Zachariah Riney, Abe's First Teacher.
Before leaving Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln and his older sister Sarah (1807-1828) were sent for short periods, to ABC schools (also known as Blab schools). Together, brother and sister attended what was known as Blab or ABC schools, a kind of early primary school common in frontier states like Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. Instead of featuring age-separated classrooms or expensive books or pencils, such schools used a strictly oral curriculum. The "blab" part came from teachers who recited rote lessons to the kids, who in turn blabbed them back. That back-and-forth didn't necessarily provide a great education (and given that the school charged tuition, it probably cost the Lincolns dearly to send them there), but it was enough to instill the basics in both Lincoln kids.
The first classroom was kept by Zachariah Riney (1763-1859), and the second by Caleb Hazel. At this time Abraham's father, Thomas, resided on Knob Creek, on the road from Bardstown, Kentucky, to Nashville, Tennessee, at a point three or three and a half miles south or southwest of Atherton's ferry, on Rolling Fork River.
We have Abraham Lincoln's own testimony that Zachariah Riney was his first school teacher. This pedagogue (strict teacher) probably exerted the first direct influence over Abraham Lincoln, outside the personnel of his own home.
Riney was born in 1763 in St. Mary County, Maryland. Sixty families living in this community pledged themselves to migrate to the Kentucky country within a specified time. The first twenty-five families moved as early as 1785. Within the next ten years the family group with which Zachariah was associated arrived at the Pottinger's Creek neighborhood near the Holy Cross church. This was the first church of the Catholic faith erected west of the Alleghany Mountains and was built by Father De Rohan in 1792.
By the year 1795 Thomas Riney, father of Zachariah, had passed, away and Zachariah was appointed administrator of the estate. From the settlement papers in the Nelson County Courthouse, we learn that Zachariah had a brother by the name of Basil and three sisters named Anna, Mary, and Henrietta. April 2, 1796, the name of Zachariah Riney appeared on the tax list for Washington County as a "white male over 21 years of age." His wife's name was Margaret. Nancy married James Alvey, Mary was united to Clement Gristy, and Henrietta became the wife of John Wathen.
The will of Thomas Riney states that "the negroes of which he died possessed should not be sold out of the family of his children." Thomas Riney signed the will by making a mark, which would indicate he could not write.
Zachariah was living at the foot of Rohan Knob, on Pottinger's Creek, in 1805, when members of the order of Our Lady of LaTrappe established a colony there. As they remained only four years at the time of this first venture it is not likely that Riney, who was then forty-two years of age, was very greatly influenced by them.
Little is known about Riney's character. Just a single reference to his early reputation is revealed in a deposition taken in 1817 in which the deponent says that "Riney is well versed in little tricks, that his father was an excellent man, but unacquainted with land titles, that he, as your respondent has been informed, believes Riney was well acquainted with the situation of the land at the time the exchange took place and that this complainant was to run all responsibility in the title and not come back on your respondent." As this was the deposition of the defendant in the case we might expect him to be prejudiced against Riney.
This litigation was over the tract of land on which Riney was then living and which he had purchased in 1811. Part of the farm originally had been in possession of the pioneer Joseph Hanks and was situated on the banks of the Rolling Fork River. The very same year Riney bought the farm, Thomas Lincoln moved his family from the cabin in which Abraham Lincoln was born to a farm on Knob Creek about two miles from the home of Riney.
The log schoolhouse for the Knob Creek community was situated where the town of Athertonville now stands, about two miles from the homes of Riney and Lincoln, who lived on different sides of the Rolling Fork River. In 1815, at the age of six, Lincoln first attended school.
It is difficult to learn very much about Riney's qualifications as a teacher. Inasmuch as he was 30 years old before he reached Kentucky, he must have had his schooling in Maryland. There are specimens of his handwriting in the early court records, which show him to have been a man of some accomplishments in this branch of the three R's (basic skills taught in schools: reading, writing, and arithmetic).
The primary text in Mr. Riney’s classroom was Dilworth’s Speller: A New Guide to the English Tongue, produced in 1740 by Thomas Dilworth, an English schoolmaster.
We have the testimony of his grandson that Riney was a school teacher by profession and taught several schools in Hardin County. He can hardly be classed among the itinerant schoolmasters. There are no reminiscences in the Riney family of whether or not Abraham Lincoln at the early age of six was an apt pupil.
Thomas Riney, Zachariah's father, was an owner of slaves and Zachariah was obliged to bring suit against one of his brothers-in-law in order to acquire his portion of the estate in the division of the negroes. This would indicate that he had no scruples against slavery so that it is not likely that he carried into the schoolroom any opinions adverse to the institution.
At the time he became the teacher of Abraham Lincoln he must have been nearly 50 years old. It is not to be expected that a man of this age would exert so great an influence on a growing boy as a younger man. In fact, this first school teacher was 13 years older than Abraham's father.
As Abraham Lincoln would have learned little more than his letters under this first school teacher, it is very likely that Riney served the purpose as well as a more highly educated man.
In 1848 another group of Monks of the Trappist Order arrived from France and settled in about the same community, in Nelson County, where their predecessors had lived for a short period from 1805 to 1809. A grandson of Zachariah Riney, who affiliated with this group, wrote this reminiscence about the last days of his grandfather.
"Brother Benedict's grandfather sold his place in Nelson County about 1830 and bought a farm in Hardin County at a place now called Rineyville, on which Brother Benedict's father, Sylvester Riney, lived and reared his family. Grandfather lived with my father for nearly twenty-five years. He was my first teacher, as well as Abraham Lincoln's first teacher.
"Brother Benedict can say that he learned much of what he knows from him, and as I liked him very much a great part of my childhood was spent with him. When 94 years of age he came to Gethsemani in 1856, and I with him. He lived here a little more than two years. He died in 1859."
While there is no evidence that Zachariah Riney was ever associated with the Trappist monastery at Gethsemani until he was 94 years old, his grandson, who prepared the above reminiscence, became a faithful member of this colony while still a young man. Abraham Lincoln's first school teacher lies buried in the graveyard of the Trappist brotherhood within the enclosure of the monastery.
It would seem fitting that the resting place of Zachariah Riney should be simply but appropriately marked with a tablet setting forth the fact that he started Abraham Lincoln on the way to intellectual achievement.
Caleb Hazel Sr., Abe's Second Teacher.
According to the testimony of Abraham Lincoln, the name of his second school teacher was Caleb Hazel (1756-1833). Like his predecessor, Zachariah Riney, Hazel was no itinerant pedagogue but a resident of long-standing in the Knob Creek community. He was very closely associated with both of the parents of the president, as will be shown.
Sometime in the year 1785, Hazel married the Widow Elizabeth Hall. On November 17, 1788, he signed an agreement to pay her orphan children, Elizabeth, Levi, David, and Henry, "the sum of five pounds each" which was due them from the estate of their father who had been killed by the Indians.
Elizabeth Hall and Levi Hall both married children of Joseph Hanks said to be the grandfather of Nancy Hanks, Lincoln's mother. On January 10, 1794, Hazel signed an endorsement as a witness to a land transaction that took place between two of the sons of Joseph Hanks.
As early as December 9, 1789, Hazel's home had become sufficiently well known to have been designated in a road order as "Caleb Hazel's cabin on the waters of Knob Creek." In 1795 he was appointed a surveyor of the road from "the mouth of Knob Creek to Hazel's cabin."
There is evidence that for some time he kept a tavern or "ordinary (aka grocery)," as it was then called. On September 24, 1793, an indictment was brought against him "for retailing spiritous liquors by the small [amount] without a license." He evidently continued in the tavern business because in 1797 he was issued a liquor license "to keep an ordinary at his home on Knob Creek." The year after this license was granted, he contracted on March 17, 1798, by a "written agreement to rent the place for six years to Conrad Suter for $51.00 per year ($775.00 today)." Apparently Hazel refused to give Suter possession as is set forth in a suit brought against Hazel. Further difficulties were experienced by Hazel when he sold some property on Knob Creek to Clement Lee and also deeded the same piece of ground to his stepson, Henry Hall.
It was about this time that Hazel decided to move to Green County. His name disappeared from the tax books of Hardin County and was entered on the Green County records.
In the meantime, four children had been born to Caleb Hazel and the former Widow Hall—Richard, Peter, Caleb, and Lydia. Richard was born on May 14, 1786. When the oldest child was twenty years old, the same year that Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks were married in Washington County, Caleb Hazel bought twenty acres of land in Green County, about halfway between Greensburg and Hodgenville. He had probably been living in this place for the past three or four years.
Sometime after the Lincolns moved to Knob Creek in 1811 Caleb Hazel returned and occupied a one hundred acre tract adjacent to Thomas Lincoln's land. In fact, the house of Caleb Hazel was so close to the Lincoln line that the person who later purchased the cabin wondered whether or not it was on his land or the land Lincoln had owned.
Some time previous to Abe Lincoln's school days, Caleb Hazel's wife had passed away, and when he started out on a second matrimonial venture he secured Thomas Lincoln, his next-door neighbor, to serve as his bondsman. This bond signed by Thomas Lincoln on October 12, 1816, is one of the last official acts of Thomas Lincoln in the state of Kentucky as the family moved to Indiana within the next month or so.
An endorsement on an early record in the Hardin County court shows that when Thomas Lincoln left Kentucky he stored "about forty bushels of corn in the loft of the house that Caleb Hazel lived in."
Hazel's new bride was Mary Stevens. She certified in an oath to the county clerk that her age "is far above the demands of the law." It was just previous to this second marriage in 1816 that Hazel became the school teacher of Abraham Lincoln. He was then a widower and must have been about 55 years of age. He had been a member of the South Fork Baptist Church but was given a letter of dismission about the time the church was divided over the slavery controversy. He probably united with the Little Mount Anti-Slavery Church which was organized at that time and with which Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Lincoln were affiliated.
We learn from one of the descendants of Caleb Hazel that "he was what the old people called a school teacher. Our grandfather Hazel was a good scholar for his time and had many fine leather-bound books. I believe they were his father's books brought from Virginia." There are several examples of Caleb Hazel's handwriting in the records of the Hardin County court. There is evidence that he was not only a good scribe but a good grammarian as well. There is no question but what he was able to contribute to the early educational training of Abraham Lincoln.
It should not be overlooked that he was very closely connected with the Hanks family through his marriage with Elizabeth Hall. Letters from his descendants claim that the Halls, Hanks, and Hazels all came into the Kentucky country together and were neighbors back in Virginia. There is evidence that he was a friend of the pioneer, Joseph Hanks. We have observed that two of his stepchildren married two of Joseph Hank's children, William Hanks and Nancy Hanks, said to be uncle and aunt of Abraham Lincoln's mother. One of Caleb Hazel's own children and a son of William Hanks married sisters.
When Abraham Lincoln went to school with Hazel he was no stranger to the teacher. Hazel was not only well acquainted with the child's parents but he had known the boy's grandparents as well. The Knob Creek school must have been made up, very largely, of cousins. Among these cousins were some of Hazel's own grandchildren.
As the first school teacher [Zachariah Riney] of Abraham and his sister Sarah was at least fifty years old when he taught them and as Hazel himself was fifty-five when he taught the children of Thomas Lincoln, the future president's first formal instruction was cared for by men above middle age.
Hazel's last days were spent in Green County on the farm known as the old Hazel farm. He died on a boat on the Ohio River while on the way to visit his son Peter Hazel.
There are some descendants of Caleb Hazel who feel that Caleb Hazel, Jr., was the teacher of the president rather than the old gentleman. We know nothing whatever about the scholarship abilities of the younger Hazel and preference seems to have been given to the older man as the teacher of Abe. Caleb, Jr., was married on January 13, 1813, to Polly Atherton, but is said to have been living in Green County at the time Lincoln was attending the Knob Creek school in Hardin County.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.