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West Virginia History Series: Nancy Hanks Lincoln

By Rebecca Hinkle
On March 29, 2018

Nancy Hanks Lincoln stressed the importance of education to her son and he never forgot it.
Photo Courtesy of Appalachian History

 

Mineral County is the birthplace of a mother who encouraged her son to become a great leader and to be an honest man. Nancy Hanks Lincoln, who was Abraham Lincoln’s mother, was born to a farming family in what is now in Mineral County, West Virginia. She shaped her son into becoming the most recognizable President in the nation’s history.
 
“It is unclear when exactly she was born, but we know it was either 1782 or 1784,” says Frank Roleff, a member of the Mineral County Historical Society. Nancy Hanks was born in what was at the time Hampshire County, Virginia, and the area is known today as Antioch in Mineral County. She was born to Lucy Hanks, but her father is unknown. It is believed that she was born an illegitimate child as it was reported that the Hanks’ family told stories to make it seem that she had a father. Hanks was raised by her grandparents, Ann and Joseph Hanks, along with their other eight children.
 
Around the time of her birth, the Hanks lived on 108 acres of property. In 1783, Hanks sold the property and moved the family to a settlement called Rolling Rock, Kentucky. After her grandfather’s death when Hanks was 9-years-old she moved in with her mother who had married a man named Henry Sparrow, but she did not live with them for very long as her aunt later married Sparrow’s brother and Hanks was sent to live with them when she was 12-years-old. Hanks called them her parents and took the last name Sparrow until her marriage.
 
While she lived with them she learned the skills that women at the time learned in order to run their households and was described by neighbors as an intelligent, affectionate, kind young woman. She learned to read by studying the Bible and worked as a seamstress until her marriage to Thomas Lincoln in 1806. The marriage produced three children. Sarah was born in 1807, Abraham in 1809, and Thomas Lincoln Jr. in 1812, who died in infancy. According to the National Park Service in Indiana at Lincoln’s Boyhood National Memorial, the family lived at three different farms in Kentucky but lost all three due to boundary issues. They decided to move to Indiana where they could own land under the Northwest Land Ordinance.
 
Neighbors of the Lincoln’s noted that she seemed superior to her husband, and that her children remembered her for her strong, but loving nature. She pushed the importance of education on her children, and this stayed with her son throughout his life. While Lincoln attended school briefly while he lived on the frontier, he was mostly self-educated. Life on the frontier was not easy and it required physical labor that made it difficult for Lincoln to attend school, and his mother encouraging him to continue his education was never forgotten by Lincoln. He is noted for saying, “God bless my mother; all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her,”. Frontier life was not easy, and it eventually made his mother ill.
 
In the fall of 1818, Lincoln’s mother became ill after nursing neighbors. There are two theories to her death as some believe she had milk sickness. Milk sickness was caught by drinking the milk or eating a cow that had eaten a white snakeroot, a plant that contains a toxin. Others believed she was dying of consumption. She was ill for two weeks when she died on Oct. 5th, 1818. 
 
The death was very hard for the family and it was traumatic for the 9-year-old Lincoln as he had to help his father prepare her coffin and grave. She was buried south of their farm and had her initials carved into her headstone. The death was difficult for her son, but he continued to remember her for the rest of his life.

 

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