Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809, in a small log cabin on Nolin Creek, in Hardin County, Kentucky, near Hodgenville. His parents, Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks, were both of modest backgrounds and meager education. In later life, Lincoln would characterize both of his parents as having emerged, like him, "from the short and simple annals of the poor."
The Lincoln side of the family has been traced with a fair degree of confidence to one Samuel Lincoln, a weaver who emigrated from England to Hingham, Massachusetts in 1637. Over time, the Lincolns scattered into various portions of the colonies. After settling for a time in Berks County, Pennsylvania, Abraham's Lincolns moved on to Rockingham County, Virginia, where his grandfather, also Abraham, and father Thomas were both born.
In the closing years of the American Revolution, when Thomas was four, his father moved the family to Kentucky, where they settled near the outpost of Louisville. The frontier was a dangerous place in the years between independence and union, and in 1786 Abraham was killed during a native raid. After the death of his father, Thomas continued to pioneer through Kentucky and Tennessee, eventually settling in Hardin County during the first years of the nineteenth century.
Little is known about Lincoln's mother. Nancy Hanks was born of an obscure Virginia family. According to Lincoln's close friend and law partner William Herndon, Lincoln himself believed that his mother was of illegitimate birth. No reliable likeness of Lincoln's mother survives, and controversy has swirled around the matter for well over a century. At any rate, from whatever stock, Nancy Hanks married Thomas Lincoln in 1806, while still a teenager. In addition to Abraham, Nancy bore two other children, Sarah in 1807 and Thomas, who died at birth in 1812.
In 1811 the Lincoln family moved to a 230-acre farm on nearby Knob Creek. They spent five productive years there, moving only when a legal challenge arose to their deed of ownership. Rather than fight the suit out, Thomas Lincoln elected to move his family northwest to Indiana in December of 1816. Weather conditions were harsh during the journey, and at times the family had to hack through thick brush to make their way, literally clearing the frontier.
The Lincoln family would spend the winter of 1817 under a makeshift shelter. Such rough living was a standard part of frontier living, and Abraham would spend a good portion of his childhood wielding an ax in the service of his father. These difficult years may have led to a feeling of paternal resentment in Abraham. When Thomas died in 1851, Lincoln neglected to attend the funeral, and sent nothing more than a note of cool condolence.
Lincoln's hardy youth would later lend credence to his legend as a folksy, backwoods prophet, an image he did nothing to discourage. During the presidential campaign of 1860, he was trumpeted under the nickname of "rail- splitter," earned from his workaday childhood pastime. Lincoln the candidate went to great measures to cultivate a rough and ready rural demeanor, such as when he casually related a true story from youth in which, during his tenth year, he had been "kicked by a horse, and apparently killed for a time."
Shortly after the brush with tragedy when Lincoln was kicked by a horse, misfortune truly struck the family when Nancy Hanks Lincoln suddenly died of milk sickness. Left to take care of two young children, Thomas Lincoln took the practical step and quickly re-married, to a Kentucky widow named Sarah Bush Johnston. With this, young Abraham acquired three step-siblings and a new mother, for whom he quickly developed a strong affection.
From the first, Lincoln was a tall, gangly child, notable for his oversized extremities. For these reasons, some modern physicians have recently suggested that he may have been afflicted with Marfan's syndrome, an inherited disease that adversely affects connective and skeletal tissue and weakens the heart and the body in general. Most experts have dismissed this theory, pointing to Lincoln's hale and active constitution throughout youth and his clean bill of health during adulthood.
Although Lincoln's parents were illiterate, he became a voracious reader from quite an early age. While the sum total of his formal schooling fell short of a year, he nevertheless enjoyed regular exposure to the Bible and assorted classics, including Aesop's Fables, Arabian Nights, Pilgrim's Progress, and Robinson Crusoe .
The frontier of Lincoln's youth was a highly evangelical place, with several Protestant denominations competing fiercely to enhance their ranks. In 1823, when Lincoln was in the first flush of his teenage years, his parents joined the Baptist church. Despite this early allegiance, the young Lincoln never put too much stock in organized religion. As a result, he was sometimes viewed as a skeptic and even an infidel during his first years as a professional lawyer and politician. Nevertheless, he adamantly refused to join a specific church, although in later years, and especially during the depths of the Civil War, he became increasingly concerned with the nature of divine providence.
In 1828, at the age of nineteen, Lincoln struck out on his own for the first time, as a hand on a flatboat bound for New Orleans. Lincoln was greatly impressed by the majesty and treachery of the Mississippi River. One evening, after making camp along shore, his party was attacked by a group of black men, whom they were able to escape after being slightly roughed up. Such dangers, even in the face of flood conditions, did not deter Lincoln from making a second trip to New Orleans three years later, in the service of a flatboat trader who later offered to set him up as a store clerk back in New Salem, Illinois.
Lincoln had contributed heavily during his family's 1830 migration from Indiana to Macon County, Illinois, driving a team of oxen and working long hours in helping to construct a new family farm along the banks of the Sangamon River. When his father elected to relocate again less than two years later, Lincoln chose instead to make good on the trader's offer, and, little more than a self- described "piece of floating driftwood," he moved to New Salem to set up a new life for himself.
During his first few months in New Salem, Lincoln lived and worked in the village store, taking advantage of idle hours to improve his theretofore meager education. In the spring of 1832, he decided to take advantage of his local popularity by making a run for the Illinois General Assembly. However, before he could begin to campaign in earnest, the Black Hawk War broke out.
In pursuing a policy of frontier expansion during the early decades of the nineteenth century, the federal government had run into a series of skirmishes with hostile native populations. Thanks to superior firepower, the frontiersmen usually had their way, sending the natives scurrying further and further westward. President Andrew Jackson, one of the fiercest opponents of the native population, issued an executive order in 1831 removing the Sac and Fox tribes from their homelands in Illinois and Iowa. By way of retaliation, tribal leader Black Hawk decided to lead a group of displaced natives back to their homeland in an attempt to reclaim it.
Upon the call for a militia by the governor of Illinois, Lincoln decided to enlist as a volunteer. In short order he was elected as captain of his volunteer company, and chose to re-enlist twice, serving a total of ninety days. Although Lincoln himself saw no actual combat during his term of service, Black Hawk and his followers were quickly chased back into Wisconsin, where they would wave the flag of surrender only to be annihilated anyway.
As a reward for his service, at the tender age of twenty-three, Lincoln was granted a sizeable tract of land in Iowa, culled from the homeland of the browbeaten Sac and Fox.