Lincoln 1860

Lincoln 1860

Monday, October 5, 2009

Lincoln's Mother - Nancy Hanks Lincoln

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.


Christy said...

As usual, a fabulous post. I love the pictures, too. I didn't know what White Snakeroot looked like, and it is really interesting that it still grows in abundance there. Thanks for another great blog entry!

Geoff Elliott said...


Thanks for your praise. Before my visit, I didn't know what white snakeroot looked like, either. The National Park Service actually provides a small brochure about it, complete with photos of the plant.

There was this wonderful NPS ranger there who made sure I knew about it and could identify it for the blog. Turns out I've seen this plant my entire life in the Ohio woods and never knew it's what killed Lincoln's mother.

Mini Choco-Pretzels said...

My recollection is that Nancy Hanks raised by the Sparrows. Correct me if I'm wrong, Thomas & Elizabeth; and Dennis Hanks, Abe's cousin, came to join them in KY - who was also illegitimate. The Sparrows died of the milk sick first, and Nancy followed soon after.

Then Thomas, Abe's good ole Dad, left the kids to live in squalor to find a new wife. She was very kind to them by all accounts.

I find it infinitely interesting that Abraham Lincoln had no interest whatsoever in attending his father's funeral. He never said a bad word. He also wasn't a hypocrite.

Mini Choco-Pretzels said...

I MEANT Indiana, of course. Aye-yigh.

Geoff Elliott said...


You are correct...Nancy Hanks was raised from an early age by the Sparrow family, and was even known as "Nancy Sparrow" for a few years.

Not much else is known about her, unfortunately.

Yes, Lincoln didn't attend the funeral of his father, Thomas. The relationship between the two of them was very strained to say the least. However, Lincoln did see to it that his father and step-mother were cared for and sent them money when they needed any.

It seems cold to not attend your own father's funeral, of course. Lincoln did make the long trip previously to visit his father when it appeared that Thomas was dying. That was a false alarm.

Abraham Lincoln had another strained relationship with his oldest son, Robert.

These are yet more examples of what make Lincoln so hard to understand. The man who showed compassion to animals and AWOL soldiers couldn't bring himself to go to his dad's funeral and had a bad relationship with his eldest child.

Rebecca said...

Great post. It strikes me as tragic that we don't know much about Lincoln's mother. Did he ever mention his mother in his later years?

Geoff Elliott said...


The quote "All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother" has been attributed to Lincoln by various biographers, beginning in 1865 or 1866. There is some question as to whom he meant.

"Angel mother" could refer to Nancy Hanks Lincoln, who died when Abe was only 9. And of course, upon her death, she became an "angel".

Others point out that Lincoln often referred to his step-mother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, as his "angel mother." She treated young Abe and his sister Sarah as her own children and it was she who raised those children from the time Abe was 10 years old until his adulthood. In fact, she was alive when Lincoln was assassinated. She was the one who encouraged Lincoln to read as much as he could, for example.

To my knowledge, Lincoln never specifically referred to his birth mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, other to mention that there was much sorrow in his youth and that she died when he was 9. He also thought she might have been born out of wedlock. I don't recall his describing her physically or anything else beyond that.

Hope that answers your questions.

Myosotis said...

Very interesting post!

I was wondering, was Abraham said to resemble his mother? If so (and I've noticed many men do resemble their mother rather than their father), I imagine that would have been the likeness that the author of the painted portrait based his or her work on. And if she really looked like that... wow, she was gorgeous! ;)

(Yes, I am superficial. Sue me. ;))

Geoff Elliott said...

I'm not sure if anyone ever commented on Lincoln looking like his mother Nancy. I suspect his features more closely resembled hers as opposed to resembling his father. In fact, some people think that since Abraham didn't look like Thomas, that his real father must have been someone else.

The painter of this "portrait" of Nancy Hanks Lincoln supposedly based his depiction of her on descriptions from others plus features of her known relatives. The result is beautiful, but we'll unfortunately never know, unless a definitive and proven portrait of her surfaces some day.

Mini Choco-Pretzels said...

Geoff: His relationship with Robert is very baffling indeed seeing as Robert wound up being the only one to make it to adulthood. Maybe he saw personality traits of his father there that rubbed him wrong (unambitious), who is to say. Not trying to justify it, just trying to find some sense in it. Family dynamics.

I feel sorry for Robert in the sense that he treated John Hay far more like a son than him. Lincoln loved Hay and Robert was painfully aware of it. John Hay was really cool in his own right, though. Not sure if you ever got into him here, but it would make for interesting discussion in general.

Geoff Elliott said...

"Mini" (wish I could know your real name some day!),

Thanks for your comment. I can't remember where I read this, but I seem to remember that Robert Todd Lincoln was far more like his mother's family than his father's. In other words, aristocratic, haughty, reserved. He and Lincoln just simply really never connected. When Robert was a very young boy, Lincoln even commented how "different" he was.

It seems that Willie, who died apparently of typhoid at age 11, was both Mary's and Abraham's favorite son. They never really recovered from his death.

Tad was more than a handful. He seems to have been severely learning-impaired, didn't learn to dress himself until he was around 10 years old, and was more or less wild.

It is an understatement to say that Lincoln was not a disciplinarian. He (and Mary to some extent) let their children run amok. This seems to be Lincoln's reaction to his own father, who was quite strict. Remember, young Abe's mother died when he was just 9 years old, and he had to grow up very quickly.

As always, thanks for your comments!

Toby said...

Loved the post.

Lincoln's father treated Abe's aspirations with complete contempt. He was on record calling him "lazy" and that is probably mild compared to the expressions he used to the young Lincoln.

Thomas Lincoln passed on some of his traits to his son - he seems to have been a great storyteller and mimic, so probably he had a talent for invective and insult as well. Not only that, he "farmed" Lincoln out as a labourer as long as he could, something that probably gave the later politician his instinctive hatred of slavery. When the older Lincoln said that "You work, I'll eat" was the essence of tyranny, he may have been thinking of his father.

What Lincoln may have found it difficult (and maybe impossible) to forgive was the father's constant undermining of the son's sense of self-worth and self-respect.

I think the relationship between Robert and Lincoln was a human tragedy. Robert was born when Lincoln was struggling to make a success of his career as a politician and lawyer, both demanding many months away from home. He had much more time for Willie & Tad.

During the war, he spent most of his time in Harvard and his father must have been distracted during his home visits to the White House. A distance grew between them that could possibly have been bridged when Robert grew to maturity. But it was not to be.

Desta Elliott said...

What puzzles me is, why did only Nancy die from the poisoned milk? Did no one else drink milk?
Or, was some other condition present which makes Nancy vulnerable?

PS I do not think Nancy was illegitimate, but was orphaned and went to live with her sister, who married a Sparrow. Just sayin'

Desta Elliott said...

1840 Census

Has anyone ever found Abraham Lincoln in the 1840 Federal Census?

sht musik said...

Here´s a song/video about Nancy Hanks based on the famous poem by Rosemary Benet.

Donna said...

I have always been told by my family that I am related to Abraham Lincoln's mother. My grandmother wa Senora Florence Hawks. Do you have any geneology to present day relatives of Nancy Hanks?

Geoff Elliott said...

I'm sorry, Donna, but I don't have any genealogy for his mother, Nancy Hanks. Her origins are very unclear as she may have been illegitimate. Additionally, there were numerous "Nancy Hanks" in that area of Virginia when she was born, so any genealogy of her is suspect at best. I doubt you'll ever be able to prove a link to her.

Unknown said...

Great site
There is very good information about Nancy Hanks and her family tree.
A great place to start is with a this book "Shipley, Mitchell and Thompson Families" by Prof. Stith Thompson, Indiana University, Stith was the grandson of Robert Mitchell Thompson who was the son of Sara Shipley.

Sara Shipley was the cousin of Nancy Hanks.
The Thompson/Mitchell families tradition states that as young girls the two cousins were both raised by there aunt Rachel Shipley Berry, sister of Sara's mother Naomi who died on the way to Kentucky and Lucy Shipley Hanks (Nancy's) mother who had remarried (Sparrow) and moved to another county in KY.

The Berry home was far from impoverished as a tax inventory list the Berry farm with over 600 acres, 9 slaves, horses, and cattle. This is where Nancy Hanks was living when she married Thomas Lincoln.

There is a Thompson family photo in Prof. Thompson's book (its free on line)
from the mid 1800s, of relatives of Nancey Hanks, as she would be there 2nd cousin.
For what its worth;
Robert Mitchell Thompson was my Grandfathers Great Grandfather

Hope this helps

Thank you

Unknown said...

Hello. My name is Janette Hoblit. My father, Joseph Lincoln Hoblit of Atlanta, IL, had Mr. Ostendorfer make some drawings for him. Mr. Lincoln stayed with my ancestors several times while riding the circuit in Illinois. As a result of the friendship, several males in my lineage - starting with A.Lincoln Hoblit, had the middle name Lincoln, ending with my brother. Atlanta is located just a few miles north of Lincoln, IL, which Honest Abe christened with the juice of a watermelon. Good website!

David Shearn said...

Hi, I do believe this is an excellent blog. I stumbled upon it on Yahoo; I will come back once again. Money and freedom is the best way to change, May you be rich and help other people.


carrera tile

Unknown said...

I am told that I am also related to Abraham Lincoln's Birth mother I have also been diagnosed with men's disease I am permanently disabled and am not sure how much longer I have. I am 44 years old living In San Jose California and my mothers side of the family has always resided In iIllinois
I have donated my body to science so hopefully my family will know if the "rumors" are true.


Unknown said...

It was my 7th great-grandfather (I believe) that was the preacher that presided over Nancy Hanks Lincoln's funeral. Do you have any information on him? I have very little but I do know he was a Methodist circuit riding preacher.

Geoff Elliott said...

Dear Ms. Brown: Some references claim that Rev. David Elkins (or Elkin) was really a Baptist preacher, who came 100 miles from Kentucky to give the funeral sermon for Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Others claim he was a Methodist preacher. The Lincoln family was Baptist, not Methodist. Another source I saw said that Elkins was the family preacher in Kentucky, so it would make sense that he was Baptist, if that was true.

Here's a detailed article from an Indiana newspaper.

History Blogs - Blog Catalog Blog Directory