Was Abraham Lincoln a Tar Heel?

By Ansley Herring Wegner

North Carolina has been so foolish in laying claim to everything in sight and on every occasion that I am sick unto death of claims that cannot be proved. When we can prove claims then we may boast.

Stephen B. Weeks to R. D. W. Connor
25 July 1905
When Chicago newspaperman John Locke Scripps offered to write Abraham Lincoln’s campaign biography in 1860, Lincoln responded, “Why Scripps … it is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life. It can be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray’s Elegy, ‘The short and simple annals of the poor.’ That’s my life and that’s all you or any one else can make of it.”

Lincoln knew little about his family and apparently did not wish to pursue a genealogical investigation. He always said that his parents were originally from Virginia—that his mother was Nancy Hanks and his father, Thomas Lincoln, was the son of Abraham Lincoln, but that they were not connected to the wealthy New England Lincolns. Lincoln’s cousin Dennis Hanks, who, being of an age between Nancy and Abraham, grew up as friends of both, provided a few more details on the Hanks family. From Dennis Hanks Americans learned that Nancy Hanks was the daughter of Lucy, who was the sister of his mother, also named Nancy. The proclivity for Hankses to name daughters Nancy plays a significant role in the confusion.

Despite Lincoln’s own disregard for his genealogy, the general public, it seems, remained keenly interested in Lincoln’s family tree. The paucity of information, unfortunately, left room for fabrication. What likely began as an attempt to discredit the president during the Civil War has snowballed over the years. In 1861 a woman in Nelson County, Kentucky, told a newspaper reporter that Abraham Lincoln’s real name was Abraham Enlow and that he was a thief who ran off to Illinois and changed his name. She said that old Abe Enlow “has become a traitor president, under the stolen name Abe Lincoln. But we all said that [he] would never come to any good end.”

The connection between Abraham Lincoln and Abraham Enlow/Enloe/Inlow (the name and its variations were common in the early 1800s) would flourish. In March 1863 an article appeared in the Wilmington Journal stating that Lincoln was the son of Abraham Inlow of Hardin County, Kentucky. Later that year, a man wrote to Secretary of State William H. Seward to expose the president as “the illegitimate son by a man named Inlow.” The story of Lincoln’s illegitimacy found seed in many communities, especially those with Enloes and Hankses. About a dozen stories arose claiming to expose Lincoln’s true father, and of those, four were men named Abraham Enloe (or Enlow/Inlow). Besides Enloe, it was also said that Senator John C. Calhoun fathered Lincoln with Nancy Hanks, a South Carolina tavern keeper’s daughter. Some even said that Lincoln and Jefferson Davis shared a father. North Carolina boasted three fathers of the president—an Enloe, a Martin, and a Springs. However, the rumors that began as libel intended to discredit the Great Emancipator have become legends steeped in civic pride.

The North Carolina Abraham Enloe story first published in book form in 1899 by James H. Cathey as The Genesis of Lincoln is based on circumstantial evidence and oral tradition. In short, it is as follows: A young Nancy Hanks arrived in the state through various means, depending on the version, and ended up in the household of Abraham Enloe of Rutherford County. Abraham Enloe got Hanks pregnant and was forced to move west due to embarrassment. Most versions of the story have Hanks giving birth in Rutherford County after the Enloe family had moved on to Haywood County. Enloe then sent her to Kentucky and paid Thomas Lincoln, either a wandering horse trader or an itinerant farm laborer, to marry her. The birth took place, depending on the version, between 1804 and 1806, in order to fit the time frame of Enloe’s life. The legend also requires that Lincoln be born before his older sister, as Enloe would not have waited for the second child to send Nancy Hanks away. Lincoln’s ability to pass for three years younger, even as a small child, was explained by people’s accepting that he was simply “tall for his age.”

Documents related to Abraham Enloe can be found in the State Archives but ones that support his fathering Abraham Lincoln do not exist. A 2005 publication on the subject included several abstracted census records that are not true to the originals. For example, in presenting evidence from the 1800 federal census for Rutherford County, the author records a Nancy Hanks aged sixteen living in the household of Abraham Enloe. Not only does the 1800 census not provide names for anyone other than the head of household, but the author’s ages of the various household members do not match up with what is on the original. The author also merged at two or three Abraham Enloes in an attempt to prove the legend.

A 2003 book about Lincoln’s supposed North Carolina roots includes copious footnotes; however they lead the reader merely to secondary sources and oral traditions. The only original document mentioned in the book is the marriage license between Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks. Yet the authors discounted the veracity of the paper saying that even though it “was found in a courthouse,” there is no reason to believe that it is authentic. North Carolina’s Enloe is described by most proponents of the tale as a large slaveholder and slave trader and a man who made peace with the Cherokee. Records in the State Archives, however, show a man who owned at various times no more than four slaves (none in 1800) and a man who was involved in a lawsuit brought by Cherokee Chief Yonaguska.

The North Carolina story often described Nancy living with her drunken “Uncle Dickey” (Richard) Hanks. The “Uncle Dickey” story seems to be an attempt to make a Hanks connection whereby Nancy Hanks can be placed in North Carolina. The story goes that he could not take care of her, that he was an alcoholic who was often in jail, and as a consequence she was sent to live with the Enloes. However, records show Richard Hanks, who lived in Lincoln County and later Gaston, to be a man of responsibility and property. Court minutes do not indicate that he was a public nuisance. A Revolutionary War veteran, Hanks was supported in his claim for a pension by his clergyman. Finally, Nancy Hanks, the mother of Abraham Lincoln, did not have an uncle named Richard Hanks.

The entire effort to defend the legend is based on undocumented oral tradition and poor interpretation of the few available primary sources. Yet North Carolina’s Abraham Enloe legend endures and is, in fact, the focus of the Bostic Lincoln Center in Rutherford County. The mission of the center, www.bosticlincolncenter.com, is to research, document, and preserve the “generational lore” of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in North Carolina.

The Abraham Enloe link to Abraham Lincoln is a fascinating piece of folklore. The stories that connect the two men are widely varied but none are substantiated. For example a number of writers describe a fight in which Thomas Lincoln bit off the end of Enloe’s nose and some attribute the Lincoln family’s move to Indiana on the fight (as opposed to documented problems related to land claims). People who knew the various Abraham Enloe/Enlows do not recall any of them with such a deformity of the face.

Wesley Enloe, the youngest son of North Carolina’s Abraham Enloe, was quoted in the Charlotte Observer in 1893 saying that he had not heard of the connection between his father and Abraham Lincoln until he read the story in an Asheville newspaper in 1871. However, by 1909, likely having grown fond of being considered Lincoln’s half-brother, Wesley Enloe stated unequivocally that Nancy Hanks lived with his family and that his father sent her to Kentucky because she had borne him a son.

Lincoln scholars have no reservations in accepting the traditional Abraham Lincoln genealogy. Although there is no paper trail for his mother until her marriage license in Kentucky, that is not unusual for a young woman in that time period. William Barton published two books on Lincoln’s genealogy in the 1920s. The Paternity of Abraham Lincoln and The Lineage of Lincoln are thorough and leave no doubt that Lincoln was born to Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks Lincoln about three years after they were married. Benjamin P. Thomas, in his 1952 standard work Abraham Lincoln: A Biography, lauded Barton’s “exhaustive critical analysis” of Lincoln’s legitimacy. Barton further proved that there were many Hanks families in the United States and that Nancy was a popular name among them; and he accepted that Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks, was likely illegitimate. Thomas Lincoln came from respectable stock, and had Lincoln the desire or opportunity to investigate his ancestors, he would have found, as historian and Lincoln biographer David H. Donald wrote, “instead of being the unique blossom on an otherwise barren family tree, [Lincoln] belonged to the seventh generation of a family with competent means, a reputation for integrity, and a modest record of public service.”

With Lincoln’s reluctance to speak of his family, the appearance of the name of Abraham Enloe was like a dandelion, spreading seeds of Abraham Lincoln’s legitimacy to the wind. Some of the seeds flourished and have become legends.

Lincoln Symposium

Lincoln Symposium