An Assessment of Thomas Lincoln

An Interview with Daniel Cravens Taylor

Sara Gabbard:  Please trace the Lincoln family’s journey from England to Virginia.

Daniel Cravens Taylor: President Lincoln was not familiar with his family history in early life. As he approached his campaign for the presidency, Lincoln knew his father and mother came from Virginia but considered them to be of undistinguished families. If he had known more of the journey from England to Virginia, he would have told a different story.

The usual starting point is Samuel Lincoln, an apprentice weaver, in Norfolk County, England. Samuel, Abraham’s great-great-great-great grandfather, came to America in 1637. Two of his brothers were already in America. Samuel soon joined them in Hingham, Massachusetts. There Samuel married and became a prosperous landowner and businessman.

Samuel’s son, Mordecai was born in 1657. He, as had his father and uncles, prospered. It was Mordecai’s son, also named Mordecai, who saw opportunity and moved to Monmouth County, New Jersey. He and his brother, Abraham, established a forge near Middletown, New Jersey. They were successful in business but moving their product from Middletown to market was not very effective. In 1722, Mordecai moved his family to Philadelphia and formed an ironworks with two partners. Three years later he bought land and built a forge in Berks County, Pennsylvania. It was there the Lincolns connected with the Boones. The families became close and intermarried (a key event to the Lincolns’ future in Virginia and Kentucky).

Mordecai and Hannah Lincoln’s oldest son, John, Thomas’ grandfather, was born in 1716. He returned to an earlier family tradition and became a weaver. Successful in that trade, he began speculating in land and became wealthy. He settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania near other family members and members of the Boone family. Some of the Boones had moved to the Shenandoah Valley and brought reports back to Lancaster where John heard and decided the opportunities in Virginia were good. In 1768 he bought land on Linville Creek in what is now Rockingham County, Virginia, and established his family and business there.

Norfolk County, England 71.2009.083.1295

SG:  Did the Lincoln family play a part in the American Revolution?

DCT: The Lincolns did play a part in the Revolutionary War. How much of a part is debated. The records indicate John Lincoln and his sons embraced the cause of freedom and served in the Virginia militia. Virginia was very important to the British, being the largest and wealthiest of the colonies. Many battles and skirmishes occurred in Virginia as the British struggled to hold it. John’s son, Abraham, was the captain of his militia company in Augusta County. There were several skirmishes in and around Augusta County. It is likely Captain Lincoln engaged in some of those but the documentation is sparse.

It is known that Captain Lincoln, serving under Colonel William Christian, engaged in an expedition against the Overhill Cherokee, one of many Native American nations with which the British formed an alliance. The expedition saw action, though limited, and resulted in new treaties with the Overhill Cherokee, reducing their support of the British.

During much of Captain’s Lincoln service in the Revolutionary War, he acted as Judge Advocate for his area. This responsibility kept him busy and limited his engagement in battles. Thomas Lincoln was born in 1778 during the Revolutionary War, toward the end of Captain Lincoln’s military service. As the war wound down, Captain Lincoln did not re-enlist in the militia at the end of his service term. He traveled to Kentucky and made preparations to move his family. A Revolutionary War service marker is in place on Captain Lincoln’s grave. It honors his service with the word “Patriot”.

 SG: The family appears to have been relatively prosperous In Virginia. Please comment on the “call of the West” that led these pioneers to risk everything.

DCT: In addition to working a chosen career/trade, wealth was accumulated and built through land speculation in pioneer times. The Lincoln family was very successful in buying and selling land in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. As Kentucky opened up, large tracts of land were available for purchase at good prices. The land was fertile and game was plentiful.

Close family friend Daniel Boone was forging the way into Kentucky for the Transylvania Land Company. Captain Lincoln listened to Boone’s stories and descriptions and saw an opportunity to use his wealth to build even greater wealth in Kentucky. His purchase of one thousand acres in 1776 shows he was committed to the opportunities Kentucky offered.

There was risk and danger. While there were treaties with the Cherokee which let the Transylvania Land Company purchase twenty million acres from the Cherokee, those treaties were not agreed to by other Native American nations. In addition to developing their land, making themselves almost completely self-sufficient in furnishing their life needs, and dealing with wildlife, pioneers also faced the possibility of Native American attacks.

Early pioneers were daring and bold. They weighed all these dangers and hardships against the potential of building wealth for themselves and their families. For Captain Lincoln and thousands of others, the opportunity outweighed the danger.

SG:  What was the “Laki eruption” and how does it fit into the Lincoln story?

DCT: The Laki eruption was a major volcanic event. A gigantic fissure opened near Mount Laki in Iceland in June of 1783. The eruption continued for eight months and ripped open almost seventeen miles of erupting fissures. The volcanic ash in the atmosphere dropped the 1783/84 winter temperatures in the eastern United States eight degrees below normal. Charleston Harbor in North Carolina froze completely over. Ice on the Mississippi River extended past New Orleans into the Gulf. This long and cold winter caused crop loss and famine. Thousands in the northern hemisphere starved to death. The eruption and resulting famine and starvation was a main cause leading to the French Revolution.

We have no direct record of the impacts to the Lincoln family, but Captain Lincoln and young Thomas would have worked through this time. Crops would have been lost and the hardship of a very cold winter were endured. With the abundance of game, the family would have had food in plenty even though animal life was also impacted by the cold and the length of the winter.

Thomas Lincoln was five years old at the time of the Laki eruption. It is an interesting piece of trivia that Thomas lived during the cold winter of the Laki eruption as a child and then experienced the impact of the Mount Tambora eruption in April of 1815 as an adult, thirty-six years of age.

When Mount Tambora (Indonesia) erupted, it spewed tons of volcanic ash into the atmosphere, dropping the average global temperature by as much as three degrees Fahrenheit. Kentucky saw little impact in 1815 but the ash cover hit the following year. Spring arrived in 1816 and Thomas began planting crops. The earth was in the waning years of the Little Ice Age and Mount Tambora pushed global cooling back into high gear. Vermont had snow in June, freezing temperatures in July, and a killer frost in August. Thomas Jefferson had crop failure due to the cold at Monticello in Virginia, crop failure severe enough to put him in debt. Savannah, Georgia, had a high temperature of 46 degrees Fahrenheit on July 4.

Again, we have no direct records of the impact on the Lincolns, but 1816 is known as the year with no summer. We do know Thomas had a crop surplus when he moved his family to Indiana in the fall of 1816. He left two hundred bushels of corn stored in the lofts of Caleb Hazel’s cabins until it was sold. Because of crop failures in the summer of 1816, crops were bringing top dollar prices and the surplus boded well for Thomas.

Most people never see the impact of a major volcanic eruption. Thomas lived through two of them.


SG:  Did Thomas Lincoln speak often of his father’s death at the hand of Native Americans?  Did he harbor a lifelong resentment?

DCT: Captain Abraham Lincoln was killed by a Native American ambush while he worked in the fields with his sons. The story of his death became legend in the Lincoln family. All of the Captain’s children told the story over and over and over. Thomas repeated the story often. Thomas was a noted and popular storyteller. The telling would have been lively and memorable.

Abraham Lincoln also told the story repeatedly. Named for his grandfather, the story of the Captain’s death was the standard story Abraham told as to how he came by his name. The tale was important enough to Lincoln that he included it in his presidential campaign autobiography.

History records that Thomas’ mother, Bathsheba, the year following Captain Lincoln’s death, donated the family’s best rifle to an expedition against the Wabash. (This has led many to believe it was a raiding party from the Wabash nation that killed the captain.) It is also known that Mordecai, Thomas’ eldest brother, held a lifelong resentment against Native Americans and took every opportunity he found to attack them.

There is no indication Thomas held a grudge. President Lincoln never indicated any hate held by Thomas when he told the story. The only record we have of Thomas being involved in conflict with Native Americans is his participation in an excursion against the Shawnee. This was in 1795 when Thomas, as a member of his local militia, took part in the Northwest Indian War. He was seventeen. How much action he saw in the excursion is unknown.

Thomas Lincoln LN-1475
Thomas Lincoln LN-1475

SG:  Was the family’s move from Kentucky to Indiana a wise one?  Was life better there?

DCT: Yes, to both questions.

The system of recording land deeds in Kentucky was a disaster in the early 1800s. There were contradicting surveys and multiple deeds to the same land. Tracking clear title was often a guessing game. Thomas had clear title to his home in Elizabethtown and to the Mill Creek Farm where he settled his mother, sister, and brother-in-law. There is no record of any issues with those.

However, his title to the Sinking Spring farm, where Abraham was born, was challenged and much of the money he invested in the purchase and development was lost along with the land. There is a question as to whether Thomas purchased or rented the Knob Creek farm, but the title there was also challenged and Thomas’ investment was lost. After losing the legal battle to maintain title at Sinking Spring, Thomas did not want a repeat at Knob Creek. He decided to move to Indiana where the titles were guaranteed by the government and the surveys were not in question.

Moving to Indiana allowed Thomas to develop his land and business without fear of deed issues. It was a good thing. He was attempting to follow family tradition of buying land to build wealth. Kentucky purchases had failed. Indiana offered better.

Indiana brought Thomas and family into a strong, supportive community of pioneers. While much of the business Thomas conducted was of the same type as he did in Kentucky, Indiana provided stability. Thomas paid for his land and no one could take it from him. That stability allowed Thomas to live on the same farm the entire time he resided in Indiana, giving his family the constancy and permanency that lead to a better life. The family had security and stability in Indiana that Thomas could not obtain in Kentucky.


SG:  Who was Sophie Hanks?

DCT: Sophie Hanks is the proverbial mystery wrapped in an enigma surrounded by a conundrum. She was virtually unknown to the Lincoln world until Arthur Morgan found her.  The family stories handed down from Sophie are convincing that she knew the Lincolns very well but it is hard fitting her into the Lincoln timeline.

Sarah Hanks was a sister or half-sister to Nancy Hanks Lincoln. She had six illegitimate children, one of whom was Sophie Hanks, making Sophie Thomas and Nancy’s niece. She was born in March of 1809, a month younger than Abraham. Sophie’s story is that Tom and Betsy Sparrow took her in to raise in addition to their taking in Dennis Hanks.

Though standard Lincoln history does not mention her, Sophie’s family history indicates she was with Tom and Betsy and Dennis when they moved to Indiana and settled in with Thomas and Nancy at first and then on the farm next to them. When Tom and Betsy died of the “milk sick,” Thomas and Nancy took in both Dennis and Sophie. Sophie tells that she lived with the Lincolns (and possibly some with the Gentrys) until she married Dillings Lynch in 1827.

The stories and anecdotes told by Sophie’s family are such that many Lincoln historians accept and include her within the Lincoln story. And it does seem she should be there. The mystery is in how to fit her in. William Herndon, in all his research and writing, never mentions Sophie. Dennis Hanks, who corresponded with Sophie after her marriage and move to Arkansas, never mentions her in relation to Thomas’ home in Indiana. The 1820 census lists only eight people in the Lincoln home. Sophie would have been number nine and she is not listed. The same goes for the Gentrys, where seven children are listed (the Gentrys had seven children), and Sophie is not there either.

Sophie’s story seems to fit in Lincoln history. But how she fits is an unsolved riddle.


SG:  Did the family’s move from Indiana to Illinois bring a greater prosperity?  Any change in lifestyle?

DCT: The move from Indiana to Illinois did not bring a greater prosperity. It brought a downturn in Thomas’ life. In Indiana, Thomas had a productive farm, land on which nothing was owed. He had a small mill. He had an established business as a carpenter, a cooper, and a furniture maker. He was well known, respected, and well liked. He had begun laying the foundation for a new house. Thomas was not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination but they were as well as if not better off than many of their neighbors. The family still lived by a subsistence economy methodology wherein they provided most of what they needed by themselves and traded for those items they could not produce themselves. They were firmly set in the pioneer lifestyle. They did not live in abject poverty and failure, but Indiana had not been a period of gaining substantial wealth or prosperity either.

Moving to Illinois did not change Thomas’ lifestyle. He moved as a pioneer to the new frontier and lived a pioneer lifestyle for the rest of his life. He left an established farm and an established business to start over. He moved with such suddenness that he sold his land and some of his assets at a loss. (Tradition has used this to show Thomas in a less-than-favorable light, but my research shows it was likely more the family’s decision than Thomas’. Thomas’ family was determined to move and he gave in to the pressure.)  Economically, going to Illinois was a step backward for Thomas. It was not an opportune time for him to start over in a new location.

Thomas Lincoln Monument 71.2009.083.1367

SG:  I have always felt that history has not treated Thomas Lincoln fairly and, therefore, loved your statement: “Lincoln history no longer needs to debase the father to honor the son.”  Please comment.

DCT: Following Abraham Lincoln’s death, biographies began rolling off the presses. It was the time period when authors like Charles Dickens and Horatio Alger took their leading characters from the lowest of adverse circumstances and raised them to heroic heights. Many Lincoln biographers followed this style of writing. They wanted to show Lincoln as a self-made man, rising from remarkable lows to previously unattained heights by his own willpower, intelligence, and fortitude.

There is no doubt that Lincoln was a great man, a great national hero, and that his willpower, intelligence, and fortitude were major factors in his success. It is also true that his family background was not one of wealth and privilege. Lincoln was of pioneer stock. His family was the typical pioneer family seen in the settling and development of Indiana and Illinois.

Thomas provided well for his family by pioneer standards, but times were changing as he settled in Illinois. Industrialization was coming to the frontier. Log cabins were being replaced with more modern home styles. Cities and towns were becoming the centers of life and society. Thomas stayed a pioneer. He did not change with the times. In Illinois, success passed Thomas by. Illinois moved out of the pioneer period. Thomas did not. He was content and happy with being a pioneer.

Combine this life choice by Thomas with the literary portrayal of great men rising from nothing to obtain success and it is clear Abraham Lincoln was a real-life example of the most popular fictional characters. A self-made man rising by his own ingenuity to greatness. A man overcoming the greatest of odds by his own determination.

William Herndon gave us a wealth of valuable information on Lincoln’s early life. He also led the way in portraying Lincoln’s youth as one of abject poverty, in portraying Lincoln’s father and mother and family as opposed to his wanting to be something other than a subsistence pioneer. Herndon declared Lincoln an illegitimate child from a depraved, uneducated family. Early biographers accepted that interpretation. Early Lincoln tradition exhibited Thomas as an obstacle Lincoln had to overcome and reject to become the man he became. That was unfair and inaccurate.

In Kentucky and Indiana, Thomas was making a place for himself and gaining some prosperity. He was known as a skilled carpenter who was put in charge of building projects and known for his finishing touches on woodwork. The furniture he made ranged from simple items for lower end cost through ornately finished pieces that furnished well-to-do homes and offices. Those pieces now grace museums. He was a millwright, a wheelwright, a cooper, and a mechanic in addition to farming. He was frequently chosen to serve on juries. He represented his church district at denominational conferences. He was known for being a caring neighbor, a devoted family man, and honest beyond question.

He was still respected and loved in Illinois but things began to change. The fact that Thomas had become blind in one eye and with poor sight in the other undoubtedly played a role in this change and in his choices. By choosing to remain a pioneer, Thomas ended his life in comparative poverty to those around him. In Illinois, as it probably would have been had he remained in Indiana, Thomas let progress pass him by. The successes and respect that were his in Kentucky and Indiana were not the same for him in Illinois. Herndon took Thomas’ situation from near the end of his life and projected that image back throughout his life. Early Lincoln biographers followed a pattern of making their subject greater by coming out of something far lower. Thomas’ status in Illinois made that easily possible. The concern was not telling Thomas’ story, but rather making Abraham Lincoln’s story even more dramatic. The result was a Thomas who was always a failure, a Thomas who opposed Lincoln’s ambition, a Thomas who tried to stop Lincoln from succeeding, a Thomas who was unworthy of his son, a Thomas who was written off as not worth the time to investigate who he really was.

The reality is that Thomas, while not one of life’s great success stories, is not one of life’s failure stories either. He was a man who strove with life for success but in the end settled for a lifestyle he liked and with which he was content. He was a man who taught his son honesty and integrity. He was a man who encouraged Abraham and was proud of his son’s achievements. Thomas was a man who was well-loved and well-thought of despite his choice to remain a pioneer-style man in a world that had moved on.

Thomas and Abraham were very different in their approach to life. They were very different in what they were contented to have.  They were very different in their vision for the future and where they wanted to be in that future. That is all true. What is not true is that Thomas was the worthless White trash so many made him out to be in their biographies of his son. Thomas was a man most of us would have liked and enjoyed spending time around. He was honest and kind. He worked hard. He loved his family and cared for his neighbors.

Unfortunately for Thomas, history chose to ignore those traits and even to deny them. History chose to build the son up by tearing down the father. It is time to correct that view. Lincoln history no longer needs to debase the father to honor the son.

Daniel Cravens Taylor is the author of Not a Technical Christian.


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