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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Honoring Nancy Hanks Lincoln

Visiting the graves of famous people is a common practice. For many, these are personal pilgrimages. Abraham Lincoln once wrote, "All I am and hope to be I owe to my mother." From the limited accounts we have of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, she was a kind and loving mother to Abraham and his sister, Sarah. Lincoln's mother died on October 5, 1818, he was only nine years old. Nancy was a victim of milk sickness. This was a condition passed on to humans through cows that ingested white snakeroot. Lincoln and his father, Thomas, built Nancy's coffin out of a tree they cut down. She was laid to rest in what came to be known as the Little Pigeon community. After his first wife's death, Thomas Lincoln sought a new bride who could take care of his children. He married Sarah Bush Johnston in 1819. After the Lincolns moved to Illinois in 1830, Thomas's property was broken up through various sales. Over time, new residents ignored Nancy Hanks Lincoln's gravesite. It would not be until 1865 that the spotlight would shine again on her resting place.

The first public mention of Nancy Hanks Lincoln's grave was in 1868. Civil War veteran William Q. Corbin visited Lincoln's home site and was shocked at the neglected state of Nancy's grave. He wrote a poem that appeared in the Rockport Journal in November of 1868. Corbin's poem inspired Gentryville residents meet to discuss what to do. Nothing happened immediately, but interest in marking the grave continued. Finally, in 1874, a Rockport businessman placed a two-foot tall marker, inscribed with Nancy Hanks Lincoln's name, on the site.

Unfortunately, the site continued to suffer from neglect and theft of the markers. The 1874 marker was gone by 1879. It was replaced that same year. Area residents contributed to building an iron fence around the grave to protect it. Care for the grave fell to whoever took on the task. To address this problem Indiana Governor James E. Mount called for a meeting of several state patriotic organizations on June 30, 1897. The outcome was the creation of the Nancy Hanks Lincoln Memorial Association. This group had two purposes: to raise money for the maintenance of the gravesite and to promote an Indiana memorial to the Lincolns.

Over the next decade, the Nancy Hanks Lincoln Memorial Association raised funds to improve the site. Robert Todd Lincoln and others made donations to the site. Their funds helped to purchase the 16 acres surrounding Nancy's gravesite. In 1902, J.S. Culver carved a monument to place in front of Nancy's grave marker. Culver owned a stone company that had worked on Lincoln's tomb in Springfield, Illinois. The stone he placed at Nancy's grave came from his monument to Lincoln in Springfield. A graveside dedication took place on October 1, 1902.

By 1906, the gravesite was in bad shape once again. The governor of Indiana and the Nancy Hanks Lincoln Memorial Association met to address the problem. The meeting led to the creation of a state commission in 1907. One of the first issues addressed was protecting the site. The legislature gave $5,000 for the construction of an ornamental fence around the 16-acre park.
In 1909, the Indiana State Board of Commissions made improvements to Nancy Lincoln's gravesite. They cleared the park of dead trees, built an ornamental iron fence around the 16 acre park (including an entrance gate), and a paved road from the highway to the gravesite of Lincoln's mother. The highway entrance featured life-size lions. Closer to the gravesite, south of the lions, eagles perched on columns. Large stone urns sat along the roadway to the cemetery.

In December 1916, Indiana celebrated 100 years as a state. To celebrate, Indiana identified important sites in its history. In 1917, the state selected what is believed to have been Thomas Lincoln's cabin site. This selection created great interest in the historic Lincoln property. Nancy Hanks Lincoln's grave was an important part of the cabin site's significance. Seen as part of the "cult of motherhood," people believed Nancy played an important role in Abraham's life. The "cult of motherhood" placed great importance on a mother's influence in her children's lives. This view of motherhood came from the Victorian Era (named for England's Queen Victoria who reigned from 1837-1901). Lincoln's oft-quoted statement about his "angel mother" did much to support the idea of the "cult of motherhood."

In the 1920s, various newspapers expressed unhappiness that Indiana did not have a proper state memorial to Abraham Lincoln. In 1925, the state assembly created the Lincoln Memorial Commission. This commission had authority to purchase land and build structures as needed. Its goal was "to prepare and execute plans for erecting a suitable memorial to the memory of Abraham Lincoln at or near his residence in the state." The Department of Conservation took over care of Nancy's gravesite the same year.

Questions for Reading 2

1. At least how many attempts were made to mark the gravesite of Nancy Hanks Lincoln before the marker that is currently there was put into place? When was the current marker erected?

2. Did any members of the Lincoln family contribute to the maintenance of Nancy’s gravesite? Who else was involved? What kinds of things did they do?

3. What is the “cult of motherhood”? How did this influence the efforts to memorialize Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s grave? Do you think it makes sense to honor Nancy Hanks Lincoln in this way? Explain.

4. When was it decided that a memorial would be built? Who was in charge? What do you think a “suitable” memorial requires?

Reading 2 was adapted from The Lincoln Notebook, prepared by the staff of Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial.

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