Nancy Hanks Lincoln was born 5 February 1784 in Antioch, Mineral County, West Virginia, United States to Lucy Hanks (1765-) and died 5 October 1818 Gentryville, Spencer County, Indiana, United States of milk sickness. She married Thomas Lincoln (1778-1851) 12 June 1806 in Washington County, Kentucky, United States.


Nancy Hanks Lincoln is best known as the mother of United States President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). Her marriage to Thomas Lincoln (1778-1851) also produced a daughter, Sarah Lincoln. When Nancy and Thomas had been married for just over 10 years, the family moved from Kentucky to Spencer County, Indiana. Nancy Lincoln died from milk sickness at the Little Pigeon Creek Community in Spencer County when Abraham was nine years old.


It is believed that Nancy Hanks Lincoln's grandparents were Ann and Joseph Hanks and that they raised her from infancy until her grandfather died when she was about 9 years old. At the time of Nancy's birth, Joseph and his wife and children were all living on 108 acres near Patterson Creek in then-Hampshire County, Virginia. In March 1784, Joseph Hanks sold his property via a mortgage and moved his wife, 8 children, and young granddaughter Nancy to Kentucky.

Age 10 Briefly Returns to Mother

The family lived on land along Pottinger's Creek, in a settlement called Rolling Fork in Nelson County, Kentucky, until patriarch Joseph's death in 1793. Nancy's grandmother, also named Nancy but generally called Ann, decided to return to her homeland, old Farnham parish in Virginia.

At that time, Nancy went to live with her mother, now Lucy Hanks Sparrow. having married Henry Sparrow (1765-1840) in Harrodsburg, Kentucky two or three years earlier. Lucy's marriage to Henry Sparrow produced 8 children, and Lucy had a reputation as a "fine Christian woman". Two sons were loyal to the Union during the Civil War and were preachers.

Age 13 Moves in with Aunt Elizabeth

After Lucy's sister Elizabeth Hanks (1776-1818) married Henry Sparrow's brother Thomas Sparrow (1765-1817) in Mercer County, Kentucky in 1796, Nancy went to live with that couple, whom she called "mother and father"; she was known as Nancy Sparrow and described as "intelligent, deeply religious, kindly and affectionate." Lucy's sister Nancy Hanks (1780-1829) gave birth to an illegitimate son in 1799 named Thomas Sparrow (1765-1817), Nancy Hanks Lincoln's cousin, who was also raised by Elizabeth and Thomas Sparrow.

At the home of Elizabeth and Thomas Sparrow, Nancy would have learned the skills and crafts a woman needed on the frontier to cultivate crops and clothe and feed her family. She learned to read by the Bible and became an excellent seamstress, working at the Richard Berry home before her marriage.

Marriage to Thomas Lincoln

On June 12, 1806, Hanks married Thomas Lincoln at the home of Richard Berry in Beechland by Reverend Jesse Head. Nancy was brought to the home to work as a seamstress by her friend Polly Ewing Berry, the wife of Richard Berry Jr. since October 10, 1794. Polly was a friend of Nancy's from Mercer County, Kentucky and Richard Berry, Jr. was a good friend of Thomas Lincoln. Lincoln proposed to her in his childhood home at what is now Lincoln Homestead State Park or in the Francis Berry house in front of the fireplace.

Milk Sickness

Milk sickness, also known as tremetol vomiting or, in animals, as trembles, is a kind of poisoning, characterized by trembling, vomiting, and severe intestinal pain, that affects individuals who ingest milk, other dairy products, or meat from a cow that has fed on white snakeroot plant, which contains the poison tremetol.

Although very rare today, milk sickness claimed thousands of lives among European-American migrants to the Midwest in the early 19th century in the United States, especially in frontier areas along the Ohio River Valley and its tributaries where white snakeroot was prevalent. New settlers were unfamiliar with the plant and its properties. A notable victim was Nancy Hanks Lincoln, the mother of Abraham Lincoln, who died in 1818. Nursing calves and lambs may have died from their mothers' milk contaminated with snakeroot, although the adult cows and sheep showed no signs of poisoning. Cattle, horses, and sheep are the animals most often poisoned.


While living at Little Pigeon Creek Settlement, Nancy Hanks Lincoln died on October 5, 1818, age 34. Her 9-year-old son Abraham assisted his father in the making of her coffin by whittling the wooden pegs that held the planks together. 11-year-old Sarah cared for Abraham until their father remarried the next year.

Nancy's grave is located in what has been named the Pioneer Cemetery, also known as the Nancy Hanks Lincoln Cemetery. The cemetery is located on the grounds of the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, a National Historic Landmark District managed by the National Park Service in present-day Lincoln City, Indiana.

Parentage Controversy

The prevailing theory is that Nancy Hanks was the daughter of her mother's affair with a wealthy, unidentified farmer. Family legends were greatly embellished to enhance the fame of Presidential Candidate, Abraham Lincoln.

There is long standing controversy regarding Nancy Hanks Lincoln's heritage. Nancy was the wife of Thomas Lincoln and mother of the 16th president Abraham Lincoln. Her familial background according to historian Albert J. Beveridge is as "Dim as the dream of a shifting mirage... her face and figure waver through the mists of time and rumor."

There are two dominant theories about Nancy's maternal heritage:

  1. Historians generally believe that Nancy Hanks was the illegitimate daughter of Lucy Hanks, born into the Joseph Hanks family and married into the Sparrow family. There is no generally accepted theory about who Nancy's father may have been.
  2. Information from the Shipley and Berry families, as well as some historical sites, claim that Nancy's mother was Lucy or Lucey Shipley, sister to Rachel Shipley Berry. Nancy's father may have been James Hanks.

A recent mitochondrial DNA test of descendants of daughters of Joseph Hanks, daughters of Lucy Hanks Sparrow, and two Shipley sisters show a match between Hanks and Sparrow and no match to the Shipleys, making it certain Nancy Hanks is the illegitimate daughter of Lucy Hanks, and that Lucy is the daughter of Ann "Nanny" Lee Hanks.


Offspring of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks (1784-1818)
Name Birth Death Joined with
Sarah Lincoln (1807-1828) 10 February 1807 Elizabethtown, Hardin County, Kentucky, United States 20 January 1828 Little Pigeon Creek Community, Spencer County, Indiana, United States Aaron Grigsby (1801-1832)
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) 12 February 1809 Hardin County, Kentucky, United States 15 April 1865 Washington, D.C., United States Mary Ann Todd (1818-1882)
Thomas Lincoln (1811-1815) 1811 LaRue County, Kentucky, United States 1815 LaRue County, Kentucky, United States



Footnotes (including sources)

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