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Abraham Lincoln's Paternity

Rumors about the Lincoln family have circulated for many years, including one that Thomas Lincoln was not the true father of Abraham Lincoln, but rather a man called Abraham Enlow. Historian and Lincoln author Ed Steers has written a rebuttal to this argument which he shares below with our readers.

The challenge to Lincoln’s paternity is a very old challenge beginning as early as his nomination for the presidency in 1860. In fact, there are currently a total of 16 individuals who various authors have claimed hold such a distinction, if distinction is the right word. Among these sixteen are such notables as John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Patrick Henry. More directly to the question of Abraham Enlow, there are actually four men with the name of Enlow, or a variation thereof, who are alleged to have fathered Lincoln. They are: Abraham Enlow of LaRue County, Kentucky; Abraham Enlows of Hardin County, Kentucky; Abraham Inlow of Bourbon County, Kentucky; and Abraham Enloe of Rutherford County, North Carolina. It is the latter individual that is currently making the rounds.

The Rutherford County claim stems from two early works that can be traced to author James Cathey (and later J. C. Coggins). According to these authors, Abraham Lincoln “...was born in Rutherford County, North Carolina about 1804,...” The extant record disproves this spurious statement.

The earliest record that we have for Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks, is dated June 11, 1806, in Washington County, Kentucky. It is a bond for her marriage to Thomas Lincoln which occurred one day later on June 12, 1806. A second record, the marriage return of the minister who performed the marriage (Jesse Head), is also extant and lists the marriage as occurring on June 12, 1806, in Washington County, Kentucky. We can place both Nancy Hanks and Thomas Lincoln in Washington County, Kentucky at this time. According to the Enloe legend, Abraham would have been two years old at the time (born 1804).

The Enloe legend continues, “After that, Enloe found Tom Lincoln, an itinerant worker, and paid him a sum of money to marry Nancy Hanks and give her and the boy a home and name. Tom Lincoln agreed to the deal and left for Kentucky with little Abe and Nancy, whom he married in 1806”). This statement places Thomas Lincoln in North Carolina between 1804 (little Abe’s alleged birth), and 1806 (Tom and Nancy’s marriage in Kentucky). While written documentation proving Nancy’s whereabouts during 1804 and 1805 is lacking, there exist several oral traditions which place her in the home of Richard Berry in Washington County, Kentucky during this period, and here is precisely where we find her in June of 1806 adding credibility to those traditions.

More important, however, we do have documentary records which tell us exactly where Thomas Lincoln was living during this period, and considerably before and after this period. Thomas Lincoln can be located in Washington County, Kentucky from 1786 to 1803. From 1803 to 1806, we can document his location in Hardin County, Kentucky (Mill Creek farm near Elizabethtown, Kentucky), and from 1806 to 1808 (Elizabethtown, Kentucky), from 1808 to 1811 (Sinking Spring farm), 1811 to 1816 (Knob Creek farm), etc. Each of these locations is identified by a variety of records which are readily available (tax records, mortgages, jury records, deeds, bills of sale, records of debt, etc.).

During the crucial period of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, and Enloe’s alleged meeting with Thomas Lincoln, we can unequivocally place Lincoln in Hardin County, Kentucky. So if Enloe met with Lincoln to cut a deal, Enloe must have journeyed from Rutherford County, North Carolina to Hardin County, Kentucky to make the deal. This makes no sense. Enloe surely could have found another “...itinerant worker” in North Carolina to assume the task (for money) rather than undertake so long a journey to Hardin County, Kentucky.

To the best of our knowledge, Thomas Lincoln was never in North Carolina, and can be traced from his place of birth in Rockingham County, Virginia to his place of death in Charleston, Illinois. He never “... left” North Carolina for Kentucky as these authors claim. This is the most damaging evidence against the claim.

What other information do we have which bears on this subject? Abraham Lincoln had an older sister, Sarah Lincoln, born in 1807 in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. If older, she must have been born in North Carolina according to the Enloe legend. Was Enloe also the father of Sarah? If born in 1807, Sarah would in fact be younger than Abe. Assuming Sarah was born in 1807, and was therefore younger than Abraham according to the Enloe legend, all subsequent information about this girl is confusing. She married Aaron Grigsby while living in Indiana with her family in 1828 (age 21) when Abe was yet 19 (or was he 24?). Surely the difference between 19 and 24 would have been obvious.

Equally confusing about this age difference (1804 vs. 1809) can be found in Lincoln’s own hand. The earliest record we have of Lincoln is dated 1824 and consists of his writing in a homemade school assignment book. These fragments of Lincoln’s school assignments contain a short rhyme which Lincoln wrote about himself as well as simple mathematical calculations. If born in 1804, he would be 20 years old at the time of the writings as opposed to 15 years old (1809). Although open to debate, it seems far more likely that Lincoln was 15 and attending school in 1824 rather than 20 years old. Lincoln did not attend school at the age of 20 or, at least, there are no claims that he was still in school at age 20. While a five year differential is not obvious in the “mature” years of a person’s life, it is very obvious during one’s early (teen) years.

When the Lincolns left Indiana and moved to Illinois in 1830, Abraham Lincoln helped his parents locate near Decatur (Illinois), helping to erect a cabin. He then proceeded to strike out on his own winding up in New Salem where he began his long climb to the presidency. This date is important because it represents his becoming 21 years old (the age of majority) and no longer under legal obligation to his father. If born in 1804, he would have been 26 years old, five years past his age of majority. Again, this is not proof, but certainly is more consistent with the accepted birth date of 1809 rather than 1804.

Of course, there are Lincoln’s own statements about his nativity. Lincoln wrote in an autobiographical sketch, “I was born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky.” A skeptic can ignore these statements by Lincoln under the presumption that one can never be absolutely sure where one’s paternity resides even with certain documentation. The only reason to reject the 1809 birth date is that the Lincoln’s can be unequivocally placed in Kentucky and not North Carolina.

But before we dismiss the currently accepted oral traditions and documentation that supports, and in some instances, proves those traditions, we should ask ourselves why the alternate traditions (Enlow, et. al.) are more believable, and whether they have any documentation to support them. The North Carolina tradition has no documentation (primary records) of any sort to lend credibility to it, and fails when challenged by all the existing documentation that does exist. It is based exclusively on one man’s writings decades after Lincoln’s death, and to nothing more. My recollection, without specifically checking the records, is that there were a total of sixteen Nancy Hanks living during the period in question. The person most often confused with Lincoln’s mother was her aunt (Lincoln’s great Aunt), also named Nancy Hanks, who was the mother of an illegitimate child named Dennis Hanks. Adin Baber, a Hanks genealogist, has placed several of these Nancy Hanks in North Carolina (as well as Virginia and Kentucky) during this period. In no instance does he place Nancy hanks Lincoln (or her parents) in North Carolina.

The legend that a man named Abraham Enloe fathered a boy whose mother was named Nancy Hanks may be true, but the woman clearly was not the Nancy Hanks who married Thomas Lincoln and the baby was not Abraham Lincoln who became the 16th President.

Those who find it “...hard to believe that Tom Lincoln, who was stocky, of no more than medium height, low-browed, and with no particular intellectual gifts, was the father of the future President...”, should rest easy. All of these characteristics are polygenic, that is, not due to a single gene, but many genes in combination. Those who doubt this genetic fact should take a look at the average heights of the parents of NBA basketball players.

That Thomas Lincoln can clearly be tracked from 1786 through 1851, especially during the crucial period 1803 through 1809, seems proof enough that Abraham Enloe of North Carolina had no knowledge of, or contact with him. This in itself washes away the foundation of the North Carolina claim. Of course, at the time the claim first appeared, its prevaricators did not know records existed in the Kentucky courthouses which would eventually surface and challenge the claim. There are always a few guns that do not smoke until several years after they are fired. The current case is a good example of this.

While there is more evidence, it is circumstantial, and not as direct as the tracking of Lincoln’s father at the time of the alleged Enloe “arrangement.”

The best reference to check on the specific question of Lincoln’s paternity can be found in The Lincoln Kinsman written by Louis A. Warren: Number 31 (January, 1941) and Number 53 (November, 1942). Also William E. Barton, The Paternity of Abraham Lincoln, George H. Doran Company, 1920, and Louis A. Warren, Lincoln’s Parentage and Childhood, Century Company, 1920.

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