New Light on Lincoln's Boyhood

"Abe Lincoln's few schooldays were spent at a 'blab school': that is, one in which the children 'read out,' Chinese fashion, at the tops of their voices."

The larger part of our information concerning Abraham Lincoln's boyhood is derived from his own brief reference to that period, and from the self-centred statements of his cousin, Dennis Hanks. These, and other historical fragments, have been worked over and presented so repeatedly that sometimes we forget how really meagre are the underlying data. In the winter of 1909 I came into possession of an entirely new source of information concerning Lincoln's boyhood. In a remote corner of the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas, I found a man whose mother, a cousin of Lincoln, had passed her childhood with him in his father's family, and had preserved a store of family history, tradition, and anecdote concerning those early years. Since that time I have intended to make this information public, but the nomadic and very busy life of a civil engineer has heretofore prevented.

The family of Thomas Lincoln, father of Abraham, while in their Indiana home, consisted of his two children, Abraham and Sarah, and a flock of orphaned, or partly orphaned, children from at least four different families. Among these was a niece, Sophie Hanks, just a month younger than Abraham, who lived in the family of Thomas Lincoln until she was married. The remainder of her life, except for a visit to Indiana, was spent in primitive Ozark Mountain communities, separated from the companions of her childhood. The records of her recollections of Lincoln's early years and of the family life of Thomas Lincoln are very largely separate from and independent of all other sources. Sophie Hanks died in November, 1895, but her three children, living in different localities in the Ozarks, have retained a part of the information they received from her.

Sophie Hanks's mother, Sarah or Polly Hanks, was a sister of Lincoln's mother. Though she never married she had six children, all of whom lived to maturity, bearing their mother's name.

The discovery of the family came about in this manner. The most interesting vacation adventures I ever have experienced have resulted from trips into regions unknown to me, and without any specific destination. During the winter of 1908 and 1909, while engaged in planning the reclamation of the 'Sunk Lands' of northeast Arkansas, I spent one of these vacation periods on a short trip of exploration in the Ozarks. These mountains as a whole are monotonous rounded hills covered with scrub timber; but there is one section in northwest Arkansas, of perhaps a thousand square miles, not crossed by any railroad, where one finds canons with lichen-covered walls, steep mountainsides where cedar, oak, and beech grow with a luxuriance not seen in more northern latitudes, and where the mountain scenery will compare in beauty with anything the eastern states can offer. I had heard vaguely of the attractions of this region, had once before penetrated a corner of it, and on this occasion set out in that general direction.

The next morning found me on an Iron Mountain train, following the banks of the white River toward the summit of the Ozarks, with a ticket that would pacify the conductor until about noon. Noon came, but, as the rounded, weather-worn mountain-tops seemed to offer small chance for adventure, I continued during the afternoon paying the fare in cash, a station at a time, hoping for something to turn up. Nothing did turn up, and when, about sunset, I saw a stage awaiting the arrival of the train at the little station of Bergman, I decided to rest my chances for interesting developments with this other mode of travel. The stage was bound for the village of Harrison. That we were still in the land of culture and refinement was evident from an advertisement by the roadside which read, 'When you get to town, take a bath at the Midway Hotel.'

The hotel was not disappointing, and neither was the rangy saddle horse on which I started early next morning for a trip farther into the mountains. We passed rolling hills with their groves and well-kept farms, and the little town of Gaither, a peaceful, sleepy burg at the foot of the mountain; then a long road over the mountain, with a glorious view from the top in the soft gray morning; and finally down into the valley of Buffalo Creek.

That day on Buffalo Creek would have compensated for many a futile vacation adventure. There were sheer lichen-covered walls hundreds of feet high, sweeping in great curves with the bends of the creek; crevices and smaller creek valleys densely grown with cedar and hard woods; and here and there, perched in a cranny of the hills, a log cabin overflowing with children. I stopped for dinner at one of these. There were the great stone fireplace, the hand-made hickory furniture, hand-woven baskets, and puncheon floors, all a reproduction, I suppose, of a typical English cabin of three hundred years ago; and there were archaic forms of speech which even in Shakespeare's day had disappeared from all but uncultured or primitive communities. After dinner I sat for a time by the fireplace, talking with the father and telling stories to the children, who had never heard of Mother Goose.

During the afternoon the road climbed upward, crossing the creek from side to side, and toward evening the canon was not so deep. Stopping at one of the cabins, I was informed that at Low Gap I could cross the mountain-range and reach another valley. Not wanting to retrace my path, I left the creek, and was fortunate to reach the gap after nightfall, for a heavy snowstorm came on, covering the trails. The night was spent at a log cabin, where an Irish boy from Chicago was 'holding down a government claim' during his mother's absence. The next forenoon's travel was through another valley or canon, not so deep, but more picturesque, with many shady cliffs and little waterfalls, finally widening to a flat valley, perhaps a mile wide, occupied by farms. Then, just before noon, came the little town of Jasper, the seat of Newton County, distinguished as the only county in Arkansas which has never been invaded by a railroad.

The village hotel at Jasper evidently was a residence, remodeled to care for guests. These consisted of the village schoolmaster, an occasional timber-cruiser, lawyers and litigants during terms of court, and at intervals a traveling man. Our landlady's husband served as physician--'practising physic,' he called it--for the village and for a large surrounding country. The people were so abominably healthy, however, that in a tributary population of perhaps five thousand, there was at that time but one patient, a case of chronic stomach trouble; so the doctor's wife helped out the family revenues by keeping a hotel.


It was the 15th of February, 1909, and on the hotel table lay a recent copy of the St Louis Globe-Democrat, with a description of the dinner given the week before at Springfield, Illinois, commemorating the centennial of Lincoln's birth. The doctor apparently noticed my interest in this account, and when conversation had become established, he made a remark which seemed to indicate that he knew something of Lincoln. To my direct question he replied, 'Why, yes, my mother grew up with Abe Linkhorn. When I was a baby Abe held me in his arms and nursed me.' Further questions convinced me that here surely was a man of good intentions.

A snowstorm outside, and the fact that I had already made twenty miles over mountain roads and trails, offered sufficient excuse for postponing the further journey until the next day; so, with the horse cared for, I settled down for an afternoon and evening's visit. As the doctor provided wood for the hotel and helped in the preparation of the meals, our conversation was frequently broken. The schoolmaster, too, interrupted, expressing his scorn for so humble a source of information. Ida Tarbell knew all about Lincoln, he said, and had written it in a MAGAZINE.

The doctor answered questions willingly, but I found I did not know what to ask. With but superficial knowledge of Lincoln's boyhood and family history, nearly all details were new to me, and the fragments of the latter were without special significance. When I left next morning, therefore, it was with the promise that I might come again, and I resolved in the meantime to know more about my subject.

A second visit was made in May, at which time the doctor accompanied me by horse and buggy to Limestone Valley, thirty miles farther into the mountains, where we visited his half-sister, Mrs. Nancy Davidson, and her husband. She told more of Lincoln and also allowed me to search through an old wooden chest that had been her mother's. A letter in this chest from Dennis HanKs referred to another of Lincoln's semi-adopted brothers as having moved many years before to Douglas County, Oregon. Correspondence with all the postmasters in Douglas County located this branch of the family near the little town of Riddles. My wife was about to start on a trip through the West, and stopped at Riddles, securing such information as was available from John Hanks, who also, in his boyhood, had known Lincoln, A trip through the Ozark Mountains in Missouri finally located the doctor's half-brother, John Lynch, and his wife, in a little cabin a few miles east of the old town of Iron Mountain. Mr. Lynch was very old, and while he fully substantiated the fact of his mother's early life with Lincoln, his memory was fading and he could add few new facts.

During 1909 and 1910 a search in the Congressional Library at Washington for data concerning Lincoln's boyhood was followed by correspondence with the doctor, and his remembrance was recorded touching many points of interest. Then, in July, 1910, on a third visit, we took a two days' trip by team and buggy up Buffalo Creek. On this occasion a few remaining points were discussed. The doctor's wife is much younger than he, and has a more creative memory and well-developed imaginative powers, capable of filling in any gaps which may occur in memory. The data furnished by her properly belong to a less limited type of narrative, and are not included in this account. I have endeavored fully to recognize the obligation of historical accuracy, and have striven to avoid any unjustified appearance of consistency or precision in the account. All of the information, except as otherwise noted, was furnished by the doctor.

The doctor is a tall, sparely built man, with stooping shoulders. In wearing a red handkerchief about his neck, instead of a tie, as well as in other features of his dress, he conformed to the customs of the Ozark country. He was born in Dubois County, Indiana, December 26, 1843. In the spring of 1847 he moved from Indiana to St. Francis County, Missouri. Before the Civil War he went to school two or three months each year. During the war schooling was interrupted; but after its close he had two years more of six months each. Then, from 1868 to 1874, he taught school for seven months each year, four months in the public schools and three months in 'subscription schools.' 'While I was teaching school, I was studying medicine at every chance, and in 1875 I went in with Dr. Thompson as full partner in the practice of physic, and have been in active practice ever since.'

Since 1874 he has lived in Jasper, Arkansas, until shortly after I met him, when he moved to Harrison, Arkansas, giving up his practice. As he left Jasper for his new home, he forded Buffalo Creek, and threw his medicine case away into the swift water. For nearly half a century he had fought that mountain stream, winter and summer, in flood and during low water. He told me of wild night-rides over the mountain trials, of his terror-stricken horse pursued by a panther that followed close by, but apparently did not dare to attack; of making long detours for swollen streams, leading his horse along obscure mountain paths, skirting narrow ledges, or tearing through tangles of undergrowth. Twenty or thirty miles from home these trips would sometimes take him. On reaching his patient, he generally found a primitive log cabin, open to the weather, absolutely lacking in sanitary provisions and lacking also in knowledge of cooking beyond corn-bread and pork and a few other primitive foods. He was doctor, surgeon, nurse, cook, and often housekeeper.

The doctor and his family were independent people, living within their resources and asking odds of no one. The doctor's father, although urged by his wife to vote for Lincoln, refused to do so. John Lynch, the doctor's half-brother, also voted against Lincoln in 1869. He gave as his reason that his father was a Whig, 'and you know a boy is usually what his father is.' He was a soldier in the Civil War, and nearly died there. He was proud that only once did he ever try to profit by his relationship to the President. On that occasion he whipped an officer who had insulted him, and fearing that he would be court-martialed and shot, he made known his relationship.

Such are the sources of our information. The new facts collected about Lincoln's boyhood are not numerous. As important perhaps are the information concerning his father, and an accurate picture of the conditions of family life under which he lived.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In