Civil War Symposium brings Lincoln early days to life

Columist Tom Stafford
Columist Tom Stafford

By definition, settlers live in unsettled territory.

The result is often the hardship of unsettled frontier lives that Springfielders are reminded of each time they drive on Main Street past the stone-faced statue of the Madonna of the Trail, a monument to pioneer women.

A week ago Saturday, Kent Masterson Brown surveyed the unsettled aspects of life of the Thomas Lincoln family in the years just before and after the birth of the 16th president of the United States - a man who said he lived out his early years “as a piece of floating driftwood.”

Brown’s presence helped to anchor the 10th Annual Springfield Civil War Symposium, which briefly was thrown into chaos when word arrived a week ago Friday that two scheduled speakers, both in their 70s, were advised by physicians not to board airplanes for the trip to Ohio.

By adding to the program a film he had directed about Lincoln’s years in Illinois and pairing with Wittenberg University history professor Thomas T. Taylor to lead a discussion, Brown presented a primer on Abraham Lincoln’s life before the 1860 presidential election.

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His opening presentation took a close look at the Lincoln family’s years in Kentucky, a period Brown studied while carrying out an assignment from Wendell Ford, who served as a U.S. Senator from the Bluegrass State from 1974 to 1999.

Ford had proposed a bill to include the Knob Creek farm as location in the Lincoln Boyhood Historical Park, but faced on obstacle, Brown said: “They weren’t sure the Lincolns even lived there.”

In visits to a dozen courthouses and historical archives, Brown put a lawyer’s research skills and thought into finding the answer, picking up lessons about frontier hardships along the way.

The trail started in Rockingham, Va., with the president’s grandfather and namesake who had been awarded a tract of land in Kentucky for his service as a captain in the Virginia Militia during the Revolutionary War.

He moved there in the early 1780s after first visiting it in the company of relative Daniel Boone. While farming that plot near fortified Hughes Station in the Louisville vicinity, Capt. Abraham Lincoln was killed by Wabash Indians as his 8-year-old son, Thomas, looked on.

The boy’s widowed mother, Bathsheba, moved the family to Beechland, Ky., to be nearer a cousin of her late husband. There, Thomas Lincoln first encountered Nancy Hanks, a girl who earned her keep with a local family as their seamstress.

Brown called the stories of Hanks’ history on the frontier “so disputed that I didn’t even touch it.”

But he did find Thomas Lincoln’s name again on a 1796 list of the workers whom Samuel Haycraft paid to build a mill dam in Beechland, Ky. He also found both Thomas and Nancy’s names on an 1806 list of those married by the Methodist minister Jesse Head. It was documentation of a ceremony that son Abraham said he wasn’t sure had ever taken place.

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Brown said the same son gave his father’s life rather short shrift on the eve of the 1860 election. In a slender autobiography written for his presidential campaign, Abe Lincoln described Thomas as “a wandering, laboring boy” who grew up without an education and who could only “bunglingly write his own name.”

Brown showed his Heritage Center audience a clear signature of a Thomas Lincoln who, though a subsistence farmer, was thought responsible enough to be hired to assess the value of estates by Hardin County, Ky., court. He also served as surveyor of a five-mile stretch of road along which he lived.

Brown said Lincoln law partner and biographer William Herndon also gives a more positive assessment of Thomas Lincoln. Although not as tall as his president son, Thomas’ 5-foot-10 or -11 frame rose well above average height, and was filled out by the “strong, heavy muscles” of a man who also carried “a great stock of border anecdotes” and was known of for “spinning yarns.”

Another document Brown unearthed shows Thomas to be as honest as Abe when, in 1817, he took a stray gray mare near his home 17 miles to Elizabethtown, Ky., to return it to its rightful owner.

Brown’s conclusion is that, as so often happens, father and son “are so alike, they don’t get along.”

Thomas and Nancy had their first child, Sarah, on Feb. 10, 1807, in a leased cabin in Elizabethtown, then moved to Sinking Spring Farm near Hodgenville, Ky. While living on land that was in “very tenuous (legal) situation” Abraham was born Feb. 12, 1809.

Thomas did not have title to the land, but had it assigned to him by Isaac Bush, who had it assigned to him by David Vance, who had made a down-payment to Richard Mather back in 1805.

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All parties had accounts at the Bleakley and Montgomery store.

Brown said his research established Vance as one of those untrustworthy figures of the Kentucky frontier who fled to New Orleans and helped make the term “Kan Tuck” a substitute for “riff raff” along the Mississippi River.

So, although Abraham Lincoln’s campaign autobiography suggests an aversion to slavery contributed to his father’s leaving Kentucky, Brown said it’s more likely that the Lincolns headed to Indiana in 1816 because in all his years in Kentucky, Thomas “was either ejected or he was forced to sell what property he owned.”

Because it was surveyed according to the rules of the Northwest Ordinance, Indiana land was less often in dispute.

Before leaving Kentucky the family moved from Sinking Creek Farm to the Knob Hill farm Sen. Ford asked Brown to look into.

There the Lincoln family would endure another hardship: the death of son 3-day-old Thomas. Named for his father, he was buried on a friend’s land with a simple stone marker bearing only his initials, because the Lincolns owned no land at the time.

During a visit to the Redmond Cemetery, Brown found it “the most forlorn place I have ever visited in my life.”

Such forlorn experiences also bring to mind William Herndon’s description of young Thomas’ and Abraham’s mother, Nancy, as having a “marked expression of melancholy, which fixed itself in the memory of whoever saw her” - this despite Herndon’s remark that she was still “amiable and generally cheerful.”

Brown said that, in his research, those general qualities fit the description of innumerable settlers of the American frontier - as it did Abraham Lincoln. After the move to Indiana, Lincoln watched his mother die of another of the frontier’s unsettling maladies: the poison passed on in milk by a cow that happened to graze on the “snake root” that grew on the frontier.

“Death in a one-room log cabin was a grim experience for the survivors,” says the National Park Service narrative on the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial. “Nancy’s body was prepared for burial in the very room in which the family lived. Thomas and 9-year old Abraham whipsawed logs into planks, and with wooden pegs they fastened the boards together into a coffin.”

The boy was then a year older than his father had been at the time he watched his father die.

In Brown’s view, the thunderclouds the Lincoln family endured on first the Kentucky, then the Indiana and Illinois frontier, underscore the dramatic story line of Abraham Lincoln’s rise from poverty to prominence.

After Abraham’s mother died, his stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, though herself illiterate, did what his father did not: encourage Abraham’s quest to be literate, largely through his reading of the King James Bible.

It was a critical step in shaping the mind that ultimately played a crucial role in resolving the issue of slavery in the United States - a job for which he was in part prepared by the hardships of an unsettling childhood.