Abraham Lincoln Birthplace
Administrative History
NPS Logo


The dilemma in which the National Park Service became involved at the acquisition of the Lincoln Birthplace Cabin in August 1933 is partially to be traced to the unwillingness of the Lincoln Farm Association to determine with any degree of accuracy the origin of the cabin they enshrined as the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln in 1909. As stated above (Chapters II and III) most Americans, not the least being the illustrious founders of the Abraham Lincoln National Park, were inclined to accept the colorful mixture of legend, reminiscence and circumstantial evidence put forward as sufficient proof of the authenticity of a structure worthy of such national veneration.

The bureaucratic insensitivity of the War Department, to which the administration of the Lincoln Farm was a rather unwelcome concern, only perpetuated a condition of doubtful historical accuracy. The blame is perhaps to be placed at the feet of the Committees of the Library of the House and Senate, whose responsibility it should have been to produce convincing evidence to back up the authenticity of the acquisition they recommended to Congress as "the homestead of Abraham Lincoln and the log cabin in which he was born."

The records show, however, that the United States Government did not even obtain a title search to the property it received from the Lincoln Farm Association. The deed of conveyance of the farm from Robert Collier to the Lincoln Farm Association, and material collected by Attorneys Williams and Handley of Hodgenville for the Lincoln Farm Association in 1906 seems to have been all the documentary evidence required by the Government to accept the area and administer it as a national park.

There is little doubt that the jurisdiction over the area was misplaced with the Department of War. The National Park Service, established in 1916, or some other bureau of the Department of the Interior should have been given the responsibility for this most unmilitary of national parks. These agencies would have been more directly concerned with the presentation of the birthplace farm and cabin. Nevertheless, the National Park Service was a new agency, and custom dictated that the authority of the War Department be placed over the Nation's historical parks, originally established to commemorate the battlefields of the. Civil War.

That the War Department cared little for the affairs of the birthplace is evidenced by the almost complete neglect suffered by the park during the period from 1916 to 1926. In 1926, motions were finally made to raise an appropriation for the construction of a decent road to the Memorial. The park had been existing exclusively on the interest from the trust fund, which provided only $100 per year for the purchase and maintenance of tools and supplies and no funds at all for improvements made by agencies other than the Superintendent and his part-time assistant.

Additional funds for improvements in sanitation, drainage, and construction were forthcoming only with Congressional testimony to the effect that "the place is going to rack and ruin." [1]

Interpretation of the site of Lincoln's birth and the cabin in which he was supposedly born received even less attention. So far as can be ascertained, the War Department relied exclusively on information about the site which had been passed on to it by the Lincoln Farm Association. Much of the association's material, moreover, consisted of half-truths and pious exaggerations acquired from Bigham and Dennett and elderly residents of the Hodgenville area.

"At some date in the early 1860's," a 1928 War Department report began, "shortly after Lincoln's election, the cabin in which he was born was bought by George Rodman." The report stated that the cabin was moved about the country and set up at onetime in Central Park in New York (actually Central Park, Louisville) among other unsubstantiated legends. [2]

In May 1933, Dr. Louis Warren's Lincoln Lore, upon which the Park Service depended for much of its information on the birthplace in the early 1930s, related that:

[The cabin's] removal from place to place began shortly after Lincoln's election to the Presidency. An admirer of Lincoln's living about one mile north of the birthplace acquired the famous cabin in the 1860's and moved it to his own farm . . . [After the Nashville Centennial] Central Park, New York was the next site chosen. [3]

A pamphlet entitled The Lincoln Memorial and distributed by the Larue County Herald News and the Nancy Lincoln Inn provided an early source of information to visitors to the park. Visitors were informed that "the cabin in which Lincoln was born is now located on exactly the same site as it was at the time of his birth." The old log house at the entrance to the park, the pamphlet stated, "was built back in the days when the Lincoln cabin was first erected." [4] Subsequent study revealed this house to have been constructed at three separate dates, the earliest of which was not before 1840.

Interestingly, this version does not mention the George Rodman story, although it was later picked up by the National Park Service and appears in the current literature distributed in the Visitor Center. [5]

In the January 1936 issue of the American Historical Review, it was noted that "the spurious nature of much that passes for Lincoln scholarship is strikingly seen in the stately birthplace memorial near Hodgenville, Kentucky."

Junior Historian A. P. Stauffer, on an inspection tour of the park in February of the same year, observed "amazing errors" in the inscriptions on the marble plaques erected in the Memorial Building by the Lincoln Farm Association. The dates given for Thomas Lincoln's move from Kentucky to Indiana, his residence in Indiana, and the date of Nancy Lincoln's birth were unreliable There were also serious errors as to Nancy Lincoln's parents, childhood, and the date of her marriage to Thomas Lincoln. "Such blunders in so prominent a national shrine," Stauffer concluded, "offer the best example of the need for competent historical service in the marking of historic sites." [6]

The earliest free literature distributed by the National Park Service at the Birthplace was probably the one-sheet, photo-offset bulletin which appeared in 1938. It had photographs of the Memorial Building and of the cabin. The brief text presented the cabin as "traditionally believed to be the one in which Lincoln was born." Supplementary information was provided at the park in the form of lectures by Superintendent Cissell. R. Gerald McMurtry and Robert L. Kincaid made a tour of the "Lincoln Country" which they described in the October 1938 issue of the Lincoln Herald, published in Harrogate, Tennessee. They were convinced that:

The original birthplace cabin, somewhat reduced in size, is within the walls of a granite building. This cabin was probably erected by David Vance to whom Richard Mather in 1805 sold the 300 acre tract of which part is now known as the Lincoln Farm. . . . The cabin was removed from its original location before the Civil War and not restored until 1890. [7]

It was at this time that Superintendent Cissell described the"lecture information" which he administered to visitors as "historical stories of the Lincoln's truths [sic] that have been handed down to me by my past generation regarding the Lincolns and their years spent in this area." [8]

In 1940 and 1941 serious attention was given to the preparation of a printed historical booklet describing and interpreting the area. After looking into the land records previous to Abraham Lincoln's birth, it was discovered that Thomas Lincoln was the eighth owner of the property on which his son was born. The photocopies of the records in the Hardin County Courthouse in Elizabethtown made by Melvin Weig of Morristown in 1939 helped the Park Service to determine, for the first time by documentary evidence, that the tract had been owned by Thomas Lincoln at the time of Abraham Lincoln's birth.

In the booklet the cabin was presented as the "traditional birthplace cabin," and it was stated that it was "impossible to say with certainty that it is the original cabin." The booklet made no attempt to trace the history of the cabin prior to 1861, but related at length certain material of doubtful authenticity . about its subsequent history:

In March, 1861, Dr. George Rodman bought a log cabin then standing on the birthplace farm and moved it about a mile to the north toward Hodgenville and had it erected on his own farm. Dr. George Rodman, a practicing physician, and an admirer of Lincoln, presumably was the first person to take an active interest in preserving the alleged birthplace cabin, and his action in this connection occurred after a visit he paid to President Lincoln in Washington early in 1861.

The Rodman farm eventually passed into the hands of the Davenport family.

The booklet, reprinted as late as 1955, also relates that after the Nashville Centennial, the cabin was "taken to New York City where it was re-erected and placed on exhibit in Central Park."

It has been stated above (Chapter II) that research carried out by Historical Aide Benjamin Davis at the Birthplace in 1948 failed to reveal any documentary evidence for the Rodman tradition. It was probably Jesse, not George Rodman, who made the trip to Washington to petition for relief of the draft in the later years of the Civil War. The affidavit of Lafayette Wilson states that the logs were moved in March 1860, not 1861. Finally, it cannot be proven that any Rodman owned, rented or occupied the farm that "later passed into the hands of the Davenport family," from whom Bigham bought "the original birthplace cabin" in 1895.

Although the National Park Service was not claiming absolute authenticity for the cabin at this time, neither had it made concerted efforts to present accurate details of its origin.

Substantially little had been added to the store of knowledge handed down to the Government by Bigham and Dennett and the Lincoln Farm Association. Alternate versions of the story were given some airing; the testimony of Judge John Creal, disregarded by the Lincoln Farm Association, was considered. But even the seemingly contradictory evidence rested on no firmer documentary ground than the affidavits and local hearsay. The discussion of the cabin concluded: "in light of the inconclusive evidence available at the present time, it is impossible to make any definite and accurate statement concerning the origin of the alleged Lincoln birthplace cabin now preserved in the Lincoln Memorial Building." [9]

In June 1948, the National Park Service received the manuscript of an article to be published in the September issue of the Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, a magazine published by the Abraham Lincoln Association of Springfield, Illinois. The article by Roy Hays, an insurance investigator from Grosse Point, Michigan, was entitled, "Is the Lincoln Birthplace Cabin Authentic?" It presented a great deal of evidence that suggested that many of the facts supporting the authenticity of the cabin might have stemmed from the entrepreneurial energies of Bigham and Dennett. Concern was immediately raised in the Park Service about the possible effect of the article upon public reception of the birthplace. Although, as Dr. Warren wrote to Historian Roy Appleman in 1948, the Service had "more or less cleared [itself] by . . . the statement in [its] publication," he feared that "it is going to be a difficult argument to combat." [10]

In a letter to Roy Basler, editor of the Lincoln Quarterly, Chief Historian Ronald Lee noted: "The National Park Service has long been aware of and has made known to the public without equivocation, the chain of ownership of the cabin since 1861 and its various wanderings about the country. We have done this very much as described by Mr. Hays, though, of course, with less colorful detail."

It was the "colorful detail" provided by Hays' article, however, which led Lee, as well as others in the Park Service to re-examine the sources of information for the accepted history of the cabin since 1861. The key to the cabin problem, Lee suggested, might lie in the Rodman papers, if indeed any such papers existed. In addition, an intensive study of War Department files should be undertaken in order to determine how much, if any, research had been done by that agency on the subject of the cabin. [11]

A letter from Hays to Basler, in response to Lee's remarks, substantiates Hays' claim that the Government accepted the cabin without investigation:

My files contain letters from the War Department, the National Archives, and other sources which substantiate my statement that the Federal Government accepted the farm and cabin in 1916 without investigation.

The question of a possible investigation by the War Department brings up the history of the Congressional Act of Acceptance. . . . Why should the War Department, when confronted with this statute, make an investigation? The Act of Acceptance makes it mandatory that the Government preserve and protect the cabin in the Memorial Building. [12]

A report by Benjamin Davis suggesting that the cabin might originally have been located on the site of the present parking area, led Historian Appleman to remark that the matter was "an excellent example of what happens when an area is developed prior to or without adequate research." He cautioned Superintendent Cissell that after the publication of the Hays article "it is certain that there will be an increasing amount of criticism and embarrassing questions raised about the cabin, and the Service should foresee this problem and be in a position to meet the situation." The Hays article, he added, was not without serious faults and could be refuted. [13]

The Acting Chief Historian advised the Director of Region I on July 7, 1948, that it would be "best not to argue the question further with Hays but trust Basler to revise the manuscript with appropriate quotations from our 16-page booklet." [14]

Thus armed, the National Park Service prepared to meet the storm which broke in mid-September at the publication of the Hays article. "Log Cabin Enshrined as Lincoln Birthplace a Hoax, Historian Says," announced the St. Louis Post Dispatch of September 18. The Washington Post of September 19 told of "Lincoln Cabin Hoax." Other papers around the country published the allegations of Hays that the National Park Service "has never deceived the people about its [the cabin's] authenticity, but neither has it told the whole truth." [15]

In October 1948 Davis wrote that "the effect of [Hays'] report on our interpretive problem cannot be overestimated." [16] An example of the difficulties of which Davis was speaking was the attitude of a Washington Post reader in October, 1948:

I have no quarrel with the National Park Service. It is not responsible for the Lincoln cabin hoax. The late Robert Collier, publisher of Collier's Weekly is the person who perpetrated it. He bought the log cabin from a fakir, secured the funds for building the mausoleum, and then erected it. That happened many years ago. The National Park Service inherited the hoax in 1933. [17]

Meanwhile, Davis had been combing the Hardin and Larue County land records for proof of. the ownership of the Davenport land by either George Rodman or his brother Jesse. In a letter to Dr. Warren, he stated that the Larue County land records positively did not show that George or Jesse Rodman ever had claim to that property. It was Warren who had been the source of the information in the 16-page booklet which stated that "the Rodman farm eventually passed into the hands of the Davenport family."

In reply, Dr. Warren wrote that he had never checked the deeds to the Davenport farm more than to find the deed which the Davenports received from Sam Spriggs in 1864. "He [Warren] did state that he had a memo on his notes that 'Rodman sold property to Spriggs.' My search seems to show that Wilson sold the property to Spriggs." [18]

On the strength of his research in the Hardin and Larue County land records, Davis submitted in February 1949, "Report of Research on the Traditional Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Cabin," in which he suggested that there was no way by which George Rodman could be associated with the ownership of the Davenport property. The Director of Region I felt that:

this report seems to call for a reconsideration by the Service on the attitude it takes toward the traditional birthplace cabin in all of its contacts with the public--including printed literature; signs and markers; and interpretive services given the visiting public by personnel in the Park. [19]

The question of the authenticity of the cabin was submitted by the Director of the National Park Service to a number of leading Lincoln scholars and their opinions placed before the Subcommittee on Historic Problems of the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments.

In a letter to a member of the Advisory Board in November 1949, the Director suggested that "if the above-mentioned reports [of Hays and Davis] are sound, it may well be that even the cautious language of our 16-page booklet . . . should be radically revised." [20]

Paul M. Angle of the Chicago Historical Society concluded in May 1949, after examining the Hays article and the Davis report, that:

  1. The cabin probably was destroyed long before 1865.

  2. In 1865 there was no cabin on the site.

  3. It is extremely doubtful that the cabin purchased from John A. Davenport was the reconstructed birthplace.

  4. Even if [the cabin] was [authentic] it was subjected to such careless handling between that date and 1911 that no one can have confidence in its integrity as it stands today.

There are many objects out of the past, he added, which simply cannot be documented. But the " connivings of a couple of scamps like Dennett and Bigham" made much of the information arising from their activities highly suspicious. [21]

Professor J. G. Randall, the noted Lincoln scholar, replied that from his perusal of the studies that had been made by Davis and Hays:

I am convinced . . . that the cabin is not authentic and should not be presented as original. I have nothing to add to his [Hays'] article and no reason to doubt his conclusions. The birthplace site has been absolutely identified, but neither the structure nor the logs that constitute it are original. [22]

The other Lincoln authority from whom an opinion was solicited was Dr. Louis Warren, who submitted in April 1950 a full-scale report summarizing the position of Lincoln Lore. He was loath to censure the origins of the cabin tradition:

For nearly thirty years the cabin has made a positive inspirational contribution to an ever-increasing number of pilgrims who pay homage to this American shrine. Before accepting Mr. Hays' conclusion, that a fraud has been perpetuated [sic] on the public, there should be unimpeachable evidence that the early observers identifying the cabin as the one in which Lincoln was born were engaged in a swindle or positively mistaken in the identity of the cabin. [23]

He asserted that in any case he believed that some of the logs in the cabin were authentic.

In response, Historical Aide Davis informed the Regional Historian that he saw no means by which the assumptions of Warren that some of the logs were from the Lincoln cabin could be proven or supported. "Conversely, I see no way by which such a contention can be disproved, because, in my opinion, there is no supporting evidence for or against such a contention" [24]

The opinions of the three Lincoln experts and the Hays and Davis reports were submitted to the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings, and Monuments which met on November 2 and 3, 1950. The results of the proceedings were summarized for the Director of the National Park Service by Charles Porter, Chief of the Branch of Preservation and Use:

There simply isn't any trustworthy recorded evidence for the authenticity of the cabin. In view of the mountebank character of Dennett and Bigham, the traditions springing from them are certainly not to be trusted. It is an open question whether the affidavits (our only evidence) reflect the influence of these charlatans.

The Advisory Board recommends that the National Park Service make clear that it considers the authenticity of the cabin debatable. [25]

Since that time the main thrust of Park Service policy has been to stress the authenticity of the birthplace site, which can positively be proved by documentary means. As Director Newton B. Drury wrote to Tom Wallace of the Louisville Times in December, 1950: "Our main concern administratively and from an interpretive standpoint was not to air the doubt about the Lincoln cabin in such a way as to vitiate the message Americans can g,et from the birthplace farm, which is unquestionably authentic." [26]

The 16-page booklet is no longer distributed at the park. It was last reprinted--in unrevised form--in 1955. The current two-fold free pamphlet (reprinted 1965) observes that "from 1861 to the present, the history of the cabin which is now displayed within the Memorial Building is fairly clear." The Rodman story, including the doubtful purchase date of March 1861, is related in essentially the same form as in the free folder published by the Park Service in 1941. The ten-minute audio-visual program shown in the Visitor Center emphasizes the "Lincoln Country" of Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois while minimizing, in this writer's opinion, the history and interpretation of the birthplace site and cabin.

It is to be hoped that the valuable research conducted in the late 1940s by Historian Benjamin Davis and others and the conclusions drawn therefrom by the Advisory Board on National Parks in 1950 will be considered in future interpretive planning at the park.

Most visitors come to the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site to see the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln; when they are presented with a log cabin of appropriate humbleness and antiquity, enshrined in a granite memorial, no protestations of its "traditional" nature really suffice to inform the visitors of its doubtful authenticity. The delicacies of the situation are acknowledged. Nevertheless, an agency of the United States Government should not engage in patriotic fulfillment. The Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site needs the attentions of a qualified historian, and this historian needs the willingness and cooperation of the National Park Service in rectifying the situation.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 11-Feb-2003