Feb. 12: On this day 205 years ago, Lincoln was NOT born in this log cabin

Jennifer Karmon

Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky on this day 205 years ago: Feb. 12, 1809.

Just not this one-room log cabin.

Yet this is the cabin enshrined in a formal memorial at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park. The memorial encasing the cabin declares in a huge inscription: "Here / over the log cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born / destined to preserve the union and to free the slave / a grateful people have dedicated this memorial / to unity peace and brotherhood among these states."

How did this happen?

One year ago, the New York Times ran a fascinating piece by retired National Park Service historian Richard West Sellars -- author of "Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History" -- explaining the tortuous tale of how the cabin of dubious lineage came to be enshrined as Lincoln's birthplace. Long story short(-ish): Doubts abounded from the start, but so many people wanted it to be the real cabin (not least the National Park Service) that decision-makers mostly ignored the naysayers.

It seems the cabin was first dubbed Lincoln's birthplace back in the 1890s, by a fellow who bought Lincoln's family farm land to run as a tourist attraction. He also bought a log cabin from nearby and moved it to the Lincoln farm, saying it was Lincoln's birthplace.

Later, he shipped the "Lincoln" cabin off to an expo in Nashville (since he wasn't getting much traffic there in Kentucky). It was eventually stored in pieces along with Jefferson Davis' alleged birthplace cabin -- where the logs got all jumbled together. No worries! Promoters just built a single cabin from them, the "Lincoln and Davis Cabin." 

Later, the Lincoln Farm Association bought the logs -- apparently unaware of the Davis logs, says Sellars -- and reconstructed a cabin within the monument you see here. The house was too big for the space (since there were two cabins' worth of logs), but American pluck carried the day: They just took out a few logs to stuff it in.

The Lincoln Farm Association gave the memorial to the federal government in 1916. Gift horses and all that: If the cabin wasn't really Lincoln's birthplace, apparently no one wanted to know it. Sellars says it wasn't till 1948 that the cabin was publicly declared a "hoax," in a Washington Post article by a Lincoln scholar. Yet the National Park Service made only the slightest concession: It started called the cabin Lincoln's "traditional" birthplace.

So things went for decades, until the case was reopened by an enterprising National Park Service historian, Sellars says. More proof was offered, more years passed, and in 2004, scientific analysis of tree rings showed that the logs were probably about 40 years younger than Lincoln.

And so, finally, the National Park Service yielded (after a fashion), and started calling it Lincoln's "symbolic birthplace cabin" -- which is where matters stand today.

Click here to read the whole Lincoln cabin saga on the New York Times' website.

Oh: And that log cabin Abe built himself? Also probably a bit of a tall tale.

On This Day, previously:

Feb. 10: A look at the late Shirley Temple's childhood home
Jan. 30: FDR was born in this stately mansion
Jan. 20: On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a look at his birthplace