Editor’s note: This is one in a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016.
Three states claim Abra-ham Lin-coln as a favorite son, but only Indiana can take credit for his formative years. As he moved through adolescence to adulthood, Lincoln worked, studied and dealt with adversity on the Indiana frontier.
During this period, Lincoln handled an ax “almost constantly,” as he himself recalled. He read voraciously. He practiced carpentry, even helping his father build a coffin for his mother. He took a ferry to New Orleans on business and witnessed a slave auction that troubled his soul. He listened and learned from political debates at the local general store.
“Many of the character traits and moral values that made Abraham one of the world’s most respected leaders were formed and nurtured here,” according to National Park Service historians at the Lincoln Boyhood Home Memorial.
The site is Indiana’s most significant tribute to the 16th president, preserving some of the original acreage where Lincoln lived from age 7 to 21. A working pioneer homestead recreates what life might have been like for the Lincolns with log cabin, outbuildings, split rail fences, livestock, gardens and crops. Memorial Court features five sculpted panels marking significant phases in Lincoln’s life, including his Indiana years.
Those began in late 1816, just as Indiana became a state, when Thomas and Nancy Lincoln moved with their son and daughter from Kentucky to Spencer County, which was still a forested wilderness. The Lincolns built the first of several cabins on a knoll in the midst of a 160-acre claim near Little Pigeon Creek, and Abe and his father set about clearing land to ready it for planting. “It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods,” Lincoln wrote.
The family had been in Indiana two years when Lincoln’s mother contracted a fatal case of milk sickness. The illness is caused by drinking milk or eating meat from a cow that has ingested a toxic plant called white snakeroot.
In 1819, Thomas Lincoln went back to Kentucky to marry a widow, Sarah Bush Johnston, and the two returned to Indiana with her three children in tow. She also brought a small library, including Aesop’s Fables, “Robinson Crusoe,” “Pilgrim’s Progress” and “Sinbad the Sailor.”
Those stories inspired Lincoln, as did Parson Weems’ “The Life of Washington” and Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, which demonstrated the sacrifices the founding fathers had made to create the United States. Lincoln received only a year or two of formal schooling. His stepmother encouraged him in his attempts to better himself, which he did by studying books and practicing oratory.
In 1830, Thomas Lincoln moved his family again, this time to Illinois in pursuit of more productive farmland. Abe struck out on his own, settling first in New Salem and later Springfield, where he enjoyed a successful law practice. In 1834 he launched a political career that would take him from the Illinois legislature to the White House.
A strong work ethic. A love of learning. A clear sense of right and wrong. A gift for gab and the intellect to back it up. Lincoln’s formative years prepared him well for the Civil War that would consume his presidency.
Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at email@example.com.