The Formative Years 1809-1830
"It is great folly to attempt to make anything out of me or my early life," wrote the candidate to a supporter. "It can all be condensed into a single sentence; and that sentence you will find in Gray's Elegy: 'The short and simple annals of the poor.' That's my life and that's all you or anyone else can make out of it."
Abraham Lincoln, elected 16th President of the United States soon after penning these lines, aptly summed up his humble beginnings. He was born on February 12, 1809, in a log cabin on the Kentucky frontier. His parents-Thomas Lincoln, a carpenter and backwoods farmer, and Nancy Hanks, a shadowy figure of obscure lineage-were hardworking and religious but without schooling. When Abe was 2, his father took his family to another, more fertile farm 10 miles north. This was the Knob Creek place, and the boy long remembered his years here. He swam in the creek with companions, attended A.B.C. schools with his sister Sarah for a few months, and accompanied his father on chores.
In Abe's 7th year, land title troubles again drove his father off his farm. Seeking secure land and-his son said later-free soil, Thomas carried his family into the Indiana wilderness and settled near Little Pigeon Creek. Two years later, in 1818, Abe's mother died, a victim of the terrible "milk sickness," and the family sank into a rough existence from which it did not emerge until Thomas remarried.
His new wife was Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow with three children. Cheerful and energetic, she brought a new tone to the Lincoln cabin and raised the boy and his sister as her own.
Abraham grew up in Indiana. A lanky, good-humored youth, liked by all, he helped his father with the farming, hacked away at the forest with his ax, attended the occasional schools in the community, and read incessantly. Uninterested in labor, he passed long hours in talk. At 16 he worked for a few months on a farm along the Ohio. Three years later he rode a flatboat down the Mississippi to New Orleans and first glimpsed a wider world.
In 1830 the Lincolns moved once more. Lured by reports of rich black soil, they piled all their goods into wagons and set out for Illinois. Soon they reached a spot on the banks of Sangamon River, a few miles from Decatur. Abraham was now 21, free to come and go as he chose, but he stayed with his family for a year, breaking ground splitting rails, and planting corn. After another trip down the Mississippi, he drifted into New Salem, a thriving village.
For a while he clerked in Offutt's store. When it failed, he grasped at a new opportunity. Encouraged by his friends he ran for the State legislature, advocating a variety of public improvements. Though he lost the election, he carried his own neighborhood by 277 votes to 7, a source of great pride for many years after.