Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Abraham Lincoln's First & Second ABC School Teachers; Zachariah Riney & Caleb Hazel Sr.

Zachariah Riney, Abraham's First Teacher.
Abraham Lincoln's First Log Schoolhouse.

Before leaving Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln and his older sister Sarah (1807-1828) were sent, for short periods, to ABC schools (aka Blab schools). Together, brother and sister attended a primary school typically found 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 provide an excellent education (and given that the school charged tuition, it cost the Lincolns dearly to send them there). Still, 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 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 in this community pledged to migrate to Kentucky 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 1795, Thomas Riney, father of Zachariah, had passed away, and Zachariah was appointed administrator of the estate. The settlement papers in the Nelson County Courthouse show that Zachariah had a brother named 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 indicating 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, was 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 he was 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 defendant's deposition in the case, we might expect him to be prejudiced against Riney. 

This litigation was over the tract of land on which Riney was living and which he had purchased in 1811. Part of the farm was initially owned by the pioneer Joseph Hanks and was situated on the banks of the Rolling Fork River. The 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 RiverIn 1815, at the age of six, Lincoln first attended school. 

It is difficult to learn much about Riney's qualifications as a teacher. Since 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.

Lincoln's formal education could have been more extensive. Lincoln later estimated that "the aggregate of all my schooling did not amount to one year." 

We have the testimony of his grandson that Riney was a professional school teacher 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 Abraham Lincoln was an apt pupil at six.

Thomas Riney, Zachariah's father, was an owner of slaves, and Zachariah was obliged to bring suit against one of his brothers-in-law to acquire his portion of the estate in the division of the negroes. This would indicate that he had no scruples against slavery, so it is not likely that he carried any opinions adverse to the institution into the schoolroom. 

He must have been nearly 50 years old when he became Abraham Lincoln's teacher. It is not to be expected that a man his age would significantly influence 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, Riney likely 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 the same community in Nelson County, where their predecessors had lived for a short period from 1805 to 1809. A grandson of Zachariah Riney, affiliated with this group, wrote this reminiscence about his grandfather's last days.

"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 and 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 went with him. He lived here a little more than two years and died in 1859."

While there is no evidence that Zachariah Riney was ever associated with the Trappist monastery at Gethsemani until he was 94, 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 Trappist Brotherhood's graveyard within the monastery's enclosure. 

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., Abraham'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 long-standing in the Knob Creek community. He was very closely associated with both of the President's parents, as 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, married children of Joseph Hanks, are 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 between the two 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 he kept a tavern, or "ordinary," as it was then called. On September 24, 1793, an indictment was brought against him "for retailing spiritous liquors by a  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)." Hazel refused to give Suter possession, as outlined in a suit 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 in 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 lived in this place for 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.

Before Abraham Lincoln's school days, Caleb Hazel's wife passed away. When he started a second matrimonial venture, he secured Thomas Lincoln, his next-door neighbor, as his bondsman. This bond, signed by Thomas Lincoln on October 12, 1816, is one of the last official acts of Thomas Lincoln in 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 before 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. He had been a South Fork Baptist Church member but was given a letter of dismission when 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, and 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. There is no question about what he was able to contribute to the early educational training of Abraham Lincoln.

It should be noticed that he was very closely connected with the Hanks family through his marriage to 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 observed that two of his stepchildren married two of Joseph Hank's children, William Hanks and Nancy Hanks, who were said to be the uncle and aunt of Abraham Lincoln's mother. One of Caleb Hazel's 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 also knew the boy's grandparents. The Knob Creek school must have been made up primarily of cousins, and 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 years old 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.

Some descendants of Caleb Hazel feel that Caleb Hazel, Jr., was the teacher of the President rather than the old gentleman. We know very little about the scholarship abilities of the younger Hazel, and preference has been given to the older man as the teacher of Abraham.

Caleb, Jr., was married on January 13, 1813, to Polly Atherton but is said to have been living in Green County when Lincoln was attending the Knob Creek school in Hardin County.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. Very interesting. I am a descendant of William Hanks and Elizabeth Hall, daughter Caleb’s Elizabeth Hall. William and Elizabeth were my 5th great grandparents and Lincoln’s mother Nancy Hanks’ Uncle and Aunt. One other neat thing about William and Elizabeth is that one of their sons was John Hanks, who was very close with Abraham Lincoln as together they farmed and split rails, and John has been written about in history along with Illinois Governor Richard J Olgesby as coining Abe’s nickname as The Railsplitter Candidate at the 1860 convention in Decatur. I am a descendant of John’s youngest brother Andrew Jackson Hanks (1815-1889), my 4th great grandfather.

  2. Thank you for writing to me, Geoff. I loved learning about the origin of the moniker, Railsplitter.

  3. Thank you for all the information on my great great great great Grandfather Zachariah Riney.

  4. I enjoyed this great great great grandfather was Zachariah Riney…my name Allison Jean Riney Olufson (one of 5 daughters/1son of Joseph Mancil Riney)


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