America in 1809

"Kentucky," Travels in the United States of America, John Melish, 1812

“Abraham Lincoln was born Feb. 12, 1809 …”Lincoln autobiography, 1860

Kentuckians of 1809 thought of themselves as pioneers on the nation’s western edge. But these settlers did not arrive in an empty land. As early as 1754 Virginians had pressed into Kentucky, initiating sixty years of violent disputes with Indians over land. After U.S. independence Kentucky’s population tripled to nearly half a million by 1810.

Like many others, the Lincoln family pushed westward during the late eighteenth century. Lincoln’s grandfather (also named Abraham) sold his Virginia farm in the early 1780s, moving his wife and five children to Kentucky in search of farmable land. Within a few years, the Lincoln family owned more than 5,000 acres in Kentucky. The family’s fortunes turned in 1786, when Indians attacked and killed Lincoln’s grandfather. Mordecai Lincoln, the family’s eldest son, inherited the family’s land, leaving the other children—including Thomas, Abraham Lincoln’s father—with nothing.

By 1809, Thomas Lincoln had earned enough through carpentry and cabinetmaking to purchase farmland on the south fork of Nolin Creek, near Hodgenville, Kentucky. There, in a one-room log cabin, Thomas’s wife Nancy Hanks gave birth to a son named Abraham.

Territorial and legislative changes reshaped the nation well before Abraham Lincoln’s birth. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery in the territory northwest of the Ohio River. That territory grew in 1803, when the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, expanding the national boundaries beyond the Mississippi River to the Continental Divide. President Thomas Jefferson soon sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to map a route through the Louisiana Territory to the Pacific Ocean.

At the time of Lincoln’s birth, the U.S. population of nearly seven million included more than one million slaves. Although Great Britain and the United States had each passed laws to end the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, cotton production based on slave labor became increasingly vital to the American economy.