Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, was born on a small farm outside Hodgenville, Kentucky in 1809. His parents, Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, had both been brought to Kentucky as small children by families looking for land and opportunity in what was then the westernmost county of Virginia.
By the time of Abraham’s birth, Kentucky was a fast-growing state making the transition out of frontier days. The Lincoln family’s first farm at Sinking Spring was located in a community of small farmers. There were several small towns nearby, and the rapidly growing city of Louisville was a few days’ travel away.
The Lincolns moved a few miles away from Sinking Spring, to Knob Creek, when young Abe was 2 and his older sister, Sarah, was 4. The move was forced by a lawsuit over ownership of the Sinking Spring land—a common occurrence in 19th-century Kentucky. A history of large and sometimes overlapping land grants, often made sight unseen; haphazard methods of surveying and marking off plots; and changing rules about getting and keeping title to land had left a legacy of conflicting claims that would take decades to sort out.Soon the Lincolns heard rumors that families living on Knob Creek might also be evicted because of a prior claim to the land. So Thomas and Nancy decided to move their family north of the Ohio River, to Indiana. As part of the federally designated Northwest Territory, Indiana had well defined homestead plots and clear rules for how to qualify for land and keep it.
The lands north of the Ohio had been settled later than Kentucky, largely because of the presence of many more Native American towns. So the southern Indiana territory where Thomas Lincoln decided to settle was still wilderness—the family had to make their way to their new home by cutting their own wagon path through virgin forest. Though some relatives joined them within a few years and built their own homesteads nearby, it would be some time before towns were established in the area.
One hazard of the Indiana wilderness was a poisonous plant called white snakeroot. Cattle that were turned loose in the forest often ate the plant, and the poison could be passed on to people who drank their milk or ate their meat. The resulting disease, known as “milk sickness,” was often fatal in both livestock and humans. On October 5, 1818, Nancy Hanks Lincoln died of milk sickness. Her son Abraham was 9 years old.