Timeline: Early Life of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln rose from humble roots to be President of the United States at a time of great national crisis. His journey was perhaps the classic American success story, and the road he took to the White House was not always easy or predictable.

This timeline illustrates some of the major events of Lincoln's life up to the 1850s, when his legendary debates with Stephen Douglas began to show his potential as a presidential candidate.

1630s: Abraham Lincoln's Ancestors Settle in America

St. Andrew Church
St. Andrew Church, Hingham, Norfolk, England.

Public Domain

  • Ancestors of Abraham Lincoln lived in Hingham, Norfolk, England. A local church, St. Andrew in Hingham, has an alcove with a bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln.
  • In 1637, with other residents of Hingham, England, Samuel Lincoln left home to settle in the new village of Hingham, Massachusetts.
  • Lincoln family members eventually moved from the northeast to Virginia, where Lincoln's father, Thomas, was born.
  • Thomas Lincoln came with his family to the Kentucky frontier as a boy.
  • Lincoln's mother was Mary Hanks. Little is known about her family or their roots, though the family is believed to be of English descent.
  • Thomas Lincoln was successful enough to buy his own small Kentucky farm in 1803.

1809: Abraham Lincoln Born in Kentucky

In this print from the late 1800s, young Lincoln is depicted reading by the light of a log cabin fireplace. Library of Congress
  • Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky on February 12, 1809.
  • Lincoln was the first president born outside the original 13 states.
  • When Lincoln was seven, his family moved to Indiana and cleared land for a new farm.
  • In 1818, when Lincoln was nine, his mother, Nancy Hanks, died. His father remarried.
  • Lincoln received sporadic education as a child, walking two miles to a schoolhouse when he was not needed to work on the family farm.
  • Despite a lack of formal schooling, Lincoln read widely, often borrowing books.

1820s: Rail-Splitter and Boatman

Lincoln was often depicted splitting rails, such as in this illustration from the early 1900s. Library of Congress
  • By the age of 17 Lincoln had grown to his adult height of six feet, four inches.
  • Lincoln was known locally for his strength and his prowess for splitting timber for fence rails.
  • Lincoln developed a skill for storytelling.
  • In 1828 Lincoln and a friend worked taking a boat down the Mississippi to New Orleans. It was Lincoln's first sight of the world beyond the frontier communities of his youth.
  • On the 1828 boat trip, Lincoln and his friend Allen Gentry fought off a gang of enslaved people that tried to rob them.
  • In New Orleans the 19-year-old Lincoln was said to have been offended by the sight of large markets of enslaved people.

1830s: Abraham Lincoln as a Young Man

An 1865 drawing of Lincoln's first home in Illinois. Library of Congress
  • In 1830 Lincoln, who was 21, moved with his family to the town of New Salem, Illinois.
  • In 1832 Lincoln briefly served in the Black Hawk War. This would be his only military experience.
  • In Illinois, Lincoln tried a variety of occupations, including storekeeper.
  • A young woman Lincoln knew, Ann Rutledge, died in 1835, and stories persist that he was thrown into a deep depression over it. Historians still debate the relationship between Lincoln and Ann Rutledge.
  • Continuing to educate himself, he read law books and in 1836 he was admitted to the bar.
  • In 1837 he moved to Springfield, Illinois to take up a law practice.
  • On January 27, 1838, he gave an early speech to the local Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois.
  • Lincoln served in the Illinois legislature from 1834-1841, as a member of the Whig Party.

1840s: Lincoln Marries, Practices Law, Serves in Congress

A daguerreotype of Lincoln probably taken in 1846 or 1847, perhaps while serving in Congress. Library of Congress
  • In 1842, Lincoln married Mary Todd, whom he had met in Springfield in 1839. She was wealthy and considered more sophisticated than Lincoln.
  • Lincoln took on many sorts of legal cases, from civil matters to defending those accused of murder.
  • Lincoln traveled throughout parts of Illinois as a lawyer, "riding the circuit."
  • Lincoln won election to Congress in 1846 as a Whig. While serving in Washington he opposed the Mexican War.
  • He chose not to run for a second term, and after two years living in a Washington boardinghouse, the Lincoln family returned to Springfield.

1850s: Law, Politics, Debates

Lincoln in 1858
Lincoln in 1858. Library of Congress
  • Lincoln concentrated on his law practice in the early 1850s. He and his partner took on many cases, and Lincoln gained a reputation as a formidable courtroom advocate.
  • Lincoln challenged Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois over the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.
  • Lincoln won an election to the state legislature in 1855, but declined the seat to try for a US Senate seat the next year. At that time, Senators were chosen by state legislatures, and Lincoln lost his bid.
  • Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate seat held by Stephen Douglas in 1858.
  • In 1858 Lincoln and Douglas engaged in a series of seven debates throughout Illinois. The subject of each debate was enslavement, specifically the issue of whether it should be allowed to spread to new territories and states. Lincoln lost the election, but the experience left him poised for greater things.
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McNamara, Robert. "Timeline: Early Life of Abraham Lincoln." ThoughtCo, Nov. 7, 2020, thoughtco.com/timeline-early-life-of-abraham-lincoln-1773594. McNamara, Robert. (2020, November 7). Timeline: Early Life of Abraham Lincoln. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/timeline-early-life-of-abraham-lincoln-1773594 McNamara, Robert. "Timeline: Early Life of Abraham Lincoln." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/timeline-early-life-of-abraham-lincoln-1773594 (accessed June 1, 2023).