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The Sinking Spring Farm

“Looks didn’t count them days, nohow, it was stren’th an’ work an’ daredevil.  A lazy man or coward was jist pizen, and; a spindlin’ feller had to stay in the settlemints.  The clearin’s hadn’t no use fur him….  It wasn’t Tom’s fault he couldn’t make a livin’ by his trade,  That was sca’ce’y any money in that kentry.  Every man had to do his own tinkerin’, and’ keep everlastin’ly at work to git enough to eat.  So Tom tuk up some land.  It was mighty ornery land, but it was the best Tom could git, when he hadn’t much to trade fur it.” 
- Reminiscences of Lincoln’s Cousin and Playmate, Dennis Hanks, pg 361)     

In December of 1808 Thomas purchased the 300-acre Sinking Spring Farm south of Hodgen’s Mill (now the town of Hodgenville) for $200.  The land did not have very good soil, but the fresh water source the farm was named after (also called the Rock Spring and the Cave Spring) was valuable. 

The Sinking Spring
The Sinking Spring circa 1900.  From 

A recent look down into the Sinking Spring 

There he could provide for his growing family through farming and continue his carpentry work; the knoll above the spring was a wonderful location for a cabin.  Perhaps both Thomas and Nancy preferred to live in the country rather than in town, since that is how they both grew up.  Another advantage of that place is that Nancy’s uncle and aunt Thomas and Elizabeth Sparrow lived about three miles to the southeast.  They never had children of their own but frequently took in young relations to help raise, including Nancy, and more recently Dennis Friend Hanks (born in 1799), and would soon take in Sophia (born in 1809): both were blood relations of Nancy.  The Sparrows were like grandparents to Abraham in later years.   

We don’t know if there was a cabin on the Sinking Spring farm when Tom bought it, and we don’t know the dimensions of the cabin the family lived in: neighbors reporting 80 years later could be neither reliable nor exact.  However, historians agree that Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, to parents Tom and Nancy in a one-room log cabin at the Sinking Spring Farm south of present-day Hodgenville.  In 1860 Abe wrote “My parents being dead, and my own memory not serving, I know no means of identifying the precise locality.  It was on Nolen Creek.”  (Story-Life pg. 23).  As an ordinary pioneer family on an ordinary farm, few people took notice of his birth.  Dennis Hanks tells the story of meeting the new baby:  

“I recollect Tom comin’ over to our house one cold mornin’ in Feb’uary an’ sayin’ kind o’ slow, ‘Nancy’s got a boy baby.’  Mother got flustered an’ hurried up ‘er work to go over to look after the little feller, but I didn’t have nothin’ to wait fur, so I cut an’ run the hull two mile to see my new cousin.  You bet I was ticked to death.  Babies wasn’t a common as blackberries in the woods o’ Kaintucky,  Mother came over and washed him an’ put a yaller flannen petticoat on hi, an’ cooked up some dried berries with wild honey fur Nancy. An’ sliced things up and went home.  An’ that’s all the nuss’n either of ‘em got.  I roled up in a b’ar skin an’ slep’ by the fire-place that night, so’s I could see the little feller when he cried and Tom had to get up an’ tend to him.”  (Story-Life of Lincoln, pg 13) 

Many people look at the simple one-room log cabins used by the Pioneers and comment “life was so much simpler then.”  Some things were simpler: there was certainly less ‘stuff’ to manage, but that ‘stuff’ generally provides certain advantages to which we have become accustomed.  Imagine Nancy in her little log cabin with a two year old and a newborn, coping with all of the responsibilities of motherhood (nursing, sleepless nights tending to sick children, keeping young children safe from the many dangers of open fires and the Great Outdoors) and all the work of cabin life (cooking everything from scratch over an open fire, carrying buckets of water from the spring, washing laundry – including diapers – by hand, making and mending clothing, butchering, making soap and candles, tending farm animals, preserving food for winter, etc.).  These jobs are enough to easily keep two or three people busy.  The men of the family may or may not be available to help, depending on what other work they had to do: and some jobs they were just not qualified to manage.  Family members could be very helpful, and often teenage girls would go to live with close or extended relatives to help out with domestic chores: essentially, serving an apprenticeship for household and family management.  There’s no sign that Nancy was that lucky.   

Looking at tax records gives the impression that the Lincoln’s were near the top of local families in wealth, but that was based on the value of land and animals, and didn’t have much to do with how the family actually lived:  ”Pore? We was all pore, them days, but the Lincolns was porer than anybody.  Choppin’ trees and grubbin’ roots and splitting’ rails and huntin’ and trappin’ didn’t leave Tom no time…. It was all he could do to git his fambly enough to eat and to kiver ‘em.  Nancy was terrible ashamed o’ the way they lived, but she knowed Tom was doing’ his best, and she wasn’t the pesterin’ kind.”  (Reminiscences of Lincoln’s Cousin and Playmate, Dennis Hanks, pg 361)     

“Abe never gave Nancy no trouble after he could walk excep’ to keep him in clothes.  Most o’ the time we went bar’foot.  Ever wear a wet buckskin glove? Them moccasins wasn’t no putection ag’inst the wet.  Birch bark with hickory bark soles, strapped on over yarn socks, beat buckskin all holler’ fur snow.  Abe ‘n’ me got purty handy contrivin’ things that way.  An’ Abe was right out in the woods, about as soon’s he was weaned, fishin’ in the crick, settin’ traps fur rabbits an’ muskrats, goin’ on coon hunts with Tom and me an’ the dogs, follerin’ up bees to find bee trees, and drappin’ corn for his pappy.  Mighty interestin’ life fur a boy, but thar was a good many chances he wouldn’t live to grow up.” Reminiscenses of Lincoln’s Cousin and Playmate, Dennis Hanks, pg ___)     

When he was only two years old the family was forced to leave the farm Thomas purchased because of a faulty title: Tom bought the land from Isaac Bush, who bought it from David Vance. unfortunately, David Vance had a habit of buying farms without paying for them in full, then selling them again.  So when the previous owner who had never been paid in full showed up and told Tom to get off of the land, the little family had to go.  They moved about eight miles away to what is now called The Lincoln Boyhood Home at Knob Creek.  Tom fought in court for years trying to get the Sinking Spring Farm back.