Introduction to Every Leader
Being There: Encountering America's Presidents
16th President of the United States, 1861-April 1865
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Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial

The demonstration farm cabin
by Bill Fink
for National Park Service

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, lived on this land in southern Indiana for 14 years, growing from a boy to a young man.  He used his hands and his back to help carve a farm and home out of the frontier forests.  He used his mind to enter and explore the world of books and knowledge.  He found adventure, but also knew deep personal loss with the death of his mother in 1818 and his sister ten years later.  These experiences helped shape the character of the man who became one of America’s most revered leaders.  The Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial preserves the site of the farm where Abraham Lincoln lived during his adolescence and the traditional gravesite of his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. An impressive memorial building commemorates Lincoln’s Indiana years, and a recreated living history farm helps visitors to experience frontier life.

In the winter of 1816, the Lincolns moved from Kentucky to a tiny settlement along Little Pigeon Creek. They spent the first, hard winter in a temporary shelter. The harvest was already over, so they lived off wild game, corn, and pork bartered from nearby settlers.  The next year, aided by neighbors, Thomas Lincoln built a more suitable log house for the family of four: his wife Nancy, and their children, Sarah, nine, and Abe, seven.  The slow and painstaking task of converting the surrounding forest to farmland soon changed from hopeful to tragic.  In October of 1818, Nancy Hanks Lincoln fell ill with milk sickness and died within a few days. Milk sickness was a common and often fatal illness brought on by consuming milk or meat from an animal that had eaten snakeroot, a poisonous plant that thrived in the harsh environment. They buried her on a gentle knoll between a quarter and a half-mile from the home.

Nancy Hanks Lincoln gravesite
National Park Service

A year later, Thomas Lincoln married the widow Sarah Bush Johnson and brought his new wife and her three children to the home on Little Pigeon Creek.  Sarah Lincoln proved to be a kind and loving stepmother, making the two families into one. She brought with her many books, feeding Abe’s greatest pleasure. In his later years, he remembered her fondly. He grew tall and strong, eventually reaching 6’4”.  He helped his father farm their land and did odd jobs for neighbors.  He gained a reputation for his superb skill with an ax.  He soon showed a driving ambition to better himself and to escape the hardships of frontier life.  Although he received limited formal schooling, perhaps totaling one year in his entire youth, young Abraham devoured as many books as he could find.  With his ready wit, inquiring mind, and gift for oratory, he became a master of crossroads’ debate. His neighbors reported that his two favorite tools were a book and an axe.

Abraham Lincoln described his years in Indiana in the following words, “We reached our new home about the time the State came into the Union. It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods. There I grew up. There were some schools, so called; but no qualification was ever required of a teacher, beyond ‘readin, writin, and cipherin,’ to the Rule of Three."

Lincoln spent his happiest hours operating Taylor's ferry across the river, during which time he conversed with passengers from all walks of life, who came from across the United States. Occasionally, he visited neighboring counties on family business, and between 1828 and 1829 worked on a flatboat that journeyed down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans, where he saw a slave auction. Witnessing this event irrevocably affected Lincoln, shaping his position on the decisive slavery issue.  On the other hand, living in Southern Indiana, a region more akin to slave-holding Kentucky than to the free States of the North gave Lincoln an understanding of and sympathy for the South that helped him meet the challenge of the Civil War with compassion and insight.  During these years, he also became interested in law, probably began its study, and attended court sessions in neighboring county courthouses whenever possible.  In 1830, when the Lincolns left Indiana for Illinois, the 21-year-old Abraham was ready to embark on a new chapter of his life.

Interpreter spinning wool
National Park Service

With the passage of time, the sites in Indiana associated with Lincoln began to disappear. In 1879, Peter E. Studebaker placed a headstone to mark the probable site of the grave of Nancy Hanks Lincoln.  The landowners donated the site to the county. Subsequently, the State of Indiana, aided by the Indiana Lincoln Union and other patriotic groups, acquired the gravesite; purchased additional acreage, including part of Thomas Lincoln's landholdings; and marked the approximate location of the Lincoln cabin.  The State soon opened the Nancy Hanks Lincoln Memorial to the public.

In the 1930s, Indiana also developed the adjacent Lincoln State Park as a recreation and scenic area. Between 1940 and 1944, the State constructed a handsome stone memorial building in the park, with landscaping by noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.  In the 1960s, the State donated 100 acres of the park to the newly created Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial.  This part of the memorial includes the memorial building and a reconstructed pioneer farm.

Today, the visitor center is located at the memorial building.  The farm consists of a log cabin and outbuildings, garden, orchard, cultivated fields, and livestock. The staff of the Lincoln Living Historical Farm dresses in period clothing to demonstrate the daily activities at the farm.  Also located on the farm is the Lincoln Cabin Site Memorial that the State of Indiana and the Indiana Lincoln Union erected on the traditional site of one of the Lincoln cabins. It consists of a bronze casting of cabin sill logs and fireplace with a surrounding stone retaining wall.

Plan your visit

Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, a unit of the National Park System, is located on Indiana Hwy. 162, two miles east of Gentryville, IN.  It has been designated a National Historic Landmark.  Click here for the National Historic Landmark registration file: text and photos.  The park is open daily December-February from 8:00am to 4:30pm. From March-November, the park is open daily from 8:00am to 5:00pm.  The park is closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day. An admission fee is charged.  Start your journey at the Memorial Visitor Center with the 15-minute orientation film and walk through the newly renovated museum.  For more information visit the National Park Service Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial website or call 812-937-4541. 

The memorial is the subject of an online lesson plan, Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial: Forging Greatness during Lincoln's Youth. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places. To learn more, visit the Teaching with Historic Places home page.

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