Abraham Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809, in a humble log cabin in primitive country in Larue – formally Hardin – County, Kentucky. Lincoln was born in a small, one room log cabin. His humble beginning was common on the frontier of early America.
Lincoln’s Family Struggled with the Challenges of the Expanding Frontier
The area was on the edge of the growing nation and Lincoln had few neighbors. His surroundings were heavily wooded and there was real danger from wild animals. They lived in can what must be described as extreme poverty.
His father – Thomas Lincoln – was an uneducated but respected farmer and part time carpenter who demonstrated little ambition to improve the living conditions of his family. His mother was Nancy Hanks of whom little is known.
Lincoln had an older sister – Sarah – who was two years his senior. A younger brother – Thomas Jr. – was born when Lincoln was three years old, but Thomas lived only three days.
The family relocated in to what is now Spencer County, Indiana in 1816. Lincoln watched his mother grieve over the grave of Thomas when they left, and carried the memory with him into adulthood.
The Lincolns were Separate Baptists who held strict, fundamental beliefs and rejected slavery. Lincoln later said he could not remember a time in his life when he was not opposed to the practice. Lincoln became a student of the Bible, but never joined a church, although he continued to read and quote the Bible for the rest of his life.
Lincoln’s father demanded hard work of his son, and he was a strong and skilled farm hand before he was a teenager. He managed to attend a small frontier school with Sarah for perhaps a year and learned to read and “cipher.”
Thomas Lincoln unintentionally gave a valuable gift to his son. Abraham would sit and listen to his father tell stories to occasional travelers. He developed a gift for relating stories and tall tales which served him well in political life.
The Inquisitive Boy Overcame Many Obstacles
Lincoln showed signs of brilliance early displaying a hunger for knowledge. What few books or pamphlets he could find he read. The Bible was one of the few books he could obtain easily, and he read it completely, memorizing large portions. He became skilled at memorizing whatever he read.
His father was often angered by the time young Lincoln spent reading, as he felt that “A, B, C learning” was a waste of time, but the boy continued to read what he could when he could. Characters in books served as companions for a young man longing to learn more about a world unknown to him.
In 1818 his mother died from “milk sickness,” now known to be caused by drinking milk contaminated by poisonous weeds eaten by cows. Lincoln was only nine years old, but his “dear mother” left a deep and lasting impression on her son. As an adult he gave her all the credit for his success.
His mother was Lincoln’s second experience with the death of a family member. Months after the death of his mother, Lincoln’s father left Abraham, his sister, and a cousin – 19 year old Dennis Hanks – alone to care for themselves, as he went in search of another wife.
Lincoln’s Family Life Improves with the Kindness of a New Mother
Sarah cooked and cared for the two boys during her father’s absence, but although the three survived well-enough, though Lincoln later related being afraid especially during the dark nights as he listened to the sounds of wild animals.
The three were filthy and disheveled when Thomas Lincoln returned with his new wife Sarah Bush Johnson, a widow who proved to be a kind and affectionate stepmother. She added her own three children to the family and Abraham and Sarah had new playmates to enrich their lives. His stepmother would recall in later years that Abraham was as kind and well-behaved as any boy she had ever known. Her adopted son came to call her “Mother.”
His new mother also brought with her a few books, which Lincoln read and re-read as he commonly did when he could acquire a book.
Lincoln Walks in The Shadow of The Grim Reaper once More
Lincoln’s sister married when she was 17, but, as was common on the frontier, died in childbirth at age 19. Not yet twenty years old, Lincoln had now lost the most important people in his life. Life on the frontier no longer held any reason for him to stay.
He worked for his father and did odd jobs for a few years more becoming a skilled, strong axe man from years of splitting rails for fences. The nickname “Rail Splitter” followed him into his adult life.
In March of 1831 Abraham Lincoln left his father’s farm to seek a new life in the civilized world. He continued to read voraciously – especially law books. His interest in law led him eventually to become a lawyer, a politician, and president.
Abraham Lincoln was raised in poverty on the frontier of the United States in the early 19th century. Although not encouraged by his parents to seek education Lincoln possessed a natural curiosity and intelligence that made him seek knowledge by reading whatever he could. Lincoln was the perfect example of a self-made man.
Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1995
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. A Team of Rivals. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.