If it’s true that
family reunites in the afterlife, sooner or later I’m bound to bump into Abraham Lincoln. Both my mother (maiden name Lincoln) and my father descend directly from Abe’s uncle Josiah Lincoln, making Abraham and me first cousins five times removed—and doubly so. You have to like my chances of an introduction sometime over the course of eternity.
The prospect of an encounter in the hereafter didn’t incite my recent urge to learn about my famous relative, but it will be nice to be prepared. I already know better than to call him “Abe”—experts say he disliked the nickname because it sounded hayseed. A compliment on the poetic brevity of the Gettysburg Address is in order (it took him only two minutes to move the nation). And he loved a funny story, so I’d tell him about the time my Grandma Lincoln discovered marijuana plants in her shed, angrily set them on fire—and accidentally got stoned.
No, the motivation instead kicked in when I saw the poster for Lincoln, the Steven Spielberg–helmed biopic coming out this month. A co-worker was marveling at the profile of Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president, all angular bones and sunken cheeks, and the only thing I could think was, Those are Mom’s features. It’s no secret she got the Lincoln nose. Once, she was standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial when a stranger asked if she was related to him. But other than that bit of family lore, our Lincoln connection always carried a ring of trivia, not substance. We don’t possess any heirlooms or oral history tied to the famous Lincoln, and my parents didn’t even know about their dual connection until after they were married; he is descended from Josiah’s daughter, Nancy, and she from his son, Thomas. Perhaps Dad didn’t go on about his Lincoln-hood because he hated pretension—it would have seemed shallow to him to act like the relation made us special.
That said, my parents’ lineage isn’t rare in Harrison County; Lincoln roots run deep there. It’s likely that hundreds if not thousands of current residents are related to Josiah. As Mom puts it, “You can’t throw a walnut without hitting a Lincoln descendant.” My cousin Lisa and her husband even own land that was part of Josiah’s former homestead, ground made hallow by the probable footfalls of a young Abe in 1816.
In the 1930s, officials in Corydon, the Harrison County seat, campaigned for the construction of a Lincoln Highway to connect the president’s heritage sites in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, and it would have passed through Mom’s tiny hometown, Milltown, and Dad’s tinier one, Depauw, to demark what is believed to be a path Abraham once traveled with his family as a boy. The exact route was just hearsay, but several locals, including Dad’s grandfather, gave certified testimony to prove it, based on an oral history otherwise lost to time.
The proposal failed, and the spotlight hasn’t swung back around since. It’s curious only because the Lincolns of Harrison County are now among the closest living kin of the greatest American president. The premature passing of three of his four children stunted Abraham’s personal lineage; only one, Robert Todd Lincoln, survived to adulthood and had kids of his own. The last direct descendant, great-grandson Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith of Virginia, died in 1985. The next branch over on the family tree (well, one of four extending from Abe’s paternal aunts and uncles)? Ours.
I don’t know if that makes us anything more than distant cousins, but either way it hasn’t made us important, even in a world obsessed with Lincoln. Historians, authors, politicians, curators, collectors, fourth-graders, Spielberg—many know that Abe read Aesop’s Fables by firelight. Tended to hate farm work. Made split-rail fences. Taught himself law. Married an opinionated former debutante. Wrote mediocre poetry. Appointed bitter rivals to his cabinet. Wore high-water pants. Told farmer’s-daughter jokes. Rode a horse named Big Bob. There’s an insatiable appetite for every last detail of Lincoln’s life. Somehow, we even know that he liked candied pineapple in his cake frosting.
But no one ever mentions the fact that Lincolns are still around. My parents themselves downplayed our relationship to him, and the
philosophy ran in the family; my great-great grandfather on Dad’s side, who fought in the Civil War with General Sherman, mentions President Lincoln in his diary, but never their kinship. Now that Lincoln’s story was going Hollywood, though, I couldn’t help but wonder why his living blood relatives are always left out of the plot. Even Indiana’s “boyhood home” status is often overshadowed by the more crisply defined “birthplace of Lincoln” to the south and “Land of Lincoln” to the west.
It was time to put Hoosier modesty aside and embrace the truth: Being related to Abraham Lincoln is pretty cool. Genealogy as a whole is trendy right now—the most popular topic online after porn, according to Bloomberg Businessweek—and what’s more thrilling than finding a personal connection to American history? We all have those crosspoints—be they with the wars that established our borders, the industriousness that provided our might, or the social movements that set us free. I couldn’t let my family’s most important tie to history fade because we’re too aw-shucks to value it; I needed to find out once and for all if our kinship to Lincoln was more than just a line on a family tree.
It’s said that more books have been written about Lincoln than anyone besides Jesus Christ, so it’s hard to know where research should begin. Luckily, underdog of Lincoln’s story or not, Indiana is home to some distinguished experts on the subject. Do I share any traits with Lincoln? I wondered. Who was the man behind the stovepipe hat, really?
“People think they know Lincoln,” says Dale Ogden, senior curator of cultural history at the Indiana State Museum and a longtime Lincoln aficionado. “They don’t know anything about Lincoln at all.”
The Lincolns of Harrison County are now among the closest living kin of the greatest American president.
We are sitting in the museum cafe, alone except for the loud hum of the coolers, and Ogden, a fair-skinned straight-shooter, is letting me pick his brain about everything Abraham. “He’s probably the most cliched figure in American history, starting with the fact that he didn’t come out of nowhere,” Ogden explains. “He was a surveyor [in Illinois] to begin with, an appointed position. Then he became postmaster. Both of those positions were very important on the frontier.”
How did such a pillar of virtue succeed in the dirty world of politics? “The idea that he was some sort of reluctant savior is not true,” Ogden says. “Some of his clients were the railroads. They were ruthless. Lincoln was as comfortable in a smoke-filled room as anyone. He cut the kind of deals that everybody cut, and he was very good at it.”
Ogden reserves his most passionate sermon for the reputation of Lincoln’s dad, Thomas—Josiah’s younger brother. “Tom has always been portrayed as a sort of illiterate, drunken ne’er-do-well because that plays into the mythology,” he says, referring to the popular belief that Lincoln overcame a severely disadvantaged childhood in the Hoosier wilderness. “His father was semi-illiterate; he was also an extraordinary carpenter. There’s no evidence that he was a drunk; he drank. There’s this nonsense that one of the reasons Lincoln was opposed to slavery is because as a teenager he was routinely lent out as slave labor to other people. Of course he was—Lincoln was 6’4″, 200 pounds. On the frontier, he was the most likely source of income for his family. The idea that he would have resented his father for that is absurd. The father’s responsibility was to teach his son to be honest, do a day’s work for a day’s pay, be dependable—all those things Abraham Lincoln became. He was taught well.”
As part of the Civil War sesquicentennial running through 2015, Ogden is preparing a new exhibit to open in February at the ISM; it will offer a nuanced look at Lincoln’s close relatives with an eye toward humanizing the hero. “I think there’s less of a willingness to believe that Abraham Lincoln was some divine gift to the country, at least in academic circles,” he says. “The legend serves us poorly. It makes us believe that all the great leaders are in our past.” Ogden’s exhibit won’t cover Abraham’s more distant family because “there’s no real interaction that I’m aware of between Abe and his cousins.” Oh.
Lincoln was closer with his wife’s family, a wealthy set from Kentucky. This could be why Charles Todd Richardson, a cousin (several generations removed) of hers from Bedford, Indiana, has no qualms heralding his lineage. A lawyer in the D.C. office of Faegre Baker Daniels, Richardson tells me that he turned his condo’s guest quarters into a “Lincoln Bedroom,” decorated with his collection of Lincolniana, including a lock of Mary’s hair and a rare bust of Lincoln without a beard. He’ll often mention his roots when he gives a lecture, he says, and doors have opened because of it: He has been invited to tour the Andrew Johnson Suite at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, for instance. “Everyone is interested in the family tree,” Richardson says. “They’ll say, ‘Now, tell me again how you’re related to Mary Todd Lincoln.’ That was asked so frequently that I framed my family tree and put it right inside the door.”
If other relatives don’t shy away from their Lincoln kinship, why should we? I had to find out if Tho-mas and Josiah’s families maintained a relationship. And if anyone would know, it would be Bill Bartelt, a Lincoln author in Newburgh, Indiana, 45 minutes from the Lincoln boyhood home.
“I would have to research this,” Bartelt says, “but I would not be surprised if there was contact between them. The [Thomas] Lincoln farm was on a road to Corydon. It’s certainly possible.” Though he can’t offer more immediate facts, Bartelt, like Ogden, offers insight by debunking a myth: that Abraham grew up far from civilization in Spencer County, west of Harrison. Now a tourist attraction, the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial certainly reinforces that feeling. It sits quietly in the woods, and a full-scale replica of a one-room cabin occupies a clearing where chickens roam free. Abraham lived there from ages 7 to 21, before moving to Illinois to join his stepmother’s family. He went to school only sporadically (“by littles,” he would say), but he often read by the firelight and under trees, and he used a piece of charcoal from the embers to teach himself arithmetic. Today, visitors could easily conclude that a palm tree stood a better chance of flourishing in that environment than Abe did.
Bartelt paints a different picture. “In 1816, their life was primitive,” he says. “But this was a time of dramatic and dynamic change. In that 14-year period, a lot of people came in—they had neighbors. They were 15 miles or so from the Ohio River, an amazing avenue of trade and commerce. Abraham probably got access to newspapers from St. Louis or Pittsburgh.”
So his wasn’t quite the hickish upbringing history embraces. Even so, I wonder if his modest begin-nings left a chip on his shoulder when I hear a story from scholars in Fort Wayne; Lincoln’s Hoosier roots don’t stretch that far north, but the city still became a hotbed of Lincolniana in the last 80 years. The well-regarded Lincoln Museum, founded there in 1928, closed in 2008, but the experts remain. Sara Gabbard—executive director of Friends of the Lincoln Collection of Indiana, which took over the care of the museum’s pieces—grew up in the town of Lincoln, Illinois, so dubbed in 1853 when Abraham Lincoln was an attorney in the state. They asked his permission, she says, and he agreed but cautioned: “Nothing named Lincoln ever amounted to much.” Cindy VanHorn and Jane Gastineau, both titled Lincoln Librarians at the Allen County Public Library, oversee some 18,000 books and pamphlets about their subject. They say photos in the collection (there are more than 5,000) reveal that Lincoln’s hair was always a bit mussed, and those who knew him said his clothing was often disheveled and his pants too short. He was moody and probably not easy to live with, they believe—especially dealing with the grief of losing two sons (the third passed away after Lincoln was assassinated) and the tremendous stress brought on by the war. I can relate to his famous bouts of melancholy (scholars disagree on whether he was clinically depressed). Yet he was compassionate, funny, humble, and liked to make people laugh. He was starting to sound like family I know: modest Hoosiers vociferous of opinion and quick with a story. Mom often cites the “Lincoln wit” whenever one of her relatives cracks a joke.
The librarians find a 1941 issue of The Lincoln Kinsman dedicated to “The President’s Uncle Josiah.” Born in the Shenandoah Valley, the second child of Captain Abraham Lincoln and Mary Shipley, he, along with brothers Thomas and Mordecai, watched as their father was shot by a Native American on his Kentucky farm. Per the custom of the time, Mordecai, the eldest child, received his father’s land, and Josiah and Thomas eventually bought their own farms. A neighbor who knew Mordecai and Josiah called them “excellent men, plain, moderately educated … honorable …”
Property disputes in Kentucky meant that farmers often lost their land. Surveying laws were better north of the Ohio River. Josiah headed there in 1812, according to the Kinsman, and settled on 160 acres in Blue River Township, in what would become Harrison County, Indiana. A few years later, in 1816, Thomas followed suit, settling farther west in Perry (now Spencer) County. This is how the Lincolns became a “classic Indiana family,” Ogden says. Like many Hoosiers, their ancestors (sometimes called “Linkhorns”) emigrated from England to the States in the 17th century, eventually moving from New England to Western Virginia, where, as farmers, they couldn’t compete with the plantation South, and therefore headed to the frontier. Josiah had six children and died in 1835.
Then, there on page six of the Kinsman booklet, a brass ring—an excerpt from an 1854 letter written by Abraham Lincoln to another relative: “I often saw Uncle Mordecai, and Uncle Josiah but once in my life … Whether Uncle Josiah is dead or living, I cannot tell, not having heard from him for more than twenty years. When I last heard of him he was living on Big Blue River, in Indiana.”
When I read the words, my heart drops, though I can’t say I’m surprised. Lincoln didn’t know his country cousins—my ancestors; no wonder we are marginalia in American history instead of whole paragraphs or chapters. “It was a hardscrabble life,” Mom points out when I tell her. “They were probably just trying to eke out a living.” She’s more interested in another piece of information. “I would be
pretty upset if I found out my name was really Linkhorn.”
With Abraham’s move to Illinois, Indiana’s cachet in the Lincoln lore diminished, too. Illinois is now nearly holy as the definitive “Land of Lincoln.” Therefore, I can’t put my research to rest until I visit Springfield, the cradle of Lincoln’s family life and his legal and political careers.
Mom, my husband, and I are curious whether Lincoln relatives, like us—either residents or pilgrims—are ubiquitous in Springfield, and whether there’s any recognition of our existence at all. We aren’t prepared for how awkward it is to ask. A security guard at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, a self-described Lincoln nut who carries around a personal binder full of Lincoln family history, dismisses our relation as unremarkable and cuts off our conversation—even though genealogical services are one of the library’s calling cards.
Nevertheless, the museum is an entertaining and elaborate survey of Lincoln’s life. Exhibit spaces and two theaters ring a central rotunda. While a dulcimer player chimes out “When the Saints Go Marching In” and other period songs, visitors crisscross the space between a full-scale replica of Lincoln’s childhood Indiana cabin and a re-created White House facade. The experience transitions smoothly from unforgettable (the Gettysburg Address penned by Lincoln himself) to amusing (a live-action skit that ends with the narrator fading away in a puff of smoke). Every once in a while, the place whispers something personal to us, or so I imagine. During the skit, it’s a throwaway line: “Our past illuminates our future.” In the rotunda, something familiar and real stirs in my stomach as I stand next to the life-sized statue of Lincoln and behold those familial angular features.
After finding no mention of Lincoln’s Hoosier cousins in the museum, I decide to ask a docent about them. I wait to speak to the most animated attendant in the rotunda. “Yes, ma’am?” he booms when it’s my turn. “I’m just wondering,” I say, “if you know much about Lincoln’s extended family in Indiana.” His face clouds over. Abraham returned to Indiana once before his presidential run, he says (a campaign stop for his role model, Henry Clay of Kentucky), but he didn’t know his family there. I share my relation, and he all but yawns. Message received: We’re not special, and we should join the rest of the visitors in the gift shop.
There’s one more person to talk to: Lincoln himself—sort of. Elvis has impersonators, but Abraham has “presenters.” The one at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site’s visitor center in Springfield makes a low-key entrance through a side door wearing a thin, rain-dampened white coat, and there, in front of the information desk, we introduce ourselves as cousins. I don’t know what we expect—a big hug? A dinner invitation? It is so uncomfortable that the presenter has to break character to talk to us. Not that he has any revelations; he explains that Lincoln wrote a poem about returning to Southern Indiana, on that Henry Clay campaign stop. But the presenter does know who Josiah was, which is something.
Somewhere in the heart of Lincoln territory, the irony hit me: I am no more a part of my Harrison County cousins’ lives now than Abraham Lincoln was with his 190 years ago. We never spent much time together growing up, despite our proximity, and I go years without seeing them now. Unfortunately, it’s the most Lincolnian thing about me.
My mother is another story. Though Abe was right about nothing (else) named Lincoln amounting to much, she knew from a young age that she wasn’t a hick. “My earliest memory is of a man getting on the school bus and saying to the driver, ‘Them thar sorghum will be ready any day now.’ To hear that, even as a little kid, was so shocking, and I thought, I never want to be like that,” she says. She loved sitting alone by a creek to read, and right after high school, she hopped a train to D.C. and spent a year as a secretary. I don’t think she has wasted a single minute since. She raised seven kids, helped out with nine grandkids, earned her bachelor’s degree in her 40s, worked night jobs to earn a law degree in her 50s, and, for kicks, became a skiing instructor in her 60s on the side. Now 71 and a widow, she is still going strong as a legal-aid attorney, tends six acres alone, volunteers for Junior Achievement, acts as a one-person support system for all 16 of her kids and grandchildren, and wonders what she’s going to do next. She recently crossed “skiing in the Alps” and “windsurfing” off of her bucket list. Moving out West to do legal work for Native Americans is still on it.
Physically, she is in better shape than most of her kids—but it’s not without some luck. As a girl, she witnessed the effects of a degenerative nerve condition among her family called the “Lincoln Malady”—likely ataxia, reportedly an affliction of Lincoln relatives elsewhere in the country. She and her cousins would watch their stricken Uncle Dickie lurch along the hilly road from his house to his brother’s. “He would get going so fast that he’d fall and just roll the rest of the way,” she says. Their Aunt Florence and her daughter both ended up in wheelchairs. Another cousin, Willie, couldn’t walk, instead pushing himself around on a wooden cart.
More than anything, growing up Lincoln meant you might get the disease. But as Mom got older and became well-read on the president, her connection came to mean something else. “It seems to me that there are two different Lincoln spirits,” she says, “the drive to be better and excel, and there are the others that pride themselves on being humble.” If she’s a Harrison County product of the former, every other Lincoln she knows is a willful example of the latter. “My family almost treasures commonness,” she says. “I see the value in simple, but I don’t take pride in smallness. I probably have it by plenty, but that doesn’t give me a sense of pride.”
That lingering Lincoln presence might not mean a thing to historians or Hollywood, but it’s a bond to pass along to future generations of my family. I suppose that’s the legacy I was looking for all along—and I found it, right under my mom’s Lincoln nose.
Fernandez photo by Tony Valainis; Lincoln photo by Steven Wynn/Photos.com
This article appeared in the November 2012 issue.