Anyone familiar with researching family history is aware that two of the most valuable resources you can use to nail down facts include oral history and actual records, such as birth records, census records, marriage records, etc. These two methods of data collection, at their best, often complement each other. An oral tradition passed down in the family is sometimes a good starting point when consulting various records.
In the matter of Abraham Lincoln's paternity, i.e., who his father was, the oral history, collected by some seemingly sincere individuals, and the recorded history, couldn't be more conflicting.
Lincoln himself was not much interested in delving too deeply into his family history. After his nomination for president during the 1860 campaign, Lincoln's first biographer and law partner, William Herndon, records in his "Life of Lincoln":
Among the earliest newspaper men to arrive in Springfield after the Chicago convention was the late J. L. Scripps of the Chicago Tribune, who proposed to prepare a history of his life. Mr. Lincoln deprecated the idea of writing even a campaign biography. "Why, Scripps," said he, "it is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of me or my early life. It can all 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 anyone else can make out of it."
Lincoln was unusually reticent about his parentage. Herndon writes that Lincoln only spoke to him one time about his mother:
On the subject of his ancestry and origin I only remember one time when Mr. Lincoln ever referred to it. It was about 1850, when he and I were driving in his one-horse buggy to the court in Menard County, Illinois...
...During the ride, he spoke, for the first time in my hearing, of his mother, dwelling on her character, and mentioning and enumerating what qualities he inherited from her.
This reluctance to speak about his mother may have just been modesty. Herndon also relates in this passage that Lincoln said his mother, Nancy, was the product of an illegitimate relationship between Nancy's mother, Lucy, and a 'well-bred' Virginia farmer. In this instance, he may have also lived with some embarrassment at this knowledge. Herndon not only determined that Lincoln's mother was illegitimate, he pondered that this, and the possibility of Lincoln's own illegitimacy, made him suicidal:
Lincoln often thought of committing suicide. Why? Did the knowledge of his mother's origin, or his own, press the thought of suicide upon him? Who will weigh the force of such an idea as illegitimacy on man and woman, especially when that man or woman is very sensitive, such as Lincoln was? God keep such people.
According to some historians, Lincoln's lack of discussion about his history left an opening for his political enemies to hurl various charges against Lincoln's character, a chief accusation being the presumption that Abraham Lincoln himself was illegitimate and, therefore, possessed some kind of 'defect' that disqualified him from being president.
The two traditions, oral and historical, agree on one thing: Lincoln's mother was Nancy Hanks. But they diverge radically in the matter of his paternity. The history books and the vast majority of historians do not doubt that Lincoln's father was Thomas Lincoln, a farmer and carpenter, who married Nancy Hanks in 1806 in Washington County, Kentucky. On February 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born of this union in Hardin County, Kentucky. A replica of the Lincoln log cabin sits on the site of his birth. He was named after his grandfather, Abraham Lincoln, an Indian fighter who met his end at the hands of a Native American sniper in a sneak attack. Thomas Lincoln was six years old at the time and may have witnessed his father's murder.
According to Herndon, Thomas Lincoln grew up to be a man without much ambition or intelligence. He was not tall, about 5' 10". Herndon further describes Tom Lincoln:
He was proverbially slow of movement, mentally and physically; was careless, inert, and dull...
But other chroniclers of Lincoln's life disagree with that assessment. They point out that Thomas Lincoln was not unintelligent at all and that he possessed some sensitivity and creativeness because of the fine cabinets and furniture he crafted as a hobby.
The oral history surrounding Abraham Lincoln is not really an oral tradition in the usual sense. The usual traditions spring from within the family and are passed along to each generation. Herndon, as noted - Lincoln's law partner and friend of twenty years - wrote about Lincoln's life and explored the question of his paternity. His work assumes that Tom Lincoln was his father, but he also looks into a North Carolina man who many say fathered Abraham Lincoln in the year 1804 (or 1806 depending on which researcher), two years before Tom and Nancy married. While Herndon seems to dismiss this theory, others later picked it up with their own research. Some even say with an inordinate amount of zeal.
So, in this sense, the oral tradition emanated not from within Lincoln's family but from outsiders.
In 1899, James Cathey, a North Carolina legislator, published information about the mysterious North Carolina man whose name was Abraham Enloe in his book "The Genesis of Lincoln." Cathey obtained numerous statements and affidavits from over 20 'witnesses' attesting to the fact that it was common knowledge that Abraham Enloe was the father of Abraham Lincoln as a result of an illcit affair with a very young Nancy Hanks, who lived with Enloe and his wife as their servant girl. The tradition goes some like this, from an article in the February 2009 issue of Carolina Country:
...Nancy [Hanks] had been living with the Enloes on Puzzle Creek [North Carolina] as a servant since she was about 12. When she was about 17, the story goes, she and the tall, lanky Mr. Enloe became intimately involved. Nancy accompanied the large family to their new place in Swain County, not far from Waynesville, until Nancy’s pregnancy became obvious. Mr. Enloe then arranged for his friend Felix Walker, of Buncombe County, to take Nancy back to the Puzzle Creek homestead which was occupied by tenants. Nancy gave birth to Abraham there. What happened next is just as unclear as what happened earlier, but the story says Mr. Enloe arranged to bring Nancy and Abraham back to Swain County. But Mrs. Enloe wanted them out. So Mr. Enloe arranged for them to go 300 miles away to Kentucky, a place where he had established a grist mill, and that he paid a short, stocky, shiftless millworker named Tom Lincoln to marry Nancy and care for the family. The story continues that at some point Mr. Enloe heard that Mr. Lincoln was mistreating Nancy, so he visited the household, consoled Nancy, was caught by a drunken Mr. Lincoln who then tussled with Mr. Enloe and bit his nose pretty hard. R. Vincent Enlow, of New Jersey, published not long ago a lengthy examination of the story. He’s distantly related to Abraham Enloe, like a few other people in western North Carolina who look an awful lot like Abraham Lincoln.
Or, perhaps, they just look an awful lot like Abraham Enloe. What this article synthesizes is an oral legend in parts of North Carolina that questions the authenticity of Tom Lincoln, a "short, stocky, shiftless" millworker, as the father of Abraham Lincoln, who was ambitious, intelligent, literate, and turned his talents to a presidency that saved the nation.
While there are no photographs of Abaham Enloe, there do exist statements from relatively contemporaneous 'witnesses' about his physical stature, his success as a regional economic power, and his intelligence that points to someone who was more likely than Thomas Lincoln to be the president's father. Additional proof, to the oralists (or as some skeptical writers call the "Enloeists"), is a photograph of Abraham Enloe's youngest son that affirms the uncanny resemblence between the son, Wesley Enloe, and Abraham Lincoln, who would have been Lincoln's half brother. You have to admit, Wesley does appear to be as 'lanky' as Abraham Lincoln.
Cathey in fact interviewed Wesley Enloe in 1899 who told him:
I was born after the incident between father and Nancy Hanks. I have, however, a vivid recollection of hearing the name Nancy Hanks frequently mentioned when I was a boy . . . I have no doubt that the cause of my father’s sending her to Kentucky is the one generally alleged.
But the crux of the issue comes down to a couple of things, to my thinking. If Nancy Hanks Lincoln lived in North Carolina in the Enloe household, how did she get there? Historians, chiefly William Barton in his "The Paternity of Abraham Lincoln" and Edward Steers, who "draws on Barton," record that Nancy Hanks was born in Virginia and was taken at an early age from there directly to Kentucky. Steers concludes that the best evidence showing that Abe Lincoln was born in 1809 of Tom and Nancy is the fact that Dennis Hanks, Lincoln's cousin, attests that "I was the second man who touched Lincoln after his birth, a custom in Kentucky then of running to greet the newborn babe."
Many others have pointed out that, in addition to multiple Nancy Hankses at the time in Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carlolina, there were also at least four (see Steers) Abraham Enloes; three in Kentucky and the one in North Carolina.
Others explain that Nancy went from Virginia to North Carolina and then to Kentucky. These researchers postulate that Nancy Hanks Lincoln was born in Virginia but travelled at an early age with her mother, Lucy Hanks, to North Carolina. Lucy Hanks, to the Enloeists, bore two illegitimate daughters: Mandy and Nancy. Nancy was the product of Lucy and a horse trader named Michael Tanner.
Nancy stayed for a while with her uncle 'Dicky' Hanks in Lincoln County, NC, which later was known as Rutherford County. Because of Dicky's problem with alcohol, he had to give Nancy up to the well to do Abraham Enloe family at about the age of 12.
The other issue regards the Enloeist claim that Abraham Lincoln was born in 1804, two years before the marriage of Nancy and Tom Lincoln. On one level, this seems incredible. However, not to be outdone by historians, the Enloeists have found witnesses to state they saw a young child named Abraham at the wedding.
Ellen Potts, who claims to be the g-g-g-grandaughter of Abraham Enloe, recalls reading in Cathey's book one of the witnesses at the wedding of Tom and Nancy as being the wedding's own minister:
Even the pastor performing Tom Lincoln's marriage to Nancy Hanks remembered seeing young Abraham at the wedding in 1806, precluding the official story line that Abraham Lincoln was born three years after the Lincoln - Hanks marriage.
In fact, Abraham Lincoln would have been older, if this is true, than the recorded first born in the Lincoln family, his sister Sarah Lincoln. The North Carolina advocates explain away Dennis Hanks' testimony that he was the second one to touch the baby Lincoln. Another child born to Tom and Nancy died in infancy and was named Tom. The Enloeists insist that Dennis is mistaken and that he really touched the baby Tom Lincoln.
Herndon sheds little light on the possibility that Abraham Lincoln actually grew up five years older than previously thought, except for a passage about his unusual growth, or height, beginning in his eleventh year:
In his eleventh year he began that marvelous and rapid growth in stature for which he was so widely noted...
The on-set of growth usually doesn't occur until puberty, unless it's accounted for by Lincoln's suspected Marfan Syndrome.
The Cathey legend spawned a number of other speculations in book form. In 1940, James C. Coggins wrote about the same issue in "The Eugenics of Abraham Lincoln." In 2008, Don Norris explored his interest in Lincoln's paternity and writes about Abraham Enloe at some length. A couple of North Carolina writers, Richard Eller and Jerry Goodnight, co-authored "The Tarheel Lincoln" in 2003.
Norris claims in his book that a William C. Enloe, direct descendant of Abraham Enloe, has in his possession a page from the Latter Day Saints' International Geneological Index, or IGI that states:
International Genelogical Index (R) - Version 4.01
10 JUL 2000. HOLDING FILE ENTRIES Page 11
Abraham ENLOE (M): b 12 Feb 1806 F# 176724
Father: Abram or Abraham ENLOE Puzzle Creek
Mother: Nancy HANKS_____County, North Carolina
If this exists, Norris decided not to include an image of it in his book. And he gives IGI records much more credence than most geneaologists, amateur or professional.
It was about this time that the Bostic Lincoln Center was born. It is located in Bostic, North Carolina, and is dedicated to educating visitors about Abraham Lincoln's real father, Abraham Enloe. The Bostic Center has 'rare' books and will point to many quotes by those interviewed by James Cathey, such as a Colonel Davis who grew up with Lincoln in Illinois, and told Cathey:
It was generally understood, in that neighborhood, that [Thomas] Lincoln, the man that married the President's mother, is not the father of the President, but that his real name was Enloe.
It is this same Davis who is also included in the Cathey affidavits and recounted here by R. Vincent Elow, a distant relative of Abraham Enloe:
In the fall of 1860, just before the presidential election, Davis and his friend went back to Rutherford and spent an evening with Dr. Egerton. Davis told Egerton that in a private conversation with Lincoln, the presidential candidate said in confidence that he was of Southern extraction and his right name ought to be Enloe, but that he had always gone by the name of his stepfather.
At this point, you can begin to be overwhelmed by the Enloeist theory, or at least beaten down into submission to their theory. DNA testing on the Nancy Hanks line seems to be in progress.
The Nancy Hanks DNA project appears to conclude that Lucy Hanks was the mother of Nancy Hanks as a result of an illicit affair. Seven years after Lucy gave birth to Nancy, she married Henry Sparrow and farmed Nancy off to his brother and wife, Thomas and Elizabeth Hanks Sparrow. Even Dennis Hanks, who lived with the Lincolns, called Nancy Hanks 'Nancy Sparrow'.
The North Carolina tradition, through the Bostic Lincoln Center, would also like DNA testing done on the descendants of Abraham Enloe to compare this DNA with any existing of Abraham Lincoln's DNA.
The story of how Enloe's Nancy got from North Carolina to Kentucky said that Abraham Enloe "had established a grist mill" near the historical birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. Herndon describes a young Abe Lincoln as having liked to visit a grist mill, as described in this idyllic passage:
The dull routine of chores and household errands in the boy's every-day life was brightened now and then by a visit to the mill. I often in later years heard Mr. Lincoln say that going to the mill gave him the greatest pleasure of his boyhood days.
Is this attraction Lincoln had for a grist mill in any way related to a knowledge he might have possessed that his real father had established a mill nearby? Was the mill a 'great pleasure' for Lincoln as an escape from his distant and harsh father, Tom Lincoln?
In the end, the most either side of this controversy will give the other is: The Enloeists, represented by Jerry Goodnight say, "Prove us wrong and we'll go away."
The historians and some genealogists say: "There may have been a Nancy Hanks who had a son named Abraham by Abraham Enloe, but it wasn't Abraham Lincoln, the president."
Nancy Hanks Lincoln didn't raise Abe to adulthood. In fact, she died in 1818 of 'milk-disease'. When Tom Lincoln died in 1851, Abe Lincoln was unable to attend the funeral, which some point out as further proof that Thomas Lincoln and Abe Lincoln were not that close.
If the DNA projects in both camps ever solve the mystery of Lincoln's paternity, Lincoln's own admonishment about his past, that it can be found in Gray's 'Annals of the Poor' will still hold true.
In the interim, a search of this issue on the Internet yields some interesting things about this story. Researchers who have no knowledge of the paterinity issue seem to be turning up clues about Lincoln's paternity through looking at records in their own families. This is one. I'm sure there are others that will only deepen the mystery.