Abraham Lincoln Birthplace
Historic Resource Study
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Chapter One:

Abraham Lincoln
Figure 3: President Lincoln as photographed by Mathew Brady, 1861

Abraham Lincoln occupies a towering position in American history and folklore. As president during the Civil War from March 1861 to April 1865, Lincoln guided the nation through its severest test Vilified by opponents during his presidency, Lincoln quickly became one of the most venerated American leaders following his assassination on April 14, 1865. [1] Real as Lincoln's achievements were winning the war, preserving the Union, and emancipating a race he occupies an even more exalted position in American mythology. As historian and Lincoln biographer Stephen B. Oates observed, the Lincoln of myth perfectly embodies quintessential American virtues: "honesty, unpretentiousness, tolerance, hard work, a capacity to forgive, a compassion for the underdog, a clear-sighted vision of right and wrong, a dedication to God and country, and an abiding concern for all." [2] For over a century, the desire to understand the origin of these virtues has inevitably led Lincoln biographers, as well as the general public, to Kentucky's Sinking Spring Farm; thus the place of Lincoln's birth and first two years of life remains historically significant, both as a site of pilgrimage and as an important and enduring place in the American imagination.


Lincoln's obscure birth in a frontier log cabin and his backwoods upbringing became central elements in the Lincoln story. Lincoln cultivated an image of himself as a self-made man, because it had strong voter appeal in mid-nineteenth-century Illinois. After 1865, the story of Lincoln's journey from a log cabin to the White House was told and retold until it came to exemplify the best possibilities in American life. Biographers and others often exaggerated the poverty and obscurity of Lincoln's birth to highlight the magnitude of his later accomplishments. In fact, Lincoln's father Thomas was a respected and relatively affluent citizen of the Kentucky backcountry. Although he moved frequently, Thomas Lincoln had good credit, maintained from one to four horses throughout his adult life, served on juries, and was chosen to supervise the maintenance of a road near one of his farms. [3]

Figure 4: Map showing the Lincoln family's Kentucky homesteads from 1780-1816 (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

The son of a Virginia farmer, Thomas Lincoln moved to Jefferson County, Kentucky (then part of Virginia), with his parents about 1782. The Lincolns were among thousands of Virginia and North Carolina residents attracted to the virgin land lying beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Inspired by the exploits of Daniel Boone, and encouraged by organizations like Richard Henderson's Transylvania Company, the settlers of "Kaintuckee" expected a better life at the end of the Wilderness Road. Between 1782 and 1792, the state of Virginia issued 10,000 land grants in its Kentucky counties to Revolutionary War veterans. Virginia relinquished its claims to Kentucky in 1789, and Congress admitted it as the fifteenth state in 1792. [4]

From the age of sixteen, Thomas Lincoln lived in a number of Kentucky and Tennessee communities; eventually he settled in Hardin County, Kentucky. In 1803, he paid £118 in cash for a 238-acre farm on Mill Creek, eight miles north of Elizabethtown, the county seat. [5] There is no evidence that he ever worked this farm. Thomas Lincoln married Nancy Hanks in 1806, and built a log house on one of two lots that he owned in Elizabethtown. He worked briefly as a carpenter in Elizabethtown before purchasing the Sinking Spring Farm in December 1808 for $200 cash and the assumption of a small debt due a previous owner. [6] The property was two to three miles south of Hodgen's Mill, established in the 1790s, which became the nucleus of the town of Hodgenville. Thomas Lincoln's farm had generally poor soil and only a few scattered trees, but its freshwater spring and upland location were good inducements for settlement. Lincoln farmed a small portion of his acreage and continued to do carpentry jobs, likely for the many farmers nearby that Tom and Nancy knew before they moved from Elizabethtown. [7] Thomas Lincoln's ownership of this land became more of a legal struggle than an agricultural one, and a prior claim asserted in a lawsuit filed by a Richard Mather deprived the Lincolns of their Sinking Spring Farm after they had lived there only two years.

In 1811, the Lincolns moved to a 230-acre farm on Knob Creek owned by a George Lindsey. Having spent money for legal counsel in the ongoing Mather lawsuit, Thomas could only afford to lease 30 acres of the Lindsey tract; he selected the bottomland portion of it on which to establish yet another farm. Knob Creek is a tributary of the Rolling Fork River, and the creek valley on this new farm contained some of the best farmland in Hardin County. A well-traveled road from Bardstown, Kentucky, to Nashville, Tennessee, ran through the property. Abraham Lincoln's earliest recollections were of the Knob Creek place. [8]

Far from being an impoverished vagabond, Thomas Lincoln during these Kentucky years was a respected community member and a successful farmer and carpenter. Had they been able to secure clear title, the Lincolns might well have stayed at the Sinking Spring Farm. [9] After being forced off that farm, Lincoln continued legal action until the case was settled against him in 1815. His only recourse in 1811 was to find a place nearby where he could raise his family and continue to argue his case in the Hardin Circuit Court. Thomas Lincoln had title problems with all three of his Kentucky farms. When he sold the Mill Creek farm in 1814, he lost money because it turned out to be smaller than he had believed. Thomas abandoned the Sinking Spring Farm against his wishes, and in 1815, an out-of-state claimant sought to eject him from the Knob Creek farm. Ironically, Thomas Lincoln became a competent land surveyor during this time; unfortunately he never was able to survey Kentucky land that he owned. Frustrated over the tangled status of Kentucky land titles, Thomas moved his family to Indiana in 1817, when Abraham was seven. [10] The federal government under the provisions of the Ordinance of 1785 had surveyed Indiana, making Indiana titles more secure. It is just possible that his father's problems with land titles had some influence on Abraham Lincoln's later decisions to learn surveying and become an attorney.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2003