Honest Abe, the mariner, gets his due

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Young would-be president’s river journey is replicated by Washington D.C., man on bicentennial anniversary

Abraham Lincoln is well-known as a history-changing president, but a Washington, D.C., man recently become well acquainted with Lincoln as a boater.

Ron Drake followed in Abraham Lincoln's wake during a flatboat voyage he undertook to celebrate the historic president's 200th birthday.

In celebration of Lincoln’s 200th birthday Feb. 12, Ron Drake replicated a journey the former president took in his younger days. Last fall, Drake traveled 1,080 miles from Rockport, Ind., to New Orleans aboard a handmade 60-foot wooden flatboat.

Drake, 71, and a civil rights attorney in Washington, D.C., first built the boat in fall 2006 to replicate a flatboat journey his ancestors had made from Cincinnati down the Mississippi. He built the flatboat with the help of his friend John Cooper of Gallatin, Tenn., and the Cherokee Development Corporation of Terre Haute, Ind.

He constructed the boat from poplar and oak timbers taken from the Jeremiah Thompson farm in Sullivan County, Ind., which Drake inherited through his family. They also incorporated a hewn log from the original Bethel Primitive Baptist Church near Jackson, Mo., which Drake’s forefathers helped build in 1813. It is inscribed with the words “Journey of Remembrance,” the name of the boat and the voyage.

“My family baptized slaves at that church and treated them as equals,” says Drake. “In many ways, Lincoln’s history and my family history mirror one another.”

Drake says the idea to make the trip came in the form of a phone call early last year from the Spencer County Visitor’s Bureau. They had read about his 2006 journey and wondered if he was interested in replicating the voyage Lincoln made in 1828.

“We worked out the logistics and they provided funding for the boat,” says Drake. “But my interest in Lincoln goes much farther than this trip.”

Lincoln first took the voyage when he was 19, having grown up in Spencer County, Ind., not far from Drake’s farm. He was delivering a load of produce for a local merchant when he witnessed a slave auction at his destination in New Orleans. History tells this was a disturbing experience for the young Lincoln, and would help shape his views on slavery in the years to come.  

“People think that Lincoln was born with this notion that slavery was wrong, but that’s not true,” says Drake. “Slavery was a way of life back then; Lincoln’s point of view was an evolution of thought. That trip was just the start of it.”

Drake says both his ancestors and Lincoln’s family were forced to move out of Kentucky in the early 1800s because of defective land titles. Lincoln’s family moved to Indiana in 1816. Drake says there is a possibility his family might have even met the young Lincoln since the future president’s family occasionally attended Little Pigeon Baptist Church in Spencer County, where the Drake family preached.

To meet the demands of the Lincoln voyage, they had to add 14 feet to Drake’s boat as well as twin Mercury 150-hp outboards to handle the longer journey.

“I am not a boater and I had no real experience with boating before these trips,” says Drake. “However, these people weren’t boatbuilders either, they were farmers. They basically built a shed upside down and added the bottom hull.”

Drake says he built his flatboat in a similar fashion, but with the added advantage of cranes to help flip it into the water.

“All they used back then was muscle power,” says Drake. “Life was a lot more difficult for those pioneers than we could ever imagine.”

Drake, his wife Carolyn, 67, his two young daughters Dawn and Autumn as well as several other crewmembers left Rockport, Ind., at 8:30 a.m. Sept. 9 after a service at the Little Pigeon Primitive Baptist Church. However, the family part of this trip was not to be: the second day out when the boat docked in Evansville, Ind., Carolyn tripped and injured her ankle disembarking the vessel.

The journey ended at 6 p.m. Oct. 7 in New Orleans. A small crowd was on had, with “an ending as inauspicious as our beginning had been auspicious,” Drake writes.

Crew gathered at the bow for a prayer of thanksgiving before disembarking.

Drake says the trip has given him a better understanding of the kind of person Lincoln was and how his beliefs were shaped.

“At that age, he was simply someone who was searching for a better life,” says Drake. “It wasn’t until close to the end of his life that he believed that all men should be free no matter what the cost. It was then, I believe, he came close to sainthood.”

The Rockport Parks Board declined to accept the flatboat for display at the Lincoln Pioneer Village in Rockport, Ind., so the vessel now makes its home on a small lake at Drake’s family farm near Fairbanks, Ind. The outboards were returned to the Mercury Marine dealer in Rockport, Ind.

For information on Drake’s Lincoln journey, visit www.lincolnsjourney.org. For information on his original ancestral trip, visit www.journeyofremembrance.com.

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.

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