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Lincoln's Mother – Nancy Hanks Lincoln

Nov 29, 2017
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Today marks the 191st anniversary of the death of Abraham Lincoln’s biological mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. She died on October 5, 1818, when her two children, Sarah and Abraham, were just 11 and 9 years old respectively. Born in 1784, Nancy Hanks Lincoln was only 35 years old when she died of what the pioneers called “milk sickness.”
Only the most rudimentary facts are known about Lincoln’s mother. She was born in what is now West Virginia, apparently out of wedlock, as Lincoln himself thought. She eventually moved to Kentucky, where she and Thomas Lincoln were married in 1806. There she gave birth to three children, including a son named Thomas, who died in infancy. The Lincolns relocated to Spencer County, Indiana in 1816, which is where she died. We know from Abraham Lincoln’s recollections that he helped his father make her coffin and she was buried on a small knoll near their log cabin.
Within a year, Thomas Lincoln returned to Kentucky where he married Sarah Bush Johnston, who had children of her own. They returned to Indiana to the Lincoln children. From all accounts, Lincoln’s step-mother treated him and his sister Sarah as her own children, and was exceedingly kind to them.
Unfortunately, we don’t know what Nancy Hanks Lincoln looked like. There are no known portraits of her done while she was alive, and she died more than two decades prior to the invention of photography.
A painting of Nancy Hanks Lincoln was completed in 1963 by Mr. Lloyd Ostendorf, the famous collector and organizer of photographs of Abraham Lincoln. Mr. Ostendorf read brief descriptions of her appearance and also studied photographs of other Hanks family members in order to come up with what he felt was a reasonable guess of her appearance. The painting is on display inside the building at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, but I cannot show it to you because it would violate a copyright that the Ostendorf family holds on it.
We in the Lincoln community of enthusiasts owe Mr. Ostendorf a great deal of gratitude for his lifelong research into the photographic history of Abraham Lincoln. Thanks to his studies, we know the exact (or approximate) dates and photographers of most of the images which exist of Lincoln. He came up with the very system we use today to identify these photographs: the “O” system, in which the photos are numbered from earliest to last as “O-1” and so on. Mr. Ostendorf was also an accomplished artist.

Nancy Hanks Lincoln Gravesite

Visitors to the Lincoln Boyhood Memorial near Lincoln City, Indiana can visit a small pioneer cemetery located on the grounds which contains the gravesite of Nancy Hanks Lincoln. If we know little of her from life, we know even less about her in death. The exact location of her gravesite is not known, except it’s either in this old cemetery or close by. According to the National Park Service, an admirer of Abraham Lincoln visited the cemetery in 1868 and was greatly upset about the overgrown condition of it. He wrote a poem which was published in a local paper, one of the first accounts of the condition of the gravesite. After a marker which was installed in 1874 had disappeared within 5 years, a local businessman had the gravestone pictured above installed in the cemetery. The inscription reads “Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Mother of President Lincoln, died October 5 A.D. 1818, age 35 years.” I took the above photo during my visit to the Boyhood Memorial in September.

The Milk Sickness

In my opening paragraph, I mentioned that Abraham Lincoln’s mother died of “milk sickness,” which the pioneers knew nothing, other than it apparently came from drinking poisoned milk. Today we know what killed Nancy Hanks Lincoln, and many other of her neighbors in the autumn of 1818. It was caused by cattle eating the innocuous-looking plant pictured above.

It’s called “white snakeroot,” which contains a poison called “tremetol.” When cattle ingest the plant while grazing, it will poison their meat and milk. When humans drink the milk or eat the tainted beef, nausea and vomiting or even coma and death can occur. This poisonous feature of this woodland plant wasn’t discovered until the 20th century. It’s rarely a problem today for humans, but it still kills an occasional cow if the animal eats the plant. In Nancy Lincoln’s time, though, it caused many deaths of the Indiana pioneers and brought terror to everyone, who didn’t understand what was making the milk turn to poison.
As luck would have it, I was at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial when the white snakeroot plants were in bloom. I took the above photo of one such plant, which is literally growing next to the cemetery where Abraham Lincoln’s mother is buried. It was touching to see these plants growing in abundance around the cemetery and throughout the woods on the grounds of the Memorial. Their predecessors were directly responsible for the first of many tragedies Abraham Lincoln suffered throughout his life.
We don’t know much about Nancy Hanks Lincoln, where she’s actually buried, or even what she looked like. But we do know that she gave birth to Abraham Lincoln, who rose from obscurity to become our nation’s greatest president. And that fact alone makes it important that we still honor her memory, which I hope I’ve done with this post.

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