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Abe Lincoln’s roots are in rural Kentucky
Illinois isn’t the only state claiming 16th president as favorite son
Growing up in the Chicago area, I attended Lincoln Junior High, went on my high school’s traditional trip to tour Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Ill., and every day saw Illinois license plates reading “Land of Lincoln.”
So I was surprised to learn on a recent trip to Louisville that America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, was born in Kentucky and that state also claims him as a favorite son.
Lincoln was born Feb. 12, 1809, on a farm in rural Kentucky to Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln. His ancestors emigrated from England, and his grandfather Abraham moved the family from Virginia through the Cumberland Gap in the Appalachians to Kentucky on the promise of land. But in 1786 he was ambushed and killed in an Indian raid while Abe’s father, Thomas, watched. Without a will, Grandfather Abraham’s land, by English law, went to his older son, not to Thomas.
Nevertheless, Thomas went on to become a respected citizen who was active in the rural community of Hodgenville where Abe was born at Sinking Spring Farm. They later moved to nearby Knob Hill Farm. At that time, the farms were on the edge of the frontier where a few buffalo still roamed but most American Indians had moved farther west.
As a child, Abe Lincoln watched African-Americans chained together and forced to sing as they were marched past his Knob Creek home on Kentucky’s Old Cumberland Trail. They were on their way to be sold at a slave market.
As I stood on that spot where Lincoln lived from ages 2 1/2 to almost 8, I tried to imagine what it was like to watch the slaves marching and clanking their chains. Turning around, I peeked into the one-room log cabin that is similar to the one that was Lincoln’s home those years, and I walked around the farm where he helped plant pumpkin seeds while his sister Sarah planted corn, and where he carried water from the creek and gathered firewood.
At age 7 he nearly drowned in the creek but his friend Austin Gollaher rescued him by extending a long pole as he struggled, according to Gollaher’s memoirs.
Due to the demands of the family farm, Lincoln had little time for school so in learning to write, he practiced making letters in the dirt, dust or snow, and he loved to tell stories, we learned from a visitors center video.
The site is part of the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park. Knob Hill has changed little in the last 200 years - no development since Lincoln’s time, our tour guide said.
While a few neighbors reportedly had slaves, Lincoln’s parents attended Little Mount Baptist Church that opposed slavery and was presumed to be part of a larger anti-slavery movement in the Baptist Church in Kentucky. As a young man, Lincoln saw slave markets in Louisville and New Orleans.
Though Lincoln’s parents were uneducated, they were among the wealthiest in their county until Abe was about 7. Then due to faulty land titles, they lost their land and moved to the free state of Indiana and later, to Illinois. Lincoln reportedly wrote that slavery as well as finances was a factor in the move.
Lincoln had less than two years of formal schooling altogether in bits and pieces when he could find a tutor. However, he was smart and encouraged by his stepmother - his own mother died and father remarried -- read a lot, borrowing books whenever he could.
According to one report, the family squatted on land public land in Indiana, scratching out a living. Lincoln didn’t like farm work on the frontier but did become adept at wielding an ax and building fences. His father sometimes hired him out as a farm laborer since by age 17, he was 6-foot-4 and strong.
In 1830, the family moved to southern Illinois, and a year later at age 22, Lincoln struck out on his own, working on a barge to New Orleans where he witnessed slaves being mercilessly whipped. He also gained his reputation as Honest Abe then.
Lincoln was first elected to the Illinois Legislature in 1834. He taught himself law, passed the bar and set up his practice in Springfield, Ill. In 1842 he married Mary Todd whose parents were wealthy slave owners. The couple had four children, three of whom died young.
Lincoln was elected president in 1860 with almost no support from the South, which opposed his anti-slavery stance, so 11 states seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy. With the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 followed by the 13th amendment in 1865, Lincoln helped to permanently abolish slavery. He wrote that he could not remember a time when he wasn’t against slavery.
Six days after the surrender of General Robert E Lee, ending the Civil War, Lincoln was assassinated.
First Lincoln Memorial
The Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park includes Knob Hill Farm and Sinking Spring Farm. The visitors center shows more about Lincoln’s early life and displays the family Bible. The national park also houses the nation’s first Lincoln Memorial where we walked up 56 wide steps, one step for each year of Lincoln’s life, to the neoclassical granite and marble memorial. Set in the rolling green hills of rural Kentucky where Lincoln lived as a child, it’s a stark contrast from the later Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.
This Kentucky memorial was built between 1909 and 1911 and houses a symbolic replica of the log cabin with one door and window, a fireplace and dirt floor where he was born. People began developing the memorial in 1905 by acquiring the land. Money for the project was raised from school children. In 1911, President Taft dedicated it, and in 1916, it was given to the federal government and became part of the national park system.
The Lincoln Museum in downtown Hodgenville, three miles from the national park, is a private, nonprofit entity with members from all over the U.S. It features almost life-size dioramas of important events in Lincoln’s life such as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which Lincoln lost along with the state Senate election after claiming blacks should have the rights listed in the Declaration of Independence. Also featured are the second inauguration in 1865 plus numerous newspaper clippings, campaign posters and other memorabilia. The upper floor has a gallery of paintings and other artwork related to the Lincoln era.
If you want to visit historical sites for a glimpse of the early life of Abe Lincoln, think of Hodgenville, Ky., just 55 miles south of Louisville. While Lincoln was best known for his emancipation of slaves and for holding the Union together, he was also admired for working hard and pulling himself up by his bootstraps. The seeds for all of this were sewn in his rural Kentucky childhood.
Says a sign at Knob Creek site: “The daily struggle for survival at Knob Creek shaped the character of the boy who grew up to be president.”
Pamela O’Meara can be reached at email@example.com or at 651-748-7818.
If you go …
What: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park. It includes his birthplace at Knob Creek, a visitors center and the Lincoln Memorial at Sinking Spring Farm.
Where: Hodgenville, Kentucky, which is about 55 miles south of Louisville.
When: Open year-round.
Lincoln, the leader
On hearing I was writing about Abraham Lincoln, former Ramsey County Commissioner Don Salverda, who runs leadership training seminars, told me Lincoln was a great leader, someone he really admired and learned from.
“Lincoln is a true inspiration for us all,” Salverda said. “He represents the best of the American Dream - rising from humble beginnings to become one of our country’s greatest leaders. He led us through one of our darkest hours - the Civil War - always focused on saving the Union. He abolished slavery.
“He was a master of words, as evidenced by his Gettysburg Address.
“He was a man of the highest integrity. He could work with his enemies as well as his friends.
“There are countless lessons on leadership that public officials and citizens can learn by studying Lincoln.”
Historians rate Lincoln as one of our nation’s best presidents for his compelling life story, Honest Abe reputation, political talents and leadership when the nation was in crisis.
He welcomed Southerners back to the Union after the Civil War without vindictiveness. His Gettysburg Address in 1863 is considered one of the best political speeches ever given by any president and has frequently been quoted by other presidents and politicians.
A few months after the Union defeated the Confederacy at the battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln said the following at the dedication of a soldiers’ cemetery: “... we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
— Pamela O’Meara