“Ancestral Memories”

Dr. Gabor Boritt


Abraham Lincoln was killed by an American Indian.  The year was 1786. The dead man was the grandfather of the Abraham Lincoln the world knows.  It happened this way.  The elder Abraham Lincoln, a sturdy pioneer of Quaker descent, was planting his cornfield in the good earth of Kentucky.  Three of his sons helped with the hard work.  A shot rang out; perhaps an arrow whistled.  We no longer know.  Abraham lay dead on the field.  One of his sons, Josiah, twelve, ran to get help.  Another, fifteen year old Mordecai, took cover in a cabin close by.  The youngest, eight year old Thomas, just sat by his dead father in the field.

The Indian who killed Abraham began creeping out of the woods toward the boy.  We are so removed from the frontier that the drama may seem exaggerated.  Yet so it was.  Step by step death or captivity moved closer to the young, paralyzed Thomas.  But his brother, hiding in the cabin, picked up a rifle and shot the murdering Indian.

Thomas Lincoln lived to a ripe old age and repeated this story endlessly, for his own family, and surely for anyone else who would listen.  But, from that deadly moment in the Kentucky forest, Thomas’ life had changed forever.  Instead of growing up the son of a bold, prosperous, and respected farmer, owner of 5,500 acres of prime land (which by law went to the eldest son), Thomas grew up a poor orphan.  “By the death of his father, and the very narrow circumstances of his mother, even in childhood [he] was a wandering laboring boy, and grew up literally without education.  He never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly sign his own name.” Words from the mouth of the author of the Gettysburg Address, his son.

Thomas Lincoln’s life, and that of his own family, including Abraham, came to be changed in almost unfathomably drastic ways.  It all went back to 1786, a cornfield, and a murderous Indian.  This bit of family history, the fate of the grandfather after whom he was named, came to be indelibly carved into the future president’s “mind and memory,” to repeat his carefully chosen words from 1854.  This bit of history was his central ancestral memory.

Today historians might look on the first Abraham Lincoln’s death quite differently and, from at least, two different viewpoints: one largely as described from above, from the perspective of the pioneers, though shorn of the bitter feelings that were their heritage; another from the perspective of the Native American defending his homegrounds.  The latter, however central to the story, of course was beyond the horizon of the Lincoln family.

Now let us move from the Kentucky frontier of 1786 to the Illinois one of 1832.  Illinois flamed up in an ugly war that year as Chief Black Hawk, and the Sauk and Fox Tribes, tried to reclaim their ancestral lands.  The twenty-two year old Lincoln volunteered to fight the invaders.  He saw no action, and later made fun of his sole military service, but the “war” gave him his first taste of triumph before the people.  His militia company elected Lincoln as their captain.  As late as 1860, running for the presidency of the United States, he still remembered this as a “success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since.”

The new captain got tested quickly.  An old Indian wandered into camp, and Lincoln’s men, hungry for action, got ready to lynch him. They did not need General Phil Sheridan to tell them that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”  But Abraham Lincoln, grandson of murdered Abraham, stepped in front of the old man, put his family history and new found role as a leader on the line, and stopped the murder.

Lincoln’s views, and later policies toward Native-Americans—though deserving of critical approval—is not our subject here.  Our focus is his gift to transcend the limitations of his background; to move beyond the tribe, distrust and past injury; to be good and decent at a time when it was not easy to be good and decent.

A little while before the above episode, in 1829 to be exact, Lincoln and an equally young companion, took a produce laden flatboat from southern Indiana down to the New Orleans market.  From the Ohio River they went on their leisurely way on the Mississippi, and then started exchanging goods along the Louisiana coast of sugar plantations.  All went well until one unforgettable night, in some ways 1786 all over again for the Lincoln line.  “One night,” as Lincoln recounted in an autobiographical sketch, he and a friend “were attacked by seven negroes with the intent to kill and rob them.  They were hurt some in the malee, [sic] but succeeded in driving the negroes from the boat, and then ‘cut cable’ ‘weighed anchor’ and left.”  They escaped for dear life.

The modern historian once again might provide at least two perspectives.  One would be of robbers and murderers attacking innocent people, of whom the lankier of the two, we know, harbored anti-slavery sentiments.  Another viewpoint might see enslaved African-Americans fighting back in the only way they could fight back.  We do not know whether Lincoln had any inkling of such a double perspective in 1829, or in 1860 for that matter.  We do know that his road led to Emancipation, and the Gettysburg declaration’s “new birth of freedom.”

Americans are forever looking for Lincoln here at Gettysburg and indeed everywhere—looking for guidance.  What would he do today, people ask.  The historian needs to be cautious in giving answers.  Back in the 1960’s when I was a young graduate student in Boston, and busing for racial balance in the schools grew to be a heated topic, people asked me, “what would Lincoln do about busing? What would he say?” My reply, for once could be absolutely certain: “What is a bus?”

And yet history’s Lincoln may offer us lessons for today.  Perhaps my thirty some years devoted to the study and teaching of Lincoln and his age give me leave to point to his journey from ancestral memories and the Louisiana sugar coast to the Gettysburg cemetery.

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