Lincoln in 1848 when he was 39 years old.
In the autumn of 1816, Thomas Lincoln came to Indiana from Kentucky to look for land. He crossed the river at what is now Troy, Indiana, and made his way up Anderson's Creek about as far as the present village of Huffman to Francis Posey's farm before he set off through the woods on his quest. A few months before, at Corydon, about forty miles east of Posey's farm as the crow flies, Jonathan Jennings and others had drawn up the state's first constitution. Seventy miles to the west, George Rapp's Germans had been industriously building Harmonie on the Wabash for more than two years. About the same distance in a direct line to the northwest was Vincennes, where George Rogers Clark had defeated the British forty years earlier and where William Henry Harrison had recently relinquished his authority of a dozen years as governor of Indiana Territory.
Tom Lincoln was more or less typical of the 64,000 people who already inhabited Indiana in 1816. At least, he resembled the majority of them, the ones who cleared the forest and cultivated small farms. He was of Southern origin, of good yeoman stock, but uneducated and poor. Had he been an ambitious man, it might be believed that he came to Indiana to better his condition in life, which had been deplorable in Kentucky, but his stolid and yet restless nature makes it seem more than likely that he was impelled to make the move only by quiet desperation and an itching foot. Although he may have been vaguely aware that it was futile for him to compete any longer in southern society where a man without money or talents was hardly better off than a slave, it cannot be idealistically argued that he disliked slavery, for in Hardin County, Kentucky, he had been a member of the Patrollers, whose duty was to capture and whip any slaves found 'strolling' without permits. Aged thirty-eight in 1816, Tom Lincoln was a hunter by preference, a carpenter by trade, and a farmer by necessity.
Having lost all his tools and some of his whiskey overboard from his flatboat on the Salt river in Kentucky, Lincoln left the Posey farm equipped with only a gun, an ax, and a hunting knife and plunged afoot into the deep gloom of the Indiana forest in a region where there lived at that time but one white man for every four square miles. Hacking his way through the undergrowth of sumac, dogwood, and grapevines, which were matted so thick that the ax or the knife slipping from his hands might easily have been lost in them, he followed his instinct for direction instead of a compass, which he lacked, or the fall of shadows, which did not exist in a forest where all was shadow, or the guidance of stars which were hard to distinguish through the interlacing branches of one-hundred-foot sycamore, oak, hackberry, poplar, sweet gum, and hickory. When at last he found a place that suited his fancy, a mile from Little Pigeon Creek and some sixteen miles north of the settlement of Rockport on the Ohio, he marked out a claim with blazes and brush heaps and returned to Kentucky for his wife, Nancy, and his two children, nine-year-old Sally and seven-year-old Abe.
In late November, 1816, this family of four rode on two horses from their Knob Creek farm in Kentucky to the Ohio River. They were ferried across the river and taken up Anderson's Creek to Posey's farm, where they borrowed a sled and two oxen. From Posey's farm they then 'packed through' the woods with all their worldly possessions, making a path for the oxen and sled by chopping away underbrush, felling small trees, and turning aside when their way was blocked by trees too big for them to cut down. Of these there were many. Tom Lincoln paused once in the journey to measure one of them, an oak. Four feet above the ground its trunk was twenty-four feet in circumference.
When Tom Lincoln marked off his claim in the Indiana woods, he made one serious mistake; he never once thought of water. A mile and a half from the spot where he built his first half-faced camp there was a spring, and a slightly shorter distance away, though less accessible, there was Little Pigeon Creek; but that first winter in Indiana and for the next thirteen years thereafter, his family's only source of supply for drinking and washing was melted snow, rainwater in puddles and barrels, and seepage in holes dug for that purpose. Otherwise, one of the Lincolns had to walk two or three miles, round trip, to the spring or the creek with a bucket. Tom Lincoln was never able to dig a successful well on the place, and he had no faith in the Yankees who came by from time to time with forked hazel wands and offered to find water for five dollars. Indeed, in his fourteen years in Indiana, Tom Lincoln seldom had five dollars to spare, and the currency in circulation at that time -- 'shinplasters,' or notes on local Indiana banks, and 'cut money,' wedges or 'bits' cut from silver, eight to a dollar -- was usually not worth its face value. Lincoln waited a whole year before he journeyed through the woods to Vincennes and entered his claim at the land office, paying the preliminary installment of sixteen dollars for one hundred and sixty acres. By the time he left Indiana he had paid for only half of the land he entered.
The half-faced camp in which the Lincoln family spent their first winter was only fourteen feet wide and open on one side, with a roof of poles, slabs and leaves sloping down to a back wall that was a single log lying on the ground. No one could stand upright at the back, not even seven-year-old Abe. The floor was the earth strewn with leaves, and the beds were heaps of brush covered with skins and possibly a blanket or two brought from Kentucky. Day and night a fire burned at the open front, not only for warmth and cooking but also to frighten off the wolves and panthers that howled and wailed round the camp all the time. When the wind was wrong, the structure filled with smoke; when it was right, the heat was greater outside the camp than it was within. The family's food that winter consisted almost entirely of game, which was plentiful in the thickets only a few yards from the camp; turkeys, deer, squirrels, and rabbits. They had no vegetables and they soon ran out of meal. No one could bathe, of course, until spring came and the sun warmed the waters of Little Pigeon Creek sufficiently for venturing in.
In the spring and summer of 1817, Lincoln cleared a few acres and built a cabin about forty rods from the half-faced camp. The clearing was accomplished by girdling the largest trees and letting them die and felling others and setting fire to them where they lay. After the great butts had smoldered into charred pieces small enough to be broken into chunks and snaked away with an ox and chain, Nancy and her children planted corn and pumpkins between the stumps and trunks wherever they could grub out roots and sprouts with an ax and hoe. All that spring their faces were black with soot and their eyes smarted until the smoldering logs were removed. The cabin Tom built was the largest the Lincolns had ever lived in, eighteen feet wide and twenty feet long, with a loft beneath the roof, reached by pegs driven into the walls. The bark was left on the round logs, and the roof was made of poles and slabs. There were no windows, and a bearskin draped across the entrance served as a door. The 'cats-and-clay' chimney, made of twigs and clay, frequently caught fire and crumbled in dirt and ashes down upon the hearth. life was lonely as well as arduous at first, but soon after the Lincolns moved into the cabin, Nancy Hanks Lincoln's aunt and uncle, Thomas and Betsy Sparrow, came up from Kentucky with Abe's cousin, Dennis Hanks, and occupied what Dennis, then aged eighteen, would describe later as "that Darne little half face camp."
So the Lincolns lived the second winter in Indiana, their windowless cabin illuminated only by the fire on the hearth unless they burned smoking bear's grease in a metal, dipper-shaped lamp hung from the wall. Again their food was mainly birds and animals, usually fried. They had a little corn that winter, but never enough, and the only mill, a tread-horse affair, was seventeen miles away. Going to the mill was as time-consuming as pounding out the kernels of corn in a hollow hardwood stump with a stone or an ax head. Eventually they would grow enough wheat for the luxury of a cake on Sundays and would acquire hogs and a cow along with a household cat to catch rats and mice; but that second winter they had no domestic animals, and the breast meat of the wild turkey was their substitute for bread when there was no cornmeal for baking into hoecake on a hoe blade at the fireplace.
That was the last winter that Nancy Hanks had to endure in the Indiana woods, for the next October she became ill with a mysterious disease which the settlers called 'the milk sick,' and after seven days of suffering she died. Previously Nancy Lincoln had taken care of Thomas and Betsy Sparrow and the wife of peter Brooner, a hunter on Little Pigeon Creek, all of whom had died before the summer's end. When her own turn came, such neighbors as were left from the epidemic, maybe a dozen in all the settlement of Gentryville nearby, spared their womenfolk to spell Tom and Dennis and Sally and Abe in looking after her. There was no doctor within thirty miles of the cabin, and even if they could have summoned him, he could have done nothing. No one knew how to cure 'the milk sick'; no one knew then even what it was, a disease derived from the milk of the forest-ranging cows of those days that had eaten white snakeroot and become sick themselves; in 1818, the pioneers only knew that cows and human beings became ill at the same time.
People lived intimately with death in those days. Neither young nor old were spared its tedious and obscene drama. In an eighteen-by-twenty-foot cabin everyone in the family was in death's presence day and night, eating with it only a few feet from their table and sleeping with it in the same bed; and when at last it was gone, they had to live on in the same shameless intimacy with what it had left behind and perform all the duties that are today performed by someone who is hired to do them professionally.
Tom Lincoln made the box he buried his wife in, and Abe, nine years old, whittled out the pegs that held the whipsawed planks together. They put Nancy's body in the box, fastened the lid with Abe's pegs, and carried it to a knoll near the cabin where they had dug a hole for it in the hard earth with an ax and a wooden shove. There was no preacher to read the service or say a prayer, and almost a year would pass before one came by the Little Pigeon Creek neighborhood and conducted a funeral ceremony. Nor was any marker put on Nancy Lincoln's grave then, nor in Tom Lincoln's lifetime or Abraham Lincoln's. The stone that is there now, in the woods of southern Indiana in the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, is only a memorial of the approximate place where the Civil War President's mother was buried.
The winter that came thereafter was, if anything, worse that the first and second winters that the Lincolns spent in Indiana, and the following summer and fall were little better. Twelve-year-old Sally did all the cooking and with no grown woman to supervise the family, the two men, Tom and Dennis, lived unrestrained in their passion for the semi-vagrant life of the hunter while ten-year-old Abe, unwashed and unkempt, simply existed. His one principal chore was to keep the fire on the hearth supplied with wood. It was an important chore, for there were no matches -- matches did not come into general use until 1830 -- and re-lighting a dead fire with flint and steel was a painstaking and tedious process. But the chore was hardly enough to keep a boy busy all the time. It is little wonder that Tom Lincoln overcame his contempt for 'book-larnin' and let the boy go to school for a short time that year.
In the winter of 1819, Tom Lincoln went back to Kentucky and returned with a second wife, Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow with three small children, two girls and a boy. There were now eight people in the cabin. (At a later date, thirteen men, women and children would occupy the eighteen-by-twenty-foot home.) But Sarah Lincoln, the new wife, could manage indolent Tom Lincoln and harum-scarum Dennis Hanks in a way that Nancy Hanks Lincoln had failed to do, and within a short time after her arrival, the cabin had a window, covered with greased paper, a puncheon floor, and chairs instead of tree stumps to sit on. From Kentucky Sarah Lincoln had brought a bureau and a bed and cooking utensils and, among other niceties, knives and forks, which Abe and Sally had to learn to use.
Abraham Lincoln's schooling -- a few months when he was ten and another month or two when he was fourteen -- was no better and no worse than the schooling of most backwoods boys in Indiana in that period. The schools he attended -- Andrew Crawford's and then Azel Dorsey's and William Sweeney's -- were 'blab schools,' where the children studied aloud. Abe learned 'manners,' simple arithmetic, and how to read and write, from Pike's Arithmetic and Dilworth's Spelling Book, and by studying and memorizing the speeches of famous men he mastered a kind of oratory. Most of his learning, however, he got for himself from books and newspapers borrowed from neighbors, like Josiah Crawford, who lent him Weem's Life of Washington, and Judge John Pitcher, a graduate of Yale College who lived in Rockport sixteen miles away. Lincoln also walked to Boonville to listen to the courtroom oratory of John A. Brackenridge, the Warrick County prosecuting attorney.
But periods free for formal schooling and time for reading were rare, because Abe, like other boys, had to work for his father, and when his skill with an ax and a hoe were not needed at home, he hired out to other farmers who could afford to employ labor outside their own families. He cleared fields for planting, daubed cabins, split rails, ploughed and cultivated the land, and for a short period, while in the employ of James Taylor on a farm on the Ohio River, operated a ferry at Anderson's Creek in his spare time, carrying passengers to and from passing steamboats. In April 1828, in the company of another youth of his age, he took a flatboat laden with produce to New Orleans, returning upriver on a steamboat. In February, 1830, when Abe was twenty-one, the Lincolns left Indiana and moved to Illinois, conveying their belongings in a wagon drawn by four oxen from Gentryville to Vincennes. At Vincennes they crossed the Wabash, and Abraham Lincoln would not set foot on Indiana soil again until 1844 when he came to make campaign speeches for Henry Clay. But Indiana left its mark on him.