Lessons in Local History: Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace

Published 2:00 pm Saturday, April 15, 2023

By Harry Enoch

Contributing Writer

As every schoolboy learns, Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, was born to Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln in Hodgenville, Kentucky, on February 12, 1809. Or was he? Could that story be part of a fiction intended to hide the truth of Lincoln’s origins? Let’s explore some of the “alternative facts.”

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Goff Bedford published the first volume of his Clark County history, “Land of Our Fathers,” in 1958. I’ve often wondered what kind of reaction he aroused by the following statement. “Thomas Lincoln married a girl named Hanks who had relations living in Clark County. This became grounds for the theory that Abraham Lincoln was born in Clark County.

Bedford’s second volume, “The Proud Land,” added a lengthy explanation for the origin of this legend. He named his source: Lucinda Boyd, a Cynthiana author and daughter of the noted minister, Elder Samuel Rogers. Her book—”The Sorrows of Nancy”—gives a fanciful version of Lincoln’s origins.

Her father, Elder Rogers, was one of her sources. He said Nancy Hanks was the illegitimate child of Lucy Hanks and a son of John Marshall of Virginia. You may recall that Marshall was Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Elder Rogers added that Nancy, in turn, also had an illegitimate child—a son named Abraham, who was born near Thatcher’s Mill on the Clark and Bourbon County line.

When Lucinda Boyd came to Winchester to gather material for her book, she met Mayor John Garner, who asked her, “Did you know that Abraham Lincoln was born in Clark County near Thatcher’s Mill?”

Intrigued, she collected similar statements from well-known local people familiar with the story. Many prominent Clark Countians swore they had heard that Abraham Lincoln was born out of wedlock near Thatcher’s Mill.

Moving over to Montgomery County, Mrs. Boyd collected additional versions. She attributed the following statement to an Mt. Sterling judge: “A prominent figure in the Kentucky Legislature told me that a man had told him that he was the one who married Nancy Hanks to Thomas Lincoln. And at the time of the marriage, Nancy’s son Abraham was a boy, large enough to run around.”

Another Mt. Sterling citizen provided a different account: “Lincoln’s mother’s name was Nancy Hornback. His father’s name was Abraham Inlow. This was the tradition in my family and the Inlow family.”

While this stuff sounds pretty farfetched today, such rumors circulated widely in Clark County in the 1800s. No one claimed to have direct knowledge of the events. They had all heard it from second or third-hand sources. Nothing like actual evidence was ever produced.

Lincoln’s law partner and biographer William Herndon collected and published several additional versions of these rumors. He found an anonymous letter written from Paris, Kentucky, just after the Civil War. The letter claimed that “Abraham Inloe was a millwright. While he was building Thatchers Mill, Inloe was intimate with Nancy Hanks and got her with child. Miss Hanks threatened a suit for seduction. To hush things up, Inloe gave Thomas Lincoln $200 to marry her and take her off, which he did—over to the Green River country.”

Yet another version claimed that Inloe “hired one Thomas Linkhorn to marry a pregnant girl named Nancy for $160. This Linkhorn was a shiftless, worthless man who worked here and there. He was totally without character and feeble of mind. Nancy, the wife, was delivered of a child in the little cabin that stood on the banks of Strode Creek.” Thomas was said to have abandoned Nancy and the child and was killed by a falling tree shortly afterward. After that, Nancy became a notoriously bad woman—and later took up with a man named Hanks.

Confused yet? Not surprising.

In 1920 Lincoln historian William Barton wrote a 400-page tome, “The Paternity of Abraham Lincoln.” The book shredded these and other outlandish rumors about Lincoln’s father and mother.

First, he described Lincoln’s 1864 re-election campaign as a particularly bitter fight. Since Lincoln provided so little of his family history, his opponents felt free to spread every piece of malicious gossip that came their way. These stories were especially harmful because illegitimate children of low birth were thought to be afflicted with weak intelligence and loose morals. When he was elected president, neither Lincoln’s parents were around to defend themselves. He lost his mother to milk sickness when he was only nine years old, and his father died a decade before the election.

The Clark County myths were not the only ones. William Barton listed seven so-called “Sires of Abraham Lincoln.” One of these was John C. Calhoun, the famous orator from South Carolina. Others included Henry Clay and Patrick Henry. Barton then proceeded to show that these specious allegations are contradicted by overwhelming documentation in the historical record.

The evidence for Lincoln’s parentage is voluminous. Thomas Lincoln married Nancy Hanks in Washington County in 1806. The marriage record was not found until many years after Abraham’s death. The first child, Sarah, was born in 1807, and Abraham in 1809, both in Hardin County.

Most scholars now agree that Lincoln’s mother was the illegitimate daughter of Lucy Hanks. Nancy’s father has not been identified. Lincoln’s reticence about his family history may have stemmed from his not wanting this to become an issue in the presidential election. In the vacuum, however, a vicious whisper campaign against him not only speculated on his mother’s illegitimate birth but also—even worse—on his paternity.

In 2007 Edward Steers published a book called “Lincoln Legends.” He asserted that all of Lincoln’s detractors hadn’t gone away—and some still question his paternity. Dozens of websites continue to debate the issue. My Google search “Abraham Lincoln paternity” turned up hundreds of hits.

The story offers several cogent lessons for our time. First, there is nothing new about the “Big Lie.” The phenomenon has been with us through the ages. It has always been a weapon unscrupulous individuals use to persuade, manipulate and control others.

The second lesson is that Big Lies take on their own life. It doesn’t matter how thoroughly they have been debunked by hard evidence. There will always be some who continue to believe and spread lies. As Steers wrote, “Of all the myths associated with Abraham Lincoln, the paternity myth still ranks at the top.”