in his new pioneer labors, when, while at work one day, at a distance from his cabin, unsuspecting of danger, he was killed by an Indian, who had stolen upon him unaware. This took place in the year 1784, or very near that time when he was probably not more than thirty-five years of age. His widow, thus suddenly bereaved in a new and strange land, had now their three sons and two daughters left to her sole protection and care, with probably little means for their support. She soon after removed to what became Washington County, in the same State, not far distant, and there reared her children, all of whom reached a mature age. One of the daughters was married to a Mr. Crume, and the other to a man named Bromfield. The three sons, respectively named Thomas, Mordecai, and Josiah, all remained in Kentucky until after their majority.
Thomas Lincoln, one of these sons, was born in 1778. He was a mere child when his father removed to Kentucky and was but six years old at the time of the latter's death. The date of this event was consequently about 1784. Of the early life of the orphan boy, we have no knowledge, except what can be learned of the general lot of his class, and of the habits and modes of living then prevalent among the hardy pioneers of Kentucky. These backwoodsmen had an unceasing round of hard toils, with no immediate reward but a bare subsistence from year to year, and the cheering promise of better days in the future. But even their lands, as in the case of Boone, they were not always so fortunate as to retain in fees.

More comfortable days and a much-improved state of things had come before Thomas arrived at maturity, but in his boyhood and youth, he must have known whatever was worst in the trials and penury of the first generation of Kentucky frontiersmen, with few other enjoyments than an occasional practice with his rifle. His training was suited to develop a strong, muscular frame, and a rugged constitution, with a characteristic quickness of perception and promptness of action. The Kentuckian of that and the succeeding generation had generally a tall, stalwart frame, a frank and courteous heart, and a humorous and slightly quaint turn of speech; a fondness for adventure and for the sports of hunting; a manly self-respect, and a fearless independence of spirit.

This generation began its life with the independent existence of the nation and partook largely of the spirit of exultant self-confidence then abroad through the land.

These were the circumstances and associations under which, in those primeval days in Kentucky, Thomas Lincoln passed through the period of boyhood and youth. At the date of the political separation from Virginia, in 1792, and the formation of a new State, this orphan boy, struggling to aid his mother in the support of the ill-fortuned family, had reached the age of fourteen. The currents of emigration had become enlarged and accelerated, meantime, until the population was swelled, as early as 1790, to more than 73,000; and during the next ten years, it was more than trebled, reaching 220,000. The wilderness that once was around Boonesborough, Harrodsburg, and Lexington, was now blossoming as the rose. Still, however, there was ample space unoccupied, within the limits of the new State, for those who craved the excitements and the loneliness of a home in the wilderness.

In 1806, Thomas Lincoln, being then twenty-eight years of age, was married to Nancy Hanks, a native of Virginia, and settled in what was then Hardin County, Kentucky. It does not appear that the parents of Miss Hanks ever removed to Kentucky, though others of the family did so. Of the history of her ancestry, we have no definite particulars. Her position in life appears to have been not dissimilar to that of her husband. That she possessed some rare qualities of mind and heart, there is reason to believe; although dying at an early age, and having, from the time of her marriage, passed her days on obscure frontiers, few recollections of her are accessible.

Abraham Lincoln was born of these parents on February 12, 1809. The place where they at this time resided, is in what is now LaRue County, about a mile and a half from Hodgenville, the county seat, and seven miles from Elizabethtown, laid off several years previously, and the county seat of Hardin County.
Abraham Lincoln’s Birthplace & Boyhood Cabin by Knob Creek, about 7 miles northeast from Hodgenville, Kentucky.
The Rear of Abraham Lincoln’s Birthplace & Boyhood Cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky.
He had one sister, two years his senior, who grew up to womanhood, married, and died while young. He had a brother, two years younger than himself, who died in early childhood. Mr. Lincoln remembers to have visited the now unmarked grave of this little one, along with his mother, before leaving Kentucky. These were the only children of Thomas Lincoln, either by the present or by a subsequent marriage, hereafter to be noticed. Abraham has thus, for a long time, been the sole immediate representative of this hardy and energetic race.

LaRue County, named from an early settler, John LaRue, was set off and separately organized in 1843, the portion containing Mr. Lincoln's birthplace having been, up to that date, included in Hardin county. It is a rich grazing country in its more rolling or hilly parts, and the level surface produces good crops of corn and tobacco. In the northern borders of the county, on the Rolling Fork of Salt River, is Muldrow's Hill, a noted eminence. Hodgenville, near which Mr. Lincoln was born, is a pleasantly situated town on Nolin Creek, and a place of considerable business. About a mile above this town, on the creek, is a mound, or knoll, thirty feet above the banks of the stream, containing two acres of level ground, at the top of which there is now a house. Some of the early pioneers encamped on this knoll; and but a short distance from it a fort was erected by Philip Phillips, an emigrant from Pennsylvania, about 1780 or 1781, near the time Mr. Lincoln's ancestor arrived from Virginia. John LaRue came from the latter State, with a company of emigrants, and settled, not far from the same date, at Phillips' Fort. Robert Hodgen, LaRue's brother-in-law, purchased and occupied the land on which Hodgenville is built. Both these pioneers were men of sterling integrity and high moral worth. They were consistent and zealous members of the Baptist church, and one of their associates, Benjamin Lynn, was a minister of the same persuasion. Such were the influences under which, more than twenty years before Thomas Lincoln settled there, this kittle (difficult to deal with) colony had been founded, and which went far to give the community its permanent character.

It is needless to rehearse the kind of life in which Abraham Lincoln was here trained. The picture is similar in all such settlements. In his case, there was indeed the advantage of a generation or two of progress, since his grandfather had hazarded and lost his life in the then slightly broken wilderness. The State now numbered some 400,000 inhabitants and had all the benefits of an efficient local administration, the want of which had greatly increased the dangers and difficulties of the first settlers. Henry Clay, it may here be appropriately mentioned, had already, though little more than thirty years of age, begun his brilliant political career, having then served for a year or two in the United States Senate.
Rock Spring Farm, Kentucky, where Abraham Lincoln was born. The cabin in which Abe was born is seen to the right, in the background. This photograph was taken in September 1895.
Yet, with all these changes, the humble laborers, settled near "Hodgen's Mills," on Nolin Creek, had no other lot but incessant toil, and a constant struggle with nature in the still imperfectly reclaimed wilds, for a plain subsistence. 

Here the boy spent the first years of his childhood. With apparently the same frowning fortune which darkened the early days of Robert Burns, it was not destined that young Lincoln's father should succeed in these first endeavors to secure a competency. Even before the date of his earliest distinct recollections, he removed with his father to a place six miles distant from Hodgenville, which was also ere (before in time) long to be surrendered, as we shall presently see, for a home in the far-off wilderness, and for frontier life, in its fullest and most significant meaning.
Young Abraham Lincoln in Kentucky.
The period of Abraham Lincoln's Kentucky life extends through a little more than seven years, terminating with the autumn of 1816. If it is true as a rule (as Horace Mann was wont to maintain), that the experiences and instructions of the first seven years of every person's existence, do more to mold and determine his general character, than all subsequent training, then must we regard Mr. Lincoln as a Kentuckian (of the generation next following that of Clay), by his early impressions and discipline, no less than by birth.

In those days there were no common schools in that country. The principal reliance on acquiring the rudiments of learning was the same as that to which the peasant-poet of Ayrshire was indebted. Education was by no means disregarded, nor did young Lincoln, poor as were his opportunities, grow up an illiterate boy, as some have supposed. Competent teachers were accustomed to offering themselves then, as in later years, who opened private schools for a neighborhood, being supported by tuition or subscription. During his boyhood days in Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln attended, at different times, at least two schools of this description, of which he has clear recollections. One of these was kept by Zachariah Riney, a Roman Catholic, whose peculiarities have not been wholly effaced from the memory of his since so distinguished pupil. But although this teacher was himself an ardent Catholic, he made no proselyting efforts in his school, and when any little religious ceremonies, or perhaps mere catechizing and the like, were to be gone through with, all Protestant children, of whom, it is needless to say that young "Abe" was one, were accustomed to retire, by permission or command. Riney was probably in some way connected with the movement of the "Trappists"[1] who came to Kentucky in the autumn of 1805 and founded an establishment (abandoned some years later) under Urban Guillet, as superior, on Pottinger's Creek. They were active in promoting education, especially among the poorer classes, and had a school for boys under their immediate supervision. This, however, had been abandoned before the date of Lincoln's first school-days, and it is not improbable that the private schools under Catholic teachers were an offshoot of the original system adopted by these Trappists, who subsequently removed to Illinois.

Another teacher, on whose instructions the boy afterward attended, while living in Kentucky, was named Caleb Hazel. His was also a neighborhood school, sustained by private patronage.

With the aid of these two schools, and with such further assistance as he received at home, there is no doubt that he had become able to read well, though without having made any great literary progress, at the age of seven. That he was not a dull or inapt scholar, is manifest from his subsequent attainments. With the allurements of the rifle and the wild game which then abounded in the country, however, and with the meager advantages he had, in regard to books, it is certain that his perceptive faculties, and his muscular powers, were much more fully developed by exercise than his scholastic talents.

While he lived in Kentucky, he never saw even the exterior of what was properly a church edifice. The religious services he attended were held either at a private dwelling, or in some log school-house, or in the open grove:

"Fit shrine for humble worshiper to hold
Communion with his Maker. These dim vaults, 
These winding aisles, of human pomp or pride 
Report not. No fantastic carvings show 
The boast of our vain race, to change the form 
Of Thy fair works. But Thou art here, Thou fill'st 
The solitude."

Unsatisfactory results of these many years' toil on the lands of Nolin Creek or a restless spirit of adventure and fondness for more genuine pioneer excitements than this region continued to afford, led Thomas Lincoln, now verging upon the age of forty, and his son beginning to be of essential service in manual labor, to seek a new place of abode, far to the west, beyond the Ohio River.

By Joseph H. Barrett (1865)
Punctuation edited by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


[1] Trappists - The order takes its name from La Trappe Abbey or La Grande Trappe, located in the French province of Normandy. A reform movement began there in 1664, in reaction to the relaxation of practices in many Cistercian monasteries. Armand Jean le Bouthillier de Rancé, originally the commendatory abbot of La Trappe, led the reform. As commendatory abbot, de Rancé was a layman who obtained income from the monastery but had no religious obligations. After a conversion of life between 1660 and 1662, de Rancé formally joined the abbey and became its regular abbot in 1663. In 1892 the reformed "Trappists" broke away from the Cistercian order and formed an independent monastic order with the approval of the Pope.

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