Abraham Lincoln’s frontier childhood was filled with hardship
Abraham Lincoln summed up his early years on the Kentucky-Indiana frontier as “the short and simple annals of the poor”. But the hardships he endured there in his youth were not unique. Life was tough for most frontier families in the early 1800s.
“Life on the frontier was little better than the life of an ox,” says Lincoln historian Michael Burlingame. But the Lincolns, he said, were particularly poor.
Lincoln’s earliest memories were of the Kentucky farm he moved to in 1811 with his parents, Thomas and Nancy, and his sister, Sarah. She was 4 years old. Abraham was 2. His parents had been married for five years.
Young Lincoln worked on the farm, had little schooling
In Knob Creek, the Lincolns lived in a one-room cabin with a dirt floor, much like the one where Abraham was born about nine miles away near Hodgenville. Steep, heavily forested hills rose on either side of the house. On the rented 30-acre farm, Lincoln’s father planted corn and pumpkins on wide fields with rich soil.
Outside the Lincolns’ gate, on the road from Louisville to Nashville, the world passed by: pioneers with heavily laden wagons, peddlers, local politicians, slaves, missionaries and soldiers returning from the War of 1812.
Severe and often authoritarian, Thomas Lincoln put his son to work before he was 7 years old. Abraham filled the wooden crate, brought water from the stream, weeded the garden, harvested grapes for wine and jelly, picked persimmons for brewing, and planted pumpkin seeds.
At the creek, where he often played with his sister, Lincoln may have nearly drowned.
While crossing a log that spanned the rain-swollen tributary, Abraham fell into it, the story goes. A playmate said he used a sycamore branch to pull Lincoln out of the deep, raging waters. If the account—widely publicized at the end of the 19and century – is exact remains unknown. What is certain is that the death of another child would have crushed the Lincolns, whose infant son Thomas died on the farm in 1812.
Eager to learn, Abraham found few opportunities for schooling in rural Kentucky; instead, he and his sister sporadically attended ABC schools—so-called “blab” schools in which students repeated their teacher’s oral lessons aloud. with a chimney on one side.
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Lincoln’s family moved to Indiana in 1816
In the winter of 1816, when Abraham was 7 years old, the Lincolns moved to a settlement at Little Pigeon Creek in southern Indiana. As the winter harvest was over, the family lived on wild game, corn and pork bartered from the settlers. “It was a wilderness area,” Lincoln recalls, “with many bears and other wildlife still in the woods.”
Two years later, Nancy Lincoln died in the remote wilderness – the first of many Lincoln family tragedies. An introspective and generous-hearted woman, Nancy apparently consumed tainted milk when the cows ate the poisonous White Snakeroot. (Some thought the cause of death was tuberculosis.) She was 34 years old.
After Nancy’s death, household chores in the family’s one-room cabin fell to 11-year-old Sarah. “[L]Little Abe and his sister Sarah began a dreary life – indeed, a sadder and less inviting life rarely befalls the fate of a child,” wrote William Herndon, future partner and Lincoln biographer.
During a dismal winter, the motherless children and their 19-year-old orphan cousin lived in a log cabin with no floor, largely without protection from the weather. In just over a year, however, their family situation has changed dramatically.
READ MORE: Abraham Lincoln’s Family: Meet the Key Members
Lincoln’s mother-in-law offered love and support
Wanting to remarry, Thomas Lincoln traveled to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, where he proposed to widow Sarah Bush Johnston, whom he had known since childhood. She agreed, on the condition that Lincoln repay his debts.
On December 2, 1819, Thomas and Sarah were married and then returned to Little Pigeon Creek, accompanied by his three children: Elizabeth, 13; Mathilde, 10 years old; and John, 9 years old. Thomas’ new wife brought furniture (including a $50 walnut desk), kitchen utensils and comfortable bedding, a surprising luxury for her new stepchildren. She also brought several books, including the Bible and Aesop’s fableswhich she gave to Abe.
At his wife’s insistence, Thomas Lincoln installed a cabin floor and plastered the cracks between the logs. Instead of cornhusks, Abraham and his sister slept on a feather bed. Somehow, the blended family endured in cramped conditions.
To make him look “more human”, Lincoln’s stepmother dressed the poorly dressed Abraham.
On the farm, Lincoln became skilled with an axe. But when his father tried to teach him carpentry, Abraham backed down, fueling tension between the two, according to Herndon. Sometimes the illiterate Thomas would scold Abraham for reading instead of doing the farm work.
But Sarah Bush Lincoln persuaded her husband to allow their son to read and study. “At first he didn’t come to terms with it easily,” she recalls, “but eventually he too seemed willing to encourage her to some degree.”
Thus, the mother-in-law bonded with the son-in-law.
“Abe”, Sarah Bush Lincoln recalled years later, “was the best boy I ever saw.”
Lincoln shaken by the death of his sister Sarah
Whenever Abraham went to school, he was usually accompanied by his quick-witted and good-humored sister. “Like her brother, she knew how to welcome you nicely and put you at ease,” recalls a classmate.
Sarah and Abraham became close, following hardships and other experiences shared since childhood.
In 1826 Sarah married a local man named Aaron Grigsby. At the wedding, the Lincolns sang a song composed by Abraham himself – “a boring dog full of painful rhymes”.
Less than two years later, however, she died in childbirth, aged just 20. When Abraham received the news, wrote biographer Herndon, he sobbed.
In 1830, 21-year-old Abraham was on the move again, west from Illinois. There he would take a flatboat on the Mississippi, run a general store, and run for public office at the age of 23. His difficult life on the American frontier quickly became a distant memory.