Sunday, November 21, 2010

Boy Hero Saves Life of Young Abe Lincoln


Where is my old friend and playmate Austin Gollaher? I would rather see Gollaher than any man living.” ...Abraham Lincoln

Ah...boy heroes. Doesn't every family have one? But this hero belongs to us all, because without his intervention, we might not have had a President named Abraham Lincoln.


Back in 1997 my mother-in-law tried to tell me about an ancestor on her side of the family that she'd heard stories about all her life. This ancestor had saved Abraham Lincoln from drowning in Knob Creek when they were just boys. Her details were extremely sketchy and she pronounced the surname in various ways and, well...she just looked like she was telling me a "tall tale". To say I was skeptical would be an understatement. I was not the least bit interested in wasting time on silly stuff....but I was taught to always show respect for my elders so I turned away before I rolled my eyes. I've learned many a lesson about arrogance since then. It is unproductive and unattractive and you often get your nose rubbed.

I don't know how long it was, probably only a week or two, but something made me go digging. Maybe it was my husband Mike saying he'd heard the tale from others in the family. Could there be something to the story? Before long I came up with the man's name, Benjamin Austin Gollaher, and he was Mike's maternal third great grandfather. At that time there wasn't much on the Internet about him but I talked with Mike's cousins who confirmed the story and said they had proof of it.

Later that year we made a trip to LaRue Co., Kentucky and the surrounding areas and we found out all we needed to know. I was relieved that only my husband would see me eat humble pie! He didn't even say "I told you so" because he was just as surprised as I was that the stories were actually true. 

Even Gollaher's tombstone in Pleasant Grove Baptist Church Cemetery reflected his friendship with Abraham Lincoln.

Best of all was the newspaper clipping, hand dated 1953. This clipping gives our family our own personal interest story. It not only confirms all the stories but it also shows the pocket knife given to Austin Gollaher by his friend, the young Abe Lincoln and the pocket watch that once belonged to Gollaher. 

In this article's photo are Mike's granduncle C. W. "Uncle Bud" Melvin, his grandaunt Myrtle Melvin and his great grandmother Edna "Eddy" Metcalf Melvin Price who remembers the stories told by her husband's grandfather Austin Gollaher. The article also mentions his grandaunt Bessie (Melvin) Church and it was Bessie's daughter Evelyn who made me a copy of this article. Click the article to enlarge.

There is now a huge assortment of articles on the Internet about Austin Gollaher and his heroic act of fishing his pal Abe from the swollen waters of Knob Creek so I won't bother to repeat those here. Interested persons have only to Google his name and Lincoln's to read some of them. There is even a page for him on Facebook "Austin Gollaher Descendants" where his portrait can be seen and on his Find A Grave memorial is a lengthy biography.

The quote by Lincoln at the beginning of this blog was supposedly said to Dr. Jesse Rodman of Hodgenville sometime before Abe invited his friend Austin to the White House. The story above says Lincoln actually wanted him to fill a position there although I have not heard that repeated elsewhere. All the stories seem to agree that President Lincoln offered to pay for Gollaher's trip to the White House but Gollaher turned him down due to his fear of trains!

The pocket knife and watch were in Uncle Bud's possession for many years but when he died his wife kept the items and we believe her children (Bud's step-children who are not related to the family) now have them. It would be nice to have them back in the family.

[Submitted for the 100th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: "There's One In Every Family!"]



  1. Wow! That's cool. Nice story and a good writeup about it.

  2. Lisa, How exciting to be able to write this and share a bit of history with us. We all know who Abe Lincoln was, so the story was made even better. I wonder if Austin went to the funeral. This was Not a Tall Tail, was it?

  3. LOL Barbara! No it was not a Tall "Tail" or a Tall Tale! Sure sounds like one though! Much easier to back up what you say these days of the Internet. I think the reason Mike's mom looked like she was telling a tale is because she was probably used to being laughed at over it so it was probably hard for her to look convincing. I really didn't want to be unkind so I humored her. I learned an important lesson about family stories: sometimes they are true!

  4. Great story and post! I shall add Grandpa Gollaher to my list of people to be thankful for this holiday for I'd not want to think where we'd be without Honest Abe.

    But as one who's eaten a bit of humble pie regarding my in-laws I have to wonder why the really great true tales seem to belong to the in-laws?

  5. No wonder you were skeptical - that's one of those "Oh that couldn't have happened" stories.

    Being a Kentucky girl I had to wonder if Knob Creek Bourbon had any relationship to this Knob Creek and apparently it does. They actually mention on their website that Lincoln's father worked at a distillery near Knob Creek and that Abe was rescued from drowning in the creek - although they don't mention Austin.

  6. Great story. Enjoyed the read.

  7. Now this is the kind of wrong I would like to be! This was a very interesting story. I'm always alert for a Lincoln tidbit as my husband's Whittmore family has a non-blood connection to Lincoln. Jim's ancestor Newton DeSpain m. Nancy Hanks, d/o Andrew Jackson Hanks. Too long to explain here.

  8. Great story! I really enjoyed this one.

  9. That is a wonderful story! Isn't it great when family stories turn out to be absolutely true? I really enjoyed reading this.

  10. Wow! What a surprise to learn it was true. With all the Lincoln stories we have, you'd think this one would be more well-known. Thanks for sharing it. Great post for the COG!

  11. Fantastic! It's not often that a great family tale actually turns out to be true!