Abraham Lincoln: His Story/Chapter 1
In every century are born men whose lives bring messages of help and hope to those who come after. Such an one was Abraham Lincoln. The year of his birth, 1809, was a lion-year. Charles Darwin was born the same day; Mendelssohn, Edgar Allen Poe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Alfred Tennyson, and William Ewart Gladstone in the same year. Few boys of today start life so handicapped by hardships or with fewer opportunities. Lincoln knew little about his ancestors. In later life he said that he was more concerned to know what his grandfather's grandson would be than who his grandfather had been.
One of his grandfathers was named Abraham Lincoln, and went as a pioneer to Kentucky—then the "Dark and Bloody Ground" claimed and guarded by fierce Indian tribes. There, near where the city of Louisville now stands, he cleared a field in the forest, not far from a stockade erected by other settlers, and built a cabin. A schoolmaster of that time remembers boarding in a similar cabin, which had but one room sixteen feet square, where lived a father, mother, ten children, three dogs, and two cats. It was so cold at night that he slept on his shoes in order to prevent them from freezing too stiff to be worn the next day.
One morning in the year 1784 this first Abraham Lincoln started with his three sons, Mordecai, Josiah, and Thomas, to work at a little clearing near the cabin. Suddenly from a near-by thicket sounded the crack of a rifle, and this first Kentucky Lincoln fell back dead. Josiah ran to the stockade for help. Mordecai dashed back to the cabin and took down his father's rifle just as an Indian, in full war paint, reached Thomas, a little boy of six, who had stayed by his father's body. It was necessary to shoot quick and straight to save his brother's life. Aiming through a loophole at a white string of wampum on the Indian's breast, Mordecai dropped him dead while Thomas escaped into the cabin. From there Mordecai fought off the other Indians until help came from the stockade.
The sight of his father's death turned this oldest boy Mordecai into an Indian-hunter, and he spent his life in stalking and killing Indians wherever he could find them. Thomas, the father of Abraham Lincoln, grew up a wandering laboring boy, with just enough education to write his name. Drifting from one job to another he became a carpenter and married Nancy Hanks, the niece of the man in whose shop he worked. The young couple went to housekeeping in a log cabin which had one room, one door, and one window, and was furnished with a spinning-wheel, a loom, and a feather bed.
There, in Hardin County, Kentucky, on February 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born, and there he lived until he was seven years old. Lincoln's only playmate was his sister, and his playground the lonely forest. With this sister he went to school now and then under wandering school-teachers, who held school in a deserted cabin made of round logs with a dirt floor and small holes for windows covered with greased paper. There he learned his alphabet.
The War of 1812 was being fought at this time. "I had been fishing one day," he once told a friend in speaking about these times, "and had caught a little fish, which I was taking home. I met a soldier in the road and having been told at home that we must be good to the soldiers, I gave him my fish."
In April, 1816, Thomas Lincoln sold his farm for four hundred gallons of whiskey and twenty dollars, built a raft, and started down the Ohio River to find a new home in Indiana. On the way the raft capsized, but he saved his tools and most of the whiskey. On the Indiana shore he chose some land for his new farm and then went back for his family. The last thing that the little boy remembers of his Kentucky home was that his mother took him and his sister to say good-bye to the little brother whom they were leaving behind in an unmarked grave in the wilderness.
On two borrowed horses, with some bedding and a few pans and kettles, the Lincoln family cut their way through the forest for eighteen miles to Little Pigeon Creek. There Thomas Lincoln hurriedly built a shed out of saplings entirely open on one side, and in this the family lived a whole year while he cleared a cornpatch and built a rough cabin.All through the freezing winter storms they huddled together in this rude camp. Finally the new log cabin was built and the family moved in. One can gain an idea of how hurriedly and roughly it was put together from a memorandum made by Abraham Lincoln in later years: "A few days after the completion of his eighth year," he wrote, "in the absence of his father, a flock of wild turkeys approached the new log cabin, and Abraham, with a new rifle gun, standing inside, shot through a crack
The cabin had no window other than the large cracks which he mentions, nor any door to shut out the sleet and snow which drifted in through the doorway. The bare earth which served for a floor turned to mud during the winter thaws. The little boy's bed was a heap of loose leaves in a loft, which he reached by climbing up on pegs driven into the wall. Sometimes the family had nothing to eat but roast potatoes, and a neighbor remembers that peeled, sliced raw potatoes were passed around for dessert. Sometimes on cold days the children would carry a hot roast potato with them on their way to school to keep their hands warm. "They were pretty pinching times," wrote Abraham Lincoln in after years.
In 1818, when Abraham was nine years old, a mysterious disease nearly wiped out the small community at Little Pigeon Creek. It was called the "milk-sick" and attacked cattle and humans alike. Nancy Hanks Lincoln was stricken down with it. There was no doctor within thirty-five miles, and under the swift fever she died before one could be called. Her last message to her boy, as she lay dying, was to be good to his father and sister, and to love his kin and worship God. She was buried in a rude coffin on a knoll near by, with no prayer or service over the grave. Months later the little boy learned to write, and his first letter, addressed to a wandering preacher, brought the latter to preach a funeral sermon over the lonely, snow-covered grave.
Before the next winter was over, the father went back to Kentucky and so successfully courted a widow, Sarah Bush Johnston, that they were married the morning after he called upon her. This second marriage was the beginning of a better life for the two little Lincoln children. The new mother had so much property that a four-horse team was needed to bring it all to Little Pigeon Creek; and for the first time in his life Abraham Lincoln slept on a feather bed, with a pillow and blankets and even a quilt. From her, too, he received his first woolen shirt, which took the place of the deerskin one that he had always worn before. The shiftless father was forced to make a door, lay a floor, and cut out a window, which was covered with greased paper instead of glass.
Sarah Bush Lincoln was an honest, energetic Christian woman, who learned to love Abraham quite as dearly as her own children. He owed much to her love and care. It was she who persuaded the father to let him go to school. The boy would walk nine miles a day and do his studying at night in the light of a fire made from shavings, while his figuring was done with a bit of charcoal on the back of a wooden shovel, which he would whittle clean when it could hold no more. His pen was the quill of a turkey buzzard, and his ink was made from the juice of a brier-root. Altogether he had in his whole life less than a year of schooling, but he learned to read and spell and write and cipher to the rule of three.
One day a wagon broke down in the road near the house, and a woman with her two daughters stayed with the Lincolns over night. She had some books and told the children some stories. For the first time Abraham discovered what opportunity and happiness books can bring to those who learn to read them. From that day on he borrowed and read every book that he could get for miles around. One of the earliest writings which we have of his is a copy-book form which he set for a neighbor:
Good boys, who to their books apply.
Will all be great men by and by.
There were six books which he read and read and reread. These books were the Bible, Æsop's Fables, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe, A History of the United States, and Weems's Life of Washington. The last-named book was damaged by the rain which drove in one night through the cracks in the cabin, and Lincoln had to pull fodder in the owner's cornfield for three whole days in order to pay for it. The book belonged to one "Blue-Nose" Crawford, and Lincoln afterward wrote a poem about him, making fun of his stinginess,—but he paid for the book. He kept on borrowing and reading until, as he later said, he had finished every book to be obtained within a radius of fifty miles.
There are not many records left of his boyhood. Those that have come down to us are all kindly ones. Once he saved the life of the village drunkard, whom he found freezing by the roadside, carrying him in his arms to the tavern and working over him until he was out of danger. Another time, it was remembered, he rescued a mud turtle from some children who were putting red-hot coals on its shell. The words of his stepmother can best sum up the story of his boyhood: "I can say that Abe never gave me a cross word or look, and never refused to do anything I asked him. I had a son, John, who was raised with Abe. Both were good boys, but I must say that Abe was the best boy I ever saw."