Abraham Lincoln for Kids
His Life and Times with 21 Activities
By Janis Herbert
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2007 Janis Herbert
All rights reserved.
"ABRAHAM LINCOLN IS MY NAME."
The nickname "Abe" would stick with him all of his life, but Abraham suited the boy better. It was long, like he was. Though still a child, he was already as tall as a man. A-b-r-a-h-a-m L-i-n-c-o-l-n, he would write, with a stick in the dirt, with charcoal on a shovel, with his fingers in the snow. He wrote "anywhere and everywhere," he later said, "that lines could be drawn." Abraham was his grandfather's name, the grandfather who had been killed by Indians. Abraham was a name from the Bible, one of the few books his family owned.
Abraham Lincoln was eight years old before he learned how to write his name. The boy's father could barely sign his own name; his mother, it is thought, could read but not write. For most people on the frontier, schooling was a luxury. There was too much work to be done.
Back in Kentucky, where he was born, Abraham and his big sister Sarah walked two miles to reach their "ABC school." In Indiana, they attended school only now and then. There, Abraham and the other students learned just the most basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. They recited their lessons out loud all day long. "Blab school," they called it, because of the constant noise. Their teacher also tried to teach them manners by having them introduce each other. One student would go outside the log schoolhouse, then come back in the room as if he or she were a great gentleman or lady. Another student escorted the important person around the room, making polite introductions to the others in the class.
Though Abraham loved learning, his parents couldn't always afford to pay the dollar or two it cost per term. Also, they needed him at home to help his father chop wood, fetch water, clear fields of trees and rocks, sow seeds, and help with the harvest. All together, Abraham's formal schooling added up to only about one year.
Abraham and his family had said good-bye to Kentucky when he was seven. The family had been there for two generations, since his grandfather Abraham had learned of the rich frontier land from pioneer Daniel Boone. The elder Abraham and his wife and children settled in the Kentucky wilderness in the late 1700s. Young Abraham Lincoln heard the story many times, of how his grandfather broke land and created a home in the wild western forests. One day, while this earlier Abraham and his three young boys were planting corn, Indians attacked. Abraham was killed. His youngest child, Thomas, leaned over his father's body, heartbroken. The middle child raced to the fort for help while the oldest, Mordecai, managed to hide in a nearby cabin. As Mordecai watched, horrified, an Indian crept up behind his brother Thomas, ready to attack. Mordecai aimed his rifle at the Indian and killed him before Thomas was harmed.
Fatherless, Thomas worked hard to earn a living as a manual laborer and carpenter. Eventually he scraped together enough money to buy his own farm. His neighbors called Thomas "honest" and "plain" and laughed at his good-natured jokes. Thomas married Nancy Hanks, a thin, dark-haired, intelligent woman with sad eyes, and together they made their home in a one-room log cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky. They named their land Sinking Spring Farm, for the cool spring that provided their water. Their cabin was dark and small with a dirt floor, barely large enough for the family of four — parents, daughter Sarah, and new baby Abraham.
When Abraham was not yet two, the family settled near crystal-clear Knob Creek and built another small log cabin. Steep, tree-covered hills surrounded their home. Neighbors were few, but peddlers, soldiers, and, at times, chained slaves passed on the dusty trail near their cabin. Here a baby brother was born, then died. Thomas planted corn and little Abraham followed him, placing pumpkin seeds in the earth.
Though the land was rich, Thomas saw greater opportunity north of the Ohio River. There, in Indiana, land was open for settlement and slavery was against the law. In Kentucky, Thomas had problems getting a clear deed to his farm; another man was claiming his land. And Thomas hated slavery, which was practiced in Kentucky. Hundreds of thousands of black people — some taken by force from their African homelands, others born into slavery — labored on farms and plantations across the southern United States. Considered property, they could be beaten, mistreated, or bought and sold at their owner's will. Thomas wanted no part of this evil institution.
Thomas went to Indiana and laid his claim, then returned to bring his family to their new home site near Pigeon Creek. It was a difficult and long journey on foot and on horseback, then by ferry across the Ohio River. Beyond the river, the country was so heavily wooded and dense with bushes that Thomas had to slash his way through to break a trail for his wife and children. Their new home was a "half-faced camp" — a three-sided shelter made of branches and brush. By then, it was winter. They cut logs and built a cabin, but bitterly cold winds found their way through the chinks in the cabin's walls.
The family lived off the deer and bears their father hunted. Abraham tried to hunt too, but when he succeeded in killing a turkey he was so distressed by the animal's death that he never again "pulled a trigger on any larger game."
Though Indiana had just become a state, this land was still a wilderness, where bears and cougars roamed and wolves howled at night. There were no near neighbors; settlements were few and miles between. The Lincolns and other settlers could only rely on themselves. They made their own log cabins and built rough tables and benches to furnish them. They killed game and gathered wild berries, mushrooms, and nuts, which they ate from wooden or pewter platters. They cleared land, sowed crops, milked cows and raised hogs. They tanned leather to make their own shoes, though it was common to go barefoot in warm weather or even wear shoes made of tree bark. They wore shirts and dresses of homespun "linsey-woolsey" (linen and wool woven together). Abraham wore a coonskin cap and deerskin pants, which were always too short for the growing boy, exposing inches of his pale shins.
The Lincoln cabin had a floor of packed earth. There were no windows or even a proper door; inside it was dark and gloomy. Frontier women took their chores outdoors, mending clothes or shucking corn under the shade of a tree. Candles were expensive to make, so indoor light came from the fireplace or a saucer of grease with a floating wick. Most people were so tired after a long day of work that they went to sleep at sunset.
The Lincolns labored to make a farm of the wilderness. Abraham, though only eight years old, was big for his age. His father put an ax in his hands and, as Abraham later described, "from that time until his twenty-third year, he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument." He and his father cleared trees for their farm and planted potatoes, wheat, corn, and squash. After harvest, it was time to grind the wheat and corn. Abraham loaded the family's horse and, alone, led it through the woods to the gristmill. One day at the mill, the horse kicked young Abraham in the head. Hearing the news, Abraham's father ran to the mill and carried the boy home. Abraham lay unconscious all night — "apparently killed," as he later said. But the boy came to life again in the morning, sputtering and yelling to the horse to "git up!"
After a spring and summer of hard work, the family was cheered when Abraham's great-aunt and great-uncle and his cousin Dennis Hanks moved into a nearby cabin. But their good spirits did not last long. Aunt and uncle died from what was called "milk sickness," an illness caused by drinking tainted milk from cows that had eaten a poisonous plant. Soon after, Abraham's gentle and loving mother fell ill. When she knew her death was near, she called her children to her and reminded them to "be good and kind to their father, to one another, and to the world." Her death was a bitter loss for the young boy and his father and sister.
Cousin Dennis moved in with them, and Sarah, only 12, tried to cook and keep house like her mother. When she despaired and sat by the fire crying, her brother and cousin tried to comfort her by bringing her a baby turtle or raccoon. Abraham mourned his "angel mother" and tried to be as good and kind as she would have wanted him to be.
Over a year later, Sarah Bush Johnston came into Abraham Lincoln's life. A widow with three children, she agreed to marry Thomas Lincoln. The Lincoln children and cousin Dennis had lived alone in their cabin while Thomas went to Kentucky to court Sarah, and now he brought her back to Indiana as his new bride. Dennis later remembered how the new Mrs. Lincoln soaped and scrubbed the lonely children clean, and gave them the love and affection they had so much missed. She had her new husband make a proper door and a wooden floor for the cabin, and cut a window hole, which she covered with greased paper (a substitute for glass, which was a rare item in those days). She had him build an attic room, too, where Abraham, his cousin, and his new stepbrother, John, would sleep, climbing up each night on pegs driven into the wall. Her presence made it a happier family. She loved Abe, calling him "the best boy I ever saw or ever expect to see." Abraham called her "Mama" and loved her like his own mother.
Abraham's cousin described everyday life as a constant round of work, as the boys "grubbed, plowed, mowed, and worked together bare-footed in the field." But life was brighter now. With his stepmother's encouragement, Abraham attended school. He rushed home to tend to animals and chores. But, cousin Dennis said, "whenever Abe had a chance in the field, while at work, or at the house, he would stop and read." He read while plowing, stopping at the end of each row to rest the horse and snatch a few lines from a book. At home, with a book in his hands and his feet up as high as his head, he ignored everyone around him. Books were scarce but his stepmother had brought several with her from Kentucky. These he pored over again and again. He read the family Bible along with The Pilgrim's Progress and Aesop's Fables. One of his favorite books was The Life of George Washington. "The accounts of battlefields and struggles for the liberty of the country" thrilled him, he later said. "There must have been something more than common that those men struggled for."
"When he came across a passage that struck him, he would write it down on boards," said his stepmother. Paper was hard to come by. When the board was black with writing, he whittled it down and used it again. He practiced until he was so good at spelling and writing that neighbors who couldn't write asked him to compose their letters for them.
There were times when Abraham felt troubled. When he was older, he revisited his home in Indiana and recalled his childhood as a time of both pleasure and great sadness. He had lost his mother and had difficulty getting along with his father, who seemed to prefer Abraham's stepbrother, John. Cruelty especially bothered him. Once, when he caught some children building a small fire on top of a tortoise's shell, he made them stop and reminded them that even "an ant's life was to it as sweet as ours to us."
All of his life he would struggle with an underlying sadness, but there was also an unquenchable spark of fun and wit in Abraham Lincoln. For a spellbound audience of family and neighbor children, he would mount a tree stump and mimic long-winded politicians. He told jokes and drawn-out stories, like one about a preacher with a lizard down his shirt. Friendly and kind, he liked to make people feel at ease. When a schoolmate, called on in class to spell, was about to make a mistake, Abraham caught her attention and pointed to his eye to show her that i was the letter she needed.
New settlers moved to the Indiana community and Abraham's father hired him out to work for these neighbors. "My how he could chop," one of his neighbors said. "If you heard him felling trees in a clearing, you would say there were three men at work." A day laborer could earn 25 cents a day for chopping trees, removing stumps, digging wells, or building fences. Abraham's hard-earned money went back to support his family. At 16, he was six feet, two inches tall and 160 pounds, with coarse, unruly black hair. His long legs and arms were muscled from hard work. He was wiry and very strong but not eager for a lifetime of backbreaking labor. "My father taught me to work," he joked with a neighbor, "but he never taught me to love it!"
There was no end of work on the frontier. The neighbors helped one another raise cabins, kill hogs, and harvest crops. They made special occasions of their chores, holding corn-shucking parties and quilting bees. Frolics, suppers, wrestling matches, and races followed hard work. Abraham joined in the work, then attracted laughing crowds with his comical stories.
In addition to doing work as day laborer, Abraham helped out at a local blacksmith's shop. He worked for a ferryman on a nearby river. He also built his own boat. In the small river communities of those days, there were no wharves where steamships could dock; boats stopped mid-river and people rowed out to meet them. One day, Abraham rowed two men out to the middle of the Ohio River, where he helped them hoist their trunks aboard a steamboat. When they each tossed him a half-dollar in payment, he couldn't believe his luck. "A dollar in less than a day," he thought. "The world seemed wider and fairer."
But the world turned dark for him at age 18, when his beloved sister, Sarah, died in childbirth. She had married and left home only a year before and he had missed her already. Now she was gone forever. Only months later, Abraham left home himself for the first time.
In those days, the Mississippi River was part of a vital trade route for the western lands of Indiana and Illinois. Grain and meat sent downstream to New Orleans on square, flat-bottomed rafts called flatboats could be sold or traded for luxury goods such as sugar and coffee. Abraham hired on as a Mississippi River flat-boatman. Though some flatboats were as much as 100 feet long, complete with a cabin onboard for the crew, his was modest. It carried only him and another young man, and their barrels of meat, flour, and corn. They steered it 1,200 miles down the Ohio River and the wide Mississippi, with its dangerous currents and shifting sandbars.
As the young men made their way downstream, they stopped at river towns to trade along the way. Each night, they tied their boat along the riverbank. One night, they tied up alongside a Louisiana plantation and went to sleep. Seven slaves boarded their flatboat and attacked them, "with intent to rob and kill," Abraham later reported. He and his friend drove the looters from their boat, cut their cable, and floated downstream to safety.
Back in Indiana, Abraham gave his father the $25 he had earned and returned to work. He began to wonder when he would get his own start in the world. He frequently walked 15 miles to the county seat to watch the local judge hear trials. He spent long hours at the store in the nearby village of Gentryville. Here, he and his friends read newspapers from faraway eastern towns. They argued about politics, and swapped jokes and stories.
In early spring 1830, when Abraham was 21, the Lincoln family sold their land, packed their belongings onto wagons, and left for a new home. Abraham's cousin John Hanks had moved to Illinois, and he sent letters urging the family to follow him. Illinois had rivers and wide, fertile prairie land waiting for settlement. Its abundant forests meant there was plenty of wood for homes, fences, and heating. Settlers poured in to buy up inexpensive land.
Though their spirits were high at the prospects ahead, the Lincoln family met many challenges on their journey. The frozen ground was just starting to thaw under the weak spring sun. Melting snow flooded the rivers and covered the roads. It made slow and muddy going for the oxen and their heavy load. There were no bridges; family and oxen walked across frozen streams or waded through icy cold water. While crossing one frozen river, Abraham looked back to see that his pet dog had fallen through the ice and was fighting for his life. "I couldn't bear to lose my dog," he later told a friend. He jumped off the wagon, waded waist-high into the icy waters, and pulled his pet to safety.
The family's destination was the Sangamon River, 10 miles from the village of Decatur. It was rough, unsettled country. Most settlers in Illinois lived in the southern part of the state; Chicago was just a camp of a few huts and stores. Decatur consisted of only a dozen log cabins. That summer and fall, the Lincoln family cleared trees and built a cabin. Abraham and his cousin broke the land with oxen and plow, raised a crop of corn, and built a split-rail fence around the 10 acres of their new farm.
That autumn, the whole family suffered from malaria (called ague) and fever. That winter, snowdrifts buried fences, roads, trees, and cabins. The Deep Snow of 1830 began shortly before Christmas and didn't stop for weeks. After three or four feet of snow fell, icy rain covered the drifts. Temperatures dropped to below zero and stayed there for over two months. People huddled in their cabins, cattle froze to death, and wild animals died of starvation. When spring finally came, the melting snow flooded the rivers and countryside. With no game to hunt, and a late spring planting season, people went hungry. An outbreak of cholera followed, killing thousands. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Abraham Lincoln for Kids by Janis Herbert. Copyright © 2007 Janis Herbert. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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