Thomas Lincoln

Sepia portrait of a man with a very serious look and a high forehead and sunken, dark eyes.
Abraham Lincoln's father, Thomas Lincoln

Quick Facts
Father of Abraham Lincoln
Place of Birth:
Rockingham County, Virginia
Date of Birth:
January 6, 1778
Place of Death:
Coles County, Illinois
Date of Death:
January 17, 1851
Place of Burial:
Coles County, Illinois
Cemetery Name:
Shiloh Cemetery

According to the date on his tombstone, Thomas Lincoln was born on January 6, 1778. His place of birth was in Rockingham County, Virginia, and he was the fourth of five children born to Abraham and Bathsheba Lincoln.

Thomas Lincoln moved to the state of Kentucky in the 1780s with his family. In May 1786, Thomas witnessed his father's death. He was killed during an interaction with indigenous people “…when he was laboring to open a farm in the forest.” That fall, his mother moved the family to Washington County, Kentucky (near Springfield), where Thomas lived until the age of eighteen. From 1795 to 1802, Thomas held a variety of jobs in several locations – jobs that increased his earning power and helped to feed the Lincoln family. In 1802 he moved to Hardin County, Kentucky, where one year later, he purchased a 238-acre farm. Four years later, on June 12, 1806, he married Nancy Hanks. Their first child, a daughter named Sarah, was born a year later. In 1808, Thomas bought a 300-acre farm in Nolin Creek. There on February 12, 1809, his son Abraham was born. A third child, Thomas, Jr., died in infancy.

Thomas was active in community and church affairs in Hardin County. He served as a jury member, a petitioner for a road, and as a guard for county prisoners. He could read a little, was a skilled carpenter, and was a property owner. However, like dozens of others, Thomas fell victim to Kentucky’s chaotic land laws. On three separate occasions, defective titles caused him to lose his farm. Discouraged by these setbacks, he decided to move his family to Indiana where the land ordinance of 1785 ensured that land once purchased and paid for was retained. Abraham Lincoln claimed many years later that his father’s move from Kentucky to Indiana was “partly on account of slavery, but chiefly on account of the difficulty of land titles in Kentucky.”

In December 1816, the Lincolns settled near Little Pigeon Creek where Thomas and Abraham set to work carving a home from the Indiana wilderness. Father and son worked side by side to clear the land, plant the crops and build a home. Thomas also found that his skills as a carpenter were in demand as the community grew.

In October 1818, Nancy Hanks Lincoln contracted the dreaded milk sickness by drinking poisoned milk of a cow that had eaten the white snakeroot plant. There was no cure for the disease and on October 5, 1818, Nancy died. For over a year, Thomas and his children lived alone, until December 2, 1819, when he married Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow from Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Sarah and her three children – Elizabeth, Matilda, and John – joined Abraham, Sarah and Dennis Hanks (a cousin of Nancy’s who had lived with the Sparrows until their death from the same outbreak of milk sickness that had killed Nancy) to make a new family of eight.

In addition to working as a carpenter, managing a farm, and looking after his family, Thomas also assisted in building the Little Pigeon Baptist Church, where he was a member and served as church trustee. By 1827, he had earned enough money to pay his debt on 100 acres of land.

Despite his success in Indiana, Thomas decided to move his family to Illinois in 1830. John Johnston, his stepson, who was by then an adult, moved there and sent glowing reports of the fertile ground that was available. In addition, because it was prairie, there was no need for the backbreaking work of clearing the land. The combination was hard to resist. Thomas sold his Indiana land and moved first to Macon County, Illinois and eventually to Coles County in 1821. His son Abraham left home to make his way in the world during the family’s move to Coles County. Thomas Lincoln remained a resident of the county for the rest of his life.

Thomas Lincoln’s reputation has suffered at the hands of many historians over the years. He has often been described as ne’er-do-well and it has been speculated that the relationship between him and his son, Abraham, was distant at best. Available evidence, however, contradicts these views. By all contemporary accounts, Thomas Lincoln was a well-respected and responsible member of his community. An inventory list of the property he sold when he decided to leave Indiana indicates that he had actually done quite well.

His impact on his son’s life is a bit more difficult to assess, though he undoubtedly made many intangible contributions to the development of Abraham’s character. Thomas Lincoln, according to a fellow family member, “was one of the best men that ever lived. A sturdy, honest, God fearing man whom all the neighbors respected.” He was described as good-humored, patient, kind, and “loving everybody and everything.” His friendly good nature was supplemented with a flair for storytelling. “He had a great stock of…anecdotes and professed a marvelous proclivity to entertain by ‘spinning yarns’…” It’s a description that could well fit Abraham Lincoln himself. Stories of his honesty have become almost legendary, examples of his compassion and desire for “malice toward none” epitomize kindness and mercy, and his reputation for storytelling and humor has become a part of our definition of Abraham Lincoln. When we think of Lincoln we are instantly reminded of his virtue and integrity. He did not develop those characteristics in a vacuum. The influence of his father was deep and everlasting. In the words of a fellow family member, “Abe got his honesty and his clean notions of living and kind heart from his father.”

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial

Last updated: May 31, 2024