The Untold Story of Abraham Lincoln’s Family
| LAST UPDATE 04/19/2022
Abraham Lincoln may be one of the most famous figures in American history. But less is known about his fascinating family, who played a crucial part in creating the beloved man he went on to become.
The Big Move
Abraham's father, Thomas Lincoln, was born in 1778 in Rockingham County, Virginia. His father, Abraham Lincoln Senior, decided to relocate the family to Kentucky in 1782 when Thomas was a young boy.
The decision to move his family wasn't random. The State of Virginia had gifted the Lincolns some farmland as a result of the significant contributions Abraham had made towards the Revolutionary War effort. Unfortunately, the move would be something they would later regret.
When Thomas was only eight years old, he witnessed a tragedy that would affect him forever. As he explored the surrounding fields, he watched as his father was fatally ambushed by American Indians. Years later, by 1806, Thomas felt ready to start the next chapter in his life.
Thomas fell in love with Nancy Hanks, and together they purchased Sinking Spring Farm: a farm in Kentucky spread over 300-acres. Three years later, they gave birth to their second child and named him after his father, Abraham. Little did they know, tragedy would soon hit the family yet again.
Saying Goodbye, Again
In a situation sadly familiar to Thomas, he was forced to face the premature death of a loved one for a second time - this time his wife, Nancy. Nancy passed in 1818 when her son Abraham was just nine years old. Just a year later, Thomas remarried his old friend, Sarah Bush Johnston.
Abraham formed a beautiful relationship with his stepmother, Sarah, who helped him deal with the emotions of his losing his mother at such a young age. Unfortunately, his relationship with his father was more strained, and over time the two had built up a lot of resentment towards each other.
Thomas and his son, Abraham, didn't agree on much. They struggled to find common ground with their startlingly different interests, and the two found themselves constantly bumping heads. Their father-son relationship lacked all the traditional warmth.
Most notably, Abraham loved to read and study. His father, on the other hand, was believed to be illiterate and spent most of his time working on the farm. He could not understand why his son had such a strong passion for reading and why he did not wish to be out in the fields with him.
A Bitter End
As the years dragged on, Abraham and Thomas became almost strangers, exchanging nothing more than a few words. All their interactions were fueled by hatred and misunderstanding. David Herbert Donald, who in 1995 wrote a biography of Lincoln, explained there was no affection between them.
"In all of his published writings, and, indeed, even in reports of hundreds of stories and conversations, [Lincoln] had not one favorable word to say about his father," wrote Donald. The most telling moment was when Abraham chose not to attend his father's funeral.
According to the National Park Service Website, Nancy's life details are somewhat "sketchy." Despite this, there are some details that have been confirmed to be true. For example, we know that the mother of Abraham Lincoln was born in Virginia in 1784.
Additionally, we're told that Nancy lost both her parents at a young age and was left in the custody of her uncle and aunt, the Berrys. The pair raised the young girl in an area now known as Washington County in Kentucky and remained there during the most critical stages of her life.
Nancy learned some valuable life skills while living with her aunt and uncle. The Berrys has taught her spinning and sewing, which would prove to be incredibly useful for her time on the American frontier. By 1806, Nancy felt ready to get married and move out of the place she called home.
Thomas and Nancy celebrated their wedding ceremony at the Berry's home and relocated to Sinking Spring Farm two years later in 1808. Here, they almost immediately gave birth to their first child, Sarah, and a year later, Abraham arrived. Their third child, Thomas Jr, died at a young age.
The Next Stage
For ten years, the Lincolns lived happily in Sinking Spring Farm, Kentucky. However, in 1816, Thomas and Nancy decided it was time for a change and moved with their children to Spencer County, Indiana. Here, the family was presented with their next challenge.
The family worked together to set up a new farm. With all the hurdles they had to overcome in the process, the family bonded over the difficult experience. Nancy worked hard to raise her children while contributing to the farm effort. Sadly, her time to enjoy the farm was short-lived.
Milk Sickness is a disease passed on from cattle to humans, and when left untreated, it can prove fatal. Now practically eradicated, the disease was rampant at the time when Nancy and Thomas were out living on the farm. Constantly surrounded by cattle, the couple were severely vulnerable to the disease.
In 1818, Nancy contracted this then-common illness, and after a short battle, she passed away. A nine-year-old Abraham was left motherless and devastated. The Washington Post reports that later in his life, Lincoln told William Herndon, "God bless my mother; all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her."
Enter Sarah Bush
After the loss of his first wife, Thomas was understandably devastated. While he was dealing with his overwhelming pain, Lincoln realized he had no desire to raise his children on his own. He began to search for a new life partner with whom he could grow old.
He reunited with his old friend, Sarah Bush, and the two bonded over their widowed status. The two tied the knot in 1819 and began their new life together. Sarah became a stepmother to Thomas's two children. Abraham was just ten years old at the time.
Dealing with Debt
The second wife of Thomas Lincoln was born in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, in 1788. She married Daniel Johnston in 1806 and gave birth to his three children, John, Matilda, and Elizabeth. Following Daniel's death in 1816, Sarah was left with a significant amount of debt in her husband's name.
When Bush met her second husband-to-be, Thomas Lincoln, she was ten years younger than him and came with lots of baggage. Not only her three children but also the debt. For this reason, she told Lincoln she would not be able to marry him. In a fight for her hand in marriage, Thomas paid the debts off on her behalf.
A Blended Family
Immediately after the wedding ceremony in 1819, Sarah moved into the Lincoln house, along with her three children. Abraham and Sarah were forced to live with their three new stepsiblings, and their parents hoped for a smooth transition for their new blended family.
Luckily for everyone involved, the siblings seemed to get along while Sarah and Abraham formed an early bond. After noticing Abraham's passion for reading and learning, she knew the way to win her stepson over. She presented him with a gift that would cement their bond for their entire lives.
Sarah gifted Abraham three books. While it was a seemingly simple gesture, her stepson finally felt understood and loved. Abraham spent hours reading the books numerous times. With this gift, their warm and caring relationship had begun and would continue until death parted them.
Even after Abraham left his childhood home, he kept up his relationship with his stepmother. He preserved a 40-acre homestead for his stepmother after he moved away. When Abraham Lincoln eventually died in 1865, his stepmother went on to live for another four years.
His Older Sister
Two years older than Abraham, Sarah Lincoln was officially the 'big sister' figure in his life. Thomas and Nancy's first child was nine years old when the family packed up their lives and moved to Indiana in 1816. Despite her young age, Sarah was instrumental in the family's new farm establishment.
For a few good years, Sarah worked alongside Nancy and learned vital life skills from her mother. However, this was short-lived, and just a few years after moving to Indiana, her mother died. She was forced to say goodbye forever and become the woman of the house.
A New Mother Figure
After losing her mother, Sarah rose to the challenge and became a responsible young lady, helping her father and brother in whatever ways necessary. She even took care of all the household chores previously done by Nancy. However, this transitional period didn't last long, and Sarah was soon able to hand over her duties.
A year after Nancy's death, Sarah Bush moved into the house. Sarah's daughter Elizabeth was incredibly close in age to Sarah Lincoln, and the two became very close step-sisters. There were now two Sarah's in the Lincoln house, and confusion inevitably followed.
Sarah Lincoln married Aaron Grigsby in 1826, and the couple moved into their own home close to the rest of her family. Within a year, the couple excitedly announced to their family that they were expecting a baby. Unfortunately, tragedy seemed to always be just around the corner for the Lincoln family.
Due to severe complications during the birth, Sarah Lincoln, who was only twenty-two years old at the time, and her newly born child passed away. Abraham, who had a loving relationship with his sister, was distraught and overwhelmed with grief once again.
The oldest stepsister of Abraham Lincoln was just thirteen years old when she followed her mother into the Lincoln home. Abraham was nine years old when their parents married. With Elizabeth leading the step-siblings, the family seemed to be a happy group of seven.
Elizabeth went on to marry Dennis Hanks after he had come to live with the family for a while. Additionally, Hanks was the son of Abraham's first cousin. The couple had eight kids of their own, and in 1864, Elizabeth died. A year later, her stepbrother, Abraham, was assassinated.
His Younger Sister
The youngest child of Sarah Bush and Daniel Johnston was Matilda Johnston. She was born in 1811 and grew up alongside her older stepbrother and the president-to-be, Abraham. Other than a few details about her partners and children, her life is pretty much unknown.
We know that she was married twice. In 1826, she married her first husband, Squire Hall, and the couple had six children together. Thirty years later, she married Reuben Moore, and she gave birth to one child with her second husband. Abraham and Matilda remained close even after she left the family home.
A Visit to Illinois
Abraham Lincoln made a trip to visit his younger stepsister in 1861, mere months before becoming the president of the United States. Lincoln traveled to Farmington, Illinois, where Matilda was living at the time with her second husband. The couple's home was a simple home covered by clapboards.
Matilda and Reuben did not have a strong, loving marriage, and they eventually decided to separate. In 1859, Moore died after they were already living apart. Matilda continued to live on her own until her death in 1878, choosing not to remarry again.
The middle child of Sarah Bush and Daniel Johnston was John Johnston. He was almost the same age as Abraham when Sarah and Thomas combined their families. From the start, the young boys spent much time together and even shared a bunk in the family's loft.
Sadly, their close bond did not continue throughout their lives, and eventually, the now young men had a strained sibling relationship. Like Abraham and his father, he disagreed with his stepbrother on several issues, and as they grew older, they had fewer interests in common.
One of the most significant sources of tension between Abraham and Johnston was money. Although Abraham was not particularly wealthy, he was more successful than his stepbrother. He was happy to share words of wisdom with John, but he was not willing to give his brother cash handouts.
In 1851, John asked his stepbrother for some financial assistance, and things took a turn for the worse. Abraham wrote a letter to Johnston, to decline the request and provide him with some critical insight. "You are destitute because you have idled away all your time… Go to work is the only cure for your case."
Mary Todd experienced an incredibly different childhood from the one Abraham had. While Lincoln grew up with limited resources on the frontier, Mary was familiar with a life of wealth and comfort. Born in 1818 to parents Robert Smith and Eliza Parker, Todd grew up in Lexington, Kentucky.
Her family was one of Kentucky's elite, and Mary was provided with a top-class education to mold her into the woman her family wanted her to be. However, she stood out from her peers because of her unusual attitudes, which were not believed to be in line with her class and era.
Seeking A Man of Mind
Throughout her life, Mary was taught to seek a husband of similar stature to her. She had other ideas, though. Instead of dreaming of a wealthy man who could take care of her, she spent her time imagining a partner very different from what her privileged upbringing had in mind.
Todd was on the hunt for a wise man who would go on to achieve great things. According to The National Park Service website, she is believed to have said: "I would rather marry a poor man — a man of mind — with a hope and bright prospects ahead for position, fame, and power than to marry all the houses [of] gold."
A Perfect Suitor
Abraham fit perfectly within Mary's criteria for a husband. He wasn't outright poor, but he was certainly not from a "house of gold." Moreover, he could be considered a "man of mind" with his intelligent, self-taught education and his love for learning.
While Mary was living with her sister in Springfield, Illinois, she met Abraham in 1839, and the pair began dating. Three years later, in 1842, they wed. The lead-up to the wedding was not without its hurdles, though. After a fight, the couple called off their engagement, only to reunite soon after.
Nine months after the wedding, Abraham and Mary welcomed a baby boy, whom they called Robert. Their next son, who was born in 1846, they named Edward. Now a happily family of four, they were blissfully unaware of what was to come and the loss they would suffer.
Despite her wealthy background and his intelligence, the married couple was not spared from the overwhelmingly high number of disease and death cases sweeping the nation's children in the 19th century. Weeks before he turned four, Eddie caught what is now believed to be Tuberculosis and died in 1850.
Mary struggled greatly after the loss of her young child. However, as was typical for mothers in the Victorian Era, Mary would stand to lose another child - this time to typhoid fever. While her husband was the reigning president, their third child William died from this disease in 1862.
Throughout these life challenges, Mary stood by her husband's side and ensured she was there to support him in all aspects of his life. Of course, personally, but most notably, she aided his political aspirations during his monumental time as president.
Standing by His Side
From the moment the couple moved into the White House, Mary took care of many issues, which would nowadays be done by an essential member of staff. For example, Mary organized her husband's social calendar. She also tended to Abraham's emotional needs whenever necessary.
During moments of intense stress, Mary was the only one able to calm her husband. For example, during the Civil War. Katherine Helm, her half-niece, wrote that "[Lincoln] was often filled with gloom and despondency, which it took all of Mary's adroitness to dispel."
Robert Todd held the title of Abraham Lincoln's firstborn. He was born in 1843, just a year after his parents celebrated their wedding. Todd gave birth to her firstborn in a boarding house named Springfield's Glove Tavern. Abraham and Mary named him after her father, Robert Smith Todd.
From a young age, many would comment on how different Robert looked from his father. As he grew older, the physical disparities became even more apparent. Lincoln was described as lean and lanky, while he himself described his son as "short and low."
A Different Personality
Not only did Robert weakly resemble his father in his appearance, but many also noted their strikingly different personalities. While Abraham was loud and outgoing, with an ability to charm anyone he met, Robert was more reserved and less of a 'people person.'
As put by the National Park Service, "Robert seems to have had a different personality than the rest of the family — he was more shy and reticent." Not only this, he "lacked the personal magnetism of his father and the vivacious quality of his mother." This being said, Robert still went on to achieve success in his own right.
Heading to Harvard
Abraham's firstborn grew up with his three brothers in Springfield, Illinois, where they also went to school. Tragically, he was the only one out of all his siblings to live into his adult years, as his younger brothers all died from various diseases.
He won a place at Harvard College and graduated in 1864. Next, he set his sights on Harvard Law School to which he was accepted. Robert thoroughly enjoyed his time studying there. Until suddenly, it all came to a crashing halt when the Civil War broke out...