Abraham Lincoln's Wilderness Years
Collected Works of J. Edward Murr
Abraham Lincoln spent one fourth of his life—age seven to twenty-one—learning and growing in southwestern Indiana between 1816 and 1830. Despite the importance of these formative years, Lincoln rarely discussed this period; indeed, he said of his youth, "It is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life. It can all be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray's Elegy: 'The short and simple annals of the poor.' That's my life and that's all you or anyone else can make of it."
In two separate autobiographical statements written for the 1860 campaign, Lincoln offered only a few details of his Indiana years. He explained the Lincolns left Kentucky in part to avoid slavery and in part to escape an antiquated system of land surveying and land recording. He noted the difficulty of clearing wilderness for a home, recounted his hunger for educational opportunities, expressed sadness about losing his mother and sister to illness, and referred to an eye-opening flatboat trip to New Orleans. These meager details nearly summarize the known history of Lincoln's youth.
Yet, with Lincoln's sudden, untimely death in 1865, historians sought to fill gaps in the record; and in his youth lay some of the greatest mystery. The first and most significant research came from Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon (1818–1891). Although Lincoln told Herndon some Indiana stories during their time practicing together in Illinois, generally Lincoln shared as little Hoosier background with Herndon as he did with the public. Later, Herndon sought to expand the story by speaking with those who knew Lincoln best. He interviewed several of the president's relatives including Dennis Hanks, Lincoln's cousin and boyhood friend, and Sarah Bush Johnston, Lincoln's stepmother. By summer 1865 Herndon began reaching out to other residents in Spencer County, Indiana; and by September 1865 he visited the area to gather information and see the sites of Lincoln's youth. Herndon's guide on the first trip was Nathanial Grigsby, a boyhood friend just two years younger than Lincoln. Other Lincoln friends and neighbors also spoke with Herndon, and he kept in touch with them later, asking questions and seeking clarifications. With hundreds of letters and interviews, Herndon's work remains the most extensive and important source material (beyond Lincoln's own words) concerning Lincoln's youth.
Unfortunately for Lincoln's associates in Indiana, Herndon came away unimpressed; he dubbed the area "a stagnant, putrid pool" and wrote that Lincoln grew up in "restricted and unromantic environments." In fact, many historians and cultural commentators in the first couple of generations after Lincoln's death treated this frontier region as inconsequential to Lincoln's life and career, except perhaps as a detrimental influence.
Commencing research and writing nearly two decades after Herndon's visit to southern Indiana, Hoosier historians worked against the initial bias of skeptics and reasserted Indiana's importance to Lincoln's life and character. Hoping to boost Indiana's image and realizing many of Lincoln's boyhood acquaintances had already died before the turn of the twentieth century, these historians rushed to interview those survivors who best knew Lincoln.
For example, William Fortune (1863–1942), a newspaperman who grew up in Boonville near Lincoln's boyhood home, interviewed Spencer County residents in October 1881 with the help of Civil War general James C. Veatch of Rockport. But Fortune's work yielded only a speech and some notes.
John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Lincoln's personal secretary and assistant secretary, respectively, set out to write his definitive biography. Their work appeared serially in The Century Magazine from 1886 to 1890 and then in book form as the ten-volume Abraham Lincoln: A History (1890). Although Nicolay and Hay did not focus on Lincoln's youth and did not interview his boyhood associates, they nevertheless considered their massive work the definitive history.
When S. S. McClure began editing and publishing McClure's Magazine in 1893 and decided Lincoln's story remained ripe for new information, he asked Ida Tarbell (1857–1944) to compile a new history of the former President. When Tarbell sought Nicolay's help, he warned her there was "nothing of importance" left to publish about Lincoln's life. In Nicolay's view, the record was "complete," and Tarbell need not pursue a "hopeless . . . assignment." In addition, as Anna O'Flynn, Tarbell's main source for Indiana research, began her research in 1894, General Veatch warned her,
All these people or nearly all have passed away. . . . Beware of trusting to the stories of roving newspaper correspondents. Everyone of this class who passes Lincoln station on the Rockport Rail Road must send to his paper some thing about Lincoln. The train generally stops 15 or 20 minutes. The . . . Correspondent rushes out and finds in the nearest whiskey shop a crowd of old "soakers" who are ready at a word to tell many things about Lincoln that no one else even knew.
I have read many of these productions and corrected some of them, but have not seen one single truthful account coming from such a source.
Undeterred by Nicolay, Tarbell pressed on and consulted research from those such as Vincennes teacher Anna O'Flynn to investigate Lincoln's early years for a 20-part series, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, that began appearing in McClure's Magazine in November 1895. In 1896 McClure published some of Tarbell's findings in The Early Life of Abraham Lincoln, and in 1900 the essays were compiled into a two-volume Life of Abraham Lincoln. Tarbell probably visited the area just once—indeed, O'Flynn, referred to only as "A. Hoosier," did the significant research in Spencer County in 1895 and 1896—but Tarbell's use of O'Flynn's research provided many previously unknown stories, albeit of varying degrees of truthfulness.
Tarbell's biggest contribution involved portraying Indiana as a far more positive environment than did previous biographers. She suggested Lincoln succeeded in part, not in spite of, but because of his time in Indiana. The alleged "squalor and wretchedness" of Lincoln's youth was "overblown," Tarbell contended, for a frontier family with livestock, a featherbed, and all of the tools a family might need. Moreover, the Hoosier frontier offered fertile ground for Lincoln's "imagination" and for "mystery." Tarbell also sought to rehabilitate Lincoln's father, whom other historians often disparaged as overbearing, unsuccessful, and shiftless.
Just as Tarbell's work on Lincoln hit newsstands in the late 1800s, J. Edward Murr (1868–1960) began his own research. A Methodist minister who grew up with Lincoln cousins in southeastern Indiana, Murr later became acquainted with Spencer County residents while serving churches there between 1897 and 1902. Believing historians had overlooked Lincoln's youth, Murr gathered information from congregants and other locals who knew Abraham Lincoln first- or second-hand. Indeed, of all Abraham Lincoln's biographers, none knew his boyhood associates and Indiana environment as well as Murr. But Murr's most complete Lincoln research and scholarship has never been published—until now.
Abraham Lincoln spent a quarter of his life—from 1816 to 1830, ages 7 to 21—learning and growing in southwestern Indiana. Despite the importance of these formative years, Lincoln rarely discussed this period, and with his sudden, untimely death in 1865, mysterious gaps appear in recorded history.
In Abraham Lincoln's Wilderness Years, Joshua Claybourn collects and annotates the most significant scholarship from J. Edward Murr, one of the only writers to cover this lost period of Lincoln's life. A Hoosier minister who grew up with the 16th president's cousins, Murr interviewed locals who knew Lincoln. Part I features selected portions of Murr's book-length manuscript on Lincoln's youth, published here for the first time. Part II offers a series by Murr on Lincoln's life in Indiana, originally printed in the Indiana Magazine of History. Part III reveals letters between Murr and US Senator Albert J. Beveridge, a prominent historian, about Beveridge's early manuscript of the biography Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1858.
Of all Lincoln's biographers, none knew his boyhood associates and Indiana environment as well as Murr, whose complete Lincoln research and scholarship have never been published—until now. Abraham Lincoln's Wilderness Years preserves and celebrates this important source material, unique for studying Lincoln's boyhood years in Indiana.
About the Authors
The Rev. J. Edward Murr (1868–1960) was an early researcher and writer of Abraham Lincoln's youth. Born in Corydon, Indiana, Murr grew up with Lincoln's cousins. He spent two years studying law but ultimately entered DePauw University in 1897 to study theology. Murr served various churches in and around Lincoln's boyhood home in Spencer County, Indiana, and later served as superintendent of the Methodist Church district in that region. He became intimately acquainted with many who had been neighbors and boyhood associates of the future president.
Joshua Claybourn is an attorney and author or editor of several books, including Abe's Youth and Our American Story. He serves on the board of directors of both the Abraham Lincoln Association and Abraham Lincoln Institute and is host of the Lincoln Log podcast. Claybourn frequently serves as a featured speaker on Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War. He lives in Evansville, Indiana.
"A few 19th century Lincoln biographers spent a day or two visiting the area and people of Lincoln's Indiana youth. Rev. J. Edward Murr, a Lincoln enthusiast, served as minister in the region from 1897-1902 and thus became acquainted with the residents and culture. Although Abraham Lincoln left Indiana some 67 years before Murr arrived, there were still a small number of Lincoln's friends who shared their memories of Lincoln with Murr. While some of these memories may be questionable, Joshua Claybourn provides the context for the reader to evaluate Murr's work, much of which is published for the first time in this volume."—William E. Bartelt, author of There I Grew Up: Remembering Abraham Lincoln's Indiana Youth
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