LUCY, ABE’S OTHER GRANDMOTHER
The one you don’t want to talk about. The mother of Nancy Hanks, who was the mother of Abraham Lincoln [our Abe, not his Revolutionary War grandfather]. The one our Abe was concerned about. Worried that his mother had been born out of wedlock and brought here by her mother, Lucy, to escape the moral condemnation in Virginia, only to find it again here in Kentucky.
In the Forklands of the Rolling Fork River, where Lucy found new friends and a dedicated husband with whom she bore eight more children. The Forklands, which became Lucy’s Promised Land.
But what about Lucy’s daughter, Nancy, Abe’s mother? Those were difficult times, and so Lucy sent her daughter to live with relatives who were living further in the interior of Kentucky. Along the Beech Fork, above what is now called Springfield. Neighbors, it turned out, of Bathsheba Lincoln [the wife of the Revolutionary War Abe who first came to Kentucky]. It was there that Nancy met Bathsheba Lincoln’s son, Thomas. He had been working in the area as a carpenter.
Nancy and Tom would get married and have a big celebration [we have a list of good eatings at that event]. But I wonder if Lucy was invited?
Our Abe didn’t know much about her, and said even less about his family in general. When pushed to say something when he was running for office, this is all he could write down about them.
“My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families… second families, perhaps I should say. My mother, who died in my tenth year, was of a family of the name of Hanks…”
Lincoln was not being humble. He knew very little about his ancestry. And he was concerned, both personally and for his political prospects, as to what implications his ignorance was hiding.
There was good reason for his concern. During his life, he was unable to discover a marriage license legitimizing his parents’ marriage! [That license does exist, and was discovered after Lincoln’s death in the Washington County, Kentucky Courthouse].
So what do we know about his mother’s family? Not enough. Suspiciously little. And maybe for good reason. People back then, as they still do today, were quick to judge unfavorably the character of others whose families developed differently. And in Lincoln’s case, such useful information was politically relevant to his career!
So why did Nancy Hanks’ mother, Lucy, bring her to Kentucky? Was it because she was unmarried when she gave birth to Nancy? “Out of wedlock,” as it was said. A punitive phrase, and meant to punish. A Scarlet Letter. A good reason to leave the jurisdiction so inflicting.
Wasn’t Kentucky the New Frontier? The Future? The Garden of Eden? It became so for Lucy Hanks, who brought her daughter to Kentucky. But not without some trouble.
Abraham’s grandmother, Lucy, would settle north of Parksville, Kentucky, on the rolling slopes lying adjacent to the Knobs in Boyle County. It is land very close to where the Wilderness Road came out of the eastern mountains near Danville. There, she took up with Henry Sparrow. That is where we will pick up her story. For she probably lived, at first, with her soon-to-be husband’s mother, Mary Sparrow.
Her home would be but a horse ride to Perryville, where a huge invading Confederate Army [General Braxton Bragg] would turn to fight an even larger Union Army [General Don Carlos Buell] to a standstill in 1862. A Union Army whose commander-in-chief would be her grandson, and whose election as President of the United States would result in the succession of southern states seeking a different nation.
This was the same rebel army that took two days to pass Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace near Hodgenville, where Lucy’s daughter had brought forth a future President to life. A rebel army that marched right in front of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home [certainly they had been told?].
So that makes this Forklands area of the upper reaches of the Salt River [the Salt River proper, where its three forks, Beech, Chaplin and Rolling Fork Rivers come together] the headlands of a history that saved our nation. An area worthy of addition to your traveling agenda!
But history is murky here. Clearly present, but uncertain. About Lucy’s coming and subsequent doings, I mean. Our Abe knew little about his grandmother, and probably less about how she came to Kentucky. It seems that she came to work for Henry Sparrow and, maybe, his mother, with whom Henry probably then lived.
But something happened. Or maybe it was just the way for one society to mark another with disapproval. Charges were brought by a Grand Jury in Harrodsburg, accusing her of “Fornication.” Did they think she was a prostitute?
People were different, here in Kentucky. Individuals living on the frontier did not question past dealings or status in society. Kentucky needed strong, contributing people. And Lucy was one of the strongest. She carried her illegitimate daughter, Nancy, to safety in Kentucky. And when challenged, Lucy’s new neighbors rose up in her support. The proceedings were discontinued.
Lucy went on to marry Henry Sparrow the next year and she brought eight more Sparrow children into their community. Many of her descendants moved to adjoining counties, but her daughter, Mary, married a Whitehouse, whose descendants still populate these mountains.
At some point, Lucy moved over the ridge, and into the beautiful valley of Scrubgrass Creek, one of the headwater streams of the Rolling Fork River. We don’t know exactly where, and her home no longer stands for us to visit. But it is believed that she is buried back there. Somewhere that you might see as you drive along the creek.
So let us take a tour of this Forkland area, where Lucy lived, married, and raised her children. Find the Forkland Community Center on Highway 37. Start on a Saturday afternoon, when their Library is open. You will find Lincoln resources that you won’t find elsewhere, and the history of a people that have lived here ever since.
Lovely people, just like Lucy was. I know, because I am writing this essay after having researched in that Library while selling my books at the 50th Anniversary of the Forkland Festival. Sorghum and burgoo kettles, broom making and live music on the outdoor stage. Soothing.
Talk to Pat and Greg Williams, MIT Engineers who moved here 40 years ago to raise a family and publish the horticultural newsletter, HortIdeas. Meet Doris Purdom, who coordinates this fine festival, and has done so for decades. And, if you are lucky, track down Phillip Daly to show you around the area’s natural features.
From the Forkland Community Center, head toward Gravel Switch. At the junction of Highway 37 and Highway 243, you will see a sign for Penn’s Store. It is an incredibly old place, set off in its own world of wonder. Dawn, daughter of Jeanne Penn Lane, runs it now, and lives just beyond. It is open on the weekend, so go in, buy some goods, and say “hello” for me.
As you proceed north on Highway 243, you will cross the Rolling Fork River. You won’t see it, but there is a poured concrete gravel millstone, the edge of which is just showing as you cross over a bridge. That is why this is called Mill Creek. Scrubgrass Creek quickly splits off and heads further upstream. That’s where Lucy Hanks Sparrow once lived.
Did she ride down in a wagon with her floodplain-raised grain to watch it milled down here? If so, you just drove across more history. And, if your imagination is fully exercised, you should say “howdy.” Maybe Lucy would smile, and you can speak of her grandson, the one who saved our nation. Did she even know that he was born?
Now drive over to Gravel Switch and ride east along the front of these knobs, following along where the railroad once rolled. Turn north along Old Mitchellsburg Road. This is the old route, and just to the north, over the slope, is a place once known as Sparrow Corner. That’s where Lucy settled in with Henry Sparrow and his mother.
But it is time to return, now, to the present. So up and over the gap, past Parksville Knob, and back into the land of gravel. Stones tumbling along in the Rolling Fork River!
Pull into the Central Kentucky Wildlife Refuge on Highway 37. Get out and hike some more. This is a place of natural history that goes far back into the geologic mist, when organic rich muds once swamped the delicate beds of crinoid “sea-lilies” that had lived in shallow, clear water hundreds of millions of years ago.
Now walk up the trails. Was this forest composition the same when Lucy walked these hills? Perhaps she smiled as much as you will, now having found friends and peace of mind in Kentucky.
Eden seems to be often found, when one leaves the wilderness and settles down. So it was for Lucy and her children in the welcoming community of the Knobs in Central Kentucky.