Born in Oldham County, Kentucky. Orphaned at age eight when his parents died of cholera. Lived with relatives.
At the age of twelve, he moved to Illinois to live with an aunt and uncle on a farm on the banks of the Sangamon River west of Decatur. He worked as an apprentice carpenter and as a farmer raising hemp and other crops.
Met Lincoln for the first time.
Went to Springfield and studied law with the highly respected Judge Silas Robbins, was admitted to the bar and practiced law briefly in Sullivan.
With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, he enlisted as a 1st Lieutenant in Company C, 4th Illinois Infantry Regiment fighting in the battles of Cerro Gordo and Vera Cruz where his regiment almost captured Mexican President General Santa Anna, but they had to settle for his cork leg, carriage and $20,000 in gold.
In the company of eight men, he journeyed from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California driving a six-mule team 1,940 miles overland, a trip that lasted ninety-five days. He mined gold for two years and ran a store, returning to Decatur in 1851 with $5,400 in gold and then speculated in real estate until he became one of the city’s wealthiest young men.
To further his education, he went to Europe and the Middle East traveling through Scotland, Ireland, England, France, Prussia, and Russia. While in Prussia he hunted boar with the King and he was in Moscow at the time of the coronation of Czar Alexander II. Continuing to Alexandria, Egypt he traveled 600 miles up the Nile River to Thebes, rode a camel across the Arabian Desert to the Holy Land where he climbed Mt. Sinai, returning to America through Greece, Italy, France, and England. The journey lasted 20 months. He used his travel experiences to polish oratorical skills by giving travel talks to the citizens of Decatur at the old Powers Hall.