Abraham Lincoln Losing his Mother
Nancy Hanks Lincoln
In the fall of 1817, when the Lincoln family had moved from the shed into the rough log cabin, Thomas and Betsy Sparrow came and occupied the "darned little half-faced camp," as Dennis Hanks called it. Betsy Sparrow was the aunt who had brought up Nancy Hanks, and she was now a foster-mother to Dennis, her nephew. Dennis became the constant companion of the two Lincoln children. He has told most of the stories that are known of this sad time in the Lincoln boy's life.
The two families had lived there for nearly a year when Thomas and Betsy Sparrow were both seized with a terrible disease known to the settlers as the "milk-sick" because it attacked the cattle. The stricken uncle and aunt died, early in October, within a few days of each other. While his wife was ill with the same dread disease, Thomas Lincoln was at work, cutting down trees and ripping boards out of the logs] with a long whipsaw with a handle at each end, which little Abe had to help him use. It was a sorrowful task for the young lad, for Abe must have known that he would soon be helping his father make his mother's coffin. They buried the Sparrows under the trees "without benefit of clergy," for ministers came seldom to that remote region.
Nancy Lincoln did not long survive the devoted aunt and uncle. She had suffered too much from exposure and privation to recover her strength when she was seized by the strange malady. One who was near her during her last illness wrote, long afterward:
"She struggled on, day by day, like the patient Christian woman she was. Abe and his sister Sarah waited on their mother, and did the little jobs and errands required of them. There was no physician nearer than thirty-five miles.
"The mother knew that she was going to die, and called the children to her bedside. She was very weak and the boy and girl leaned over her while she gave them her dying message. Placing her feeble hand on little Abe's head, she told him to be kind and good to his father and sister.
"'Be good to one another,' she said to them] both. While expressing her hope that they might live, as she had taught them to live, in the love of their kindred and the service of God, Nancy Hanks Lincoln passed from the miserable surroundings of her poor life on earth to the brightness of the Beyond, on the seventh day after she was taken sick."
To the motherless boy the thought of his blessed mother being buried without any religious service whatever added a keen pang to the bitterness of his lot. Dennis Hanks once told how eagerly Abe learned to write:
"Sometimes he would write with a piece of charcoal, or the p'int of a burnt stick, on the fence or floor. We got a little paper at the country town, and I made ink out of blackberry juice, briar root and a little copperas in it. It was black, but the copperas would eat the paper after a while. I made his first pen out of a turkey-buzzard feather. We hadn't no geese them days—to make good pens of goose quills."
As soon as he was able Abe Lincoln wrote his first letter. It was addressed to Parson Elkin, the Baptist preacher, who had sometimes stayed over night with the family when they lived in Kentucky, to ask that elder to come and preach a sermon over his mother's grave. It had been a long struggle to learn to write "good enough for a preacher"—especially for a small boy who is asking such a favor of a man as "high and mighty" as a minister of the Gospel seemed to him.
It was a heartbroken plea, but the lad did not realize it. It was a short, straightforward note, but the good preacher's eyes filled with tears as he read it.
The great undertaking was not finished when the letter was written. The postage was a large matter for a little boy. It cost sixpence (equal to twelve-and-a-half cents today) to send a letter a short distance—up to thirty miles. Some letters required twenty-five cents—equal to fifty in modern money. Sometimes, when the sender could not advance the postage, the receiver had to pay it before the letter could be opened and read. On this account letters were almost as rare and as expensive as telegrams are today. When the person getting a letter could not pay the postage, it was returned to the writer, who had to pay double to get it back.
In those days one person could annoy another and put him to expense by writing him and forcing] him to pay the postage—then when the letter was opened, it was found to be full of abuse, thus making a man pay for insults to himself!
There was a great general who had suffered in this way, so he made a rule that he would receive no letters unless the postage was prepaid. One day there came to his address a long envelope containing what seemed to be an important document. But it was not stamped, and the servant had been instructed not to receive that kind of mail. So it was returned to the sender. When it came back it was discovered that it had been mailed by mistake without a stamp. That letter announced to General Zachary Taylor that he had been nominated by a great convention as candidate for President of the United States!
All this seems very strange now that a letter can be sent around the world for a few cents. Besides, the mails did not go often and were carried on horseback. For a long time one half-sick old man carried the mail on a good-for-nothing horse, once a week, between New York and Philadelphia, though they were the largest cities in the country.
So it was many months before Abe received an answer to his letter. Elder Elkin may have been away from home on one of the long circuits covered by pioneer preachers. As the days and weeks went by without the lad's receiving any reply he was filled with misgivings lest he had imposed upon the good man's former friendship.
At last the answer came and poor Abe's anxiety was turned to joy. The kind elder not only said he would come, but he also named the Sunday when it would be, so that the Lincoln family could invite all their friends from far and near to the postponed service—for it often happened in this new country that the funeral could not take place for months after the burial.
It was late in the following Summer, nearly a year after Nancy's death, that the devoted minister came. The word had gone out to all the region round about. It was the religious event of the season. Hundreds of people of all ages came from twenty miles around on horseback—a father, mother and two children on one horse—also in oxcarts, and on foot. They sat in groups in the wagons, and on the green grass, as at the feeding of the multitudes in the time of the Christ. But these people brought their own refreshments as if it were a picnic.
They talked together in low, solemn tones while waiting for the poor little funeral procession to march out from the Lincoln cabin to the grass-covered grave. Pioneer etiquette required the formalities of a funeral. Elder Elkin was followed by the widowed husband, with Abraham and Sarah and poor Cousin Dennis, also bereaved of his foster-parents, and now a member of the Lincoln family.
There were tender hearts behind those hardened faces, and tears glistened on the tanned cheeks of many in that motley assemblage of eager listeners, while the good elder was paying the last tribute of earth to the sweet and patient memory of his departed friend of other days.
The words of the man of God, telling that assembled multitude what a lovely and devoted girl and woman his mother had been, gave sweet and solemn joy to the soul of the little Lincoln boy. It was all for her dear sake, and she was, of all women, worthy of this sacred respect. As he gazed around on the weeping people, he thought of the hopes and fears of the months that had passed since he wrote his first letter to bring this about.
"God bless my angel mother!" burst from his lonely lips—"how glad I am I've learned to write!"