|Was Honest Abe as honest as they say?|
Although volumes have been written about the life of Abraham Lincoln- considered by many to be our greatest president- much remains unknown about his ancestry. After Lincoln's death in 1865, biographers made the claim that he was a descendant of Samuel Lincoln, who came to America in 1637 from England and who spawned a New England political dynasty that includes a Maine governor, two Massachusetts governors and two Massachusetts representatives. It is a historically accepted fact that Samuel Lincoln, who died in 1690, was the progenitor of our nation's most famous political family.
On the other hand, we also have the image of Lincoln as a backwoods, self-educated rube who grew up dirt poor in a log cabin-- a far cry from the British bluebood background that some have attributed to him.
Oddly enough, it may turn out that Honest Abe wasn't related to Samuel Lincoln at all, nor was he of English descent. Evidence seems to suggest that Abraham Lincoln was, in actuality, German.
The earliest claims linking Abraham Lincoln to Samuel Lincoln appear sometime around 1917, in a pamphlet published by the Illinois State Historical Society. As far as we know, Abe never brought up his famous Massachusetts forefather. Whenever President Lincoln was asked about the genealogy of his family, his stock reply was to quote a line from Gray's Elegy Written in a County Churchyard: "You must look into the short and simple annals of the poor". Honest Abe liked to keep it vague and mysterious.
But what we do know about Abraham Lincoln is this: That around 1780 his grandfather Abraham left Rockingham County, Virginia, and settled with his wife and children in Jefferson County (which was then still a part of Virginia), on a farm twenty miles east of Louisville. According to President Lincoln, his ancestors originally came from Berks County, Pennsylvania, a region settled by Germans and still heavily populated by Germans to this day.
Before his arrival in Jefferson County, Lincoln's grandfather obtained from the land office a payment in the sum of one hundred sixty pounds for his property. This document still exists as Land Office Treasury Warrant No. 3334, bearing the date of March 4, 1780. However, the signature on this important legal document is signed not by a man named Abraham Lincoln, but by an Abraham Linkhorn.
It doesn't seem likely that President Lincoln's grandfather would forget his own name. Especially since other legal documents of the time also list the man's name as the German-sounding Linkhorn rather than the English-sounding Lincoln. Take for instance, the certificate of survey from May 7, 1785, which still survives in Record Book "B", Page 60, in the records of Jefferson County, Kentucky.
As you can see, the name Linkhorn appears in the document as well as in the signature. Perhaps even more interesting is the names of the witnesses who also signed the certificate-- C. Ananiah Lincoln and Josiah Lincoln. The following year, in 1786, Abraham Linkhorn was killed by Indians. His son Thomas, the father of President Lincoln, was only seven years old at the time, and grew up without learning how to read or write.
Presumably, Thomas grew up with the mistaken belief that his last name was Lincoln rather than Linkhorn. Or, perhaps Honest Abe adopted the last name because it was a politically advantageous thing to do; it would be like having the last name Kennedy, Roosevelt or Bush.
The fact remains that, during the President's lifetime, no one ever claimed or recognized Abraham as a relative. This did not occur until after his death, when anyone with the last name Lincoln would claim to be a relative of the great, fallen leader. Even today, trying to trace Honest Abe's lineage is like trying to navigate through the winding alleyways of a foreign city. Wikipedia's entry on the Lincoln family tree is sparse at best and utterly useless at worst. Like it or not, there's just a ton of things we don't know about Abraham Lincoln's true lineage.
As we all know, Abe's greatest characteristic was his honesty. If he had truly been a descendant of Samuel Lincoln, he would have admitted it. But he never did.
And while multitudes of history books and dozens of historical markers connect our sixteenth president to English blueblood Samuel Lincoln, the actual truth may be that there's no relation at all. And modern science has begun to prove it.
In 2012, a 91-year-old man came forward claiming that Thomas Lincoln had fathered an illegitimate child named Jesse and that he was one of Jesse's descendants. DNA testing confirmed that the 91-year-old man was indeed related to President Abraham Lincoln.
The man's name? James Linkhorn.
Marlin Bressi is a freelance writer, creator of the Pennsylvania Oddities blog, and author of the book Hairy Men in Caves: True Stories of America's Most Colorful Hermits.