To the honorable Robert Todd Lincoln
This work is dedicated in token of a life-long friendship and esteem
A generation born since Abraham Lincoln died has already reached manhood and womanhood. Yet there are millions still living who sympathized with him in his noble aspirations, who labored with him in his toilsome life, and whose hearts were saddened by his tragic death. It is the almost unbroken testimony of his contemporaries that by virtue of certain high traits of character, in certain momentous lines of purpose and achievement, he was incomparably the greatest man of his time. The deliberate judgment of those who knew him has hardened into tradition; for although but twenty-five years have passed since he fell by the bullet of the assassin, the tradition is already complete. The voice of hostile faction is silent, or unheeded; even criticism is gentle and timid. If history had said its last word, if no more were to be known of him than is already written, his fame, however lacking in definite outline, however distorted by fable, would survive undiminished to the latest generations. The blessings of an enfranchised race would forever hail him as their liberator; the nation would acknowledge him as the mighty counselor whose patient courage and wisdom saved the life of the republic in its darkest hour; and illuminating his proud eminence as orator, statesman, and ruler, there would forever shine around his memory the halo of that tender humanity and Christian charity in which he walked among his fellow- countrymen as their familiar companion and friend.
It is not, therefore, with any thought of adding materially to his already accomplished renown that we have written the work which we now offer to our fellow-citizens. But each age owes to its successors the truth in regard to its own annals. The young men who have been born since Sumter was fired on have a right to all their elders know of the important events they came too late to share in. The life and fame of Lincoln will not have their legitimate effect of instruction and example unless the circumstances among which he lived and found his opportunities are placed in their true light before the men who never saw him.
To write the life of this great American in such a way as to show his relations to the times in which he moved, the stupendous issues he controlled, the remarkable men by whom he was surrounded, has been the purpose which the authors have diligently pursued for many years. We can say nothing of the result of our labor; only those who have been similarly employed can appreciate the sense of inadequate performance with which we regard what we have accomplished. We claim for our work that we have devoted to it twenty years of almost unremitting assiduity; that we have neglected no means in our power to ascertain the truth; that we have rejected no authentic facts essential to a candid story; that we have had no theory to establish, no personal grudge to gratify, no unavowed objects to subserve. We have aimed to write a sufficiently full and absolutely honest history of a great man and a great time; and although we take it for granted that we have made mistakes, that we have fallen into such errors and inaccuracies as are unavoidable in so large a work, we claim there is not a line in all these volumes dictated by malice or unfairness.
Our desire to have this work placed under the eyes of the greatest possible number of readers induced us to accept the generous offer of “The Century Magazine” to print it first in that periodical. In this way it received, as we expected, the intelligent criticism of a very large number of readers, thoroughly informed in regard to the events narrated, and we have derived the greatest advantage from the suggestions and corrections which have been elicited during the serial publication, which began in November, 1886, and closed early in 1890. We beg, here, to make our sincere acknowledgments to the hundreds of friendly critics who have furnished us with valuable information.
As “The Century” had already given, during several years, a considerable portion of its pages to the elucidation and discussion of the battles and campaigns of the civil war, it was the opinion of its editor, in which we coincided, that it was not advisable to print in the magazine the full narrative sketch of the war which we had prepared. We omitted also a large number of chapters which, although essential to a history of the time, and directly connected with the life of Mr. Lincoln, were still episodical in their nature, and were perhaps not indispensable to a comprehension of the principal events of his administration. These are all included in the present volumes; they comprise additional chapters almost equal in extent and fully equal in interest to those which have already been printed in “The Century.” Interspersed throughout the work in their proper connection and sequence, and containing some of the most important of Mr. Lincoln’s letters, they lend breadth and unity to the historical drama.
We trust it will not be regarded as presumptuous if we say a word in relation to the facilities we have enjoyed and the methods we have used in the preparation of this work. We knew Mr. Lincoln intimately before his election to the Presidency. We came from Illinois to Washington with him, and remained at his side and in his service — separately or together — until the day of his death. We were the daily and nightly witnesses of the incidents, the anxieties, the fears, and the hopes which pervaded the Executive Mansion and the National Capital. The President’s correspondence, both official and private, passed through our hands; he gave us his full confidence. We had personal acquaintance and daily official intercourse with Cabinet Officers, Members of Congress, Governors, and Military and Naval Officers of all grades, whose affairs brought them to the White House. It was during these years of the war that we formed the design of writing this history and began to prepare for it. President Lincoln gave it his sanction and promised his cordial cooperation. After several years’ residence in Europe, we returned to this country and began the execution of our long-cherished plan. Mr. Robert T. Lincoln gave into our keeping all the official and private papers and manuscripts in his possession, to which we have added all the material we could acquire by industry or by purchase. It is with the advantage, therefore, of a wide personal acquaintance with all the leading participants of the war, and of perfect familiarity with the manuscript material, and also with the assistance of the vast bulk of printed records and treatises which have accumulated since 1865, that we have prosecuted this work to its close.
If we gained nothing else by our long association with Mr. Lincoln we hope at least that we acquired from him the habit of judging men and events with candor and impartiality. The material placed in our hands was unexampled in value and fullness; we have felt the obligation of using it with perfect fairness. We have striven to be equally just to friends and to adversaries; where the facts favor our enemies we have recorded them ungrudgingly; where they bear severely upon statesmen and generals whom we have loved and honored we have not scrupled to set them forth, at the risk of being accused of coldness and ingratitude to those with whom we have lived on terms of intimate friendship. The recollection of these friendships will always be to us a source of pride and joy; but in this book we have known no allegiance but to the truth. We have in no case relied upon our own memory of the events narrated, though they may have passed under our own eyes; we have seen too often the danger of such a reliance in the reminiscences of others. We have trusted only our diaries and memoranda of the moment; and in the documents and reports we have cited we have used incessant care to secure authenticity. So far as possible, every story has been traced to its source, and every document read in the official record or the original manuscript.
We are aware of the prejudice which exists against a book written by two persons, but we feel that in our case the disadvantages of collaboration are reduced to the minimum. Our experiences, our observations, our material, have been for twenty years not merely homogeneous — they have been identical. Our plans were made with thorough concert; our studies of the subject were carried on together; we were able to work simultaneously without danger of repetition or conflict. The apportionment of our separate tasks has been dictated purely by convenience; the division of topics between us has been sometimes for long periods, sometimes almost for alternate chapters. Each has written an equal portion of the work; while consultation and joint revision have been continuous, the text of each remains substantially unaltered. It is in the fullest sense, and in every part, a joint work. We each assume responsibility, not only for the whole, but for all the details, and whatever credit or blame the public may award our labors is equally due to both.
We commend the result of so many years of research and diligence to all our countrymen, North and South, in the hope that it may do something to secure a truthful history of the great struggle which displayed on both sides the highest qualities of American manhood, and may contribute in some measure to the growth and maintenance throughout all our borders of that spirit of freedom and nationality for which Abraham Lincoln lived and died.
John G. Nicolay John Hay
In the year 1780, Abraham Lincoln, a member of a respectable and well-to-do family in Rockingham County, Virginia, started westward to establish himself in the newly-explored country of Kentucky. He entered several large tracts of fertile land, and returning to Virginia disposed of his property there, and with his wife and five children went back to Kentucky and settled in Jefferson County. Little is known of this pioneer Lincoln or of his father. Most of the records belonging to that branch of the family were destroyed in the civil war. Their early orphanage, the wild and illiterate life they led on the frontier, severed their connection with their kindred in the East. This, often happened; there are hundreds of families in the West bearing historic names and probably descended from well-known houses in the older States or in England, which, by passing through one or two generations of ancestors who could not read or write, have lost their continuity with the past as effectually as if a deluge had intervened between the last century and this. Even the patronymic has been frequently distorted beyond recognition by slovenly pronunciation during the years when letters were a lost art, and by the phonetic spelling of the first boy in the family who learned the use of the pen. There are Lincolns in Kentucky and Tennessee belonging to the same stock with the President, whose names are spelled “Linkhorn” and “Linkhern.” All that was known of the emigrant, Abraham Lincoln, by his immediate descendants was that his progenitors, who were Quakers, came from Berks County, Pennsylvania, into Virginia, and there throve and prospered . But we now know, with sufficient clearness, through the wide-spread and searching luster which surrounds the name, the history of the migrations of the family since its arrival on this continent, and the circumstances under which the Virginia pioneer started for Kentucky.
The first ancestor of the line of whom we have knowledge was Samuel Lincoln, of Norwich, England, who came to Hingham, Massachusetts, in 1638, and died there. He left a son, Mordecai, whose son, of the same name, — and it is a name which persists in every branch of the family, — removed to Monmouth, New Jersey, and thence to Amity township, now a part of now a part of Berks County, Pennsylvania, where he died in 1735, fifty years old. From a copy of his will, recorded in the office of the Register in Philadelphia, we gather that he was a man of considerable property. In the inventory of his effects, made after his death, he is styled by the appraisers, “Mordecai Lincoln, Gentleman.” His son John received by his father’s will “a certain piece of land lying in the Jerseys, containing three hundred acres,” the other sons and daughters having been liberally provided for from the Pennsylvania property. This John Lincoln left New Jersey some years later, and about 1750 established himself in Rockingham County, Virginia. He had five sons, to whom he gave the names which were traditional in the family: — Abraham, the pioneer first mentioned, — Isaac, Jacob, Thomas, and John. Jacob and John remained in Virginia; the former was a soldier in the War of the Revolution, and took part as lieutenant in a Virginia regiment at the siege of Yorktown. Isaac went to a place on the Holston River in Tennessee; Thomas followed his brother to Kentucky, lived and died there, and his children then emigrated to Tennessee with the one memorable exception the family seem to have been modest, thrifty, unambitious people. Even the great fame and conspicuousness of the President did not tempt them out of their retirement. Robert Lincoln, of Hancock County, Illinois, a cousin — German, became a captain and commissary of volunteers; none of the others, so far as we know, ever made their existence known to their powerful kinsman during the years of his glory.
It was many years after the death of the President that his son learned the probable circumstances under which the pioneer Lincoln removed to the West, and the intimate relations which subsisted between his family and the most celebrated man in early Western annals. There is little doubt that it was on account of his association with the, famous Daniel Boone that Abraham Lincoln went to Kentucky. The families had for a century been closely allied. There were frequent intermarriages among them — both being of Quaker lineage. By the will of Mordecai Lincoln, to which reference has been made, his “loving friend and neighbor” George Boone was made a trustee to assist his widow in the care of the property. Squire Boone, the father of Daniel, was one of the appraisers who made the inventory of Mordecai Lincoln’s estate. The intercourse between the families was kept up after the Boones had removed to North Carolina and John Lincoln had gone to Virginia. Abraham Lincoln, son of John, and grandfather of the President, was married to Miss Mary Shipley in North Carolina. The inducement which led him to leave Virginia, where his standing and his fortune were assured, was, in all probability, his intimate family relations with the great explorer, the hero of the new country of Kentucky, the land of fabulous richness and unlimited adventure. At a time when the Eastern States were ringing with the fame of the mighty hunter who was then in the prime of his manhood, and in the midst of those achievements which will forever render him one of the most picturesque heroes in all our annals, it is not to be wondered at that his own circle of friends should have caught the general enthusiasm and felt the desire to emulate his career.
Boone’s exploration of Kentucky had begun some ten years before Lincoln set out to follow his trail. In 1769 he made his memorable journey to that virgin wilderness of whose beauty he always loved to speak even to his latest breath. During all that year he hunted, finding everywhere abundance of game. “The buffalo,” Boone says, “were more frequent than I have seen cattle in the settlements, browsing on the leaves of the cane, or cropping the herbage on these extensive plains, fearless because ignorant of the violence of man. Sometimes we saw hundreds in a drove, and the numbers about the salt springs were amazing.” In the course of the winter, however, he was captured by the Indians while hunting with a comrade, and when they had contrived to escape they never found again any trace of the rest of their party. But a few days later they saw two men approaching and hailed them with the hunter’s caution, “Hullo, strangers; who are you?” They replied, “White men and friends.” They proved to be Squire Boone and another adventurer from North Carolina. The younger Boone had made that long pilgrimage through the trackless woods, led by an instinct of doglike affection, to find his elder brother and share his sylvan pleasures and dangers. Their two companions were soon waylaid and killed, and the Boones spent their long winter in that mighty solitude undisturbed. In the spring their ammunition, which was to them the only necessary of life, ran low, and one of them must return to the settlements to replenish the stock. It need not be said which assumed this duty; the cadet went uncomplaining on his way, and Daniel spent three months in absolute loneliness, as he himself expressed it, “by myself, without bread, salt, or sugar, without company of my fellow-creatures, or even a horse or dog.” He was not insensible to the dangers of his situation. He never approached his camp without the utmost precaution, and always slept in the cane-brakes if the signs were unfavorable. But he makes in his memoirs this curious reflection, which would seem like affectation in one less perfectly and simply heroic: “How unhappy such a situation for a man tormented with fear, which is vain if no danger comes, and if it does, only augments the pain. It was my happiness to be destitute of this afflicting passion, with which I had the greatest reason to be afflicted.” After his brother’s return, for a year longer they hunted in those lovely wilds, and then returned to the Yadkin to bring their families to the new domain. They made the long journey back, five hundred miles, in peace and safety.
For some time after this Boone took no conspicuous part in the settlement of Kentucky. The expedition with which he left the Yadkin in 1773 met with a terrible disaster near Cumberland Gap, in which his eldest son and five more young men were killed by Indians, and the whole party, discouraged by the blow, retired to the safer region of Clinch River. In the mean time the dauntless speculator Richard Henderson had begun his occupation with all the pomp of viceroyalty. Harrodsburg had been founded, and corn planted, and a flourishing colony established at the Falls of the Ohio. In 1774 Boone was called upon by the Governor of Virginia to escort a party of surveyors through Kentucky, and on his return was given the command of three garrisons; and for several years thereafter the history of the State is the record of his feats of arms. No one ever equaled him in his knowledge of Indian character, and his influence with the savages was a mystery to him and to themselves. Three times he fell into their hands and they did not harm him. Twice they adopted him into their tribes while they were still on the war-path. Once they took him to Detroit, to show the Long-Knife chieftains of King Greorge that they also could exhibit trophies of memorable prowess, but they refused to give him up even to their British allies. In no quality of wise woodcraft was he wanting. He could outrun a dog or a deer; he could thread the woods without food day and night; he could find his way as easily as the panther could. Although a great athlete and a tireless warrior, he hated fighting and only fought for peace. In council and in war he was equally valuable. His advice was never rejected without disaster, nor followed but with advantage; and when the fighting once began there was not a rifle in Kentucky which could rival his. At the nine days’ siege of Boonesboro’ he took deliberate aim and killed a negro renegade who was harassing the garrison from a tree five hundred and twenty-five feet away, and whose head only was visible from the fort. The mildest and the quietest of men, he had killed dozens of enemies with his own hand, and all this without malice and, strangest of all, without incurring the hatred of his adversaries. He had self-respect enough, but not a spark of vanity. After the fatal battle of the Blue Licks, — where the only point of light in the day’s terrible work was the wisdom and valor with which he had partly retrieved a disaster he foresaw but was powerless to prevent, — when it became his duty, as senior surviving officer of the forces, to report the affair to Governor Harrison, his dry and naked narrative gives not a single hint of what he had done himself, nor mentions the gallant son lying dead on the field, nor the wounded brother whose gallantry might justly have claimed some notice. He was thinking solely of the public good, saying, “I have encouraged the people in this country all that I could, but I can no longer justify them or myself to risk our lives here under such extraordinary hazards.” He therefore begged his Excellency to take immediate measures for relief. During the short existence of Henderson’s legislature he was a member of it, and not the least useful one. Among his measures was one for the protection of game.
Everything we know of the emigrant Abraham Lincoln goes to show that it was under the auspices of this most famous of our pioneers that he set out from Rockingham County to make a home for himself and his young family in that wild region which Boone was wresting from its savage holders. He was not without means of his own. He took with him funds enough to enter an amount of land which would have made his family rich if they had retained it. The county records show him to have been the possessor of a domain of some seventeen hundred acres. There is still in existence the original warrant, dated March 4, 1780, for four hundred acres of land, for which the pioneer had paid “into the publick Treasury one hundred and sixty pounds current money,” and a copy of the surveyor’s certificate, giving the metes and bounds of the property on Floyd’s Fork, which remained for many years in the hands of Mordecai Lincoln, the pioneer’s eldest son and heir. The name was misspelled “Linkhorn” by a blunder of the clerk in the land-office, and the error was perpetuated in the subsequent record.
Kentucky had been for many years the country of romance and fable for Virginians. Twenty years before Governor Spotswood had crossed the Alleghanies and returned to establish in a Williamsburg tavern that fantastic order of nobility which he called the Knights of The Golden Horseshoe, and, with a worldly wisdom which was scarcely consistent with these medieval affectations, to press upon the attention of the British Government the building of a line of frontier forts to guard the Ohio River from the French. Many years after him the greatest of all Virginians crossed the mountains again, and became heavily interested in those schemes of emigration which filled the minds of many of the leading men in America until they were driven out by graver cares and more imperative duties. Washington had acquired claims and patents to the amount of thirty or forty thousand acres of land in the West; Benjamin Franklin and the Lees were also large owners of these speculative titles. They formed, it is true, rather an airy and unsubstantial sort of possession, the same ground being often claimed by a dozen different persons or companies under various grants from the crown or from legislatures, or through purchase by adventurers from Indian councils. But about the time of which we are speaking the spirit of emigration had reached the lower strata of colonial society, and a steady stream of pioneers began pouring over the passes of the mountains into the green and fertile valleys of Kentucky and Tennessee. They selected their homes in the most eligible spots to which chance or the report of earlier explorers directed them, with little knowledge or care as to the rightful ownership of the land, and too often cleared their corner of the wilderness for the benefit of others. Even Boone, to whose courage, forest lore, and singular intuitions of savage character the State of Kentucky owed more than to any other man, was deprived in his old age of his hard-earned homestead through his ignorance of legal forms, and removed to Missouri to repeat in that new territory his labors and his misfortunes.
The period at which Lincoln came West was one of note in the history of Kentucky. The labors of Henderson and the Transylvania Company had begun to bear fruit in extensive plantations and a connected system of forts. The land laws of Kentucky had reduced to something like order the chaos of conflicting claims arising from the various grants and the different preemption customs under which settlers occupied their property. The victory of Boone at Boonesboro’ against the Shawnees, and the capture of Kaskaskia and Vincennes by the brilliant audacity of George Rogers Clark, had brought the region prominently to the attention of the Atlantic States, and had turned in that direction the restless and roving spirits which are always found in communities at periods when great emigrations are a need of civilization. Up to this time few persons had crossed the mountains except hunters, trappers, and explorers — men who came merely to kill game, and possibly Indians, or to spy out the fertility of the land for the purpose of speculation. But in 1780 and 1781 a large number of families took up their line of march, and in the latter year a considerable contingent of women joined the little army of pioneers, impelled by an instinct which they themselves probably but half comprehended. The country was to be peopled, and there was no other way of peopling it but by the sacrifice of many lives and fortunes; and the history of every country shows that these are never lacking when they are wanted. The number of those who came at about the same time with the pioneer Lincoln was sufficient to lay the basis of a sort of social order. Early in the year 1780 three hundred “large family boats” arrived at the Falls of the Ohio, where the land had been surveyed by Captain Bullitt seven years before, and in May the Legislature of Virginia passed a law for the incorporation of the town of Louisville, then containing some six hundred inhabitants. At the same session a law was passed confiscating the property of certain British subjects for the endowment of an institution of learning in Kentucky, “it being the interest of this commonwealth,” to quote the language of the philosophic Legislature, “always to encourage and promote every design which may tend to the improvement of the mind and the diffusion of useful knowledge even among its remote citizens, whose situation in a barbarous neighborhood and a savage intercourse might otherwise render them unfriendly to science.” This was the origin of the Transylvania University of Lexington, which rose and flourished for many years on the utmost verge of civilization.
The “barbarous neighborhood” and the “savage intercourse” undoubtedly had their effect upon the manners and morals of the settlers; but we should fall into error if we took it for granted that the pioneers were all of one piece. The ruling motive which led most of them to the wilds was that Anglo-Saxon lust of land which seems inseparable from the race. The prospect of possessing a four-hundred-acre farm by merely occupying it, and the privilege of exchanging a basketful of almost worthless continental currency for an unlimited estate at the nominal value of forty cents per acre, were irresistible to thousands of land-loving Virginians and Carolinians whose ambition of proprietorship was larger than their means. Accompanying this flood of emigrants of good faith was the usual froth and scum of shiftless idlers and adventurers, who were either drifting with a current they were too worthless to withstand, or in pursuit of dishonest gains in fresher and simpler regions. The vices and virtues of the pioneers were such as proceeded from their environment. They were careless of human life because life was worth comparatively little in that hard struggle for existence; but they had a remarkably clear idea of the value of property, and visited theft not only with condign punishment, but also with the severest social proscription. Stealing a horse was punished more swiftly and with more feeling than homicide. A man might be replaced more easily than the other animal. Sloth was the worst of weaknesses. An habitual drunkard was more welcome at “raisings” and “logrollings” than a known faineant. The man who did not do a man’s share where work was to be done was christened “Lazy Lawrence,” and that was the end of him socially. Cowardice was punished by inexorable disgrace. The point of honor was as strictly observed as it ever has been in the idlest and most artificial society. If a man accused another of falsehood, the ordeal by fisticuffs was instantly resorted to. Weapons were rarely employed in these chivalrous encounters, being kept for more serious use with Indians and wild beasts; nevertheless fists, teeth, and the gouging thumb were often employed with fatal effect. Yet among this rude and uncouth people there was a genuine and remarkable respect for law. They seemed to recognize it as an absolute necessity of their existence. In the territory of Kentucky, and afterwards in that of Illinois, it occurred at several periods in the transition from counties to territories and states, that the country was without any organized authority. But the people were a law unto themselves. Their improvised courts and councils administered law and equity; contracts were enforced, debts were collected, and a sort of order was maintained. It may be said, generally, that the character of this people was far above their circumstances. In all the accessories of life, by which we are accustomed to rate communities and races in the scale of civilization, they were little removed from primitive barbarism. They dressed in the skins of wild beasts killed by themselves, and in linen stuffs woven by themselves. They hardly knew the use of iron except in their firearms and knives. Their food consisted almost exclusively of game, fish, and roughly ground corn-meal. Their exchanges were made by barter; many a child grew up without ever seeing a piece of money. Their habitations were hardly superior to those of the savages with whom they waged constant war. Large families lived in log huts, put together without iron, and far more open to the inclemencies of the skies than the pig-styes of the careful farmer of to-day. An early schoolmaster says that the first place where he went to board was the house of one Lucas, consisting of a single room, sixteen feet square, and tenanted by Mr. and Mrs. Lucas, ten children, three dogs, two cats, and himself. There were many who lived in hovels so cold that they had to sleep on their shoes to keep them from freezing too stiff to be put on. The children grew inured to misery like this, and played barefoot in the snow. It is an error to suppose that all this could be undergone with impunity. They suffered terribly from malarial and rheumatic complaints, and the instances of vigorous and painless age were rare among them. The lack of moral and mental sustenance was still more marked. They were inclined to be a religious people, but a sermon was an unusual luxury, only to be enjoyed at long intervals and by great expense of time. There were few books or none, and there was little opportunity for the exchange of opinion. Any variation in the dreary course of events was welcome. A murder was not without its advantages as a stimulus to conversation; a criminal trial was a kind of holiday to a county. It was this poverty of life, this famine of social gratification, from which sprang their fondness for the grosser forms of excitement, and their tendency to rough and brutal practical joking. In a life like theirs a laugh seemed worth having at any expense.
But near as they were to barbarism in all the circumstances of their daily existence, they were far from it politically. They were the children of a race which had been trained in government for centuries in the best school the world has ever seen, and wherever they went they formed the town, the county, the court, and the legislative power with the ease and certainty of nature evolving its results. And this they accomplished in the face of a savage foe surrounding their feeble settlements, always alert and hostile, invisible and dreadful as the visionary powers of the air. Until the treaty of Greenville, in 1795, closed the long and sanguinary history of the old Indian wars, there was no day in which the pioneer could leave his cabin with the certainty of not finding it in ashes when he returned, and his little flock murdered on his threshold, or carried into a captivity worse than death. Whenever nightfall came with the man of the house away from home, the anxiety and care of the women and children were none the less bitter because so common.
The life of the pioneer Abraham Lincoln soon came to a disastrous close. He had settled in Jefferson County, on the land he had bought from the Government, and cleared a small farm in the forest. One morning in the year 1784, he started with his three sons, Mordecai, Josiah, and Thomas, to the edge of the clearing, and began the day’s work. A shot from the brush killed the father; Mordecai, the eldest son, ran instinctively to the house, Josiah to the neighboring fort, for assistance, and Thomas, the youngest, a child of six, was left with the corpse of his father. Mordecai, reaching the cabin, seized the rifle, and saw through the loophole an Indian in his war-paint stooping to raise the child from the ground. He took deliberate aim at a white ornament on the breast of the savage and brought him down. The little boy, thus released, ran to the cabin, and Mordecai, from the loft, renewed his fire upon the savages, who began to show themselves from the thicket, until Josiah returned with assistance from the stockade, and the assailants fled. This tragedy made an indelible impression on the mind of Mordecai. Either a spirit of revenge for his murdered father, or a sportsmanlike pleasure in his successful shot, made him a determined Indian-stalker, and he rarely stopped to inquire whether the red man who came within range of his rifle was friendly or hostile.
The head of the family being gone, the widow Lincoln soon removed to a more thickly settled neighborhood in Washington County. There her children grew up. Mordecai and Josiah became reputable citizens; the two daughters married two men named Crume and Brumfield. Thomas, to whom were reserved the honors of an illustrious paternity, learned the trade of a carpenter. He was an easy-going man, entirely without ambition, but not without self-respect. Though the friendliest and most jovial of gossips, he was not insensible to affronts; and when his slow anger was roused he was a formidable adversary. Several border bullies, at different times, crowded him indiscreetly, and were promptly and thoroughly whipped. He was strong, well-knit, and sinewy; but little over the medium height, though in other respects he seems to have resembled his son in appearance.
On the 12th of June, 1806, while learning his trade in the carpenter shop of Joseph Hanks, in Elizabethtown, he married Nancy Hanks, a niece of his employer, near Beechland, in Washington County. She was one of a large family who had emigrated from Virginia with the Lincolns and with another family called Sparrow. They had endured together the trials of pioneer life; their close relations continued for many years after, and were cemented by frequent intermarriage.
Mrs. Lincoln’s mother was named Lucy Hanks; her sisters were Betty, Polly, and Nancy who married Thomas Sparrow, Jesse Friend, and Levi Hall. The childhood of Nancy was passed with the Sparrows, and she was oftener called by their name than by her own. The whole family connection was composed of people so little given to letters that it is hard to determine the proper names and relationships of the younger members amid the tangle of traditional cousinships. Those who went to Indiana with Thomas Lincoln, and grew up with his children, are the only ones that need demand our attention.
There was no hint of future glory in the wedding or the bringing home of Nancy Lincoln. All accounts represent her as a handsome young woman of twenty-three, of appearance and intellect superior to her lowly fortunes. She could read and write, — a remarkable accomplishment in her circle, — and even taught her husband to form the letters of his name. He had no such valuable wedding gift to bestow upon her; he brought her to a little house in Elizabethtown, where he and she and want dwelt together in fourteen feet square. The next year a daughter was born to them; and the next the young carpenter, not finding his work remunerative enough for his growing needs, removed to a little farm which he had bought on the easy terms then prevalent in Kentucky. It was on the Big South Fork of Nolin Creek, in what was then Hardin and is now La Rue County, three miles from Hodgensville. The ground had nothing attractive about it but its cheapness. It was hardly more grateful than the rocky hill slopes of New England. It required full as earnest and intelligent industry to persuade a living out of those barren hillocks and weedy hollows, covered with stunted and scrubby underbrush, as it would amid the rocks and sands of the northern coast.
Thomas Lincoln settled down in this dismal solitude to a deeper poverty than any of his name had ever known; and there, in the midst of the most unpromising circumstances that ever witnessed the advent of a hero into this world, Abraham Lincoln was born on the 12th day of February, 1809.
Four years later, Thomas Lincoln purchased a fine farm of 238 acres on Knob Creek, near where it flows into the Rolling Fork, and succeeded in getting a portion of it into cultivation. The title, however, remained in him only a little while, and after his property had passed out of his control he looked about for another place to establish himself.
Of all these years of Abraham Lincoln’s early childhood we know almost nothing. He lived a solitary life in the woods, returning from his lonesome little games to his cheerless home. He never talked of these days to his most intimate friends. Once, when asked what he remembered about the war with Great Britain, he replied: “Nothing but this. I had been fishing one day and caught a little fish which I was taking home. I met a soldier in the road, and, having been always told at home that we must be good to the soldiers, I gave him my fish.” This is only a faint glimpse, but what it shows is rather pleasant — the generous child and the patriotic household. But there is no question that these first years of his life had their lasting effect upon the temperament of this great mirthful and melancholy man. He had little schooling. He accompanied his sister Sarah to the only schools that existed in their neighborhood, one kept by Zachariah Riney, another by Caleb Hazel, where he learned his alphabet and a little more. But of all those advantages for the cultivation of a young mind and spirit which every home now offers to its children, the books, toys, ingenious games, and daily devotion of parental love, he knew absolutely nothing.
By the time the boy Abraham had attained his seventh year, the social condition of Kentucky had changed considerably from the early pioneer days. Life had assumed a more settled and orderly course. The old barbarous equality of the earlier time was gone; a difference of classes began to be seen. Those who held slaves assumed a distinct social superiority over those who did not. Thomas Lincoln, concluding that Kentucky was no country for a poor man, determined to seek his fortune in Indiana. He had heard of rich and unoccupied lands in Perry County in that State, and thither he determined to go. He built a rude raft, loaded it with his kit of tools and four hundred gallons of whisky, and trusted his fortunes to the winding water-courses. He met with only one accident on his way: his raft capsized in the Ohio River, but he fished up his kit of tools and most of the ardent spirits, and arrived safely at the place of a settler named Posey, with whom he left his odd invoice of household goods for the wilderness, while he started on foot to look for a home in the dense forest. He selected a spot which pleased him in his first day’s journey. He then walked back to Knob Creek and brought his family on to their new home. No humbler cavalcade ever invaded the Indiana timber. Besides his wife and two children, his earthly possessions were of the slightest, for the backs of two borrowed horses sufficed for the load. Insufficient bedding and clothing, a few pans and kettles, were their sole movable wealth. They relied on Lincoln’s kit of tools for their furniture, and on his rifle for their food. At Posey’s they hired a wagon and literally hewed a path through the wilderness to their new habitation near Little Pigeon Creek, a mile and a half east of Gentryville, in a rich and fertile forest country.
Thomas Lincoln, with the assistance of his wife and children, built a temporary shelter of the sort called in the frontier language “a half-faced camp”; merely a shed of poles, which defended the inmates on three sides from foul weather, but left them open to its inclemency in front. For a whole year his family lived in this wretched fold, while he was clearing a little patch of ground for planting corn, and building a rough cabin for a permanent residence. They moved into the latter before it was half completed; for by this time the Sparrows had followed the Lincolns from Kentucky, and the half-faced camp was given up to them. But the rude cabin seemed so spacious and comfortable after the squalor of “the camp,” that Thomas Lincoln did no further work on it for a long time. He left it for a year or two without doors, or windows, or floor. The battle for existence allowed him no time for such superfluities. He raised enough corn to support life; the dense forest around him abounded in every form of feathered game; a little way from his cabin an open glade was full of deer-licks, and an hour or two of idle waiting was generally rewarded by a shot at a fine deer, which would furnish meat for a week, and material for breeches and shoes. His cabin was like that of other pioneers. A few three-legged stools; a bedstead made of poles stuck between the logs in the angle of the cabin, the outside corner supported by a crotched stick driven into the ground; the table, a huge hewed log standing on four legs; a pot, kettle, and skillet, and a few tin and pewter dishes were all the furniture. The boy Abraham climbed at night to his bed of leaves in the loft, by a ladder of wooden pins driven into the logs.
This life has been vaunted by poets and romancers as a happy and healthful one. Even Dennis Hanks, speaking of his youthful days when his only home was the half-faced camp, says, “I tell you, Billy, I enjoyed myself better then than I ever have since.” But we may distrust the reminiscences of old settlers, who see their youth in the flattering light of distance. The life was neither enjoyable nor wholesome. The rank woods were full of malaria, and singular epidemics from time to time ravaged the settlements. In the autumn of 1818 the little community of Pigeon Creek was almost exterminated by a frightful pestilence called the milk-sickness, or, in the dialect of the country, “the milk-sick.” It is a mysterious disease which has been the theme of endless wrangling among Western physicians, and the difficulty of ascertaining anything about it has been greatly increased by the local sensitiveness which forbids any one to admit that any well-defined case has ever been seen in his neighborhood, “although just over the creek (or in the next county) they have had it bad.” It seems to have been a malignant form of fever — attributed variously to malaria and to the eating of poisonous herbs by the cattle — attacking cattle as well as human beings, attended with violent retching and a burning sensation in the stomach, often terminating fatally on the third day. In many cases those who apparently recovered lingered for years with health seriously impaired. Among the Pioneers of Pigeon Creek, so ill-fed, ill-housed, and uncared for, there was little prospect of recovery from such a grave disorder. The Sparrows, husband and wife, died early in October, and Nancy Hanks Lincoln followed them after an interval of a few days. Thomas Lincoln made the coffins for his dead “out of green lumber cut with a whipsaw,” and they were all buried, with scant ceremony, in a little clearing of the forest. It is related of young Abraham, that he sorrowed most of all that his mother should have been laid away with such maimed rites, and that he contrived several months later to have a wandering preacher named David Elkin brought to the settlement, to deliver a funeral sermon over her grave, already white with the early winter snows.
This was the dreariest winter of his life, for before the next December came his father had brought from Kentucky a new wife, who was to change the lot of all the desolate little family very much for the better. Sarah Bush had been an acquaintance of Thomas Lincoln before his first marriage; she had, it is said, rejected him to marry one Johnston, the jailer at Elizabethtown, who had died, leaving her with three children, a boy and two girls. When Lincoln’s widowhood had lasted a year, he went down to Elizabethtown to begin again the wooing broken off so many years before. He wasted no time in preliminaries, but promptly made his wishes known, and the next morning they were married. It was growing late in the autumn, and the pioneer probably dreaded another lonely winter on Pigeon Creek. Mrs. Johnston was not altogether portionless. She had a store of household goods which filled a four-horse wagon borrowed of Ralph Grume, Thomas Lincoln’s brother-in-law, to transport the bride to Indiana. It took little time for this energetic and honest Christian woman to make her influence felt, even in those discouraging surroundings, and Thomas Lincoln and the children were the better for her coming all the rest of their lives. The lack of doors and floors was at once corrected. Her honest pride inspired her husband to greater thrift and industry. The goods she brought with her compelled some effort at harmony in the other fittings of the house. She dressed the children in warmer clothing and put them to sleep in comfortable beds. With this slight addition to their resources the family were much improved in appearance, behavior, and self-respect.
Thomas Lincoln joined the Baptist church at Little Pigeon in 1823; his oldest child, Sarah, followed his example three years later. They were known as active and consistent members of that communion. Lincoln was himself a good carpenter when he chose to work at his trade; a walnut table made by him is still preserved as part of the furniture of the church to which he belonged.
Such a woman as Sarah Bush could not be careless of so important a matter as the education of her children, and they made the best use of the scanty opportunities the neighborhood afforded. “It was a wild region,” writes Mr. Lincoln, in one of those rare bits of autobiography which he left behind him, “with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods. 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.’ If a straggler supposed to understand Latin happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizard. There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education.” But in the case of this ungainly boy there was no necessity of any external incentive. A thirst for knowledge as a means of rising in the world was innate in him. It had nothing to do with that love of science for its own sake which has been so often seen in lowly savants, who have sacrificed their lives to the pure desire of knowing the works of God. All the little learning he ever acquired he seized as a tool to better his condition. He learned his letters that he might read books and see how men in the great world outside of his woods had borne themselves in the fight for which he longed. He learned to write, first, that he might have an accomplishment his playmates had not; then that he might help his elders by writing their letters, and enjoy the feeling of usefulness which this gave him; and finally that he might copy what struck him in his reading and thus make it his own for future use. He learned to cipher certainly from no love of mathematics, but because it might come in play in some more congenial business than the farm-work which bounded the horizon of his contemporaries. Had it not been for that interior spur which kept his clear spirit at its task, his schools could have done little for him; for, counting his attendance under Riney and Hazel in Kentucky, and under Dorsey, Crawford, and Swaney in Indiana, it amounted to less than a year in all. The schools were much alike. They were held in deserted cabins of round logs, with earthen floors, and small holes for windows, sometimes illuminated by as much light as could penetrate through panes of paper greased with lard. The teachers were usually in keeping with their primitive surroundings. The profession offered no rewards sufficient to attract men of education or capacity. After a few months of desultory instruction young Abraham knew all that these vagrant literati could teach him. His last school-days were passed with one Swaney in 1826, who taught at a distance of four and a half miles from the Lincoln cabin. The nine miles of walking doubtless seemed to Thomas Lincoln a waste of time, and the lad was put at steady work and saw no more of school.
But it is questionable whether he lost anything by being deprived of the ministrations of the backwoods dominies. When his tasks ended, his studies became the chief pleasure of his life. In all the intervals of his work — in which he never took delight, knowing well enough that he was born for something better than that — he read, wrote, and ciphered incessantly. His reading was naturally limited by his opportunities, for books were among the rarest of luxuries in that region and time. But he read everything he could lay his hands upon, and he was certainly fortunate in the few books of which he became the possessor. It would hardly be possible to select a better handful of classics for a youth in his circumstances than the few volumes he turned with a nightly and daily hand — the Bible, “Aesop’s Fables,” “Robinson Crusoe,” “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” a history of the United States, and Weem’s “Life of Washington.” These were the best, and these he read over and over till he knew them almost by heart. But his voracity for anything printed was insatiable. He would sit in the twilight and read a dictionary as long as he could see. He used to go to David Turnham’s, the town constable, and devour the “Revised Statutes of Indiana,” as boys in our day do the “Three Guardsmen.” Of the books he did not own he took voluminous notes, filling his copy-book with choice extracts, and poring over them until they were fixed in his memory. He could not afford to waste paper upon his original compositions. He would sit by the fire at night and cover the wooden shovel with essays and arithmetical exercises, which he would shave off and then begin again. It is touching to think of this great-spirited child, battling year after year against his evil star, wasting his ingenuity upon devices and makeshifts, his high intelligence starving for want of the simple appliances of education that are now offered gratis to the poorest and most indifferent. He did a man’s work from the time he left school; his strength and stature were already far beyond those of ordinary men. He wrought his appointed tasks ungrudgingly, though without enthusiasm; but when his employer’s day was over, his own began. John Hanks says: “When Abe and I returned to the house from work he would go to the cupboard, snatch a piece of corn-bread, take down a book, sit down, cock his legs up as high as his head, and read.” The picture may be lacking in grace, but its truthfulness is beyond question. The habit remained with him always. Some of his greatest work in later years was done in this grotesque Western fashion, — “sitting on his shoulder-blades.”
Otherwise his life at this time differed little from that of ordinary farm-hands. His great strength and intelligence made him a valuable laborer, and his unfailing good temper and flow of rude rustic wit rendered him the most agreeable of comrades. He was always ready with some kindly act or word for others. Once he saved the life of the town drunkard, whom he found freezing by the roadside, by carrying him in his strong arms to the tavern, and working over him until he revived. It is a curious fact that this act of common humanity was regarded as something remarkable in the neighborhood; the grateful sot himself always said “it was mighty clever of Abe to tote me so far that cold night.” It was also considered an eccentricity that he hated and preached against cruelty to animals. Some of his comrades remember still his bursts of righteous wrath, when a boy, against the wanton murder of turtles and other creatures. He was evidently of better and finer clay than his fellows, even in those wild and ignorant days. At home he was the life of the singularly assorted household, which consisted, besides his parents and himself, of his own sister, Mrs. Lincoln’s two girls and boy, Dennis Hanks, the legacy of the dying Sparrow family, and John Hanks (son of the carpenter Joseph with whom Thomas Lincoln learned his trade), who came from Kentucky several years after the others. It was probably as much the inexhaustible good nature and kindly helpfulness of young Abraham which kept the peace among all these heterogeneous elements, effervescing with youth and confined in a one-roomed cabin, as it was the Christian sweetness and firmness of the woman of the house. It was a happy and united household: brothers and sisters and cousins living peacefully under the gentle rule of the good stepmother, but all acknowledging from a very early period the supremacy in goodness and cleverness of their big brother Abraham. Mrs. Lincoln, not long before her death, gave striking testimony of his winning and loyal character. She said to Mr. Herndon: “I can say, what scarcely one mother in a thousand can say, Abe never gave me a cross word or look, and never refused in fact or appearance to do anything I asked him. His mind and mine — what little I had — seemed to run together…. I had a son John, who was raised with Abe. Both were good boys, but I must say, both now being dead, that Abe was the best boy I ever saw or expect to see.” Such were the beginnings of this remarkable career, sacred as we see from childhood, to duty and to human kindliness.
“We are making no claim of early saintship for him. He was merely a good boy, with sufficient wickedness to prove his humanity. One of his employers, undazzled by recent history, faithfully remembers that young Abe liked his dinner and his pay better than his work: there is surely nothing alien to ordinary mortality in this. It is also reported that he sometimes impeded the celerity of harvest operations by making burlesque speeches, or worse than that, comic sermons, from the top of some tempting stump, to the delight of the hired hands and the exasperation of the farmer. His budding talents as a writer were not always used discreetly. He was too much given to scribbling coarse satires and chronicles, in prose, and in something which had to him and his friends the air of verse. From this arose occasional heart-burnings and feuds, in which Abraham bore his part according to the custom of the country. Despite his Quaker ancestry and his natural love of peace, he was no non-resistant, and when he once entered upon a quarrel the opponent usually had the worst of it. But he was generous and placable, and some of his best friends were those with whom he had had differences, and had settled them in the way then prevalent, — in a ring of serious spectators, calmly and judicially ruminant, under the shade of some spreading oak, at the edge of the timber. Before we close our sketch of this period of Lincoln’s life, it may not be amiss to glance for a moment at the state of society among the people with whom his lot was cast in these important years.
In most respects there had been little moral or material improvement since the early settlement of the country. Their houses were usually of one room, built of round logs with the bark on. We have known a man to gain the sobriquet of “Split-log Mitchell” by indulging in the luxury of building a cabin of square-hewn timbers. Their dress was still mostly of tanned deer-hide, a material to the last degree uncomfortable when the wearer was caught in a shower. Their shoes were of the same, and a good Western authority calls a wet moccasin “a decent way of going barefoot.” About the time, however, when Lincoln grew to manhood, garments of wool and of tow began to be worn, dyed with the juice of the butternut or white walnut, and the hides of neat-cattle began to be tanned. But for a good while it was only the women who indulged in these novelties. There was little public worship. Occasionally an itinerant preacher visited a county, and the settlers for miles around would go nearly in mass to the meeting. If a man was possessed of a wagon, the family rode luxuriously; but as a rule the men walked and the women went on horseback with the little children in their arms. It was considered no violation of the sanctities of the occasion to carry a rifle and take advantage of any game which might be stirring during the long walk. Arriving at the place of meeting, which was some log cabin if the weather was foul, or the shade of a tree if it was fair, the assembled worshipers threw their provisions into a common store and picnicked in neighborly companionship. The preacher would then take off his coat, and go at his work with an energy unknown to our days.
There were few other social meetings. Men came together for “raisings,” where a house was built in a day; for “log-rollings,” where tons of excellent timber were piled together and wastefully burned; for wolf-hunts, where a tall pole was erected in the midst of a prairie or clearing, and a great circle of hunters formed around it, sometimes of miles in diameter, which, gradually contracting with shouts and yells, drove all the game in the woods together at the pole for slaughter; and for horse-races, which bore little resemblance to those magnificent exhibitions which are the boast of Kentucky at this time. In these affairs the women naturally took no part; but weddings, which were entertainments scarcely less rude and boisterous, were their own peculiar province. These festivities lasted rarely less than twenty-four hours. The guests assembled in the morning. There was a race for the whisky bottle; a midday dinner; an afternoon of rough games and outrageous practical jokes; a supper and dance at night, interrupted by the successive withdrawals of the bride and of the groom, attended with ceremonies and jests of more than Rabelaisian crudeness; and a noisy dispersal next day.
The one point at which they instinctively clung to civilization was their regard for law and reverence for courts of justice. Yet these were of the simplest character and totally devoid of any adventitious accessories. An early jurist of the country writes: “I was Circuit Prosecuting Attorney at the time of the trials at the falls of Fall Creek, where Pendleton now stands. Four of the prisoners were convicted of murder, and three of them hung, for killing Indians. The court was held in a double log cabin, the grand jury sat upon a log in the woods, and the foreman signed the bills of indictment, which I had prepared, upon his knee; there was not a petit juror that had shoes on; all wore moccasins, and were belted around the waist, and carried side-knives used by the hunters.” Yet amidst all this apparent savagery we see justice was done, and the law vindicated even against the bitterest prejudices of these pioneer jurymen.
They were full of strange superstitions. The belief in witchcraft had long ago passed away with the smoke of the fagots from old and New England, but it survived far into this century in Kentucky and the lower halves of Indiana and Illinois — touched with a peculiar tinge of African magic. The pioneers believed in it for good and evil. Their veterinary practice was mostly by charms and incantations; and when a person believed himself bewitched, a shot at the image of the witch with a bullet melted out of a half-dollar was the favorite curative agency. Luck was an active divinity in their apprehension, powerful for blessing or bane, announced by homely signs, to be placated by quaint ceremonies. A dog crossing the hunter’s path spoiled his day, unless he instantly hooked his little fingers together, and pulled till the animal disappeared. They were familiar with the ever-recurring mystification of the witch-hazel, or divining-rod; and the “cure by faith” was as well known to them as it has since become in a more sophisticated state of society. The commonest occurrences were heralds of death and doom. A bird lighting in a window, a dog baying at certain hours, the cough of a horse in the direction of a child, the sight, or worse still, the touch of a dead snake, heralded domestic woe. A wagon driving past the house with a load of baskets was a warning of atmospheric disturbance. A vague and ignorant astronomy governed their plantings and sowings, the breeding of their cattle, and all farm-work. They must fell trees for fence-rails before noon, and in the waxing of the moon. Fences built when there was no moon would give way; but that was the proper season for planting potatoes and other vegetables whose fruit grows underground; those which bore their product in the air must be planted when the moon shone. The magical power of the moon was wide in its influence; it extended to the most minute details of life.
Among these people, and in all essential respects one of them, Abraham Lincoln passed his childhood and youth. He was not remarkably precocious. His mind was slow in acquisition, and his powers of reasoning and rhetoric improved constantly to the end of his life, at a rate of progress marvelously regular and sustained. But there was that about him, even at the age of nineteen years, which might well justify his admiring friends in presaging for him an unusual career. He had read every book he could find, and could “spell down” the whole county at their orthographical contests. By dint of constant practice he had acquired an admirably clear and serviceable handwriting. He occasionally astounded his companions by such glimpses of occult science as that the world is round and that the sun is relatively stationary. He wrote, for his own amusement and edification, essays on politics, of which gentlemen of standing who had been favored with a perusal said with authority, at the cross-roads grocery, “The world can’t beat it.” One or two of these compositions got into print and vastly increased the author’s local fame. He was also a magnanimous boy, with a larger and kindlier spirit than common. His generosity, courage, and capability of discerning two sides to a dispute, were remarkable even then, and won him the admiration of those to whom such qualities were unknown. But perhaps, after all, the thing which gained and fixed his mastery over his fellows was to a great degree his gigantic stature and strength. He attained his full growth, six feet and four inches, two years before he came of age. He rarely met with a man he could not easily handle. His strength is still a tradition in Spencer County. One aged man says that he has seen him pick up and carry away a chicken-house weighing six hundred pounds. At another time, seeing some men preparing a contrivance for lifting some large posts, Abe quickly shouldered the posts and took them where they were needed. One of his employers says, “He could sink an axe deeper into wood than any man I ever saw.” With strength like this and a brain to direct it, a man was a born leader in that country and at that time. There are, of course, foolish stories extant that Abraham used to boast, and that others used to predict, that he would be President some day. The same thing is daily said of thousands of boys who will never be constables. But there is evidence that he felt too large for the life of a farmhand on Pigeon Creek, and his thoughts naturally turned, after the manner of restless boys in the West, to the river, as the avenue of escape from the narrow life of the woods. He once asked an old friend to give him a recommendation to some steamboat on the Ohio, but desisted from his purpose on being reminded that his father had the right to dispose of his time for a year or so more. But in 1828 an opportunity offered for a little glimpse of the world outside, and the boy gladly embraced it. He was hired by Mr. Gentry, the proprietor of the neighboring village of Gentryville, to accompany his son with a flat-boat of produce to New Orleans and intermediate landings. The voyage was made successfully, and Abraham gained great credit for his management and sale of the cargo. The only important incident of the trip occurred at the plantation of Madame Duchesne, a few miles below Baton Rouge. The young merchants had tied up for the night and were asleep in the cabin, when they were aroused by shuffling footsteps, which proved to be a gang of marauding negroes, coming to rob the boat. Abraham instantly attacked them with a club, knocked several overboard and put the rest to flight; flushed with battle, he and Allen Gentry carried the war into the enemy’s country, and pursued the retreating Africans some distance in the darkness. They then returned to the boat, bleeding but victorious, and hastily swung into the stream and floated down the river till daylight. Lincoln’s exertion in later years for the welfare of the African race showed that this nocturnal battle had not led him to any hasty and hostile generalizations.
The next autumn, John Hanks, the steadiest and most trustworthy of his family, went to Illinois. Though an illiterate and rather dull man, he had a good deal of solidity of character and consequently some influence and consideration in the household. He settled in Macon County, and was so well pleased with the country, and especially with its admirable distribution into prairie and timber, that he sent repeated messages to his friends in Indiana to come out and join him. Thomas Lincoln was always ready to move. He had probably by this time despaired of ever owning any unencumbered real estate in Indiana, and the younger members of the family had little to bind them to the place where they saw nothing in the future but hard work and poor living. Thomas Lincoln handed over his farm to Mr. Gentry, sold his crop of corn and hogs, packed his household goods and those of his children and sons-in-law into a single wagon, drawn by two yoke of oxen, the combined wealth of himself and Dennis Hanks, and started for the new State. His daughter Sarah or Nancy, for she was called by both names, who married Aaron Grigsby a few years before, had died in childbirth. The emigrating family consisted of the Lincolns, John Johnston, Mrs. Lincoln’s son, and her daughters, Mrs. Hall and Mrs. Hanks, with their husbands.
Two weeks of weary tramping over forest roads and muddy prairie, and the dangerous fording of streams swollen by the February thaws, brought the party to John Hanks’s place near Decatur. He met them with a frank and energetic welcome. He had already selected a piece of ground for them a few miles from his own, and had the logs ready for their house. They numbered men enough to build without calling in their neighbors, and immediately put up a cabin on the north fork of the Sangamon River. The family thus housed and sheltered, one more bit of filial work remained for Abraham before assuming his virile independence. With the assistance of John Hanks he plowed fifteen acres, and split, from the tall walnut-trees of the primeval forest, enough rails to surround them with a fence. Little did either dream, while engaged in this work, that the day would come when the appearance of John Hanks in a public meeting, with two of these rails on his shoulder, would electrify a State convention, and kindle throughout the country a contagious and passionate enthusiasm, whose results would reach to endless generations.
The Lincolns arrived in Illinois just in time to entitle themselves to be called pioneers. When, in after years, associations of “Old Settlers” began to be formed in Central Illinois, the qualification for membership agreed upon by common consent was a residence in the country before “the winter of the deep snow.” This was in 1830-31, a season of such extraordinary severity that it has formed for half a century a recognized date in the middle counties of Illinois, among those to whom in those days diaries and journals were unknown. The snowfall began in the Christmas holidays and continued until the snow was three feet deep on level ground. Then came a cold rain, freezing as it fell, until a thick crust of ice gathered over the snow. The weather became intensely cold, the mercury sinking to twelve degrees below zero, Fahrenheit, and remaining there for two weeks. The storm came on with such suddenness that all who were abroad had great trouble in reaching their homes, and many perished. One man relates that he and a friend or two were out in a hunting party with an ox-team. They had collected a wagon-load of game and were on their way home when the storm struck them. After they had gone four miles they were compelled to abandon their wagon; the snow fell in heavy masses “as if thrown from a scoop-shovel”; arriving within two miles of their habitation, they were forced to trust to the instinct of their animals, and reached home hanging to the tails of their steers. Not all were so fortunate. Some were found weeks afterwards in the snow-drifts, their flesh gnawed by famished wolves; and the fate of others was unknown until the late spring sunshine revealed their resting-places. To those who escaped, the winter was tedious and terrible. It is hard for us to understand the isolation to which such weather condemned the pioneer. For weeks they remained in their cabins hoping for some mitigation of the frost. When at last they were driven out by the fear of famine, the labor of establishing communications was enormous. They finally made roads by “wallowing through the snow,” as an Illinois historian expresses it, and going patiently over the same track until the snow was trampled hard and rounded like a turnpike. These roads lasted far into the spring, when the snow had melted from the plains, and wound for miles like threads of silver over the rich black loam of the prairies. After that winter game was never again so plentiful in the State. Much still remained, of course, but it never recovered entirely from the rigors of that season and the stupid enterprise of the pioneer hunters, who, when they came out of their snow-beleaguered cabins, began chasing and killing the starved deer by herds. It was easy work; the crust of the snow was strong enough to bear the weight of men and dogs, but the slender hoofs of the deer would after a few bounds pierce the treacherous surface. This destructive slaughter went on until the game grew too lean to be worth the killing. All sorts of wild animals grew scarce from that winter. Old settlers say that the slow cowardly breed of prairie wolves, which used to be caught and killed as readily as sheep, disappeared about that time and none but the fleeter and stronger survived.