Thomas Lincoln and The Shiftless Father Myth

By Edward Steers, Jr.

Berkeley Springs WV

Friday, August 27, 2021

Louis A. Warren conducted source document research on the Lincoln and Hanks families. Sadly, his work is often overlooked by modern writers. Warren died in 1983

The reputation of Abraham Lincoln's father, Thomas, continues to suffer at the hands of historians who often describe him as a shiftless, lazy financial failure who barely kept food on the table. Lincoln, it is said, was ashamed of his family background and the poverty he experienced as a child. His law partner, William Herndon, referred to Lincoln as having been born in a “stagnant, putrid pool.” It is true that Lincoln described his early life as “the short and simple annals of the poor,” but the reality was a long way from a "stagnant and putrid pool."


In 1786, Captain Abraham Lincoln, the president’s grandfather, was killed by two Indians while tilling his 400-acre farm located on the Long Run branch of Floyd’s Fork west of Lexington, Kentucky. The widow Lincoln picked up her five young children and moved to the Beech Fork area north of Springfield, Kentucky. In 1797, her youngest son Thomas, now age nineteen, moved to the Elizabethtown area of Kentucky where he secured a job working on the construction of a mill, earning his first real wages. During the month of September, he received 13 pounds, 16 shillings ($61) for work done for Samuel Haycraft.


In 1803, at age twenty-five, he purchased a 238-acre farm north of Elizabethtown for 118 pounds sterling paying cash (about $520). In 1806, Thomas returned to Beech Fork where he married Nancy Hanks. He moved his new bride to a lot he had purchased in Elizabethtown where he built a cabin. In 1807, their first child, Sarah, was born. Still in possession of the Mill Creek farm and now two lots in Elizabethtown, Thomas purchased a 340-acre farm along Nolan Creek for which he paid $200 in cash. By 1809, the year Abraham Lincoln was born, Thomas Lincoln owned two farms totaling 578 acres for which he paid $720 cash and two lots in Elizabethtown valued at $40 for tax purposes.


The same year he married, Thomas Lincoln acquired a credit at the major mercantile business of Blakeley and Montgomery in Elizabethtown of $93 for 2,400 pounds of pork and 494 pounds of beef. Thirty pounds ($127) was credited to Thomas for a flatboat trip to New Orleans bringing his total credit at Blakeley and Montgomery to just over 50 pounds or $220. In 1807, he received credit at Blakeley and Montgomery for 20 pounds, one shilling ($88).

The two farms, two lots and cabin in Elizabethtown, and considerable credit at Blakeley and Montgomery speak to Thomas’s industry and financial soundness dispelling the notion he was shiftless and lazy. It should also be noted that Abraham Lincoln attended five subscription schools between the years 1815 and 1824, and Thomas paid the fees.


The data described above is taken from Louis A. Warren’s excellent series of 54 pamphlets titled “The Lincoln Kinsman.” Warren, founder and first director of the Lincoln National Life Foundation’s Lincoln Library and Museum (later called The Louis A. Warren Lincoln Library and Museum) devoted much of his life researching the records of Kentucky and Indiana courthouses uncovering dozens of documents relating to Abraham Lincoln and his relations. Reference to Warren’s “Kinsman” cannot be found in most of the modern biographies of Lincoln. This is unfortunate for it is a rich source of information on the Lincoln and Hanks families and their neighbors. It is not clear whether Thomas Lincoln will ever find his true place in future Lincoln biographies, but if he does it will be because of Louis Warren’s research. As Abraham Lincoln said, “History is not history unless it is the truth.”


Author and historian Ed Steers is on a mission to correct many of inaccurate myths that chronically infect the Lincoln literature. Ed is a past-president of the Lincoln Group and a renowned authority on the Assassination.