Within the boundaries of Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial lies the gravesite of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's mother. The impact of her life, and her death, did much to shape the character of the boy who grew up to become President. The desire to commemorate her life has done much to shape the development of the national memorial.
Nancy Hanks was born on February 5, 1784, in Campbell County, Virginia, but details of her early life are scarce. By the time she was nine years old, she had become an orphan, though it is not clear what happened to her parents. Following their deaths, she lived with the Richard Berry family. Berry was an uncle and, by all accounts, a person of standing in the community. More importantly, the Berrys accepted Nancy as one of their own and provided for her a stable, nurturing home environment.
It was while living with the Berrys that Nancy came to know Thomas Lincoln, who lived on a nearby farm. Over the years, their friendship grew into something more and on June 12, 1806, the two were married. Their first child, Sarah, was born on February 10, 1807. On February 12, 1809, a son named Abraham was born. A third child, Thomas Jr., died in infancy.
During the first ten years of their marriage, the Lincolns occupied three different farms in Kentucky, but boundary disputes caused them to lose all of them. Thomas finally decided to move his family to Indiana where he could establish a clear claim to his property under the provisions of the Northwest Land Ordinance. In the winter of 1816, the Lincolns settled in present-day Spencer County in what became known as the Little Pigeon community.
Carving a new life out of the Indiana wilderness was not an easy task for the pioneer family. After spending the winter in a temporary shelter, Thomas and young Abraham built a sturdy log cabin, using the plentiful hardwood forest for building materials. As was customary on the frontier, Nancy helped with the work of clearing the land and tending the crops, as well as caring for her two young children. It was a demanding life for all of them and it was necessary for everyone to make their contribution in order for the family to succeed.
In addition to the hard work, life on the frontier often included tragedy as well. The Lincoln family was not immune to the many hazards that threatened all pioneers in the 19th century. The autumn frosts of 1818 had already colored the foliage of the huge trees of oak, hickory, and walnut when neighbors of the Lincolns became desperately ill, stricken with the dreaded milk sickness. The disease resulted when cows ate the white snakeroot plant and the poison from the plant contaminated the milk. People who drank this poisoned milk or ate its products faced death, though that was not clearly known by the pioneers at the time. Nancy became ill when she went to help care for her sick neighbors. On October 5, 1818, within two weeks of the first symptoms, Abraham's mother died.
Death in a one-room log cabin was a grim experience for the survivors. Nancy's body was prepared for burial in the very room in which the family lived. Thomas and nine-year old Abraham whipsawed logs into planks, and with wooden pegs they fastened the boards together into a coffin. After the body was properly prepared and dressed by the neighbor women, it was placed into the casket. Nancy was then taken to her final resting-place on the hill just south of the family's farm. Thomas probably followed pioneer custom and placed fieldstones at the head and foot of the grave and may have carved the letters, N.L., into the headstone.
It is impossible to assess accurately the full impact of Nancy's life on Abraham Lincoln; the people who touch our lives do so in a variety of ways. But by all accounts she had been a fine and loving mother. Undoubtedly she left her mark on the young boy through the countless small and intimate interactions that mothers share with their children. The experience of her death also prepared her son for facing the tragedy and loss that is a part of life as well. The intangible effects of both her life and her death became a part of Abraham's life and helped shape the man he became.
It was the understanding that we all share the universal experience of having our lives touched by others that motivated people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to begin their efforts to preserve Nancy's final resting place, both as a tribute to her and to her son. Those efforts began with a desire to permanently mark her grave and led, ultimately, to the creation of the National Memorial that exists today. Abraham Lincoln, the man, was the sum total of all the experiences and people that had been a part of his life. This is true for each of us as well. Understanding and appreciating how his mother helped shape him can help us better understand who he was. It can also, by extension, help us to understand ourselves more fully by making us appreciate those who have been part of our lives.