Abraham Lincoln’s childhood was filled with challenges and sadness, but he was always resourceful. As a young boy, Lincoln coped with the death of his mother when he was only nine. The family moved frequently as his father sought better places to farm, and even then, there were many periods when the family did not have enough to eat.
Though his mother and stepmother both valued education, the Lincolns lived in such remote areas that Lincoln rarely had the opportunity to attend school. Experts estimate that his entire education was equal to only about 12 months of class time.
The fact that Lincoln grew up to become a great orator and a principled leader with the strength to lead our nation through its darkest time is nothing short of remarkable.
Table of contents
- Family Beginning
- Knob Creek
- To Indiana
- Returned for Family
- Joined by Former Neighbors
- Tom Lincoln Resolves He Needs a Wife
- The Children On Their Own
- Tom Lincoln Returns With New Wife
- First Tasks
- Lincoln’s Growth Spurt
- Book Tragedy
- School Again Briefly
- Learning Was Vital to Lincoln
- Learning About the World
- Literacy Benefited Neighbors
- Continued to Live with Family
- Helped Parents Move
- Black Hawk War
- Back in New Salem
- Learning the Law
- Relationship with Father
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Abraham Lincoln’s father, Tom, was one of several children born to Revolutionary War Captain Abraham Lincoln (1744-1786) and Bathsheba Herring (1742-1836). Both were originally from Virginia. After the War, Tom’s father Abraham acquired a Kentucky farm and planned to establish his home there. He was killed by Native Americans while he was working the field. Ownership of that farm passed solely to the oldest son as was the custom. The other boys in the family—Abe’s father included– had to make their own way.
Tom Lincoln (1778-1851) moved further into Kentucky and became known as a good carpenter. He bought a farm on Mill Creek in Hardin County. When he was 28, he met and married Nancy Hanks, who was 23. Tom and Nancy planned to live in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, which was about 10 miles south of the Mill Creek area.
While in their first home, Tom picked up carpentry jobs, and they welcome their first child—a daughter they named Sarah.
From there, they moved west to the Brownfield Farm near the Indiana state line. Tom had a job with the farm’s owner that tided him through until late fall of 1808. At that time, Tom Lincoln purchased 300 acres of what was called Sinking Spring Farm (Kentucky). Lincoln paid fully for the land, but he was not aware that a previous owner had a lien on the property. This created land ownership problems for the Lincolns later on.
Shortly after settling at Sinking Spring Farm near Hodgenville, their son Abraham was born (1809-1865). They named him after Tom’s father.
But Sinking Spring Farm was ill-fated. The soil was poor, and the underbrush very thick. For that reason, Tom Lincoln moved his family to an area along Knob Creek where he felt the farming would be better. They stayed there for several years. An advantage of that home was that it was located along the main road running from Louisville to Nashville. Many visitors stopped by and shared news. Daniel Boone was among their visitors as was John James Audubon. Audubon spent many hours in the fields watching for different birds and always enjoyed staying with the Lincolns.
Nancy Lincoln could not read well but she knew parts of the Bible and read those to the children. She valued education and wanted her children to attend school. Their first opportunity was when the family lived at Knob Creek. Sarah was going to attend, and Nancy wanted Abe to go along, too. He was only 6 or 7.
The school was four miles away, so it was a commitment for the family to have the children gone for that many hours each day. (Both children were capable of helping with farm work, so they were missed at home.)
After only a few months, however, the school closed.
When Daniel Boone stopped in for a visit at Knob Creek, he shared with the family favorable stories about living in Indiana. One of Tom’s brothers recently settled in Perry County, Indiana, so Tom and Nancy decided to move again. The area was known as the Little Pigeon Creek Community.
Tom’s brother had taken advantage of the Land Claim program, so he talked Tom through what he needed to do. Tom staked the land that he wanted to purchase, and when he went in to the land office in Vincennes, Indiana, he was charged $2 per acre. After his previous problem with liens from former owners, Lincoln hoped there would be no more disputes over land ownership with this new system.
Returned for Family
When Tom returned to gather the family and their belongings, he learned that their third baby died just a few days after he was born. Only Sarah and Abraham, along with their mother, would make the move.
By the time the Lincoln family arrived in Perry County, it was autumn—too late to put in crops. The best they could do was build a three-sided tent braced by a pole. This would give them some protection until spring when they could build another cabin. Animal furs covered the opening during the winter, but it was still quite cold.
Abe’s primary job during this time (he would have been about 7 or 8) was to help his father as needed. Among his chores was carrying drinking water from the stream. Though the buckets were heavy, Abe did as was expected.
They did not have much clothing or footwear, which was difficult for the winter months. Sarah and Nancy did their best to fashion homemade moccasins, but Abe and Sarah primarily went barefoot.
In Pigeon Creek, Nancy and Tom Lincoln joined church there. It was a conservative Baptist Church, and church-going was important to the family. By his mid-teens, Abe decided that church-going was not for him. This did not please his father.
Joined by Former Neighbors
The Sparrow family whom the Lincolns knew from Hodgenville came to visit. They, too, were considering a move to Indiana. The Sparrows brought with them Dennis Hanks. Dennis was now in his mid-teens but the Sparrows took him in when his parents died. The Sparrows liked the area and were making plans for a move. Unexpectedly, both husband and wife came down with milk sickness and died. (Today scientists know that if cows ingest a plant known as white snakeroot, it goes through to their milk.)
Shortly after their deaths, Nancy Hanks, too, became ill. Nancy also succumbed to milk sickness.
Nancy’s death left Sarah (also called Sally) and Abe in the sole care of their father, who was overwhelmed. Dennis Hanks, who was about 17, moved into the lean-to tent after the Sparrows died. He was old enough to be helpful, but Tom Lincoln needed to be out daily to hunt so the family would have food. This meant many daily activities were left undone. The children were adrift much of the time.
Historians report that Tom Lincoln was a tough man who was known to knock his son down in anger at times; whether he would have been viewed as abusive or whether he was a “man of his day” is debated by experts.
Tom Lincoln Resolves He Needs a Wife
Through the community grapevine, Tom Lincoln heard that Sarah Bush Johnston, a woman he knew from living in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, was newly widowed. He resolved to travel back to find her and make an appeal for the two of them to marry.
The Children On Their Own
In the meantime, Lincoln left the children to fend for themselves. Tom Lincoln told a neighbor that he would be gone. But the properties were relatively far apart. The neighbor only checked on the family now and then.
Abe was 9 and Sarah was 11. Dennis Hanks, as an older teenager was old enough that he might have done some hunting, but it seems that the wildlife was far from robust. Sarah, Abe, and Dennis often had only berries and nuts to eat. These had been stockpiled during the summer by Nancy Lincoln and the children.
Sarah did her best to take care of the house, but she was young and there was still so much she didn’t know. She was also terribly lonely for her mother. Dennis and Abe tried to cheer her by bringing home a baby raccoon, and later, a turtle, but little lifted her spirits.
Tom Lincoln Returns With New Wife
Almost six months after Tom Lincoln left for Elizabethtown, he reappeared with a wagon pulled by four horses. Sarah Bush Johnston (now Lincoln) had accepted Tom Lincoln’s proposal. In addition to covering her debts, he welcomed to his family her three children, John, Sarah, and Matilda. They would all live together at Pigeon Creek.
The wagon was loaded with furniture and things that Sarah knew they would need: a feather mattress, a bureau, chairs, and miscellaneous household items. Sarah had heard of Abe’s interest in reading, and she brough along a few books. This delighted Abe. The books are thought to have been Aesop’s Fables and Pilgrim’s Progress. (The family had a Bible from Nancy that Abe must have read many times.)
Reports were that the moment she arrived and got down from the wagon, nine-year-old Abe rushed forward and buried his face in her skirt.
Sarah was a warm and loving woman who embraced the expanded family and found ways to make them all a part of a single unit.
One of her first tasks, however, was obvious. The children needed to be taken to the nearest stream for a good washing. A hair-combing was also long over due. Sarah got right to work.
Sarah also explained to Tom that for her to stay, the family needed a cabin with a real floor. And it should be completed soon. Tom, Dennis, and Abe quickly went to work on a more permanent place to live.
All in all, the children’s lives were greatly improved by Sarah’s arrival.
Lincoln’s Growth Spurt
Abraham Lincoln is often described as a gangly man with long arms. As he entered his teen years, he began to grow very tall. By age 17, he was 6 feet 4 inches. He was also said to be very strong. Many said he could lift as many as three men.
Lincoln enjoyed competitions among other boys. He became known as the best “rassler” in the area and was also a fast runner and could jump quite high.
Throughout his teen years, his father relied on him for a great deal of the work that needed to be done. Abe learned to wield an axe, and Tom sometimes sent him to help neighbors with woodchopping or pig butchering. The law of the day stipulated that a son’s pay went directly to his father until he was 21.
Abe also continued to educate himself. He borrowed books when he could. One of the neighbors, Josiah Crawford, had several books and he loaned to Lincoln.
Though the family had little money for paper, pencils or books, Sarah did what she could to get a few implements so that Abe could write.
Abe, Dennis, and Sarah’s son John slept in the attic of the cabin. Pegs on the wall gave them a ladder of sorts to climb up. One day the roof leaked and ruined the book Abe recently borrowed from the neighbor, Josiah Crawford. The book was Parson Weems’s Life of Washington.
Lincoln went directly to the neighbor and explained what happened. Crawford asked for 75 cents in labor (about three days of Lincoln’ time). When Lincoln completed the work, Crawford told him he was welcome to keep the book. Lincoln was thrilled as it dried out well enough that Lincoln was still able to read it.
School Again Briefly
In Indiana, Lincoln had two final opportunities to attend classes (in 1822 and later, in 1824). A man named Andrew Crawford set up what was called a “blab” school (recitation was the main avenue of learning). Students often didn’t have slates to write on, so the teacher insisted they recite their lessons orally.
Though Dennis was too old for school, Sarah sent the other five children to school for as long as possible. Again, the formal schooling did not last long.
Learning Was Vital to Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln had so little schooling that he knew there were big gaps in his knowledge. He always carried a book with him. At lunchtime or any idle time, Lincoln could be found stretched across the grass, reading his book.
If the job he was hired for was near home and his reading breaks were witnessed by his father, Tom Lincoln would ask for extra work at home as punishment. He felt Abe should be working more and reading less.
Learning About the World
One of the jobs Lincoln held was on a farm that bordered Anderson Creek. Because the ferry was nearby, Lincoln met a lot of the travelers. This eventually led to working for boat owners. He started out with men building boats. He was also sometimes hired to row passengers out to waiting steamboats that couldn’t come close enough to dock.
In the meantime, Lincoln took odd jobs. He worked for a ferryboat operator and at 19, he made his first of many flatboat voyages down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The job generally involved taking goods to New Orleans.
All of Abe’s pay all continued to go to his father. He would be free to make his own way when he turned 21.
Literacy Benefited Neighbors
Despite his father’s disapproval of Abe’s book knowledge, Abe soon became a go-to person when neighbors needed someone to read a letter or draw up a letter of agreement.
His willingness to help others made him well-liked among the townspeople. He was also a great storyteller. His father finally asked him to refrain from telling stories when a group was supposed to be working. If Lincoln launched into a yarn, everyone stopped to listen.
Around town, Lincoln wore a coonskin cap and buckskin pants as most young men did. Because Lincoln was so tall, his pants were generally more like calf-length cropped pants.
Lincoln could be a prankster, and even his beloved stepmother, Sarah, was sometimes a victim. She tired of dirt brought into the household but realized that it was hard to avoid—she had to accept that she would need to sweep daily. But Lincoln was so tall that his head bumped the rafters leaving oil marks or dirt on the whitewashed rafters and ceiling. She asked that he please be more careful—ducking his head a bit if he had to.
That gave Abe an idea. When Sarah was out, he invited a couple of young boys to the house and asked that they walk through a mud puddle. He then lifted each fellow up so that he could walk on the ceiling, leaving muddy footprints on the one part of the house Sarah had hoped she could keep clean.
Sarah had a good sense of humor and enjoyed the joke. But she then made sure Abe stayed and cleaned the ceiling to perfection.
Continued to Live with Family
In 1821, Dennis Hanks married Sarah Lincoln’s oldest daughter Elizabeth. They moved just a half mile away, and Dennis became busy with his own farm and family.
Abe’s sister Sarah married a neighbor, Aaron Grigsby. (A year later Sarah died in childbirth.) Matilda also married and moved away. The cabin was losing family members, but by law, a son was not permitted to leave home until 21.
Lincoln continued to guide flatboats up and down the river. The store owner, James Gentry, had a son near Abe’s age. Gentry often hired the two young men to take a flatboat filled with supplies down to New Orleans to sell them. Abe was seeing what the world could be.
Helped Parents Move
As his 21st birthday neared, Abe saw that Tom Lincoln was preparing to move to a new community. Tom heard people talking about Macon County, along the banks of the Sangamon River. Abe dutifully stayed with them to help with the move.
After Abe left them in Illinois, he made money where he could. He was hired to make more flatboat runs down the Mississippi to deliver goods to New Orleans. He did carpentry, worked as a blacksmith, and taught himself to be a surveyor.
Black Hawk War
In 1832 when Lincoln was 23, trouble with Native Americans led to what was known as the Black Hawk War. The Sauk, Fox and Kickapoo Indians under Chief Black Hawk returned to their ancestral homeland in Illinois, and the white settlers took issue with their return.
The government called for a militia. Among the volunteers were Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Zachary Taylor, and Winfield Scott.
Abraham Lincoln went into the militia and was quickly elected captain. The fighting began in April of 1832 and ended relatively quickly. Lincoln’s unit never saw any action.
When he returned to New Salem after the fighting was over, he ran for the legislature but lost. He was very much admired by townspeople, so in 1834, he campaigned all over the county and was elected.
During these years, he was also very regretful about his lack of education. He undertook study of the books of Euclid to learn more about mathematics and geometry.
Back in New Salem
In 1833, he and a friend invested in a general store in New Salem. General store owners were often postmaster for the community, and Lincoln served in that role for a time.
Unfortunately, the store partnership was short-lived. His friend had a drinking problem. The business debts grew and went unpaid. Soon there was nothing to do but close the store.
Legally, Lincoln was required to pay back only his half of the debts but he insisted on paying all the debts the store incurred under the partnership. This added to his reputation as “Honest Abe.”
Learning the Law
In 1834, Lincoln was elected to his first term in the Illinois House of Representatives. He knew that understanding the law would be invaluable, so he borrowed law books from a local lawyer and studied on his own. By 1836, he mastered the material, and he qualified for a license to practice law in Illinois.
He began giving speeches now and then, and he saw the power he had to command an audience.
In 1837, he moved to Springfield. The fellow from whom he borrowed law books—John Todd Stuart—invited Lincoln to join his practice.
Abe’s math knowledge was very limited. When he arrived in Congress, he set out to find someone who would teach him geometry.
Later he was to patent his own device to help steamboats overcome sand shoals.
Relationship with Father
In 1851, Thomas Lincoln was dying. He sent a request that his only son come to say good-bye, but Abe refused to make the 80-mile trip. He wrote” If we could meet now, it is doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant.”
While Abe clearly loved the women who had raised him, there is no doubt that there was little love for his father. Reporters frequently sought information about his family background, but Lincoln rarely talked about it, not mentioning his father at all. When Tom Lincoln died in 1851, Abe did not attend the funeral.
Later, after he became a member of Congress, his commute from Illinois to Washington, D.C. gave him a great deal of time to observe some of the problems of steamboat travel. During time he had free from work and from legislative duties in 1847, he came up with a device that he patented. He is the only president to ever possess a patent.
After his nomination for the presidency in 1860, The New York Tribune wrote this:
“Thus hard work and plenty of it, the rugged experiences of aspiring poverty, the wild sports and rude games of newly and thinly peopled forest region—the education born of the log-cabin, the rifle , the axe, and the plow, combined with the reflections of an original and vigorous mind, eager in the pursuit of knowledge by every available means, and developing a character of equal resource and firmness-made him the man he has since proved himself.”
Abraham Lincoln served as president from 1861-1865.
Abraham Lincoln is also our only president who ever has held a patent on an invention. To read about his invention, click Abraham Lincoln’s Patent.