From a One-Room Log Cabin to the White House: The Humble Origins of Abraham Lincoln
“I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life.” So wrote 23-year-old Abraham Lincoln as he announced himself a candidate for the Illinois state legislature in the March 15, 1832 issue of Springfield’s Sangamo Journal. That line of prose from what was Lincoln’s first published piece of writing was no mere understatement. The future 16th President of the United States truly came from the most humble origins. On another occasion, Lincoln said that the story of his youth on the frontier in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois could be “condensed into a single sentence: The short and simple annals of the poor.” Those impoverished years were filled with hard work, hardship, and heartbreak. Despite the tough hand he was dealt in life, Lincoln was determined to prove to his fellow men that he was "worthy of their esteem," and he never stopped striving to improve himself. Coupled with his big heart and his other golden qualities, Lincoln exhibited an iron resolution that would one day propel him to greatness.
Abraham Lincoln opened his eyes to the world on Sunday, February 12, 1809. He was born in a one-room log cabin with a dirt floor on his father’s Sinking Spring Farm in Hardin County, Kentucky. His parents, Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, had married three years earlier. Abraham was their second child. Their first, a daughter named Sarah, had been welcomed into the world two years and two days earlier on February 10, 1807.
A replica of the one-room log cabin where Abraham Lincoln war born. What the National Park Service calls the "symbolic" birth cabin can be visited at the Lincoln Birthplace Memorial in Hodgenville, Kentucky. (Photo Credit: National Park Service)
Thomas Lincoln experienced the pangs of poverty himself during childhood. He was only six years old when he watched a raiding party of Shawnee Indians murder his father. As if life on the frontier was not already hard enough, Thomas was thus left without a father and his mother had few means at her disposal to navigate their harsh world. As Abraham later put it, these circumstances made Thomas Lincoln “a wandering laboring boy,” who grew up “literally without education.” Eventually settling into work as a carpenter and a hired hand, Thomas would find himself, “Trapped in an exitless poverty,” according to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, clearing “only sufficient land for survival and mov[ing] from one dirt farm to another in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois.”
While the details of Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s ancestry remain uncertain, one of Abraham’s childhood friends, Nathaniel Grigsby, went on to describe her as “a woman Know[n] for the Extraordinary Strength of her mind among the family and all who knew her: she was superior to her husband in Every way.” Later in life, Abraham would recall fond memories of snuggling by his mother’s side as he listened to her read the Bible.
Abraham Lincoln was two when his family moved to Knob Creek Farm, which sat only ten miles away from his birthplace. Similar to their last home, the Lincolns also resided in a one-room log cabin with a dirt floor at Knob Creek. There was much to be done across the 30 acres of land that the Lincolns lived on and young Abraham was quickly put to work. He fetched wood, gathered water from the creek, and performed an abundance of other duties. Blessed with size and strength from an early age, Abraham’s workload only became heavier and remained constant over the course of his youth. As Goodwin writes, “from the age of eight to the age of twenty-one,” Lincoln was expected “to accompany his father into the fields, wielding an axe, felling trees, digging up stumps, splitting rails, plowing, and planting.” This life of subservience to his father would continue until Abraham was finally old enough to set out on his own and begin life as his own man.
When Abraham Lincoln was campaigning for the presidency in 1860, he became associated with the nickname, the "Rail Splitter," a title that paid tribute to his humble origins. Some Lincoln supporters went on to carry fence rails in a show of support for their candidate. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)
Over the course of his childhood, Abraham and his sister received short periods of schooling. Part of this happened while they were living at Knob Creek. Due to his family’s crushing poverty, however, Lincoln never had the luxury of receiving a prolonged and consistent formal education. As Goodwin explains, “In rural areas, the only schools were subscription schools, so it not only cost a family money to give a child an education, but the classroom took the child away from manual labor.” Among his limited time in the classroom, Lincoln did learn to read and write at the age of seven, but his schooling was brought to an end when he was around the age of nine or ten. Lincoln later concluded that in total, his formal education amounted to less than one year.
Despite his limited educational opportunities, Lincoln endeavored to become a lifelong learner. Although his access to books were limited on the rough frontier, he treasured the works he could find and made them his constant companions. “He read and thoroughly read his books whilst we played,” recalled his friend Nathaniel Grigsby. Even in the midst of a backbreaking day of labor, he would use any chance he got, such as resting his horse at the end of a long row of planting, to read a few pages of a book. Whether the Bible, novels like Aesop’s Fables and Pilgrim’s Progress, or accounts of the Founding Fathers like Parson Weems’ Life of George Washington, the words Lincoln read as a boy would stay with him and influence him for the rest of his life.
According to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, young Abraham Lincoln "read and reread the Bible and Aesop's Fables so many times that years later he could recite whole passages and entire stories from memory." (Photo Credit: National Park Service)
In 1812, the Lincolns third child, Thomas Lincoln Jr., died as a baby on the Knob Creek farm. For Abraham, this loss and the many others that followed were constant reminders that life was fragile. In fact, death almost came for Lincoln himself on more than once occasion. He nearly drowned after falling into the swollen creek by his home. Luckily, a friend named Austin Gollaher was there and extended a long tree limb from the bank to help pull Lincoln to safety. On another occasion, Lincoln was briefly thought to be dead after he was kicked in the head by a horse.
Lincoln might have been brought up in a harsh world, but he navigated it with a heart of gold. When he found a dog with a broken leg, he made a splint for the animal, took care of the canine, and even named the pooch, “Honey.” This compassion continually revealed itself, such as when Lincoln was walking with a group of friends as they passed a pig caught in a stretch of boggy ground. Initially, the group continued on their way. After going half a mile, though, Lincoln stopped. Haunted by the thought of the suffering creature, he turned around and went all the way back to rescue the pig. It is no surprise that he once wrote a short essay in school against “cruelty to animals.” Lincoln also could not ignore the plight of his fellow man. He was walking home with a friend one winter night when they stumbled upon a drunk man lying in a mud hole. Lincoln proceeded to pick up the “nearly frozen” man and carried him to safety. After arriving at his cousin’s house, Lincoln ensured the man’s salvation even further by building him a fire.
In 1816, the Lincolns left Kentucky and made their new home in the backwoods of southern Indiana, settling near Little Pigeon Creek. Tragedy struck two years later when Nancy Hanks Lincoln died at the age of 34. The cause of her death was most likely “milk sickness,” which is described as “a disease transmitted by way of cows that had eaten poisonous plants.” Abraham would never forget her or the impact she made on his life. “All that I am or hope ever to be I get from my mother,” said Lincoln. “God bless her.”
Following the loss of their mother, nine-year-old Abraham and 12-year-old Sarah Lincoln were left on their own for nearly seven months while their father returned to Kentucky in search of a new wife. “[L]ittle Abe and his sister Sarah began a dreary life-indeed, one more cheerless and less inviting seldom falls to the lot of any child,” wrote William Herndon, Lincoln’s future law partner and biographer. Chillingly, the Lincoln children found themselves alone in a place where “the panther’s scream filled the night with fear and bears preyed on the swine.”
Space got tighter in the Lincoln home when Thomas returned with his new wife, the widow Sarah Bush Johnston, and her three children. When Sarah took in her new surroundings, she found a floorless cabin without a door and an inside living space that lacked any beds and held few furnishings. Even more forlorn was the sight of her two new stepchildren, who she found, “wild-ragged & dirty.” Sarah set to work improving life for everyone at her new home. Abraham and his sister were given new clothing. With the addition of the furniture Sarah had brought with her, Thomas Lincoln’s children were also now able to sleep on a feather bed instead of a mat of cornhusks. Through Sarah’s touch and care, enough improvements were made to the cabin that it was considered a “snug and comfortable” place.
Abraham and Sarah Lincoln with their loving stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln. (Photo Credit: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum)
In his new stepmother, Abraham Lincoln found love and support. In fact, Sarah gifted him several books that she had brought with her to the new home. Like many of his classmates and friends, Sarah also discovered that Lincoln was blessed with a remarkable brain and memory. She also saw how hard her stepson worked to make his mind as sharp as it was. “When he came upon a passage that Struck him, he would write it down on boards if he had no paper & keep it there until he did get paper,” said Sarah, “and then he would rewrite it” and keep the prized piece of writing in a scrapbook, where it could remain safely preserved. In later years, Sarah would describe Lincoln as “the best boy I ever saw.”
While Sarah fostered Abraham’s pursuit of reading and knowledge, Thomas Lincoln would always be at odds with his son’s dedication to education. Often described as stern and domineering, Thomas himself was illiterate and considered his son’s constant reading a sign of laziness. He was known to unleash his anger whenever he would find Abraham out in the field reading a book or distracting the other workers by sharing stories from what he was reading with them. As Goodwin writes, “On occasion, [Thomas] would go so far as to destroy Abraham’s books and whip him for neglecting his labors.” The disconnect between Thomas and his son resulted in a very strained relationship. Their bond was ultimately so fractured that Abraham did not go and say goodbye to his father when he was lying on his death bed in 1851.“If we could meet now,” reflected Lincoln, “it is doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant.” Abraham also opted out of attending his father’s funeral.
The only known photograph of Thomas Lincoln. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
While Thomas Lincoln did not set much of an example that his son desired to follow, he did inspire at least one talent in Abraham that would help him make his mark on the world. Across many nights during his boyhood, Lincoln watched with rapt attention as his father captivated his fellow frontiersman with lively stories. Abraham would then break those stories down, simplify them, and share them with his own young friends. By taking what he had learned from his father, Lincoln went on to distinguish himself as a master storyteller in his own right. He used simple language, incorporated humor, conveyed moral lessons, and more. Lincoln’s skill for storytelling became a central part of his identity and proved to be a distinguishing factor that endeared him to people over the course of his life.
With his industrious spirit, the teenage Abraham Lincoln built a scow in his free time and operated a ferryboat service in which he took passengers out to steamers on the Ohio River. In one memorable encounter from this time, Lincoln was surprised when two businessmen each gave him a silver half-dollar for his work. “I could scarcely credit,” recalled Lincoln, “that I, a poor boy, had earned a dollar in less than a day.” Lincoln’s ferryboat enterprise also provided him with an early personal introduction to the legal system. Because of his service, Lincoln was charged with encroaching on the territory of the two brothers who owned the ferry rights across the Ohio River between Kentucky and Indiana. The charges, however, were ultimately dismissed by a judge, who ruled that because Lincoln only carried his passengers to their steamboats and did not take them all the way across the river, the law had not been violated. Lincoln would become very familiar with judges, courts, and the legal system over the course of his life, going on to become one of the most successful and respected lawyers in Illinois.
Young Abraham Lincoln manning his ferryboat. (Photo Credit: Internet Archive Book Images)
At the age of 19, Abraham Lincoln stood six foot four, “ready to out-run, out-jump and out-wrestle or out-lift anybody.” Often found carrying a book in one hand and an axe in the other, he was strong in mind and body. He also needed to draw upon his mental strength to withstand yet another devastating tragedy. In 1828, Abraham’s sister Sarah died while giving birth. Lincoln had been very close to his sister. They had each proven to be reliable companions to one another across the many trials of their childhood. Lincoln felt the loss very deeply, breaking down and sobbing when he received the news that his sister was gone.
A few months after losing his sister, Lincoln worked with his friend Allen Gentry to guide a flatboat loaded with farm produce down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. One night during the trip, the duo faced a robbery attack by seven slaves armed with knives. Using clubs, Lincoln and Gentry were able to drive off the attackers. Between this journey and another flatboat trip he took to the Crescent City in 1831, Lincoln would never forget the many shackled, suffering slaves that he laid eyes on. The condition of these poor souls weighed very heavily on the mind of the young man who would one day ensure that the chains of slavery in the United States were broken once and for all.
The grand finale of Lincoln’s youth saw him and his family on the move again. Following a 200-mile journey, they made their new home in central Illinois, settling on unclear land along the Sangamon River. After performing his final duties for his father, Goodwin writes, “[Lincoln] departed his family home with all his meager possessions bundled on his shoulder.” With a promised job as a clerk and bookkeeper in a general store waiting for him, the 22-year-old walked more than 100 miles to the small town of New Salem, Illinois, where he would earn the nickname “Honest Abe” and take his first steps into the world of politics.
Among his activities during his busy, formative years in New Salem, Lincoln was elected captain of his militia company during the Black Hawk War against the Sac and Fox Indians. During this time, it is said that Lincoln intervened when an old Potawotami man wandered into camp and was about to be killed as a potential spy. (Photo Credit: CivilWarTalk.com)
Thirty-three years after arriving in New Salem to begin life as his own man, Abraham Lincoln had risen to the highest office in all the land as the 16th president of the United States. On a sizzling summer day in August 1864, the man who carried the weight of a bloody, broken nation on his shoulders left his office on the second floor of the White House and marched down to the lawn outside the Executive Mansion. Awaiting him there were the soldiers of the 166th Ohio Infantry Regiment. After doing their part in the Civil War to help their commander in chief save the nation forged in 1776 and win it “a new birth of freedom” by abolishing slavery, these Ohioans were destined for home. Among his remarks to these faithful fighters, President Lincoln said, “I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has.” In other words, If Abraham Lincoln could begin life in a one-room log cabin and eventually go on call the White House his home, every American, regardless of the circumstances they were born into, also had the power to rise to greatness. It was a powerful lesson that remains true to this day. Every American is mighty enough to rise high. As Lincoln put it, “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing.”
Abraham Lincoln by James M. McPherson
Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Thomas Keneally
Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin
National Park Service: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace
National Park Service: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace - Lincoln's Boyhood Home at Knob Creek
National Park Service: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace - Lincoln Time Line and Other Resource Materials
National Park Service: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace - Sarah Lincoln
National Park Service: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace- Thomas Lincoln Junior
National Park Service: Abraham Lincoln's Boyhood in Indiana 1816 to 1830
National Park Service: Abraham Lincoln "Learning by Littles"
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The White House Historical Association: Abraham Lincoln's White House.
University of Virginia Miller Center: Abraham Lincoln - Life Before the Presidency