Abraham Lincoln’s Childhood: Growing Up to Be President

We have all heard the story of Abe Lincoln growing up in a log cabin, but the additional details about his childhood make it all the more amazing that this man grew up to become a great orator and a strong and principled leader of our country who guided our nation through its darkest time.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was born in Kentucky in 1809. He and his sister Sarah (known as Sally) were born to Nancy Hanks and Tom Lincoln. Tom was an uneducated but relatively successful Kentucky farmer but as more people made their way into Kentucky, Lincoln found that the laws did not protect him from people who were out to poach his land. He became angry and frustrated and soon moved his young family to Perry County, Indiana.

The area where they settled was largely unsettled (an average of 3 people per square mile) and the land was terribly overgrown and difficult to farm. Abe Lincoln later described life in this area, known as Little Pigeon Creek, as a fight “with trees and logs and grubs.” While the family worked hard at farming, Tom had to rely on hunting most days in order to feed his family. Tom eventually built a one-room cabin for the family but there was no flooring and little furniture. The family slept on corn husk beds that frequently were inhabited by bugs and visited by rodents.

Their mother, Nancy, was very religious and taught the children about the Bible, and she believed in the importance of education. However, schools were uncommon in these lightly populated areas. When Abe was about seven, a school opened nine miles away, and Nancy insisted to Tom that the children be allowed to attend. (At best, the walk to school would have taken the children 2.5-3 hours each way so it was a major commitment.) The school did not last long, however the importance of education was impressed upon Abe’s mind.

When Abe was nine (1818), Nancy became very ill with “milk sickness.” (This is an illness we don’t hear about anymore but several of their neighbors had already died from it. Today scientists know that if cows ingest a plant known as white snakeroot, it goes through to their milk, and some people become sick and die from it.) Nancy’s death left Sally and Abe in the sole care of their father, who was overwhelmed by the need to hunt daily and still trying to cultivate the land so they could grow food. Historians report that he 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.

Left Alone
The children were heartbroken at losing their mother, and the house was a mess without Nancy to bring order to it. Tom realized he needed help, so he left nine-year-old Abe and eleven-year-old Sally alone in the cabin while he returned to Kentucky to find a new wife. The children had little to eat other than dried berries that had been stored away by Nancy. A neighbor who stopped by reported that the children were terribly skinny, filthy, and the house was in terrible condition.

Abe and Sally were alone for half of the following year. They must have been certain they had been abandoned. However, six months later, Tom pulled up in a horse-drawn wagon with a new wife and her three children. Abe was said to have run to this new mother whom he had never met and immediately bury his face in her skirts.

Abe’s blind faith in her was well-placed. Sarah Bush Johnston was a loving person whose first order of business was getting her new husband to make household improvements including building a wooden floor and providing them with a wooden door and a real window. She was even-handed in her treatment of Abe and Sally and her own three children.

Though she herself could not read, she heard from Tom about Abe’s efforts to read, and she brought with her six books. Among them were Pilgrim’s Progress, Parson Weem’s Life of Washington (which is now recognized for the myths it told about our first president), and Aesop’s Fables. Though the family had little money for paper, pencils or books, Sarah did what she could to get a few things so Abe could read and write.
Another opportunity for the children to attend school occurred after Sarah arrived, and she, too, saw the importance of it. The school was only a mile away but it lasted for just three months.

Teen Years
Lincoln grew tall and strong, and as was customary in that day, a son under legal age was obligated to give any earnings to his father. Abe worked for neighbors and area business people, and Tom was given all monies Abe earned. Finally at the age of 22, Abe packed his few belongings and moved to New Salem, Illinois.

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.

Abraham Lincoln is also our only president who ever has held a patent on an invention. To read about his invention, click here.

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73 thoughts on “Abraham Lincoln’s Childhood: Growing Up to Be President”

  1. i love it’s childhood story but i want to read more a breif story on how he make it to become a president and on how did he serve united states to be come a great country… =)

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  3. Is this a series you are doing on the early years of our sixteenth president. Keep writing. Your objectivity is appreciated. Only son and father know what went on between them.

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  6. Hi Kristina,
    What are you looking for? Do you have a specific question about Abe Lincoln?

  7. kristina martin


    its just about his life from childhood to preasadent of the usa sorry if i got the info wrong i just need help


  8. Kristina, You might want to write about how he really had to teach himself everything. He had very few books and very little schooling but look how much he accomplished!
    Also think about how scary it must have been when his father left and Abe and his sister alone while the father went to find a new wife.

    Good luck with your paper.

  9. Kristina, I hope you do, too! Just remember it’s always OK to ask questions. If my daughters didn’t understand something, sometimes they would go find the teacher after class to get it explained. Sometimes a teacher can explain it better that way. Glad you posted.

  10. Rachel and Kristina, It is SO great you are reading about him….he was good at teaching himself what he needed to know and he had to make some very tough decisions about the country and he did. Thank goodness we are still One Nation!


  11. Running a history site is an enormous pleasure, a big responsibility (to get it right) and a huge amount of work….but I wouldn’t want to do anything else right now. I hope you feel the same way if you’re thinking of starting one.

  12. Kristina, that is great! Thank you for telling me… it seemed like you worked hard on the paper and it really paid off!

  13. Hi Alex, Lincoln did well with the time he had available to him so don’t be sad! Thanks for posting.

  14. Kristina, that was very lovely of him but I’ll bet he was rewarding you for working hard or being a good kid, too. You know the satisfaction of the A+ really starts with the good feeling you have inside when you work hard…and knowing that down the line you will be able to choose your path because you worked hard in school!

  15. Thank you for your kind comments. I love what I do and if I in anyway have helped readers better understand the strength of our country then I am exceedingly happy.
    Thank you for posting.

  16. Hello I am doing a project on Abraham Lincoln and its due before 8-25-14 I need to know about who published the stuff about him like where it was published what year and who published it can you please help. ( I saw your article about Abraham Lincoln)

  17. Dear Kirsta, I’m glad you liked the article but you ask a difficult question. If you are using books, then the information is in the front of the book. If you are citing a website like mine, your teacher will have a way that she wants it sourced. For a date she may want the date you retrieved the article.

    Good luck!

  18. Dear Kelly this article about Abraham Lincoln helped me a lot on my note taking stragey that I had to do wouldn’t know what to do after I saw this website it amazed me.

  19. I have to write a 4 paged report on him,any advice. Im first writing in his childhood but i still need more info, and then on to his presidency

  20. After you write the part on Lincoln’s childhood, then investigate his early days as a lawyer and how he went on to become president. You’ll do well!


  21. Anastasia Blackwell

    Hello! I just wanted to comment on how much your post has helped me. I now see and understand Abraham Lincoln in a whole new light, and it is all thanks to you! Your writing style is also very informative, which is something not many people can achieve. Well done on everything!

  22. Thank you! You absolutely made my day.

    I am so glad you enjoyed reading it… I agree that Lincoln’s actual upbringing has always been glossed over, and it does make a difference as to how we view him.

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  26. hi Kate, thanks for your great job about the informations you provided here about Lincoln. I wrote on him for my master defence.

  27. I am doing a research project on Abe Lincoln. I was just wondering if you could give me some inspiration on what to write about if that’s okay.

  28. Savana,
    You might work with Abraham Lincoln’s childhood and the fact that he had very little opportunity to go to school. I’ll bet there will be a book in your school library that you can use in addition to the information in this article.
    Good luck!

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