Thomas Lincoln's Title Troubles

How the Lincoln's migration from Kentucky to Indiana was in big part caused by Kentucky's chaotic title laws

Thomas Lincoln

A farmer, carpenter, and father to the 16th president of the United States, Thomas Lincoln was newlywed with aspirations of starting a family in his home state of Kentucky.  Unfortunately Lincoln fell victim to what many pioneers would endure; defective title, boundary disputes, and exorbitant court cost. Kentucky was the wild wild west of land title and pioneers like Thomas Lincoln paid the price.

So why was Kentucky bogged down with title defects?

Thomas Herring Lincoln (1778-1851) the father of Abraham Lincoln. This is the only known original and is located in the archives of the (Source) museum.

Laws change; people die; the land remains.

– Abraham Lincoln


Before Kentucky was a state, Virginia claimed it as its back country, known as District of Kentucky.  June 1st 1797, under pressure from the public, Virginia surrendered its claim and Kentucky became the 15th state to join the Union.

However when it came to land regulation, Kentucky had nothing stable.  Lack of surveys made boundary lines unclear and boundary disputes ran rampant in the courts.  To complicate matters even more, much of Kentucky’s land was already owned through Virginia land grants.  These grants allowed people to own public land and were part of the agreement between Virginia and Kentucky to remain when Kentucky split. Owning title to a property was so problematic in Kentucky that pioneers were known to buy their land 3 or 4 times over to effect a clear title. Others packed up and traveled to states with orderly deed records and government surveyed land, guaranteeing clean title.

Lincoln Litigation

The Lincolns were cursed with title defects and would lose land, money, or both on all three Kentucky farms.  Mills Creek, the first farm, was a modest one room cabin and the only farm Thomas held clear title to. Due to Kentucky’s lack of surveys the land boundaries were disputed and Thomas Lincoln would lose 38 acres and take a financial hit.

Abraham Lincoln’s childhood home (Lincoln log cabin in Lincoln Museum) on display at the 1904 World’s Fair.  Date 1904

Forced to sell, the Lincolns headed to Elizabeth Town, Kentucky.  There they purchased a 300 acre farm called Sinking Spring, another one room log cabin and perhaps, most notably, for being the birthplace of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on February 12, 1809.  However, Thomas was once again confronted with Kentucky’s troublesome land laws and was unaware there was already a lien on the property. The previous owner sued for claim and the dispute would go on for 5 years before Thomas eventually lost the farm.  

While the court battle ensued over Sinking Spring, the county ordered the Lincolns to vacate the property until resolved.  Displaced a second time, the Lincolns moved 10 miles down the road to Knobb Creek. This farm would be some of Abraham Lincoln’s earliest childhood memories.  However, with Kentucky’s unruly title Thomas unknowingly purchased 30 acres of land from a 10,000 acre tract already owned by Virginian Thomas Middleton.  In fact, 9 other neighboring adjoining lots would be hoodwinked out of their farm and money due to poor land records.

The earliest portrait of Abraham Lincoln. (about 1848, age 39). From the original daguerreotype, owned by Mr. Lincoln’s son, the Hon. Robert T. Lincoln, through whose courtesy it was first published in McClures Magazine for November, 1893

Lincoln Surveyor

After years of dispute Thomas would end up winning the Knobb Creek lawsuit but the third time was the charm for Mr. Lincoln.  Fed up with courts, lawyers, and all things title he threw in the towel and migrated north to Indiana. Unlike Kentucky, Inidana was established under the new national government, this meant Thomas was guaranteed clean title and accurate land boundaries.  

Possibly inspired by his fathers real estate failings, Thomas’ son Abraham became a surveyor for a brief period of time in his early 20’s.  He was known for his care and accuracy throughout his career.  Abraham Lincoln studied surveying and learned the trade in 6 weeks, he would eventually move on to teach himself many other things including the practice of law.


Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions ; 203). Oxford University Press, 2009.

Guelzo, Allen C. Abraham Lincoln. W.B. Eerdmans, 2003.

McMurtry, R. Gerald. The Lincoln Migration From Kentucky To Indiana, 1816. Hardin County Historical Society, 1999.

Image of Lincoln’s childhood home: Missouri Hitstorical Society (

The earliest portrait of Abrraham Lincoln:  Image from page 10 of “The life of Abraham Lincoln : drawn from original sources and containing many speeches, letters and telegrams hitherto unpublished, and illustrated with many reproductions from original paintings, photographs, etc.” (1902)