Volume II - No. 2
LINCOLN'S BIRTHPLACE --- AMERICAN SHRINE
By Roy Edgar Appleman,
Among the historic areas now in federal ownership and under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service are the birthplace sites of two of America's greatest men, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The first is situated in tidewater Virginia, the second in the rolling hill country of Kentucky. Separated by almost a century in time, the social atmosphere and family environment in which these two men began their lives offer striking contrasts in the pattern of American society. One was the son of a gentleman farmer of the Old Dominion, the other the son of an obscure, improvident, but honest ne'er-do-well of the raw Kentucky frontier who could write his name only with an effort and usually made his mark for signature.
The Abraham Lincoln National Park embodies 110-1/2 acres, most of which was formerly part of the Thomas Lincoln farm on which Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809. It is situated a few miles from Hodgenville, Kentucky, in LaRue County, but in early days was part of huge Hardin County which emcompassed an area 150 by 50 miles in size. Here in a plain, one-room, cheerless, log cabin, with the earth as a floor, began so unpromisingly the life of a boy who was to develop into the man that, more than any other, preserved the Union and made possible the strong country in which human life is richer and freer in our own time than anywhere else on earth.
The man and woman who are known to history as the father and mother of Abraham Lincoln and who took up their abode in the rude cabin on the edge of "the Barrens" are of continuing interest to all who strive to understand the forces that molded the man whose strides carried him awkwardly yet majestically over a path which began in common Kentucky clay and ended in immortality. Concerning Thomas Lincoln, his father, there is a wealth of information. Research has enabled scholars to construct a sharply defined picture of this physically strong, roving hunter, carpenter-farmer. Good natured, honest, he seemed to be always retreating before the approach of the comforts, advantages, and arts of a developing community, as if they represented something imcompatible with his shiftless nature and pallid mind. The picture of Nancy Hanks is as blurred and uncertain as that of her husband is fixed and definite. One eminent authority has said of her, "Dim as the dream of a shifting mirage, her face and figure waver through the mists of time and rumor". There is no agreement in the evidence that has come down to us as to her physical appearance. No signature by her has ever been discovered. A few legal documents bear her mark. That she possessed a fine native intelligence, courage, and displayed a morality above reproach, and was kind and affectionate, seems fairly certain from the evidence found in the Herndon and Weik manuscripts. This unfortunate woman, to whom our heart goes out, sickened and died in a poor windowless log cabin in the Pigeon Creek settlement in Indiana in 1818, two years after leaving Kentucky, and was buried in an unmarked grave.
In 1808 Thomas Lincoln bought 300 acres at 66-2/3 cents an acre (one authority who presumably has examined the land records of LaRue County gives 348 acres as the size of the tract), and in November or December of that year moved into the cabin near the large sinking spring, from which the place took its name, being known as the Sinking Spring Farm. The fine spring with a steady flow of clear, cool, sweet water, issuing from a passage in the limestone formation which underlies this region, is still serving mankind. Thousands of people yearly drink from it and fill bottles and jugs to take away with them on the occasion of their visits to this shrine.
The place where Thomas Lincoln took his wife and infant daughter to live in 1808 was on the border of what was known as "the Barrens", a region about 70 miles long by 60 broad which had been made almost treeless by the ancient practice of the Indian tribes of burning over this area to create grazing ground for the buffalo. There were few people living in this rather desolate region when the Lincolns took up their abode by the Sinking Spring. The French traveler and scientist, Michaux, who saw this country about the time of Lincoln's birth, remarked that along the road where the plantations were thickest he counted only eighteen in a distance of 60 to 70 miles. Elizabethtown, the county seat of Hardin County, where Thorns Lincoln had met Nancy Hanks and where he married her in 1806, was the nearest community of any size, and it was only a frontier village. Lexington, with a population of 3,000, was 90 miles distant.
The Lincolns were not destined to remain long in the cabin by the Sinking Spring where the boy Abraham was born two or three months after his obscure parents and their little baby girl occupied it. Thomas Lincoln had bought the land subject to a trifling lien of $61.50, held against the previous owner, and of which he had knowledge. In September, 1813, the holder of the lien filed a bill in equity for the amount. Thomas answered the complaint, but without making an effort to settle the claim or waiting for trial and judgment of the case he suddenly moved his family to their next home, on Knob Creek, about eight or nine miles to the northeast of the Sinking Spring Farm. This action on the part of Thomas Lincoln remains inexplicable, since it is known that he had a little money at this time which he had obtained from the sale of some land bought some years earlier with his share of his father's estate. Three years later, in 1816, the Sinking Spring Farm was sold by Court Order for $87.74.
The new place on Knob Creek occupied by the Lincolns contained only 30 acres not more than half of which was cultivable. The story of the Lincolns in this last home need not be told here except to note that in 1816, probably as a result of a number of ejection suits which were brought against settlers in the Knob Greek region by nonresidents, Thomas Lincoln built a flat boat of poplar logs on the Rolling Fork, two and a half miles from his cabin, and abandoned his small holding. With his destitute family, a few tools and some barrels of whisky he floated his crude craft to the Salt River and thence to the Ohio, finally landing on the Indiana side of that stream. The Lincolns had left their Kentucky homes forever.
To trace the history of the Sinking Spring Farm from 1816 to the early 1890's, when it becomes significant again for our purposes, is not here necessary or important. Shortly after 1890 Alfred W. Dennet of New York City, an operator of chain restaurants, bought the Lincoln Birthplace Farm from the heirs of Richard Creal and began to attract public attention to the site. Beginning about 1894 items appeared in the press giving weight to the rumor that a national memorial to Lincoln would be built on the old Sinking Spring Farm. From Mr. Dennet the farm eventually passed to a Mr. Crear, also of New York City. For several years no tax was paid on the property. Finally, in 1905 it was advertised and sold to the highest bidder at a public auction held at the LaRue County Courthouse. Just before this; in 1904, the Reverend Jenkins Lloyd Jones began a movement to have the Federal Government acquire the Lincoln farm and make it a national memorial. The movement gained momentum when his son, Richard Lloyd Jones, then managing editor of Colliers Weekly, became active in the project and interested Robert J. Collier, publisher of the magazine, in the proposal. Colliers Weekly immediately became the leading protagonist in the Lincoln Birthplace Memorial movement and was joined by other periodicals. Soon the Lincoln Farm Association was formed. This Association undertook to raise funds by popular subscription to purchase the farm and to erect on it a fitting memorial to the great man who was born there. By 1906 sufficient funds had been obtained by the Association to enable it to purchase the birthplace site and 110-1/2 acres of land, nearly all of which had been part of the original Sinking Spring Farm. Popular subscription soon raised a total sum of $300,000 which made it possible to begin construction of a memorial building in 1908. On February 12, 1909, the one hundredth anniversary of Lincoln's birth, President Theodore Roosevelt laid the corner stone of the building which was dedicated in 1911 by President William Howard Taft.
The Lincoln Farm Association held control of the Memorial until 1916 when its land holding and the memorial building were transferred to the United States government, along with an endowment fund of $48,000. In September, 1916 President Woodrow Wilson on behalf of the Federal government delivered an acceptance address from the birthplace site on the knoll overlooking the Sinking Spring and the custody of the cherished spot formally passed into the hands of the United States Government. From 1916 to 1933 the area was administered by the War Department. In the latter year the Abraham Lincoln National Park, along with many other historic areas in Federal ownership, was transferred to the jurisdiction of the National Park Service by Presidential proclamation issued by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
No important changes have been made affecting the area since the National Park Service was given administrative jurisdiction of it in 1933. What is seen there today represents a development carried on almost entirely by the Lincoln Farm Association and inherited by the federal government. Several alterations in existing features are believed to be desirable, and it is agreed that improvement is needed in educational and interpretive facilities for the benefit and inspiration of the people. In the opinion of many, this responsibility is one of the greatest now resting upon the National Park Service relating to historic areas in Federal ownership. It is safe to prophesy that in the not distant future the National Park Service will undertake a careful study looking toward the planning and development of the area in order to bring more effectively to the thousands of Americans who visit it annually the true significance of the humble but truly great life that began on this spot 130 years ago this month.
Superintendent of Abraham Lincoln National Park is John M. Cissell, a courteous, mild-mannered man who genuinely loves the place, and in a sense is a part of it. All his life he has lived on or near the Lincoln Birthplace farm. His statement which follows might almost be called a bit of Lincolniania:
"I was born August 19, 1893", writes Mr. Cissell, "on what is now part of the old original Lincoln Farm, in a two story log house, about 800 feet from Lincoln's Birthplace cabin, and have spent my past life on this exact spot. My father was born in the year of 1839, about one mile from Lincoln's boyhood home, Knob Creek, Ky., which is about nine miles from Lincoln's birthplace, now the Abraham Lincoln National Park. My grandfather Richard Creal, who was born in the year 1801, purchased the original Lincoln Farm and cabin from Royal P. Hankley about 110 years ago. My grandfather Creal never knew the Lincolns, but his neighbors knew, visited, and administered at the birth of Abraham Lincoln. My mother knew and visited with Aunt Peggie Walters, who assisted Mrs. Nancy Hanks Lincoln at the time of Abraham Lincoln's birth, February 12, 1809.
"I have been employed in the Lincoln National Park continuously since 1909 and have not lived out of sight of the spot where Lincoln was born. I was first employed by the contractor, who built the Memorial and step-approach, to assist the stone mason, and was one of the two men chosen to assist President Theodore Roosevelt in the laying of the cornerstone February 12, 1909. I was appointed March, 1910, by the Lincoln Farm Association as Superintendent of this area, and since that date have had the honor to open the doors of this memorial... to three Presidents, Queen Marie of Rumania, Lloyd George and other distinguished visitors."
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