Chapter One: The Wild West

Posted by on February 9, 2010 in Life of Lincoln | Comments Off

In 1800, most of the country was frontier. In any part of the country today, in villages or small towns, on the enormous farms of the Dakotas or the vast ranches of California, one is certain to find some, if not many, of the modern appliances that weren’t dreamed of one hundred years before. It requires an extraordinary effort of the imagination to understand what life was like during the opening years of that century.

The first quarter of the century ended with 1825. Abraham Lincoln was nearly seventeen years old. Our deepest impressions of life are created very early. The things that happen to us when we’re younger than seventeen have much to do with the way we turn out. So, if we go back to the period named, we can tell what life was like during Lincoln’s early years. Though we cannot know exactly what he had, we can name many things, which today we think of as necessities, that he had to do without, for the simple reason that they had not yet been invented.

First, we must bear in mind that Lincoln lived in the woods. There was little schooling. But the woodsman has an education of his own. The region was wild in the sense that very few people lived there and only small areas of land were cleared or used. The forests, from the mountains in the East to the prairies in the West, were almost unbroken and were the living place for wild birds and wild beasts. Bears, deer, wild cats, raccoons, wild turkeys, wild pigeons, wild ducks, and similar creatures abounded everywhere.

There may have been lots of animals, but there weren’t many people. In 1810, in Illinois, with its more than 56,000 square miles of land, lived only 12,282 people; in 1820, only 55,211, or less than one to the square mile; while in 1825 its population had grown to a little more than 100,000, or less than two to the square mile.

When he was a boy, Lincoln lived only in the wildest of the wild woods, where the animals from the chipmunk to the bear were much more numerous, and probably more at home, than people were.

There were few roads of any kind, and certainly none that could be called good. For the mud of Indiana and Illinois was very deep. There were good horses, a decent number of oxen, and carts that were crude and simple. But there were no trains, no bicycles, and no cars. As to carriages, there may have been some, but a good carriage would be only a waste on those roads and in that forest.

The only pen was the goose-quill, and the ink was homemade. Paper was scarce, expensive, and, while of good material, poorly made. Newspapers were unknown, and books were like angels’ visits, few and far between.

Imagine this boy. Begin at his head and look down him – a long look, for he was tall and skinny. His cap in winter may have been of coonskin, with the tail of the animal hanging down Lincoln’s back. In summer, he could have worn a misshapen straw hat. His shirt was likely of no color whatever, unless you call it “the color of dirt.” His breeches or pants were likely of deerskin and perhaps held up by one suspender. The hunting shirt was likewise of deerskin. The socks? Well, there probably weren’t any. The shoes were cowhide, though moccasins made by his mother were probably worn in dry weather. He was tall and perhaps grew quickly so there may have been a space of several inches between the pants and the shoes, exposing a tanned and bluish skin. For about half the year, Lincoln probably went barefoot.

There were schools, but they were quite simple. The “little red schoolhouse on the hill,” with the flag floating proudly above it, was not of that day. There were preachers who went from town to town holding “revival meetings.” But church buildings were rare and, to say the least, not of artistic design. There were no regular means of travel. Even the post office department was slow in reaching those isolated communities.

Into such circumstances and conditions Lincoln was born and grew into manhood.

Based on the book by Henry Ketcham
Edited by Deborah Carroll

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