Table of Contents

The Wild West

At the beginning of the twentieth century there is, strictly speaking, no frontier to the United States. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the larger part of the country was frontier. In any portion of the country to-day, in the remotest villages and hamlets, 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 of civilization such as were not dreamed of one hundred years ago. Aladdin himself could not have commanded the glowing terms to write the prospectus of the closing years of the nineteenth century. So, too, it requires an extraordinary effort of the imagination to conceive of the condition of things in the opening years of that century.

The first quarter of the century closed with the year 1825. At that date Lincoln was nearly seventeen years old. The deepest impressions of life are apt to be received very early, and it is certain that the influences which are felt previous to seventeen years of age have much to do with the formation of the character. If, then, we go back to the period named, we can tell with sufficient accuracy what were the circumstances of Lincoln’s early life. Though we cannot precisely tell what he had, we can confidently name many things, things which in this day we class as the necessities of life, which he had to do without, for the simple reason that they had not then been invented or discovered.

In the first place, we must bear in mind that he lived in the woods. The West of that day was not wild in the sense of being wicked, criminal, ruffian. Morally, and possibly intellectually, the people of that region would compare with the rest of the country of that day or of this day. There was little schooling and no literary training. But the woodsman has an education of his own. The region was wild in the sense that it was almost uninhabited and untilled. The forests, extending from the mountains in the East to the prairies in the West, were almost unbroken and were the abode of wild birds and wild beasts. Bears, deer, wild-cats, raccoons, wild turkeys, wild pigeons, wild ducks and similar creatures abounded on every hand.

Consider now the sparseness of the population. Kentucky has an area of 40,000 square miles. One year after Lincoln’s birth, the total population, white and colored, was 406,511, or an average of ten persons–say less than two families–to the square mile. Indiana has an area of 36,350 square miles. In 1810 its total population was 24,520, or an average of one person to one and one-half square miles; in 1820 it contained 147,173 inhabitants, or about four to the square mile; in 1825 the population was about 245,000, or less than seven to the square mile.

The capital city, Indianapolis, which is to-day of surpassing beauty, was not built nor thought of when the boy Lincoln moved into the State.

Illinois, with its more than 56,000 square miles of territory, harbored in 1810 only 12,282 people; in 1820, only 55,211, or less than one to the square mile; while in 1825 its population had grown a trifle over 100,000 or less than two to the square mile.

It will thus be seen that up to his youth, Lincoln dwelt 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 man.

There were few roads of any kind, and certainly none that could be called good. For the mud of Indiana and Illinois is very deep and very tenacious. There were good saddle-horses, a sufficient number of oxen, and carts that were rude and awkward. No locomotives, no bicycles, no automobiles. The first railway in Indiana was constructed in 1847, and it was, to say the least, a very primitive affair. 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 home-made. Paper was scarce, expensive, and, while of good material, poorly made. Newspapers were unknown in that virgin forest, and books were like angels’ visits, few and far between.

There were scythes and sickles, but of a grade that would not be salable to-day at any price. There were no self-binding harvesters, no mowing machines. There were no sewing or knitting machines, though there were needles of both kinds. In the woods thorns were used for pins.

Guns were flint-locks, tinder-boxes were used until the manufacture of the friction match. Artificial light came chiefly from the open fireplace, though the tallow dip was known and there were some housewives who had time to make them and the disposition to use them. Illumination by means of molded candles, oil, gas, electricity, came later. That was long before the days of the telegraph.

In that locality there were no mills for weaving cotton, linen, or woolen fabrics. All spinning was done by means of the hand loom, and the common fabric of the region was linsey-woolsey, made of linen and woolen mixed, and usually not dyed.

Antiseptics were unknown, and a severe surgical operation was practically certain death to the patient. Nor was there ether, chloroform, or cocaine for the relief of pain.

As to food, wild game was abundant, but the kitchen garden was not developed and there were no importations. No oranges, lemons, bananas. No canned goods. Crusts of rye bread were browned, ground, and boiled; this was coffee. Herbs of the woods were dried and steeped; this was tea. The root of the sassafras furnished a different kind of tea, a substitute for the India and Ceylon teas now popular. Slippery elm bark soaked in cold water sufficed for lemonade. The milk-house, when there was one, was built over a spring when that was possible, and the milk vessels were kept carefully covered to keep out snakes and other creatures that like milk.

Whisky was almost universally used. Indeed, in spite of the constitutional “sixteen-to-one,” it was locally used as the standard of value. The luxury of quinine, which came to be in general use throughout that entire region, was of later date.

These details are few and meager. It is not easy for us, in the midst of the luxuries, comforts, and necessities of a later civilization, to realize the conditions of western life previous to 1825. But the situation must be understood if one is to know the life of the boy Lincoln.

Imagine this boy. Begin at the top and look down him–a long look, for he was tall and gaunt. His cap in winter was of coon-skin, with the tail of the animal hanging down behind. In summer he wore a misshapen straw hat with no hat-band. His shirt was of linsey-woolsey, above described, and was of no color whatever, unless you call it “the color of dirt.” His breeches were of deer-skin with the hair outside. In dry weather these were what you please, but when wet they hugged the skin with a clammy embrace, and the victim might sigh in vain for sanitary underwear. These breeches were held up by one suspender. The hunting shirt was likewise of deer-skin. The stockings,–there weren’t any stockings. The shoes were cow-hide, though moccasins made by his mother were substituted in dry weather. There was usually a space of several inches between the breeches and the shoes, exposing a tanned and bluish skin. For about half the year he went barefoot.

There were schools, primitive and inadequate, indeed, as we shall presently see, but “the little red schoolhouse on the hill,” with the stars and stripes floating proudly above it, was not of that day. There were itinerant preachers who went from one locality to another, holding "revival meetings.” But church buildings were rare and, to say the least, not of artistic design. There were no regular means of travel, and even the “star route” of the post-office department was slow in reaching those secluded communities.

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