Read CHAPTER XIX of Historic Boyhoods , free online book, by Rupert Sargent Holland, on

Abraham Lincoln

The Boy of the American Wilderness: 1809-1865

Squire Josiah Crawford was seated on the porch of his house in Gentryville, Indiana, one spring afternoon when a small boy called to see him. The Squire was a testy old man, not very fond of boys, and he glanced up over his book, impatient and annoyed at the interruption.

“What do you want here?” he demanded.

The boy had pulled off his raccoon-skin cap, and stood holding it in his hand while he eyed the old man.

“They say down at the store, sir,” said the boy, “that you have a ’Life of George Washington,’ I’d like mighty well to read it.”

The Squire peered closer at his visitor, surprised out of his annoyance at the words. He looked over the boy, carefully examining his long, lank figure, the tangled mass of black hair, his deep-set eyes, and large mouth. He was evidently from some poor country family. His clothes were home-made, and the trousers were shrunk until they barely reached below his knees.

“What’s your name, boy?” asked the Squire.

“Abe Lincoln, son of Tom Lincoln, down on Pidgeon Creek.”

The Squire said to himself: “It must be that Tom Lincoln, who, folks say, is a ne’er-do-well and moves from place to place every year because he can’t make his farm support him.” Then he said, aloud, to the boy: “What do you want with my ’Life of Washington’?”

“I’ve been learning about him at school, and I’d like to know more.”

The old man studied the boy in silence for some moments; something about the lad seemed to attract him. Finally he said: “Can I trust you to take good care of the book if I lend it to you?”

“As good care,” said the boy, “as if it was made of gold, if you’d only please let me have it for a week.”

His eyes were so eager that the old man could not withstand them. “Wait here a minute,” he said, and went into the house. When he returned he brought the coveted volume with him, and handed it to the boy. “There it is,” said he: “I’m going to let you have it, but be sure it doesn’t come to harm down on Pidgeon Creek.”

The boy, with the precious volume tucked tightly under his arm, went down the single street of Gentryville with the joy of anticipation in his face. He could hardly wait to open the book and plunge into it. He stopped for a moment at the village store to buy some calico his stepmother had ordered, and then struck into the road through the woods that led to his home.

The house which he found at the end of his trail was a very primitive one. The first home Tom Lincoln had built on the Creek when he moved there from Kentucky had been merely a “pole-shack,” four poles driven into the ground with forked ends at the top, other poles laid crosswise in the forks, and a roof of poles built on this square. There had been no chimney, only an open place for a window, and another for a door, and strips of bark and patches of clay to keep the rain out. The new house was a little better, it had an attic, and the first floor was divided into several rooms. It was very simple, however; in reality only a big log-cabin.

The boy came out of the woods, crossed the clearing about the house, and went in at the door. His stepmother was sitting at the window sewing. He held up the volume for her to see. “I’ve got it!” he cried. “It’s the ‘Life of Washington,’ and now I’m goin’ to learn all about him.” He had barely time to put the book in the woman’s hands before his father’s voice was heard calling him out-of-doors. There was work to be done on the farm, and the rest of that afternoon Abe was kept busily employed, and as soon as supper was finished his father set him to work mending harness.

At dawn the next day the boy was up and out in the fields, the “Life of Washington” in one pocket, the other pocket filled with corn dodgers. Unfortunately he could not read and run a straight furrow. When it was noontime he sat under a tree, munching the cakes, and plunged into the first chapter of the book. For half an hour he read and ate, then he had to go on with his work until sundown. When he got home he had his supper standing up so that he could read the book by the candle that stood on the shelf. After supper he lay in front of the fire, still reading, and forgetting everything about him.

Gradually the fire burned out, the family went to bed, and young Abe was obliged to go up to his room in the attic. He put the book on a ledge on the wall close to the head of his bed so that nothing might happen to it. During the night a violent storm arose, and the rain came through a chink in the log walls. When the boy woke he found that the book was a mass of wet paper, the type blurred, and the cover beyond repair. He was heartbroken at the discovery. He could imagine how angry the old Squire would be when he saw the state of the book. Nevertheless he determined to go to Gentryville at the earliest opportunity and see what he could do to make amends.

The next Sunday morning found a small boy standing on the Squire’s porch with the remains of the book in his hand. When the Squire learned what had happened he spoke his mind freely. He told Abe that he was as worthless as his father, that he did not know how to take care of valuable property, and that he would never loan him another book as long as he lived. The boy faced the music, and when the angry tirade was over, said that he would like to shuck corn for the Squire, and in that way pay him the value of the ruined volume. Mr. Crawford accepted the offer and named a price far greater than any possible value of the book, and Abe set to work, spending all his spare time in the next two weeks shucking the corn and working as chore-boy. So he finally succeeded in paying back the full value of the ruined “Life of Washington.”

This was only one of many adventures that befell Abraham Lincoln while he was trying to get an education. His mother had taught him to read and write, and ever since he had learned he had longed for books to read.

One day he said to his cousin, Dennis Hanks, “Denny, the things I want to know are in books. My best friend is the man who will get me one.”

Dennis was very fond of his younger cousin, and as soon as he could save up the money he went to town and bought a copy of “The Arabian Nights.” He gave this to Abe, and the latter at once started to read it aloud by the wood-fire in the evenings. His mother, his sister Sally, and Dennis were his audience. His father thought the reading only waste of time and said, “Abe, your mother can’t work with you pesterin’ her like that,” but Mrs. Lincoln said the stories helped her, and so the reading went on. When he came to the story of how Sindbad the Sailor went too close to the magic rock and lost all the nails out of the bottom of his boat, Abe laughed until he cried.

Dennis, however, could not see the humor. “Why, Abe,” said he, “that yarn’s just a lie.”

“P’raps so,” answered the small boy, “but if it is, it’s a mighty good lie.”

As a matter of fact Abe had very few books. His earliest possessions consisted of less than half-a-dozen volumes a pioneer’s library. First of all was the Bible, a whole library in itself, containing every sort of literature. Second was “Pilgrim’s Progress,” with its quaint characters and vivid scenes told in simple English.

“AEsop’s Fables” was a third, and introduced the log-cabin boy to a wonderful range of characters the gods of mythology, the different classes of mankind, and every animal under the sun; and fourth was a History of the United States, in which there was the charm of truth, and from which Abe learned valuable lessons of patriotism.

He read these books over and over till he knew them by heart. He would sit in the twilight and read a dictionary as long as he could see. He could not afford to waste paper upon original compositions, and so he would sit by the fire at night and cover the wooden shovel with essays and arithmetical problems, which he would shave off and then begin again.

The few books he was able to get made the keen-witted country boy anxious to find people who could answer his questions for him. In those days many men, clergymen, judges, and lawyers, rode on circuit, stopping over night at any farmhouse they might happen upon. When such a man would ride up to the Lincoln clearing he was usually met by a small boy who would fire questions at him before he could dismount from his horse.

The visitor would be amused, but Tom Lincoln thought that a poor sort of hospitality. He would come running out of the house and say, “Stop that, Abe. What’s happened to your manners?” Then he would turn to the traveler, “You must excuse him. ’Light, stranger, and come in to supper.” Then Abe would go away whistling to show that he did not care. When he found Dennis he would say, “Pa says it’s not polite to ask questions, but I guess I wasn’t meant to be polite. There’s such a lot of things to know, and how am I going to know them if I don’t ask questions?” He simply stored them away until a later time, and when supper was over he usually found his chance to make use of the visitor.

In that day Indiana was still part of the wilderness. Primeval woods stood close to Pidgeon Creek, and not far away were roving bands of Sacs and Sioux, and also wild animals bears, wildcats, and lynxes. The settlers fought the Indians, and made use of the wild creatures for clothing and food, and to sell at the country stores. The children spent practically all their time out-of-doors, and young Abe Lincoln learned the habits of the wild creatures, and explored the far recesses of the woods.

From his life in the woods the boy became very fond of animals. One day some of the boys at school put a lighted coal on a turtle’s back in sport. Abe rescued the turtle, and when he got a chance wrote a composition in school about cruel jokes on animals. It was a good paper, and the teacher had the boy read it before the class. All the boys liked Abe, and they took to heart what he had to say in the matter.

It was a rough sort of life that the children of the early settlers led, and the chances were all in favor of the Lincoln boy growing up to be like his father, a kind-hearted, ignorant, ne’er-do-well type of man. His mother, however, who came of a good Virginia family, had done her best to give him some ambition. Once she had said to him, “Abe, learn all you can, and grow up to be of some account. You’ve got just as good Virginia blood in you as George Washington had.” Abe did not forget that.

Soon after the family moved to Pidgeon Creek his mother died, and a little later a stepmother took her place. This woman soon learned that the boy was not the ordinary type, and kept encouraging him to make something of himself. She was always ready to listen when he read, to help him with his lessons, to cheer him. When he got too old to wear his bearskin suit she told him that if he would earn enough money to get some muslin, she would make him some white shirts, so that he would not be ashamed to go to people’s houses. Abe earned the money, and Mrs. Lincoln purchased the cloth and made the shirts. After that Abe cut quite a figure in Gentryville, because he liked people, and knew so many good stories that he was always popular with a crowd.

Small things showed the ability that was in the raw country lad. When he was only fourteen a copy of Henry Clay’s speeches fell into his hands, and he learned most of them by heart, and what he learned from them interested him in history. Then a little later his stepmother was ill for some time, and Abe went to church every Sunday, and on his return repeated the sermon almost word for word to her. Again he loved to argue, and would take up some question he had asked of a stranger and go on with it when the latter returned to the Creek, perhaps months after the first visit. Mrs. Lincoln noted these things, and made up her mind that her stepson would be a great man some day. Most frequently she thought he would be a great lawyer, because, as she said, “When Abe got started arguing, the other fellow’d pretty soon say he had enough.”

Probably at this time Abe was more noted for his love of learning new things and for his great natural strength than for anything else. He was in no sense an infant prodigy. It took him a long time to learn, but when he had once acquired anything it stayed by him permanently. The books he had read he knew from cover to cover, and the words he had learned to spell at the school “spelling bees” he never forgot. Now and again he tried his hand at writing short compositions, usually on subjects he had read of in books, and these little essays were always to the point and showed that the boy knew what he was discussing. One or two of these papers got into the hands of a local newspaper and appeared in print, much to Abe’s surprise and to his stepmother’s delight.

Yet after all these qualities were not the ones which won him greatest admiration in the rough country life. The boys and young men admired his great size and strength, for when he was only nineteen he had reached his full growth, and stood six feet four inches tall. Countless stories were current about his feats of strength.

At one time, it was said, young Abe Lincoln was seen to pick up and carry away a chicken coop weighing six hundred pounds. At another time Abe happened to come upon some men who were building a contrivance for lifting some heavy posts from the ground. He stepped up to them and said, “Say, let me have a try,” and in a few minutes he had shouldered the posts and carried them where they were wanted. As a rail-splitter he had no equal. A man for whom he worked told his father that Abe could sink his axe deeper into the wood than any man he ever saw.

This great strength was a very valuable gift in such a community as that of Gentryville, and made people respect this boy even more than would his learning and his kindness of heart.

A little later he lived in a village named New Salem, and there he found a crowd of boys who were called the “Clary’s Grove Boys,” who were noted for the rough handling they gave to strangers. Many a new boy had been hardly dealt with at their hands. Sometimes they would lead him into a fight and then beat him black and blue, and sometimes they would nail the stranger into a hogshead and roll him down a steep hill.

When Abe Lincoln first came to the town they were afraid to tackle him, but when their friends taunted the crowd of young roughs with being afraid of Lincoln’s strength, they decided to lay a trap for him. The leader of the gang was a very good wrestler, and he seized an opportunity when all the men of the town were gathered at the country store to challenge Abe to a wrestling match. Abe was not at all anxious to accept the challenge, but was finally driven to it by the taunts the gang threw at him. A ring was made in the road outside the store, and Abe and the bully set to.

The leader of the gang, however, found that he could not handle this tall young stranger as easily as he had handled other youths. He gave a signal for help. Thereupon the rest of the roughs swarmed about the two wrestlers and by kicking at Abe’s legs and trying to trip him they nearly succeeded in bringing him to the ground. When he saw how set they were on downing him Abe’s blood rose, and suddenly putting forth his whole strength he seized his opponent in his arms and very nearly choked the life out of him.

For a moment it looked as though the rest of the crowd would set upon Lincoln and that he would have to fight the lot of them single-handed. He sprang back against a wall and called to them to come on. But he looked so able to take care of any number that they faltered, and in a moment their first fury gave place to an honest admiration for Lincoln’s nerve. That ended his initiation, and as long as he stayed in New Salem the “Clary’s Grove Boys” were his devoted followers.

The leader of the gang, whom Abe had nearly throttled, became his sworn friend, and this bond lasted through life. When other men threatened Abe or spoke against him in any way, this youth was always first to stand up for him, and acted as his champion many times. Curiously enough, in after years, when Abe had become a lawyer, he defended his old opponent’s son when the young man was on trial for his life, and succeeded in saving him.

Such an adventure as this with the “Clary’s Grove Boys” was typical of the way in which Abe, as he grew up, came to acquire a very definite position in the community. In one way and another he gained the reputation which the boys gave him of being not only the strongest, but also “the cleverest fellow that had ever broke into the settlement.” There were many strong men in that country, but there were few really clever ones, and the simple farmers were only too willing to admire brains when they met them.

The time had passed when the boy could stay in the small surroundings of Pidgeon Creek. First he tried life on one of the river steamboats, then served as a clerk in a store at the town of New Salem, and there he began at odd moments to study law.

A little later he knew enough law to become an attorney, and went to Springfield, and after that it was only a short time before he had won his clients. His cousin Denny came to hear him try one of his first cases. He watched the tall, lank young fellow, still as ungainly as in his early boyhood, and heard him tell the jury some of those same stories he had read aloud before the fire.

When Abe had finished his cousin said to him, “Why did you tell those people so many stories?”

“Why, Denny,” said Abe, “a story teaches a lesson. God tells truths in parables; they are easier for common folks to understand, and recollect.”

Such was the simple boyhood of Abraham Lincoln, but its very simplicity, and the hardships he had to overcome to get an education, made him a strong man. He knew people, and when he came later to be President and to guide the country through the greatest trial in its history, it was those same qualities of perseverance and courage and trust in the people that made the simple-minded man the great helmsman of the Republic.