Abraham Lincoln, passionate defender of the Union and the man whose life and ideals affirmed the dignity of working people, was a product of the austere society of frontier Kentucky. After Lincoln had grown to adulthood and prospered as a lawyer and politician, he was reluctant to talk about what he called the "stinted living" of his early years. When asked for a campaign biography he responded: "It can all be condensed into a simple sentence and that sentence you will find in Gray's Elegy'The short and simple annals of the poor.'" Lincoln did furnish the information, and almost everything we know of his childhood was contained in his own remembrances.
Before the Lincolns came into Kentucky, the ancestors of our 16th President had a long and restless history in colonial America. Generation after generation had left their fathers' homes in search of more land and fewer constraints. The first American Lincoln, Samuel, sailed from the west of England in 1637 and settled in Hingham, Massachusetts. His descendants moved on to fertile land in New Jersey and then Pennsylvania, and in 1768 John Lincoln and his family of 10 migrated into Virginia. One of John's sons and Lincoln's grandfather, Abraham, reached the edge of the frontier, settling in the Shenandoah Valley.
By 1782 Abraham had sold his farm and, with his wife Bersheba and five children, struck out for the Kentucky wilderness. Daniel Boone had blazed the first trail into this region only seven years earlier. It was still uncharted territory, the "Dark and Bloody Ground" of Indian warfare, but it offered rich bottomlands for farming. Possibly at Boone's own urging, Abraham entered Kentucky through Cumberland Gap and settled near the present site of Louisville. In May 1786, as he and his children worked in the newly planted fields, Abraham was killed in an Indian raid. Ten-year-old Thomas, the future father of a president, remained with his father's body and was saved from death at the last moment when one of his brothers shot an approaching Indian.
After Abraham's death the Lincolns moved to what is now Washington County, a more secure and populated area. Lincoln wrote that Thomas, "by the early death of his father, and very narrow circumstances of his mother, even in childhood was a wandering labor-boy." He was uneducated, an honest man but without driving ambition. He fulfilled the duties of a frontier citizen, serving as a militiaman and county guard of prisoners, paying his taxes, and sitting on juries. On at least one occasion he labored alongside slaves, which may have helped shape his antislavery views.
After roaming up and down Kentucky, Thomas and his family moved to Hardin County in 1803 and settled in Elizabethtown. He learned the carpenter's trade and was good enough at it to purchase a 230-acre farm. Thomas saved his money and in 1806 married a young woman named Nancy Hanks and brought her back to Elizabethtown.
In December 1808 Thomas and Nancy bought Sinking Spring Farm, paying $200 for 300 acres of stony land on Nolin Creek. The couple's first child, Sarah, was a year old, and as they moved 14 miles southwest to their new home, Nancy was expecting another. The life of this young frontier woman is shadowy. Lincoln remembered her fondly, but we know only that she was born in Virginia, was illiterate, and died shortly after the Lincolns left Kentucky. For historian Albert J. Beveridge she remains "Dim as the dream of a shifting mirage . . . her face and figure waver through the mists of time and rumor."
Sinking Spring Farm's red clay was not noted for fertility. The farm stood on the edge of the Barrens, a great tract of land made treeless by Indian fires set to create grazing land for game. Perhaps the Lincolns bought it because it was closer to Nancy's relatives and only three miles south of Hodgen's mill.
Thomas, Nancy, and their young daughter moved into a one-room log cabin built on a knoll near Sinking Spring. Their cabin was probably a typical frontier dwelling: about 18 by 16 feet, a dirt floor, one window, and one door, a small fireplace, a shingled roof, and a low chimney made of clay, straw, and hardwood. The tiny window opening might nave been covered with greased paper, animal skin, or an old quilt to keep out summer insects and winter cold.
The winter deepened as Nancy's time drew near. On Sunday, February 12, 1809, she lay close to the fire on her bed of cornhusks and bearskins. The family, in the words of Carl Sandburg, "welcomed into a world of battle and blood, of whispering dreams and wistful dust, a new child, a boy." He was named Abraham after his grandfather.
Thomas and Nancy Lincoln and their children lived the self-sufficient life of a frontier farm family. Thomas continued to do a little carpentry and cabinetmaking, but he was now a farmer. He spent long hours behind the plow and tramping through the woods with his rifle in search of meat. Nancy cooked plain foodbread, corn, porkin her Dutch oven and long-handled frying pan. Their life was spare, but the Lincolns were not poverty-stricken. As members in good standing of their community, they owned two farms, a lot in Elizabethtown, and livestock.
As Abraham grew from infancy, a young oak sapling grew near their cabin. Until its death in 1976, the Boundary Oak was a living vestige of the quiet farm where Lincoln spent the first two years of his life.
Knob Creek Farm
In 1811 the Lincolns moved 10 miles northeast to a farm on Knob Creek, where the soil was richer. Lincoln's earliest memory was of this farm, helping his father plant pumpkin seeds. There the boy got his first taste of education in Caleb Hazel's "ABC school," or as Lincoln called it, a "blab school" because of the constant recitation. Lincoln's views on slavery may have been formed at Knob Creek, as Hazel was an outspoken emancipationist, and the Lincolns belonged to an antislavery church. Life was better there, but the slavery issue, along with lawsuits over the titles to his farms, induced Thomas to move to Indiana. Late in 1816 the Lincolns crossed the Ohio River to the land where the child shaped in Kentucky grew to manhood.
Creating the Park
Almost 100 years after Thomas Lincoln moved from Sinking Spring Farm, a log cabin originally accepted as the birthplace cabin of Abraham Lincoln was placed in the Memorial Building. While the cabin is old and typical to the area, it is not the original Lincoln cabin. The National Park Service considers it a symbolic cabin.
New York businessman A.W. Dennett purchased the Lincoln farm in 1894 and had the cabin moved to a site near Sinking Spring. But shortly thereafter it was dismantled and reassembled for exhibition in many cities. In 1905 Robert Collier, the publisher of Collier's Weekly, purchased the farm where Lincoln was born. Collier, along with Mark Twain, William Jennings Bryan, Samuel Gompers, and others, formed the Lincoln Farm Association in 1906 to preserve Lincoln's birthplace and establish a memorial to the nation's 16th president.
That same year, the group purchased the cabin and raised over $350,000 from 100,000 citizens to build a memorial to house the cabin. President Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone in 1909. In 1911 President William Howard Taft dedicated the marble and granite memorial, designed by John Russell Pope. The neoclassical structure in a farm setting may seem grandiose for a man who wrote: "I was born, and have ever remained, in the most humble walks of life." But the rough cabin with in the memorial dramatizes the basic values that sustained Lincoln as he led the nation through its darkest period.
The memorial and Sinking Spring Farm were established as a national park in 1916 and designated Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site in 1959. Abraham Lincoln Boyhood Home at Knob Creek became a unit of Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site in 2001. This date marked the culmination of efforts by many individuals and groups, including the Kentucky General Assembly, the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund Board, the Larue County Fiscal Court, and the National Park Trust, to purchase this historic property from the Howard family, who had operated the site since the 1930s. In 2009 the site was redesignated a national historical park.
About Your Visit
Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park is about three miles south of Hodgenville, Kentucky, on U.S. 31E and Ky. 61. Knob Creek Farm, Lincoln Boyhood Home is 10 miles northeast of park headquarters on U.S. 31E.
A Walking Tour
A short walk along the Big Sink Trail through the site of the Lincoln farm will make clear how resourceful these settlers were. Along the 0.7-mile trail are numbered interpretive signs that explain points of interest.
Picnic facilities and hiking trails are provided. Camping is not permitted in the park. Please leave things as you find them so others can enjoy them.
Special services and facilities are provided for visitors with disabilities. Ask for information and assistance at the visitor center or from uniformed employees.
Both units of the park are located in the Eastern time zone. The Boyhood Home is open to visitors, with limited facilities and services. Please check with park staff at the Birthplace visitor center for questions and additional information. We recommend that groups make advance reservations to visit the park. Contact the park for hours of operation.
Also visit Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in nearby Lincoln City, Indiana, site of the farm where Lincoln spent 14 years of his youth.
For Your Safety
Source: NPS Brochure (2013)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
Address by Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States, on the occasion of the acceptance by the War Department of a deed of gift to the Nation by the Lincoln Farm Association of the Lincoln birthplace [sic] farm at Hodgenville, Ky. (Woodrow Wilson, September 1916)
Address delivered by the President of the United States [Theodore Roosevelt] (1901-1909) at the ceremony of the laying of the corner stone of the Lincoln Memorial at his birthplace, Hodgenville, Ky. (Theodore Roosevelt, Feb. 12, 1909)
Abraham Lincoln: From His Own Words and Contemporary Accounts NPS Source Book Series No. 2 (Roy Edgar Appleman, ed., 1942, reprint 1961) (HTML edition)
Bird inventory for Abraham Lincoln National Historic Site: Final Report (Mark S. Monroe, October 2005)
An Administrative History of Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site (Gloria Peterson, September 20, 1968)
An Evaluation Of Biological Inventory Data Collected At Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site: Vertebrate And Vascular Plant Inventories NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/CUPN/NRR-2009/135 (Bill Moore, July 2009)
A splendid hoax: the strange case of Lincoln's birthplace cabin (Dwight T. Pitcaithley, Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians, Louisville, Kentucky, 1991)
Cave and Karst Resources Summary: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, Kentucky (Limaris Soto, March 7, 2014)
Cultural Landscape Report: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Unit (Lucy Lawliss and Susan Hitchcock, 2004)
Cultural Landscape Report: Lincoln Boyhood Home at Knob Creek (The Jaeger Company, January 2013)
Cultural Landscapes Inventory: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Memorial Landscape / Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site (D. Hasty and B. Wheeler, 2008)
Cultural Landscapes Inventory: Abraham Lincoln Boyhood Home / Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site (D. Hasty and B. Wheeler, 2008)
Geologic Resources Inventory Report, Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/GRD/NRR-2010/219 (T.L. Thornberry-Ehrlich, June 2010)
Historic Resource Study: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site (Robert W. Blythe, Maureen Carroll, Steven Moffson and Brian F. Coffey, July 2001) (HTML edition)
Mammals of Abraham Lincoln Birthplace and Boyhood Home National Historic Sites, Larue County, Kentucky (Copperhead Environmental Consulting, Inc., 2006)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form
Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site (Andrew M. Loveless, November 14, 1974, revised April 29, 1976)
Natural Resource Condition Assessment for Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, Kentucky NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/CUPN/NRR-2011/445 (Sean T. Hutchison, Kenneth W. Kuehn and Nathan Rinehart, September 2011)
Ozone and Foliar Injury Report for Cumberland Piedmont Network Parks: Annual Report 2008 NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/CUPN/NRDS-2009/012 (Johnathan Jernigan, Bobby C. Carson and Teresa Leibfried, November 2009)
State of the Park Report, Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, Kentucky State of the Park Series No. 16 (2014)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 02-Apr-2022