Lincoln Boyhood
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Lincoln Occupation Period

Thomas Lincoln made his first journey to Indiana to inspect lands available for purchase in the autumn of 1816. He settled upon a quarter-section of land in what was then Hurricane Township, Perry County. It comprised the southwest quarter of Section 32, Township 4 S, Range 5 W, and was located along the east-west trace separating Congressional townships 4 and 5. After the organization of Spencer County in 1818, the Lincoln farm was part of Section 32 in Carter Township, and was bounded on the south by Sections 5 and 6 of Clay Township. This area was among the territory originally surveyed by Federal surveyors in 1805. At that date, the surveyors described the terrain as level, with some stands of oak and hickory trees, and dense brush. Much of the timber had been burned, but second growth forests were becoming established when Lincoln first visited. The territory in nearby Section 31 of Carter Township was noted as level barrens with poor drainage, while Section 33 was chiefly bottomland prone to flooding from a nearby creek. These descriptions indicate that Thomas Lincoln adhered to the tendency of southern Indiana's early settlers to choose upland areas with close proximity to springs and forests for settlement. He further followed custom by piling brush at the four corners of the tract he intended to claim and building a makeshift shelter. These measures provided temporary shelter for his family when they arrived at the new homestead and satisfied the frontier custom of establishing a legitimate claim to land before a formal entry was made at a Federal land office. [166]


Thomas's claim on the quarter-section in Section 32 marked his fourth attempt to secure ownership of a farm. A native of Virginia, Thomas was born in 1778, the fourth of Bathsheba and Abraham Lincoln's five children. During the early 1780s, the family relocated to Washington County, Kentucky. Around 1797, Thomas worked as a hired hand in Tennessee for one of his uncles, but otherwise he spent his formative years in Kentucky. In 1803, at the age of 25, he purchased his first farm, a 238-acre tract at Mill Creek in Hardin County. This was the first of three farms the Lincolns occupied over the course of the next decade; all were within a fifteen-mile radius of one another. Census and tax records indicate Thomas engaged in farming as well as carpentry for his livelihood. In 1806, he sold 2400 pounds of pork and 494 pounds of beef to a merchant in Elizabethtown. The same year, he was contracted by the merchant to construct a flatboat and served on the crew that shipped the boat to New Orleans. [167]

Thomas lost title to 38 acres of the Mill Creek farm as a result of conflicting land claims; a common occurrence in frontier Kentucky. When he sold the remainder of the farm, he took an additional loss due to a faulty survey. As previously noted, the haphazard system of land surveys in Kentucky often led to competing legal claims for the same tract. Not long thereafter, Thomas married Nancy Hanks, with whom he had been acquainted since they were children. Thomas retained ownership of his farm at Mill Creek, but the couple established their first home in Elizabethtown. Their first child, Sarah, was born here. In 1808, the family moved to a farm on Nolin Creek, about three miles from Hodgenville. The following year, their second child, Abraham, was born.

The Lincolns' rightful claim to the new farm soon was litigated; however, and Thomas ultimately lost title to the property, as well as all rights to his $200 down payment and the improvements he had made to the land. In 1811, the Lincolns moved again, this time to a 230-acre farm on Knob Creek in Larue County. Within four years, litigation again caused the family to lose their claim to the farmstead. During this time, they also had a third child, Thomas, who died as an infant. [168]

Frustrated by their inability to establish a clear title to land holdings in Kentucky, the Lincolns turned to new territory when they established their fourth farm. Their choice to move to the Indiana Territory has engendered much speculation, for as a part of the Northwest Territory, the institution of slavery legally was forbidden here. During the early decades of the nineteenth century, the presence of slavery in Kentucky generated controversy and hostility among different factions. Many small landowners, such as Thomas Lincoln, feared the threat that bonded labor could pose to the ability of freemen to provide for their families, and further found the institution morally repugnant. Such was the case for the members of the Little Mount Separate Baptist Church, of which Thomas and Nancy Lincoln were members. Church records from 1808 and 1811 established the church's antislavery sentiments. Consequently, it may be assumed that the Lincolns preferred Indiana to other territories where settlement would have been possible, because slavery was forbidden here and because Federal land surveys guaranteed establishment of a clear title. [169]


The Lincoln family set out for their new homestead in late 1816. They crossed the Ohio River and entered Indiana at the small river town of Troy. This community had been platted only a year earlier by Francis Posey, but already had become an important shipping point for the newly arrived settlers in the area. As many as twenty lots had been built on by 1818, and James McDaniel operated a tavern there. The Lincolns probably did not linger in Troy, but instead pressed on with the last leg of their journey. As previously noted, the final sixteen miles of the trip ranked among the most difficult for the family. Southern Indiana at that date was covered with hardwood forests, with trees as much as three to four feet in diameter and sixty feet in height. Gum, sycamore, hackberry, cherry, persimmon, and apple were abundant, as well as enormous wild grape vines. Such dense growth was present even in the previously burned over area where the Lincoln farm was located. The landscape also teemed with wildlife. The Little Pigeon Creek was a nesting ground for thousands of passenger pigeons, while deer, antelope, bear, wolves, groundhogs, rabbits, mink, weasels, wild turkeys, opossums, and wildcats remained plentiful in the woods. [170]

By the time the Lincolns reached their new home, a small community was on its way to being established around the Little Pigeon Creek (Figure 18). The Carter, Grigsby, Gentry, Wright, and Gordon families were among those already in residence in the vicinity. John Jones and David Casebier each owned tracts in Section 31, west of the Lincolns, while Thomas Barrett owned property in Section 32, and Thomas Carter and Noah Gordon had farms in sections 33 and 34, respectively. Each of these extended families owned at least a quarter-section of land, and some, such as the Grigsbys, held several tracts totaling hundreds of acres. The Pigeon Baptist Church was organized in 1816 and a frame meeting house constructed within four years in Section 7 of Clay Township, almost due south of the Lincoln farm. Among the earliest congregation members were the families of James Gentry, Thomas Lincoln, David Turnham, Noah Gordon, William Barker.

Figure 18: 1816-1830 Base Map of Little Pigeon Vicinity (Bearss, 1967) (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Troy was the nearest trading center and a gristmill also was located there. George Huffman operated a mill on Anderson River, about ten miles north of Troy and sixteen miles west of the Lincoln farm. In 1818, Noah Gordon built a grist mill less than two miles from the Lincolns that the family used as well. That same year, a schoolhouse was established on the Gordon farm. The schoolhouse clearly was needed; since within a four-mile radius there were 90 children under the age of 7 and another 48 between the ages of 7 and 17. By 1820, at least 40 families had settled within five miles of the Lincolns, with an average of three families per section. Most of these settlers were from Kentucky, and a few, such as the Carters and Gordons, even hailed from Hardin County, where the Lincolns had last resided. Nancy Lincoln's aunt and uncle, Elizabeth and Thomas Sparrow, moved to the area shortly after the Lincolns arrived, and stayed with them for a brief time. [171]

The makeshift shelter Thomas had erected the previous year probably proved sufficient for the family's needs upon their arrival, or they may have stayed with a nearby neighbor. One of the first tasks Thomas completed, however, was erection of a single-room log house that measured around 18 feet by 20 feet. [172] Thomas probably was assisted by several of his neighbors, who would have had time to help with the chore since the harvest season had passed. According to Warren, approximately forty logs would have been used to construct the house. A large stone was placed at each corner to serve as a foundation and the notched logs were placed directly atop these. After the walls were raised, a loft area was built using smaller logs, and the joists and ridge pole set in position. The joists were sheathed with half-inch thick clapboards to make a watertight covering. Door, window, and fireplace openings were cut in the walls and a stick chimney was built on the outside of the cabin. All this construction could be accomplished in about four days. Chinking the openings between the logs and adding a floor made of puncheons followed soon after. [173]

The following spring, the Lincolns planted their first crop, which probably included corn and smaller amounts of wheat, flax, and cotton. Corn was both a food source and a cash crop, while wheat, flax, and cotton could be used to provide needed materials for the pioneer household. A kitchen garden with vegetables such as melons, squash, pumpkins, and potatoes also probably was planted to provide variety to the family diet. After that year's harvest had been completed, Thomas undertook the 60-mile journey to the Federal land office at Vincennes to secure title to this land. William Whitman and Noah Gordon, Thomas's nearest neighbors, accompanied him on the trip. All three made official land entries on 15 October 1817. Thomas's were for two tracts of 80 acres apiece, located in the southwest quarter of Section 32. He made an initial payment of sixteen dollars to secure his right to the land. Two months later, he paid sixty-four dollars, thus meeting the required one-fourth of the total purchase price, which amounted to three hundred twenty dollars, as required under the Land Act of 1804. Thomas Lincoln thereby achieved his goal of obtaining a clear and undisputed title to the land he tilled. [174]

Just under a year later, however, Nancy Lincoln died of milk sickness. This malady was caused by the poisonous snakeroot, which was consumed by foraging cows. The poison contained in the plant's fibrous roots was transferred to milk and rendered ill anyone who drank it. Milk sickness was not a rare occurrence on the frontier. Its name indicates that pioneers were aware that the disease was somehow transmitted by cow's milk, but they did not know by what process the milk became tainted. Entire families and sometimes communities could be ravaged by the illness. Such was the case at the Lincoln farmstead. Nancy's uncle, Thomas Sparrow, was the first to fall ill and die. Within a matter of days, he was followed by his wife, Elizabeth, a neighbor, Mrs. Peter Brooner, and finally Nancy Lincoln, who died on 5 October 1818. Thomas built coffins for all four of the deceased. All were taken to the crest of a hill located approximately fifteen hundred feet south of the cabin site and interred. The graves are believed to have been marked with fieldstones at the head and foot, and Thomas may have carved Nancy's initials in her headstone. Such simple markers were the only ones available to families on Indiana's frontier. [175]

At the time of their mother's death, Sarah Lincoln was eleven years of age, while Abraham was nine. Thomas Lincoln soon married again., choosing for his wife Sarah (Sally) Bush Johnston, a widow, whom he and Nancy had known when they lived in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. They were wed in December 1819, in Hardin County. Sally had three children by her first husband, Elizabeth, John D., and Matilda, all of whom accompanied her and Thomas back to Indiana. They arrived at the farm in early 1820. The household at this date consisted of Thomas (aged 42), Sally (32), Dennis Hanks (21), who had been a ward of the Sparrows, Sarah (13), Elizabeth Johnston (13), Abraham (11), John D. Johnston (10), and Matilda Johnston (9). Dennis and Elizabeth married the following year and set up their own household nearby, while the rest of the family members remained at Thomas's farm. [176]

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Last Updated: 19-Jan-2003