Not far from Hodgensville, in Kentucky, there once lived a man whose name was Thomas Lincoln. This man had built for himself a little log cabin by the side of a brook, where there was an ever-flowing spring of water.
There was but one room in this cabin. On the side next to the brook there was a low doorway; and at one end there was a large fireplace, built of rough stones and clay.
The chimney was very broad at the bottom and narrow at the top. It was made of clay, with flat stones and slender sticks laid around the outside to keep it from falling apart.
In the wall, on one side of the fireplace, there was a square hole for a window. But there was no glass in this window. In the summer it was left open all the time. In cold weather a deerskin, or a piece of coarse cloth, was hung over it to keep out the wind and the snow.
At night, or on stormy days, the skin of a bear was hung across the doorway; for there was no door on hinges to be opened and shut.
There was no ceiling to the room. But the inmates of the cabin, by looking up, could see the bare rafters and the rough roof-boards, which Mr. Lincoln himself had split and hewn.
There was no floor, but only the bare ground that had been smoothed and beaten until it was as level and hard as pavement.
For chairs there were only blocks of wood and a rude bench on one side of the fireplace. The bed was a little platform of poles, on which were spread the furry skins of wild animals, and a patchwork quilt of homespun goods.
In this poor cabin, on the 12th of February, 1809, a baby boy was born. There was already one child in the family—a girl, two years old, whose name was Sarah.
The little boy grew and became strong like other babies, and his parents named him Abraham, after his grandfather, who had been killed by the Indians many years before.
When he was old enough to run about, he liked to play under the trees by the cabin door. Sometimes he would go with his little sister into the woods and watch the birds and the squirrels.
He had no playmates. He did not know the meaning of toys or playthings. But he was a happy child and had many pleasant ways.
Thomas Lincoln, the father, was a kind-hearted man, very strong and brave. Sometimes he would take the child on his knee and tell him strange, true stories of the great forest, and of the Indians and the fierce beasts that roamed among the woods and hills.
For Thomas Lincoln had always lived on the wild frontier; and he would rather hunt deer and other game in the forest than do anything else. Perhaps this is why he was so poor. Perhaps this is why he was content to live in the little log cabin with so few of the comforts of life.
But Nancy Lincoln, the young mother, did not complain. She, too, had grown up among the rude scenes of the backwoods. She had never known better things.
And yet she was by nature refined and gentle; and people who knew her said that she was very handsome. She was a model housekeeper, too; and her poor log cabin was the neatest and best-kept house in all that neighborhood.
No woman could be busier than she. She knew how to spin and weave, and she made all the clothing for her family.
She knew how to wield the ax and the hoe; and she could work on the farm or in the garden when her help was needed.
She had also learned how to shoot with a rifle; and she could bring down a deer or other wild game with as much ease as could her husband. And when the game was brought home, she could dress it, she could cook the flesh for food, and of the skins she could make clothing for her husband and children.
There was still another thing that she could do—she could read; and she read all the books that she could get hold of. She taught her husband the letters of the alphabet; and she showed him how to write his name. For Thomas Lincoln had never gone to school, and he had never learned how to read.
As soon as little Abraham Lincoln was old enough to understand, his mother read stories to him from the Bible. Then, while he was still very young, she taught him to read the stories for himself.
The neighbors thought it a wonderful thing that so small a boy could read. There were very few of them who could do as much. Few of them thought it of any great use to learn how to read.
There were no schoolhouses in that part of Kentucky in those days, and of course there were no public schools.
One winter a traveling schoolmaster came that way. He got leave to use a cabin not far from Mr. Lincoln's, and gave notice that he would teach school for two or three weeks. The people were too poor to pay him for teaching longer.
The name of this schoolmaster was Zachariah Riney.
The young people for miles around flocked to the school. Most of them were big boys and girls, and a few were grown up young men. The only little child was Abraham Lincoln, and he was not yet five years old.
There was only one book studied at that school, and it was a spelling book. It had some easy reading lessons at the end, but these were not to be read until after every word in the book had been spelled.
You can imagine how the big boys and girls felt when Abraham Lincoln proved that he could spell and read better than any of them.
In the autumn, just after Abraham Lincoln was eight years old, his parents left their Kentucky home and moved to Spencer county, in Indiana.
It was not yet a year since Indiana had become a state. Land could be bought very cheap, and Mr. Lincoln thought that he could make a good living there for his family. He had heard also that game was plentiful in the Indiana woods.
It was not more than seventy or eighty miles from the old home to the new. But it seemed very far, indeed, and it was a good many days before the travelers reached their journey's end. Over a part of the way there was no road, and the movers had to cut a path for themselves through the thick woods.
The boy, Abraham, was tall and very strong for his age. He already knew how to handle an ax, and few men could shoot with a rifle better than he. He was his father's helper in all kinds of work.
It was in November when the family came to the place which was to be their future home. Winter was near at hand. There was no house, nor shelter of any kind. What would become of the patient, tired mother, and the gentle little sister, who had borne themselves so bravely during the long, hard journey?
No sooner had the horses been loosed from the wagon than Abraham and his father were at work with their axes. In a short time they had built what they called a "camp."
This camp was but a rude shed, made of poles and thatched with leaves and branches. It was enclosed on three sides, so that the chill winds or the driving rains from the north and west could not enter. The fourth side was left open, and in front of it a fire was built.
This fire was kept burning all the time. It warmed the interior of the camp. A big iron kettle was hung over it by means of a chain and pole, and in this kettle the fat bacon, the venison, the beans, and the corn were boiled for the family's dinner and supper. In the hot ashes the good mother baked luscious "corn dodgers," and sometimes, perhaps, a few potatoes.
In one end of the camp were the few cooking utensils and little articles of furniture which even the poorest house cannot do without. The rest of the space was the family sitting room and bedroom. The floor was covered with leaves, and on these were spread the furry skins of deer and bears, and other animals.
It was in this camp that the family spent their first winter in Indiana. How very cold and dreary that winter must have been! Think of the stormy nights, of the shrieking wind, of the snow and the sleet and the bitter frost! It is not much wonder if, before the spring months came, the mother's strength began to fail.
But it was a busy winter for Thomas Lincoln. Every day his ax was heard in the woods. He was clearing the ground, so that in the spring it might be planted with corn and vegetables.
He was hewing logs for his new house; for he had made up his mind, now, to have something better than a cabin.
The woods were full of wild animals. It was easy for Abraham and his father to kill plenty of game, and thus keep the family supplied with fresh meat.
And Abraham, with chopping and hewing and hunting and trapping, was very busy for a little boy. He had but little time to play; and, since he had no playmates, we cannot know whether he even wanted to play.
With his mother, he read over and over the Bible stories which both of them loved so well. And, during the cold, stormy days, when he could not leave the camp, his mother taught him how to write.
In the spring the new house was raised. It was only a hewed log house, with one room below and a loft above. But it was so much better than the old cabin in Kentucky that it seemed like a palace.
The family had become so tired of living in the "camp," that they moved into the new house before the floor was laid, or any door hung at the doorway.
Then came the plowing and the planting and the hoeing. Everybody was busy from daylight to dark. There were so many trees and stumps that there was but little room for the corn to grow.
The summer passed, and autumn came. Then the poor mother's strength gave out. She could no longer go about her household duties. She had to depend more and more upon the help that her children could give her.
At length she became too feeble to leave her bed. She called her boy to her side. She put her arms about him and said: "Abraham, I am going away from you, and you will never see me again. I know that you will always be good and kind to your sister and father. Try to live as I have taught you, and to love your heavenly Father."
On the 5th of October she fell asleep, never to wake again.
Under a big sycamore tree, half a mile from the house, the neighbors dug the grave for the mother of Abraham Lincoln. And there they buried her in silence and great sorrow.
There was no minister there to conduct religious services. In all that new country there was no church; and no holy man could be found to speak words of comfort and hope to the grieving ones around the grave.
But the boy, Abraham, remembered a traveling preacher, whom they had known in Kentucky. The name of this preacher was David Elkin. If he would only come!
And so, after all was over, the lad sat down and wrote a letter to David Elkin. He was only a child nine years old, but he believed that the good man would remember his poor mother, and come.
It was no easy task to write a letter. Paper and ink were not things of common use, as they are with us. A pen had to be made from the quill of a goose.
But at last the letter was finished and sent away. How it was carried I do not know; for the mails were few and far between in those days, and postage was very high. It is more than likely that some friend, who was going into Kentucky, undertook to have it finally handed to the good preacher.
Months passed. The leaves were again on the trees. The wild flowers were blossoming in the woods. At last the preacher came.
He had ridden a hundred miles on horseback; he had forded rivers, and traveled through pathless woods; he had dared the dangers of the wild forest: all in answer to the lad's beseeching letter.
He had no hope of reward, save that which is given to every man who does his duty. He did not know that there would come a time when the greatest preachers in the world would envy him his sad task.
And now the friends and neighbors gathered again under the great sycamore tree. The funeral sermon was preached. Hymns were sung. A prayer was offered. Words of comfort and sympathy were spoken.
From that time forward the mind of Abraham Lincoln was filled with a high and noble purpose. In his earliest childhood his mother had taught him to love truth and justice, to be honest and upright among men, and to reverence God. These lessons he never forgot.
Long afterward, when he was known as a very great man, he said: "All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother."