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Reading 1: Abraham Lincoln in Indiana
In the fall of 1816, Thomas and Nancy Lincoln packed their belongings and their two children, Sarah, 9, and Abraham, 7, and left their Kentucky home bound for the new frontier of southern Indiana. Arriving at his 160-acre claim near the Little Pigeon Creek in December, Thomas quickly set about building a cabin for his family and carving a new life out of the largely unsettled wilderness. In time, he cleared the fields, improved the cabin and outbuildings, and utilized his carpentry skills to establish himself within the community.
In much of the work his young and capable son assisted. As he grew older, Abraham increased his skill with the plow and, especially, the axe. In fact, in later life he described how he "…was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument…" to combat the "…trees and bogs and grubs…" of the "unbroken wilderness" that was Indiana in the early 19th century. (1)
The demands of life on the frontier left little time for young Abraham to attend school. As he later recalled in a short account of his life, his education was acquired "by littles" and the total "…did not amount to one year." (2) But despite the limitations he faced, his parents encouraged him to learn. Soon, his eyes were opened to the joy of books and the wonders of reading and he became an eager reader. At the age of 11 he read Parson Weems' Life of Washington. He followed it with Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, Robinson Crusoe, and The Arabian Nights. He could often be seen carrying a book, as well as his axe. For Abraham Lincoln, to get books and read them was "the main thing."
Life was generally good for the Lincoln's during their first couple of years in Indiana, but like many pioneer families they did not escape their share of tragedy. In October 1818, when Abraham was nine years old, his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, died of the milk sickness at the age of 35. The curse of the frontier, milk sickness resulted when a person drank the contaminated milk of a cow infected with the poison from the white snakeroot plant. Nancy had gone to nurse and comfort her ill neighbors and became herself a victim of the dreaded disease by unknowingly drinking some of the contaminated milk. For young Abraham it was a tragic blow. His mother had been a guiding force in his life, encouraging him to read and explore the world through books. His feelings for her were still strong many years later.
Sadly, Thomas and Abraham sawed logs into planks, and with wooden pegs, they fastened the boards together into a coffin for the beloved wife and mother. She was buried on a wooded hill south of the cabin.
The family keenly felt Nancy's absence as young Sarah and Abraham were now without a mother and Thomas without a wife. This loneliness led Thomas in 1819 to return to Kentucky in search of a new wife. He found her in Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow with three children. Thomas chose well for the cheerful and orderly Sarah proved to be a kind stepmother who reared Abraham and Sarah as her own. Under her guidance, the two families became one.
The remainder of his years in Indiana were adventurous ones for Abraham Lincoln. He continued to grow and by the time he was 19, he stood six foot four. He could wrestle with the best and local people remembered that he could lift more weight and drive an axe deeper than any man around.
In 1828, he was hired by James Gentry, the richest man in the community, to accompany his son Allen to New Orleans in a flatboat loaded with produce. While there, Lincoln witnessed a slave auction on the docks. It was a sight that greatly disturbed him and the impression it made was a strong and lasting one. He later commented, "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel." (3)
Abraham continued to work occasionally for Gentry at his store. He also began to take an interest in politics. The Gentry store was often a gathering place for local residents and there Abraham listened as a number of political views were aired about such topics as internal improvements, tariffs, and presidential candidates. At a young age, he began to form his own opinions and make contributions to the lively discussions, though he was influenced by his father's support of Henry Clay and the Whig political party. The Whig party, which operated in the U.S. from 1832 to 1856, supported the supremacy of Congress over the Executive Branch. The party was ultimately destroyed by the question of whether to allow the expansion of slavery to the territories. Lincoln became a great admirer of Clay and modeled his emerging political beliefs after those of the Kentucky politician. Although they were not to meet for many years, Clay had a profound impact on Lincoln's political development. Many of his positions on issues such as his opposition to slavery and his support of gradually freeing the slaves were adopted and expanded upon by the young politician. In later years, Lincoln referred to Clay as one "whom, during my whole political life, I have loved and revered as a teacher and leader." (4)
Another job that Abraham had during his teenage years was operating a ferry service across the mouth of the Anderson River. In his spare time he built a boat to take passengers out to the steamers on the Ohio. One day he rowed out two men and placed them aboard with their trunks. To his surprise each threw him a silver half-dollar. "I could scarcely credit," he said, "that I, a poor boy, had earned a dollar in less than a day." (5) But he did not get to keep the money since the law stipulated that until he was 21, any money he made belonged to his father.
Although profitable, his business venture also led to one of his first encounters with the legal system. Two brothers, who held the ferry rights across the Ohio between Kentucky and Indiana, charged Lincoln with interfering with their business. Kentucky law, in such cases, provided for the violator to be fined. But, because he did not carry his passengers all the way across the river but only to the steamboats, the judge ruled that Lincoln had not violated the law and dismissed the charge.
By all accounts the Lincolns prospered in Indiana, but in 1830 Thomas decided to move to Illinois. Relatives there had described the soil as rich and productive and that milk sickness, which threatened to break out again in the Little Pigeon community, did not exist. With that news, Thomas sold his property and left the state. He eventually settled in Coles County, Illinois, while Abraham struck out on his own and ended up in New Salem.
Abraham Lincoln lived in Indiana for 14 years, from the age of 7 to the age of 21. During that time he grew physically and mentally. With his hands and his back, he helped carve a farm and home out of the wilderness. With his mind, he began to explore the world of books and knowledge. He experienced adventure and he knew deep personal loss. The death of his mother in 1818 and the death of his beloved sister, Sarah in 1828, left deep emotional scars. But all those experiences made him into the man that he became.
Questions for Reading 1
1. When did the Lincolns move to Indiana? Where did they move from? How many members of the family were there?
2. What caused the death of Nancy Hanks Lincoln? How did her death affect the life of Abraham Lincoln?
3. How do you think Henry Clay influenced Lincoln's presidency? Who were some of the other people that strongly influenced his life?
4. Can you think of someone who has greatly influenced your life? How did that person influence who you are today?
5. How did young Abraham earn money? Did he get to keep the money he earned? How does the amount he made compare with what you might earn today?
6. What impact do you think Abraham's experience with the legal system might have had on his later life?
7. What other experiences do you think influenced him? Can you think of any personality traits or characteristics that Abraham began to develop during his childhood?
Reading 1 was adapted from The Lincoln Notebook, prepared by the staff of Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial.
(1) Autobiography written for John Scripps, June 1860, in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. IV. You can visit the entire collection online via the Humanities Text Initiative on the University of Michigan's Digital Library Production Service website at http://www.hti.umich.edu/l/lincoln/.