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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 421

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This is the grave of Nancy Hanks Lincoln.

Born in 1784 in what is today Mineral County, West Virginia, Nancy Hanks was probably an illegitimate birth and was raised by her grandparents, who were relatively well off for the time and place. The family moved to Kentucky in 1792, but her grandfather died a year later. At that point, her grandmother returned to Virginia and she went to live with her mother, who had married and was also in Kentucky. We don’t really know much about her relationship with her biological mother, but in 1796, she moved in with her older sister, who had just gotten married, and she called her sister and brother-in-law “mother and father.”

In 1806, Nancy married Thomas Lincoln. They had three children. The first, Sarah, lived to be only 20 years old, dying during childbirth. The third died at birth. The second was the future greatest president of the United States. Because of the lack of hard information and the mythology around Abraham, we have all sorts of accounts of what she was like that are possibly totally false–everything from her being a gentle, patient woman to being depressed to her being reckless enough for people to question her propriety. Who knows. Could be a combination of all three, could be none of the above.

In 1818, Lincoln died at the age of 34. This death has long been chalked up to milk sickness. A common plant in the Midwest is white snakeroot. Cows can eat it, no problem. But it is toxic to humans (as well as other farm animals) and wasn’t known farther east. By this time, the Lincolns had moved to Indiana. A few other people around their farm had also died of this and thousands did over the first years of white settlement of the region. In 1830, the Kentucky General Assembly offered a $600 reward to anyone who could figure out what so often poisoned milk. It was not until 1928 that it was finally discovered by science, although in the 1830s, a woman named Anna Pierce Hobbs learned from a Shawnee woman, whose name is of course not recorded, that white snakeroot was probably what caused it, a correct assertion. There is another theory that Lincoln died of tuberculosis. Certainly this was a common enough way to die. Others say it might have been cancer, based on the evidence of the health problems her son would later have and their facial similarities.

The truth is that we will never 100 percent know for sure why Nancy Lincoln died, though there is little reason to doubt the snakeroot theory. What we do know is that there is nothing exceptional at all about her except for her son. She was like so many people in the nineteenth century. She died way too young for reasons that no one could understand. In this, she is representative of all the people you see in old graveyards who died in their teens, twenties, and thirties, almost all of conditions that would be unlikely to kill you today.

Nancy Hanks Lincoln is buried at Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, the National Park site at the site of Abe’s boyhood home, Lincoln City, Indiana.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader donations. Thanks so much! If you would like to see this series visit more presidential mothers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Dorothy Walker Bush, mother of George H.W. Bush, is in Greenwich, Connecticut and Mattie Truman is in Kansas City. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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