by Brad Dison
Nancy Hanks was born on February 5, 1784, in what is now Antioch, West Virginia. As with most women of the era, Nancy learned the required skills needed on the frontier. She learned to cultivate crops, to cook what she grew, to make and mend clothing, and to read the Bible. She eventually became known as an excellent seamstress.
On June 12, 1806, Nancy married a man named Thomas. They had three children, a daughter followed by two sons, one of which died in infancy. Thomas took whatever work he could find. He worked odd jobs, and at different times worked as a farmer, carpenter, and cabinetmaker. By all accounts, Nancy was superior to her husband. She was mild tempered, caring, and intellectually inclined but not classically educated. It was she who taught her surviving children to read and write. Thomas could neither read nor write.
Nancy and her family lived in southern Indiana, where it was exceptionally dry in the summer of 1818. The cattle were unable to find enough grasses in the pastures on which to graze and went into wooded areas in search of food. In the rich, moist soil just along the edge of the woods, the cattle found an abundance of plants to eat. One plant that the cattle grazed on was White Snakeroot. With its fluffy, snow-white flowers which reached heights between 18-48 inches, White Snakeroot was an attractive and easy food source for the cattle.
In September of 1818, a large number of people in the area began to sicken from an illness known by names such as puking fever, sick stomach, the slows, and the trembles. Symptoms included loss of appetite, weakness, listlessness, muscle stiffness, vague pains, vomiting, abdominal discomfort, severe constipation, and, in the worst cases, coma before death.
Nancy went from house to house to help those who contracted the sickness. Among those she helped was one of Nancy’s best friends, a Mrs. Brooner. Nancy spent countless hours at Mrs. Brooner’s bedside. Few people who contracted the illness survived. Mrs. Brooner was sure she would die from the disease and expressed her concern to Nancy. With a warm smile and a gentle touch, Nancy reassured her that she would soon recover. Nancy meant well and did everything she could to comfort Mrs. Brooner as well as several other sick neighbors.
Nancy soon began to show symptoms of the sickness. Within a short time, she became so unwell that she could no longer aid others. Like her sick neighbors, Nancy was confined to her bed. Nancy’s condition worsened with every passing day. During that time, several of her neighbors, including Mrs. Brooner, died from the illness. Nancy’s health continued to deteriorate and she slipped into a coma. On October 5, 1818, after suffering from the illness for about two weeks, Nancy died. She was just 34 years old.
Preparing for a funeral on the frontier was difficult. There was no funeral home in the area, and Thomas and his two children had to make all of the preparations for burial themselves. Thomas’s eleven-year-old daughter took care of the household affairs while Thomas and his nine-year-old son built Nancy’s coffin. Thomas measured and cut planks while his son whittled pegs to hold the planks together. They had no nails. With the help of neighbors, Thomas and his son dug Nancy’s grave and held a short but meaningful graveside service for her.
What was this mysterious illness that killed Nancy and several of their neighbors? Until the twentieth century, medical science had almost no understanding of this particular sickness. Scientists discovered that the illness that struck many in southern Indiana in that summer of 1818 was what we now call “Milk Sickness.” Nancy and her neighbors drank fresh milk from local cows who grazed on White Snakeroot, which is poisonous to humans but, evidently, not to cows.
Like Nancy, her son was intellectually inclined and self-educated. He became a successful attorney and climbed the ladder of success. He became a legislator, a U.S. Congressman, and then, President of the United States. Nancy’s married name was Nancy Hanks Lincoln. It was she who named her son… Abraham.
1. Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota), April 15, 1923, p.67.
2. “White Snakeroot: The Plant That Killed Abraham Lincoln’s Mother,” National Park Service, accessed May 12, 2021, https://www.nps.gov/abli/planyourvisit/milksickness.htm.