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Chapter 1.

  • Date and place of Lincoln's birth.
  • -- the interview with J. L. Scripps. -- Lincoln's reference to his mother. -- the Bible record. -- the Kentucky stories of Lincoln's parentage. -- the Journal of William Calk. -- the death of Abraham Lincoln, the President's grandfather. -- Mordecai's revenge. -- Thomas Lincoln, his marriage and married life. -- Nancy Hanks, the President's mother. -- her sadness, her disposition and mental nature. -- the camp-meeting at Elizabethtown.

Beyond the fact that he was born on the 12th day of February, 1809, in Hardin county, Kentucky, Mr. Lincoln usually had but little to say of himself, the lives of his parents, or the history of the family before their removal to Indiana. If he mentioned the subject at all, it was with great reluctance and significant reserve. There was something about his origin he never cared to dwell upon. His nomination for the Presidency in 1860, however, made the publication of his life a necessity, and attracted to Springfield an army of campaign biographers and newspaper men. They met him in his office, stopped him in his walks, and followed him to his house. Artists came to paint his picture, and sculptors to make his bust. His autographs were in demand, and people came along distances to shake him by the hand. This sudden elevation to national prominence found Mr. Lincoln unprepared in a great measure for the unaccustomed demonstrations that awaited him. While he was easy of approach and equally courteous to all, [2] yet, as he said to me one evening after a long day of hand-shaking, he could not understand why people should make so much over him.

Among the earliest newspaper men to arrive in Springfield after the Chicago convention was the late J. L. Scripps of the Chicago Tribune, who proposed to prepare a history of his life. Mr. Lincoln deprecated the idea of writing even a campaign biography. “Why, Scripps,” said he,

it is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of me or my early life. It can all be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray's Elegy,

The short and simple annals of the poor.

That's my life, and that's all you or anyone else can make out of it.

He did, however, communicate some facts and meagre incidents of his early days, and, with the matter thus obtained, Mr. Scripps prepared his book. Soon after the death of Lincoln I received a letter from Scripps, in which, among other things, he recalled the meeting with Lincoln, and the view he took of the biography matter.

Lincoln seemed to be painfully impressed,” he wrote, “with the extreme poverty of his early surroundings, and the utter absence of all romantic and heroic elements. He communicated some facts to me concerning his ancestry, which he did not wish to have published then, and which I have never spoken of or alluded to before.”

What the facts referred to by Mr. Scripps were [3] we do not know; for he died several years ago without, so far as is known, revealing them to anyone.

On the subject of his ancestry and origin I only. remember one time when Mr. Lincoln ever referred to it. It was about 1850, when he and I were driving in his one-horse buggy to the court in Menard county, Illinois. The suit we were going to try was one in which we were likely, either directly or collaterally, to touch upon the subject of hereditary traits. During the ride he spoke, for the first time in my hearing, of his mother,1 dwelling on her characteristics, and mentioning or enumerating what qualities he inherited from her. He said, among other things, that she was the illegitimate daughter of Lucy Hanks and a well-bred Virginia farmer or planter; and he argued that from this last source came his power of analysis, his logic, his mental activity, his ambition, and all the qualities that distinguished him from the other members and descendants of the Hanks family. His theory in discussing the matter of hereditary traits had been, that, for certain reasons, illegitimate children are oftentimes sturdier and brighter than those born in lawful wedlock; and in his case, he believed that his better nature and finer qualities came from this broad-minded, unknown Virginian. The revelation [4] --painful as it was-called up the recollection of his mother, and, as the buggy jolted over the road, he added ruefully, “God bless my mother; all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her,” 2 and immediately lapsed into silence. Our interchange of ideas ceased, and we rode on for some time without exchanging a word. He was sad and absorbed. Burying himself in thought, and musing no doubt over the disclosure he had just made, he drew round him a barrier which I feared to penetrate. His words and melancholy tone made a deep impression on me. It was an experience I can never forget. As we neared the town of Petersburg we were overtaken by an old man who rode beside us for awhile, and entertained us with reminiscences of days on the frontier. Lincoln was reminded of several Indiana stories, and by the time we had reached the unpretentious court-house at our destination, his sadness had passed away.

In only two instances did Mr. Lincoln over his own hand leave any record of his history or family descent. One of these was the modest bit of autobiography furnished to Jesse W. Fell, in 1859, in which after stating that his parents were born in Virginia of “undistinguished or second families,” he makes the brief mention of his mother, saying that she came “of a family of the name of Hanks.” The [5] other record was the register of marriages, births, and deaths which he made in his father's Bible. The latter now lies before me. That portion of the page which probably contained the record of the marriage of his parents, Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks, has been lost; but fortunately the records of Washington county, Kentucky, and the certificate of the minister who performed the marriage ceremony--the Rev. Jesse Head--fix the fact and date of the latter on the 12th day of June, 1806.

On the 10th day of February in the following year a daughter Sarah3 was born, and two years later, on the 12th of February, the subject of these memoirs came into the world. After him came the last child, a boy — named Thomas after his father — who lived but a few days. No mention of his existence is found in the Bible record.

After Mr. Lincoln4 had attained some prominence [6] in the world, persons who knew both himself and his father were constantly pointing to the want of resemblance between the two. The old gentleman was not only devoid of energy, and shiftless, but dull, and these persons were unable to account for the source of his son's ambition and his intellectual superiority over other men. Hence the charge so often made in Kentucky that Mr. Lincoln was in reality the offspring of a Hardin or a Marshall, or that he had in his veins the blood of some of the noted families who held social and intellectual sway in the western part of the State. These serious hints were the outgrowth of the campaign of 1860, which was conducted with such unrelenting prejudice in Kentucky that in the county where Lincoln was born only six persons could be found who had the courage to vote for him.5 I remember that after his nomination for [7] the Presidency Mr. Lincoln received from Kentucky many inquiries about his family and origin. This curiosity on the part of the people in one who had attained such prominence was perfectly natural, but it never pleased him in the least; in fact, to one man who was endeavoring to establish a relationship through the Hanks family he simply answered, “You are mistaken about my mother,” without explaining the mistake or making further mention of the matter. Samuel Haycraft, the clerk of the court in Hardin county, invited him to visit the scenes of his birth and boyhood, which led him to say this in a letter, June 4, 1860:6 “You suggest that a visit to the place of my nativity might be pleasant to me. Indeed it would, but would it be safe? Would not the people lynch me?” That reports reflecting on his origin and descent should arise in a community in which he felt that his life was unsafe is by no means surprising. Abraham Lincoln,7 the grandfather of the President, emigrated to Jefferson county, Kentucky, from Virginia about 1780, and from that time forward the former State became an important one in the history of the family, for in it was destined to be born its most illustrious member. About five years before this, a handful of Virginians had started across the [8] mountains for Kentucky, and in the company, besides their historian, William Calk,--whose diary recently came to light,--was one Abraham Hanks. They were evidently a crowd of jolly young men bent on adventure and fun, but their sport was attended with frequent disasters. Their journey began at “Mr. Priges' tavern on the Rapidan.” When only a few days out “Hanks' dog's leg got broke.” Later in the course of the journey, Hanks and another companion became separated from the rest of the party and were lost in the mountains for two days; in crossing a stream “Abraham's saddle turned over and his load all fell in Indian creek” ; finally they meet their brethren from whom they have been separated and then pursue their way without further interruption. Returning emigrants whom they meet, according to the journal of Calk, “tell such News of the Indians” that certain members of the company are “afrade to go aney further.” The following day more or less demoralization takes place among the members of this pioneer party when the announcement is made, as their chronicler so faithfully records it, that “Philip Drake Bakes bread without washing his hands.” This was an unpardonable sin, and at it they revolted. A day later the record shows that “Abram turns back.” Beyond this we shall never know what became of Abraham Hanks, for no further mention of him is made in this or any other history. He may have returned to Virginia and become, for aught we know, one of the President's ancestors on the maternal side of the house; but if [9] so his illustrious descendant was never able to establish the fact or trace his lineage satisfactorily beyond the first generation which preceded him. He never mentioned who his maternal grandfather was, if indeed he knew.

His paternal grandfather, Abraham Lincoln,8 the pioneer from Virginia, met his death within two years after his settlement in Kentucky at the hands of the Indians; “not in battle,” as his distinguished grandson tells us, “but by stealth, when he was laboring to open a farm in the forest.” The story of his death in sight of his youngest son Thomas, then only six years old, is by no means a new one to the world. In fact I have often heard the President describe the tragedy as he had inherited the story from his father. The dead pioneer had three sons, Mordecai, Josiah, and Thomas, in the order named. When the father fell, Mordecai, having hastily sent Josiah to the neighboring fort after assistance, ran into the cabin, and pointing his rifle through a crack between the logs, prepared for defense. Presently an Indian came stealing up to the dead father's body. Beside the latter sat the little boy Thomas. Mordecai took deliberate aim at a silver crescent which hung suspended from the Indian's breast, and brought him to the ground. Josiah returned from the fort with the desired relief, and [10] the savages were easily dispersed, leaving behind one dead and one wounded.

The tragic death of his father filled Mordecai with an intense hatred of the Indians--a feeling from which he never recovered, It was ever with him like an avenging spirit. From Jefferson county he removed to Grayson, where he spent the remainder of his days. A correspondent9 from there wrote me in 1865: “Old Mordecai was easily stirred up by the sight of an Indian. One time, hearing of a few Indians passing through the county, he mounted his horse, and taking his rifle on his shoulder, followed on after them and was gone two days. When he returned he said he left one lying in a sink hole. The Indians, he said, had killed his father, and he was determined before he died to have satisfaction.” The youngest boy, Thomas, retained a vivid recollection of his father's death, which, together with other reminiscences of his boyhood, he was fond of relating later in life to his children to relieve the tedium of long winter evenings. Mordecai and Josiah,10 both remaining in Kentucky, became the heads of good-sized families, and although never known or [11] heard of outside the limits of the neighborhoods in which they lived, were intelligent, well-to-do men. In Thomas, roving and shiftless, to whom was “reserved the honor of an illustrious paternity,” are we alone interested. He was, we are told, five feet ten inches high, weighed one hundred and ninety-five pounds, had a well-rounded face, dark hazel eyes, coarse black hair, and was slightly stoop-shouldered. His build was so compact that Dennis Hanks used to say he could not find the point of separation between his ribs. He was proverbially slow of movement, mentally and physically; was careless, inert, and dull; was sinewy, and gifted with great strength; was inoffensively quiet and peaceable, but when roused to resistance a dangerous antagonist. He had a liking for jokes and stories, which was one of the few traits he transmitted to his illustrious son; was fond of the chase, and had no marked aversion for the bottle, though in the latter case he indulged no more freely than the average Kentuckian of his day. At the time of his marriage to Nancy Hanks he could neither read nor write; but his wife, who was gifted with more education, and was otherwise his mental superior, taught him, it is said, to write his name and to read — at least, he was able in later years to spell his way slowly through the Bible. In his religious belief he first affiliated with the Free-Will Baptists. After his removal to Indiana he changed his adherence to the Presbyterians — or Predestinarians, as they were then called — and later united with the Christian--vulgarly called Campbellite-- [12] Church, in which latter faith he is supposed to have died. He was a carpenter by trade, and essayed farming too; but in this, as in almost every other undertaking, he was singularly unsuccessful. He was placed in possession of several tracts of land at different times and his life, but was never able to pay for a single one of them. The farm on which he died was one his son purchased, providing a life estate therein for him and his wife. He never fell in with the routine of labor; was what some people would call unfortunate or unlucky in all his business ventures — if in reality he ever made one--and died near the village of Farmington in Coles county, Illinois, on the 17th day of January, 1851. His son, on account of sickness in his own family, was unable to be present at his father's bedside, or witness his death. To those who notified him of his probable demise he wrote: “I sincerely hope that father may yet recover his health; but at all events tell him to remember to call upon and confide in our great and good and merciful Maker, who will not turn away from him in any extremity. He notes the fall of a sparrow, and numbers the hairs of our heads; and He will not forget the dying man who puts his trust in him. Say to him that if we could meet now it is doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant; but that if it be his lot to go now he will soon have a joyous meeting with the many loved ones gone before, and where the rest of us, through the help of God, hope ere long to join them.” 11 [13]

Nancy Hanks, the mother of the President, at a very early age was taken from her mother Lucyafterwards married to Henry Sparrow — and sent to live with her aunt and uncle, Thomas and Betsy Sparrow. Under this same roof the irrepressible and cheerful waif, Dennis Hanks12--whose name will be frequently seen in these pages — also found a shelter. At the time of her marriage to Thomas Lincoln, Nancy was in her twenty-third year. She was above the ordinary height in stature, weighed about 130 pounds, was slenderly built, and had much the appearance of one inclined to consumption. Her skin was dark; hair dark brown: eyes gray and small; forehead prominent; face sharp and angular, with a marked expression of melancholy which fixed itself in the memory of everyone who ever saw or knew her. Though her life was seemingly beclouded by a spirit of sadness, she was in disposition amiable and generally cheerful. Mr. Lincoln himself said to me in 1851, on receiving the news of his father's death, that whatever might be said of his parents, and however unpromising the early surroundings of his mother may have been, she was highly intellectual by nature, had a strong memory, acute judgment, and was cool and heroic. From a mental standpoint she no doubt rose above her surroundings, and had she lived, the stimulus of [14] her nature would have accelerated her son's success, and she would have been a much more ambitious prompter than his father ever was.

As a family the Hankses were peculiar to the civilization of early Kentucky. Illiterate and superstitious, they corresponded to that nomadic class still to be met with throughout the South, and known as “poor whites.” They are happily and vividly depicted in the description of a camp-meeting held at Elizabethtown, Kentucky, in 1806, which was furnished me in August, 1865, by an eye-witness.13 “The Hanks girls,” narrates the latter,

were great at camp-meetings. I remember one in 1806. I will give you a scene, and if you will then read the books written on the subject you may find some apology for the superstition that was said to be in Abe Lincoln's character. It was at a camp-meeting, as before said, when a general shout was about to commence. Preparations were being made; a young lady invited me to stand on a bench by her side where we could see all over the altar. To the right a strong, athletic young man, about twenty-five years old, was being put in trim for the occasion, which was done by divesting him of all apparel except shirt and pants. On the left a young lady was being put in trim in much the same manner, so that her clothes would not be in the way, and so that, when her combs flew out, her hair would go into graceful braids. She, too, was young — not more than twenty perhaps. The [15] performance commenced about the same time by the young man on the right and the young lady on the left. Slowly and gracefully they worked their way towards the centre, singing, shouting, hugging and kissing, generally their own sex, until at last nearer and nearer they came. The centre of the altar was reached, and the two closed, with their arms around each other, the man singing and shouting at the top of his voice.

I have my Jesus in my arms
Sweet as honey, strong as bacon ham.

Just at this moment the young lady holding to my arm whispered, “They are to be married next week; her name is Hanks.” There were very few who did not believe this true religion, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and the man who could not believe it, did well to keep it to himself. The Hankses were the finest singers and shouters in our country.

Here my informant stops, and on account of his death several years ago I failed to learn whether the young lady shouter who figured in the foregoing scene was the President's mother or not. The fact that Nancy Hanks did marry that year gives color to the belief that it was she. As to the probability of the young man being Thomas Lincoln it is difficult to say; such a performance as the one described must have required a little more emotion and enthusiasm than the tardy and inert carpenter was in the habit of manifesting.

1 Dennis and John Hanks have always insisted that Lincoln's mother was not a Hanks, but a Sparrow. Both of them wrote to me that such was the fact. Their object in insisting on this is apparent when it is shown that Nancy Hanks was the daughter of Lucy Hanks, who afterward married Henry Sparrow. It will be observed that Mr. Lincoln claimed that his mother was a Hanks.

2 If anyone will take the pains to read the Fell autobiography they will be struck with Lincoln's meagre reference to his mother. He even fails to give her maiden or Christian name, and devotes but three lines to her family. A history of the Lincolns occupies almost an entire page.

3 Most biographers of Lincoln, in speaking of Mr. Lincoln's sister, call her Nancy, some — notably Nicolay and Hay — insisting that she was known by that name among her family and friends. In this they are in error. I have interviewed the different members of the Hanks and Lincoln families who survived the President, and her name was invariably given as Sarah. The mistake, I think, arises from the fact that, in the Bible record referred to, all that portion relating to the birth of “Sarah, daughter of Thomas and Nancy Lincoln,” down to the word Nancy has been torn away, and the latter name has therefore been erroneously taken for that of the daughter. Reading the entry of Abraham's birth below satisfies one that it must refer to the mother.

4 Regarding the paternity of Lincoln a great many surmises and a still larger amount of unwritten or, at least, unpublished history have drifted into the currents of western lore and Journalism. A number of such traditions are extant in Kentucky and other localities. Mr. Weik has spent considerable time investigating the truth of a report current in Bourbon county, Kentucky, that Thomas Lincoln, for a consideration from one Abraham Inlow, a miller there, assumed the paternity of the infant child of a poor girl named Nancy Hanks; and, after marriage, removed with her to Washington or Hardin county, where the son, who was named “Abraham, after his, real, and Lincoln after his putative, father,” was born. A prominent citizen of the town of Mount Sterling in that state, who was at one time judge of the court and subsequently editor of a newspaper, and who was descended from the Abraham Inlow mentioned, has written a long argument in support of his alleged kinship through this source to Mr. Lincoln. He emphasizes the striking similarity in stature, facial features, and length of arms, notwithstanding the well established fact that the first-born child of the real Nancy Hanks was not a boy but a girl; and that the marriage did not take place in Bourbon, but in Washington county.

5 R.. L. Wintersmith, of Elizabethtown, Kentucky.

6 Unpublished Ms.

7 Regarding the definition of the names “Lincoln” and “Hanks” it is said, the first is merely a local name without any special meaning, and the second is the old English diminutive of “Hal” or “Harry.”

8 “They [the Lincolns] were also called Linkhorns. The old settlers had a way of pronouncing names not as they were spelled, but rather, It seemed, as they pleased. Thus they called Medcalf ‘Medcap,’ and Kaster they pronounced ‘Custard.’ ” --Ms. letter, Charles Friend, March 19, 1866.

9 W. T. Claggett, unpublished Ms.

10 “I knew Mordecai and Josiah Lincoln intimately. They were excellent men, plain, moderately educated, candid in their manners and intercourse, and looked upon as honorable as any men I have ever heard of. Mordecai was the oldest son, and his father having been killed by the Indians before the law of primogeniture was repealed, he inherited a very competent estate. The others were poor. Mordecai was celebrated for his bravery, and had been in the early campaigns of the West.” --Henry Pirtle, letter, June 17, 1865, Ms.

11 Ms. letter to John Johnston, Jan. 12, 1851.

12 Dennis Hanks, still living at the age of ninety years in Illinois, was the son of another Nancy Hanks — the aunt of the President's mother. I have his written statement that he came into the world through nature's back-door. He never stated, if he knew it, who his father was.

13 J. B. Helm, Ms.

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