Life on a Frontier Farm
Work was not long in finding the boy and girl of those days. By the time Abraham Lincoln was five years old, he had taken up his share of the daily duties. He carried in loads of wood, as his father chopped it. He picked up chips. He fetched water. He followed his father up one row and down another, dropping seeds in the new furrows.
One such planting time he never forgot. Through a long hot afternoon he went patiently from one corn hill to another, dropping two pumpkin seeds in every other hill. Visions of the long, trailing vines and the golden fruit of autumn may have come to hearten them at their task. But, that night, when they had come home, footsore and weary, a heavy rain descended, flooding the valley and washing out every one of their precious seed. It was just another stroke of ill-luck which seemed to follow Tom Lincoln all his life. Later he grew discouraged, instead of bucking up against it and fighting all the harder; and folks began to call him "shiftless."
The two children, between-whiles of their daily work, had some schooling. A small district school was opened near them, and with other boys and girls they attended for about three months in the year. The teaching was of the simplest; the blue-backed speller, an arithmetic, a writing copy book, and a hickory switch being about all that were used.
The benches were made of split logs, turned flat side up, and with pegs for legs. There were no blackboards nor slates. Two of the wandering school-teachers who came their way for a few short weeks were Zachariah Riney and Caleb Hazel. They were Abraham's first teachers, but the boy learned a great deal more from his mother at home, than from them. She it was who first taught him to write his name in sprawling characters, and spell his way slowly through the Bible and Aesop's Fables.
Tom Lincoln, the father, tried to learn, too—but he was too tired, and his brain was too old to make much progress. While he did not discourage education for his children, he felt that the ax and the rifle were more useful in the wilderness than the pen.
The boy, Abraham, found some fun in life, despite the hard work. He and Nancy had many a ramble together. At school he met a boy of about his own age, Austin Gallagher, who lived not many miles away. The two lads visited back and forth constantly, and their favorite time for excursions afield was on Sunday afternoons. They learned to snare rabbits, and to throw stones with unerring aim at partridges. They learned to follow the tracks of animals, to know the call of birds, to locate the pool where the biggest fish disported, the glen where the finest berries were to be found. They would have made wonderful Boy Scouts of a later day, for they had the finest possible training ground—the primitive woods themselves.
Once, Abraham had a narrow escape. He and Austin were walking a log across Knob Creek, when Abraham slipped and fell in. The stream was swollen from recent rains, and was not only deep but swift. With rare presence of mind, Austin seized a long tree limb, and held it out to his struggling friend. Abraham had just strength to seize it, and was painfully hauled ashore. He was more dead than alive, and Austin was thoroughly frightened.
"I rolled and pounded him in dead earnest," he said afterwards, "then I got him by the arms and shook him, while the water poured out of his mouth. By this means I at last brought him to, and soon he was all right."
One other incident is treasured of Lincoln's early days, and he himself related it.
"Do you remember anything about the War of 1812?" he was once asked.
"Nothing about the war itself," he replied. "But once when I was a boy of about five or six, I was going along the road, on my way home from a fishing trip. I had one small fish—it may have been my first one, I do not now know. I met a soldier—and into my mind flashed one of my mother's precepts—to be kind to the soldiers because they fought and were willing to die for their country. So I turned and gave my one small fish to the soldier!"
When the boy was seven years old, his father decided to move again—this time to Indiana, where, he heard, the soil was still richer. Tom Lincoln was of the type to whom the place just around the corner was always better than the one he had. Indiana had but recently been admitted as a State, and plenty of land was available for settlers. So he sold his Knob Creek farm for a small amount of ready money and some barrels of whiskey (the latter being a ready means of barter both with Indians and settlers), put his worldly possessions on a raft, and floated down to the Ohio River, in search of his new home.
Poor, patient Nancy Hanks Lincoln must have viewed with misgiving this uprooting of another home; or she may have taken it with the calm fortitude of the pioneer wife. She prepared to pack up their household effects, while Tom went on ahead to locate a new home to the North.