Monday, July 21, 2008

Interview with Lincoln Author

William E. "Bill" Bartelt is a retired educator who, for more than fifteen summers, worked as a ranger and historian at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial. Here he answers questions about his new book "There I grew up": Remembering Abraham Lincoln's Indiana Youth.

What was the main reason you decided to do this book on Abraham Lincoln’s Indiana years?

It is part of the Lincoln story that is not well known. When I worked as a ranger at Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial I learned few visitors understood that Lincoln spent almost a quarter of his life in Indiana. Even those who are aware of Lincoln’s time in the state have no real understanding of the land and the people of his Spencer County neighborhood.

I decided I would let Lincoln, his family, and his neighbors tell the story. I saw my purpose as providing the context for what Lincoln and others remembered about his life from age 7 to 21.

How important was Lincoln’s time in Indiana in shaping his character for his life to come?

I think we can all agree that much of our character is developed early in our lives and the period from age 7 to 21 is extremely important. The same can be said for Lincoln.

It is difficult to say with certainty exactly how those Indiana years formed his character, but it is obvious that experiences in Indiana helped develop traits we associate with the mature man. These traits include his ability to think for himself and trust his opinions, his ambition, his sensitivity and compassion, the ability to craft words to entertain and influence others, his curiosity, and his desire to learn from books and the people he met. Certainly the deaths of his mother and sister taught him at an early age that bad things happen and those things cannot be changed.

Did you discover anything new about Lincoln in doing your research?

I learned much more about the people living in his neighborhood. Using census records, land records, and family histories I was able to develop a greater understanding of the people he associated with on a daily basis. Many biographers fail to tell the story of the Little Pigeon Creek Community and portray the Lincoln family living in the woods far from other people. That was not the case. Lincoln and his family had neighbors to share the work, joys, hardships, and daily events of the area.

The most exciting discovery for me occurred while examining neighborhood land records in the National Archives. I unfolded a bundle of documents that probably had not been viewed for 150 years or more. There I found the record documenting that Thomas Lincoln had a claim on a quarter section of land adjoining his farm. He disposed of the claim after two years and the importance may be insignificant, but to discover something no one else knew was exciting. Adding to the thrill was seeing Thomas Lincoln’s signature and the signature of the local Justice of the Peace—one of Lincoln’s Indiana teachers.

You worked many years at the Lincoln Boyhood Home. What is your favorite story from your time there?

I have many fond memories of my summers at Lincoln Boyhood. I think I learned more about what history really is during that time than from any college class. There is a real difference between examining the big picture in a class and interpreting the story at a specific historic site.

One event that I remember with amusement occurred one afternoon as I worked the information desk. A small boy walked up to me and hesitantly offered an unexpected statement, “I have a friend who doesn’t believe in Abraham Lincoln.” I assured the boy that Lincoln had indeed been a real person and lived at this site when he was the boy’s age. That encounter has forced me to present Abraham Lincoln as a real human and not as some sort of mythical figure.

What are some of the things Indiana is doing to celebrate the Lincoln bicentennial?

The mission of the Indiana Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission is to educate residents of Indiana and the nation about Indiana's important role in the life of Abraham Lincoln. This is being accomplished by conducting conferences, erecting historical markers, constructing a Lincoln Bicentennial Plaza in Lincoln State Park, working with local communities to observe the celebration, erecting “Welcome to Indiana, Lincoln’s Boyhood home” signs on highways, and making a Lincoln’s Boyhood Home license plate available. Much of the work of the commission is focusing on education and assisting the schools of Indiana to observe the event in a meaningful manner.

I encourage everyone to go to the Web site for a more complete answer to this question.

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