“My childhood’s home I see again,
And sadden with the view;
And still, as memory crowds my brain,
There’s pleasure in it too
Near twenty years have passed away
Since here I bid farewell
To woods and fields, and scenes of play
And playmates loved so well …”
— from “My Childhood’s Home”
Abraham Lincoln, 1844
(This article originally appeared in the February 1996 issue of Electric Consumer.)
In autumn of 1844, Abraham Lincoln had a homecoming.
Then a 35-year-old Illinois legislator, Lincoln was stumping for presidential candidate Henry Clay in his old stomping grounds of Southern Indiana. The return to where Lincoln lived from 1816 to 1830 must have brought back bittersweet boyhood memories.
Lincoln loved poetry. And, though his eloquence in oratory and prose has long been noted, he only penned three poems. Those three, nostalgic and sad, were inspired by that 1844 trip.
As every grade schooler knows, Lincoln, whose birthday we celebrate this month, was born in a log cabin in Kentucky. He rose to political prominence, was first elected president and now eternally rests in Illinois.
But he did more than just pass through Indiana. In 1859 Lincoln quipped that he grew to his present enormous height on the good soil of Indiana.
Grew indeed. During his 14 years here, Lincoln sprouted from a boy to his gangling 6-foot-4 adult frame. Moreover, the complex character that later became President Lincoln was hewn from the harshness of the Hoosier wilderness. It helped chisel furrows in the taut flesh about the bones of his face and went much deeper inside.
“It was a time of great hardships,” said Gerald J. Prokopowicz, historian for The Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne. “It certainly shaped him. He learned to rely on himself. That was a characteristic he carried the rest of his life.”
Abraham Lincoln was 7 years old when he first came to Indiana with his father, Thomas; mother, Nancy; and sister Sarah, in December of 1816. The move coincided within days of Indiana’s statehood. They settled near the Ohio River in an area of Perry County that two years later became Spencer County.
From out of the comfort of the more established Kentucky, the Lincolns came to the frontier seeking a new life on land free of title disputes and free of slavery. The Lincolns belonged to an antislavery Baptist church and later, while running for president in 1860, Lincoln himself said slavery was one reason the family left Kentucky.
“If slavery is not wrong nothing is wrong,” he wrote in 1864. “I cannot remember the day when I did not so think and feel.”
Still, Lincoln was never self-righteous toward Southerners about slavery, and could place himself inside the Southern mind. Slavery was a long-standing part of the culture Southerners were born and raised in. Had Lincoln remained on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River and grown up surrounded by slavery, his views may have been tempered somewhat as well, Prokopowicz added.
But, growing up in the free state of Indiana, Lincoln’s first true experiences with slavery came on a flatboat trip to New Orleans when he was 19. He was angered by what he saw and supposedly told his traveling companion, “If I ever get a chance to hit that thing, I’ll hit it hard.”
Later on, running on an antislavery platform, he was elected president in 1860, which hastened the South’s secession from the Union. A month after he took office, the Civil War began. On Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation essentially abolished slavery in the United States.
A passion for learning
Though Lincoln could already read and write when he arrived in Indiana, his passion for learning became the stuff of legend. But schooling in the Little Pigeon Creek settlement was brief, if at all, and Lincoln was left to educate himself.
He read insatiably all the books, and later all the newspapers, he could get his hands on. He read of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, “Robinson Crusoe” and “Aesop’s Fables.” He read the Bible. He read readers and spellers that also offered aphorisms, axioms, proverbs and precepts on good living and right thinking from philosophers, statesmen, historians and saints.
As he matured, he was reading the “Revised Laws of Indiana” that included the Declaration of Independence and the constitutions of the United States and Indiana.
The books opened his mind to the world outside Little Pigeon Creek. The Ohio River, just 16 miles to the southeast, opened his experiences. The Ohio was one of the major interstate highways of the time. When the teenaged Lincoln started working on a ferry, he met riverboat captains and crew and travelers from all over the country.
The 1828 flatboat journey to New Orleans opened his eyes even more. He saw the importance of the waterways, and, of course, the horrors of slavery. “After this sojourn, he could never have been content to live quietly in the backwoods,” wrote Louis A. Warren, a Lincoln historian, in his book “Lincoln’s Youth.”
Life in the Indiana backwoods was not easy. Work was laborious and young Lincoln endured incredible sadness. At age 9, his mother died from the milk-sickness that struck the settlement. Ten years later, his sister died in childbirth.
Prokopowicz said there has been a tendency to overlook the Indiana period of Lincoln’s life. And, “To be frank,” he said, “Lincoln preferred not to dwell on this period.”
Lincoln moved on to the better farmland on the prairies of Illinois with his father, stepmother and her children in 1830 when he was 21. They crossed the Wabash River on March 6, and Abe never looked back. Soon after, he set out on his own, and progressively moved away from the frontier life of manual labor he’d known as a boy and young man.
“He became a lawyer to work with his mind instead of his hands,” Prokopowicz said.
Just two years after leaving Indiana, he was already running for the Illinois state legislature. Two years later, he was elected to the Illinois House.
During his years in Indiana, he developed his self-reliance, his intellect and dignity. Here he developed his ambition, curiosity, political beliefs, humor, warmth and honesty. And here, too, his tears for his lost mother and sister were shed. Warren noted that these sorrows instilled in him a great sense of sympathy for the suffering. And here, too, he first withdrew into the darker sides of his personality, his brooding and recurring depressions.
Despite the rich heritage Hoosiers have of Lincoln, his legacy in Indiana is sometimes as sketchy as the man himself. The site of his boyhood home in Spencer County is preserved as a national memorial. The state park that bears his name across the road hosts a musical on his early life each summer. And historical markers dot the places, like in Rockport where he boarded the flatboat to New Orleans, that were significant in his life. Lincoln Ferry Park, at the mouth of the Anderson River on the Ohio near Troy where he operated a ferry, was dedicated to honor him in 1939.
On the opposite end of the state, The Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne proudly preserves Lincoln’s legacy in a brand new $6 million facility opened last October. [Editor’s note: That was in October 1995. The Lincoln Museum closed in 2008, and its remarkable collection was divided between the Indiana State Museum and the Allen County Public Library.]
“Lincoln belongs to all Americans,” said Prokopowicz, but he added that Indiana certainly has as good a reason to be proud of its historical ties to Lincoln as Kentucky or Illinois.
Warren, who was the first director of the Fort Wayne museum, ended his book more directly. Calling to mind the Indiana state seal with the frontiersman chopping a felled tree, he wrote, “This woodsman might well symbolize Abraham Lincoln, Indiana’s finest contribution to civilization.”
Lincoln’s Trail Through Indiana
Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, spent his formative years, ages 7-21, in Southern Indiana. Though he already could read and write, it was here that his intellect, his moral character, his political beliefs, his oratory eloquence and his notable wit and humor, were developed and refined. Here’s a brief tracing of Lincoln’s trail through Indiana.
- Feb. 12, 1809: Abraham Lincoln is born in Hodgenville, Kentucky, the same year Indiana becomes a territory.
- Dec. 1816: Within days of Indiana’s statehood, Thomas Lincoln moves his family — wife Nancy, and children, Sarah, 9, and Abraham, 7 — across the Ohio River near the mouth of the Anderson River.
- 1816-1830: The Lincoln family settles in the community at Little Pigeon Creek. Here Abraham would spend his formative years, ages 7 to 21. Those 14 years turned out to be a quarter of his life.
- Oct. 1818: Nancy Hanks Lincoln dies of “milk sickness” at age 34, and is buried near the cabin. It’s a devastating loss for 9-year-old Abe.
- Dec. 1819: Thomas Lincoln returns from a trip to Kentucky with a new wife, widow Sarah Bush Johnston, and her three children.
- 1825-1826: Abraham operates a ferry boat on the Anderson and Ohio rivers near the town of Troy.
- Jan. 1828: Abe’s sister, Sarah Lincoln Grigsby, dies during childbirth at age 21, and is buried in the community cemetery. It has a devastating effect on Abe, and contributes to his periods of melancholy and depression.
- Dec. 1828: Departing from Rockport, Abe joins Allen Gentry, son of the local storekeeper, on a flatboat journey to New Orleans. There, they encounter a slave auction. Supposedly, Abe tells Allen, “If I ever get a chance to hit that thing, I’ll hit it hard.” They returned to Indiana by the spring of 1829.
- March 1830: Seeking better farmland and fearing another outbreak of milk sickness, the surviving Lincolns, Abe and his father, move onto the prairies of Illinois with Abe’s stepmother, Sarah, and her children and their spouses.
In the same woods where Abraham Lincoln worked and wondered as a boy, visitors to the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial can contemplate Lincoln; visit the grave of his mother; or watch “pioneers” go about the typical daily chores of the 1820s at the living historical farm.
The northern Spencer County memorial site is located on about 200 acres which includes the land that was the Lincoln homestead from 1816-1830.
It was here that the Lincoln family settled in late 1816 after leaving Kentucky when Abe was 7 years old. The Lincolns came to Indiana for a new life on land free of title disputes and the taint of slavery.
But life on the Indiana frontier was not easy. Work was hard and life was harsh. At age 9, Lincoln lost his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, to milk-sickness that struck the Little Pigeon Creek settlement. We now know it was brought on by cows that ate the poisonous snakeroot growing in the woods. Her grave is along the trail that runs north from the visitor center to the Lincoln cabin site.
Later, his sister Sarah died in childbirth. She’s buried in a cemetery inside Lincoln State Park across the road from the visitor center.
By 1830, Abraham and his father had started work on a new family cabin. But before it was completed, they migrated to Illinois with the family of Abe’s stepmother. A bronze casting of that new cabin’s foundation is memorialized at the site.
Next to the cabin casting is a replica of the type of cabin Lincoln might have lived in during most of his Indiana years, and the living historical farm made up of old log structures from in and around Spencer County.
From spring to early autumn, the farm is occupied by costumed interpreters who show visitors how chores were done and life was lived on the 1820s frontier. Crops and a vegetable garden are grown on the site.
In addition, there are nature trails and the “Trail of Twelve Stones” that features stones taken from places of significance during Lincoln’s life.
The boyhood memorial was originally part of the state parks. In 1962, the land was deeded to the federal government and is now administered by the National Park Service. The entrance to Lincoln State Park is directly across the road.
The boyhood visitor center offers a small museum, theater and gift shop. The center, featuring exterior stone relief sculptures depicting different periods of Lincoln’s life, was created by enclosing an arched cloister connecting the two memorial halls the state had built in 1940.