There are few places that can claim one of the outstanding men of world history as a native son. LaRue County can. Abraham Lincoln was born a short distance south of Hodgenville in a rough cabin and spent his first childhood years on a hill country farm in the knobs of what is, today, northern LaRue County. Though he lived in Kentucky less than eight years, they were important, formative years and much later, as president of the United States, he would recall the “Knob Creek place” and old friends there fondly. Even after leaving Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln maintained strong connections to the state, practicing law with three Kentuckians and later marrying a Lexington girl, Mary Todd.
The Lincolns, of English descent, first settled in Pennsylvania in the same vicinity as the family of Daniel Boone, with whom they were well acquainted. Like the Boones and countless other Pennsylvania settlers, the Lincolns moved south to Virginia. The president’s grandfather, Abraham, a captain in the Continental Army during the American Revolution, secured two land warrants which granted him hundreds of acres of land in any Virginia county where land was still available. Like many others, he used the land warrants to purchase land in Kentucky County, which had been established in 1776. Settling along the Green River in 1785, Captain Lincoln was killed by Indians in an attack in which the lives of his three sons, Mordecai, Josiah and the youngest, Thomas, 10, were spared.
Left nearly destitute, Thomas was able to manage by working any job he could find. After learning the skills of carpentry and cabinet making, Thomas Lincoln was able to buy a 238-acre farm on Mill Creek in Hardin County in 1803. Shortly thereafter, Thomas met Nancy Hanks, a young Virginia woman who had come with her mother through the Cumberland Gap to settle on the Rolling Fork of the Salt River. The two were married by a Methodist Episcopal minister at Beechland, in Washington County, on June 12, 1806. They moved to Elizabethtown where Thomas had built a cabin on one of the two lots he owned and the next February the couple’s first child, Sarah, was born.
By the summer of 1808 Thomas Lincoln had moved his family to the Sinking Spring farm, now widely known as the Abraham Lincoln birthplace. Lincoln paid $200 for just over 348 acres located on the South Fork of Nolin Creek about three miles south of Hodgen’s Mill (later Hodgenville). Lincoln erected a small log cabin typical of the times, with packed dirt floor and a leather-hinged door. It is quite likely that during the family’s time on the South Fork Thomas Lincoln bought supplies from Robert Hodgen, whose mill and tavern almost certainly included a store. The farm, although situated in a beautiful hollow, was not blessed with the best soil for planting, but it did have a spring flowing from a limestone cave that provided excellent water. It was on this farm that the future President of the United States was born on a Sunday, February 12, 1809.
Christened Abraham, after his grandfather, the child lived with his family on Sinking Creek for two years, until his father decided to relocate about 10 miles, to a 230-acre farm on Knob Creek, in the hills to the northeast. The deeper and more fertile soils of the bottoms along Knob Creek may have been the primary attraction. Although only about 30 acres along the creek were tillable, these acres could yield far more than the thin soils of the Sinking Creek fields. For whatever reason, the family was living among the hills and narrow valleys of the Knob Creek section by May 1811. It was here that a young Abraham Lincoln would first be influenced by neighbors and teachers and by the varied natural environment that surrounded him. It would be this home he would remember as an adult.
On Knob Creek, the Lincoln family lived as well as most of their neighbors. Tax lists from the time show that Thomas Lincoln owned as many as four horses and, although other stock was generally not included, it is likely the family kept cattle and hogs as well. Growing up on the farm exposed young Abraham to simple chores and he wrote years later of helping plant pumpkin seeds among the rows of corn in “the big field” of seven acres. Abraham and Sarah obtained the rudiments of an education by attending what was referred to as an “ABC” school for a few weeks during the year. Their teachers included Zachary Riney, a well educated Catholic and a Maryland native, and Caleb Hazel, a former tavern keeper and close neighbor of the Lincoln family.
Young Abraham often roamed the hills and played in the creek with Austin Gollaher, whose family lived nearby. Lincoln credited the older Gollaher with saving his life after he had fallen into the swollen waters of Knob Creek. It was also during this time that a younger brother, Thomas, Jr., died. The impressionable Lincoln was able to observe the traffic on the Louisville-Nashville Turnpike, which ran close by. He saw soldiers walking to reach distant battlefields during the War of 1812, traveling salesmen, coaches and he also saw slaves, urged along the road by overseers. Thomas Lincoln did well enough at Knob Creek. He served on the Hardin County jury and was appointed “road surveyor” to oversee maintenance of a section of the turnpike near his home. But flaws in land titles, common in those days, resulted in challenges to ownership of the Knob Creek farm and other properties. Thomas Lincoln lost his case in court, unable to prove clear title to the land. Slavery in the area also seems to have figured in his decision to leave Kentucky. In December 1816, young Abraham Lincoln looked on the Knob Creek place for the last time as the family, along with most of their household goods, left the state for southern Indiana.
Today, the Lincoln Birthplace National Historic site and the Abraham Lincoln Boyhood Home, both administered by the National Park Service, stand as shrines to the memory of the “Great Emancipator.” The Park Service sees this as only fitting. As pointed out in a Park Service informational brochure from the Knob Creek boyhood home: “Truly this relatively unspoiled place is the land that molded the man who became the 16th President of the United States.” These sites, along with an Adolph Weinman statue of Lincoln in the public square at Hodgenville and the locally supported Lincoln Museum, also in Hodgenville, attract thousands of visitors each year.
Read more about the history of LaRue County here, and the history of Hodgenville here.