(Dec. 8, 2017) I am currently in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Tomorrow I’ll be hitting more railway history (visited the Kentucky Railway Museum in New Haven earlier today, I’ll talk about that later) and Sunday visit the National Corvette Museum with an old shipmate from USS Ponce (LPD 15). Yesterday…ah, yesterday was special! Yesterday I spent tooling around the other end of Abraham Lincoln’s remarkable life—the end of his life most people don’t seem to be in touch with: the end of his life that was the beginning.
Lincoln was not an Illinois native. Nope; he was born at Sinking Spring Farm outside of Hodgenville, Kentucky, that 12th day of February in 1809. A land title dispute forced his family to move to Knob Creek Farm (on the other side of Hodgeville) when he was two. At the age of seven his family was forced to moved again when yet another land dispute evicted nearly everyone out of Knob Creek Valley. Thomas Lincoln, his father, was fed up with the land disputes and slavery in Kentucky, so the Lincolns headed north to Indiana, then finally to Illinois.
The early mobility of his life was typical of many frontier families, but it also oddly smacks of the life experience of many modern military kids!
Many times since I was seven I’ve stood in the room at the Petersnn House where that great heart beat its final thump in 1865. Yesterday I finally got to stand on the hill top where that great heart, tiny and infant, beat out its first thump in 1809. A Greek revival memorial atop the hill encloses a log cabin that, for many years, was touted as the cabin Lincoln was born in. But…it’s not.
If you’re lucky you’ll meet Park Ranger Natalie Barber up in the memorial. She is a prior United States Marine, powerful educator, passionate ranger, and expert in all things Lincoln. I had the distinct pleasure of being swept back to the early 19th century by her colorful story telling, culminating in learning the truth about the cabin, a surprising revelation about where I had arbitrarily chosen to stay the night before, and a coincidence of research timing.
The cabin housed in the memorial was touted in the late 19th century by a local businessman as the Lincoln birth cabin with a story that it had been relocated from the hill on the Sinking Spring Farm to his land. It was moved “back” to the hill and the memorial built around it. President Theodore Roosevelt laid the memorial’s cornerstone in the of the last acts of his presidency in 1909 and President William Howard Taft dedicated it in 1911.
Dendrochronology (the science of identifying the age of wood) revealed an inconvenient fact. It pegged the cabin’s construction at no earlier than 1848…about 39 years too late for Lincoln to have been born in it. I mean, come on. The man was already in government by 1848! The Park Service, when this was brought to light, swiftly adjusted their interpretative material to reflect the truth, and now uses the cabin as a symbol of the world Lincoln was born into (it is typical of the cabins of that era).
As to its specific location on the hill…that’s just a guess. The hill itself has been positively identified, but log cabins like these had no stone foundations. There is no way to figure on exactly where on the hill the cabin stood, but that hill is where Abraham Lincoln entered this world.
As we talked, Ranger Natalie mentioned Lincoln’s parents, Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks, met and marryied in the nearby Elizabethtown. I was surprised—I had spent the night in Elizabethtown simply by accident! However, Ranger Natalie had yet another Elizabethtown surprise for me after that one!
It is well known Nancy Hanks Lincoln tragically died while the family was in Indiana, and Thomas Lincoln then married a widow, Sarah Bush Johnston. Abraham Lincoln always said he got his strength from his father and his intelligence and passion for reading from his “Angel Mother” (Nancy Hanks). However, he loved Sarah deeply and always pointed out she encouraged his love of learning while treating him as if he were her own flesh and blood.
Turns out Thomas Lincoln went back to Elizabethtown to sweep up Sarah Bush Johnston in a whirlwind frontier courtship. The cabin Johnston lived in has long vanished, but she was living along the shores of Freeman Lake, and there is a replica cabin there (near a house Thomas Lincoln helped build) to commemorate her part in the Lincoln story. Today Freeman Lake Park in Elizabethtown is a pleasant, wide-open space one should visit for the sake of its own beauty as well as its historical connections to our 16th president.
Finally, Ranger Natalie told me of an interesting coincidence of timing at Knob Creek. The Lincoln home there was long ago demolished for firewood by Austin Gollaher, a childhood friend of Abraham’s. This type of recycling was a common practice in those days; after all, the wood was already cut and cured, thereby saving labor. Remember, too, this is long before Lincoln’s legend grew.
Anyway, a cabin reported to be the one Gollaher grew up was moved to the site of the Lincoln farm at Knob Creek. The interesting thing is that this coming Monday (Dec. 11, 2017) core samples will be take of its wood to determine its age and verify (or disprove) if it really was Gollaher’s home.
We all hear the stories of Lincoln’s frontier upbringing and the unique perspectives on life, death, perseverance, honor, and honesty this inculcated in him. However, you are really missing something if you only visit the Lincoln sits in Washington. He only lived in that city for a little over six years total out of his 56-year life. To get a visceral understanding (as opposed to just having a bookish “oh, yeah,” understanding), you need to get out here to the land he grew up in. I have not yet visited Indiana or Illinois, but the land around Hodgeville, Kentucky, is still largely rural farmland. It is much today as it was 200 years ago. Being here in the beginning of what looks to be a deep and hard winter adds to the understanding of these people and how stubbornly determined they had to be in order to survive. Summer may be hot and lush and beautiful, but it’s in winter you understand just what it took for these frontier families to thrive in the face of the harsh, unforgiving land.
Forget the frontier families; the Native Americans (whose stories I will be exploring as well) faced and thrived in the same unforgiving environment, exhibiting the same hardy fortitude the frontier families later did.
Abraham Lincoln has long been at the top of my personal pantheon of heroes. Finally being able to experience his story from the land, instead of reading it from a book, has given me a very intimate view of the man I never had before. In a way, I’m beginning to understand just how he stood up to the fires of the Civil War…and kept the United States standing too.
Next up on the Lincoln Trail will be his Indiana years. But, before I trek north again, there’s more of Kentucky to see!