Abraham Lincoln spent his boyhood in three places and in three states. He was born at Nolan's Creek in Kentucky and lived there until he was eight. Then his father moved to Pidgeon Creek near Gentryville, Southwestern Indiana. Here young Lincoln lived until he was twenty, a grown man when the family moved again to Sangamon Creek, Illinois. All his homes were log cabins, and he was, for all intents and purposes, a true pioneer boy.
No boy ever began life under less promising auspices than young Abraham Lincoln. The family was very poor! his father was a shiftless man who never succeeded in getting ahead in life. Their home was a mere log cabin of the roughest and poorest sort known to backwoods people. The rude chimney was built on the outside, and the only floor was the hardened earth. It was not as good or as comfortable as some Indian wigwams. Of course, the food, clothes and beds of a family living this way were miserable.
The family lived as did most pioneer families in the backwoods of Indiana. Their bread was made of corn meal. Their meat was chiefly the flesh of wild game shot or trapped in the woods. Pewter plates and wooden trenchers were used on the table. The drinking cups were of tin. There was no stove, and all the cooking was done over the fire of the big fireplace. Abe's bed was simply a couch of leaves freshly gathered every two or three weeks.
At that time, Indiana was still part of the wilderness. It had just been admitted to the Union as a state. Primeval woods grew up close to the settlement at Pidgeon Creek, and not far away were roving bands of Indians and also wild animals; bears, wildcats and panthers. The settlers hunted these animals and made use of them for food and clothing. Young Abe and his brothers and sisters spent the larger part of their time out of doors. They hunted and fished, learned the habits of the wild creatures, and explored the far recesses of the woods. The forest lore Abe never forgot, and the life and training made him vigorous and tough and able to endure after days the troubles and trials that would have broken down many a weaker man.
Lincoln was fortunate in his mothers. His mother died when he was eight, but she had done her best to start her boy in the world. Once she said to him: "Abe, learn all you can and grow up to be of some account. You've got just as good Virginian blood in you as George Washington had." Abe never forgot this. Years afterward, he said, "All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my blessed mother." His stepmother, Sarah Bush, was a kind-hearted, excellent woman and did all she could to make the poor, ragged barefooted boy happy. She was always ready to listen when he read, to help him with his lessons, and to encourage him. After he had grown up and become famous, she said of him: "Abe never gave me a cross word or look and never refused to do anything I asked of him. Abe is the best boy I ever knew."
There was a backwoods schoolhouse quite a distance away, which Abe attended for a short time. These log schoolhouses in Lincoln's day had large fireplaces in which there was a great blazing fire in the winter. The boys of the school had to chop and bring in the wood for the fire. The floor of such a schoolhouse was of rough boards hewn out with axes. The schoolmasters were generally harsh, rough men who didn't know much themselves.
Abe soon learned to read and write, however, and after a while, he found a new teacher, and that was himself. When the rest of the family had gone to bed, he would sit up and write and cipher by the light of the great blazing logs heaped up on the open fireplace. So poor were this pioneer family that they had no means of procuring paper or pencil for the struggling student. Abe used to take the back of the broad wooden fire shovel to write on and a piece of charcoal for a pencil. When he had covered the shovel with words or with sums in arithmetic, he would shave it off clean and begin over again. If his father complained that the shovel was getting thin, Abe would go out into the woods and make a new one. As long as the woods lasted, fire shovels and furniture were cheap.
There were few books to read in that frontier cabin. Poor Abe had not more than a dozen in all. These were Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim's Progress, Aesop's Fables, the Bible, and a small United States history book. The boy read these books over and over till he knew a great deal of them by heart and could repeat whole pages from them.
One book that made a great impression on him was "The Life of Washington" by Mason L. Weems (pub:1837). He borrowed this book from a neighbor, who loaned it to him on the condition of returning it in as good a condition as he received it. And this the young student intends to do. But one night, there was a great storm, and it rained down in the cabin and seriously injured the precious volume. Lincoln was very much troubled and informed the neighbor of what had happened. The surly old man told him that he must give him three days' work shucking corn and that then he might keep the book for his own. It was the first book that Lincoln ever owned. No one knows how many times he read it through. Washington was his ideal hero, the one great man whom he admired above all others. How little he could have dreamed that in the years to come, his own name would be coupled with that of the Father of his Country by admiring countrymen.
By the time the lad was seventeen, he could write a good hand, do hard examples in arithmetic, and spell better than anyone else in the country. Once in a while, he would write a little piece of his own about something which interested him. Sometimes he would read what he had written to the neighbors, and they would clap their hands and exclaim: "It beats the world what Abe writes!"
So Lincoln was all the time learning something and trying to use what he knew. Perhaps the great success of his life lay in the fact that he always did his best in whatever position he was placed. The time when the boy could no longer stay in the small surroundings of Pidgeon Creek came. He tried life on one of the river steamboats, then he served as a clerk in a store at New Salem, where he began at odd moments to study law. In a short time, he was practicing his profession, and people in the West were talking of the tall, lank young lawyer and of what a future he had before him.
Such was the humble boyhood of Abraham Lincoln, but its simplicity and the hardships he endured and overcame made him a strong, successful man. Later, when he came to be President and the leader of a Nation through a great civil war, we find that it was these same qualities of perseverance and courage and fidelity which enabled him to triumph over difficulties and become the savior of a Great Republic. His life is a lesson and an inspiration to all aspiring boys.
Edited by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.
Library of Congress ─ Evangelical Messenger (weekly, 1848-1946), February 12, 1913.