Honest Abe's family tree, reconsidered 

click to enlarge A page from Abraham Lincoln's 'sum book.'
  • A page from Abraham Lincoln's 'sum book.'

A new show at the Indiana State Museum, The Lincolns: Five Generations of an American Family, offers an engaging, gutsy and occasionally revelatory alternate history of Abraham Lincoln's six-generation American ancestry.

"I'm interested in presenting people in a more complete fashion," explained R. Dale Ogden, chief curator of Cultural History at the Indiana State Museum, during a walk-through prior to the exhibition's official opening. "The Lincoln family is much more complex and interesting than the stereotypes that have evolved. In presenting this exhibit I wanted to freshen up the story."

The popular perception that Lincoln was a hayseed from way back is challenged with the sketching of his family tree, beginning from Samuel Lincoln's arrival at the Massachusetts Colony in 1637 at the age of 14. "There are still Lincolns up and down the East Coast," Ogden pointed out.

But because there is no evidence that Abraham interacted with these coastal family members, the exhibit hones in on his lineage beginning from Captain Abraham Lincoln, whose murder was witnessed by 8-year-old Thomas, Abraham Lincoln's father. In line with the then-custom of primogeniture, the eldest son Mordecai inherited the property. Subsequently, Thomas moved frequently with his mother and his siblings and was deprived of a formal education.

"The opinion of Tom is evolving," said Ogden, a Lincoln scholar with particular interest in Thomas. "It is much more accurate to say he was a skilled carpenter and a farmer on the side. He was a community leader."

A gem in the exhibit is a corner cabinet with its own intriguing history revealing Tom Lincoln's "artisan signatures" throughout its construction.

Tom's not the only one who's gotten short shrift, according to Ogden. Mary Todd Lincoln is also due for rehabilitation: "Placing her in context of her time we learn how extraordinary she was with twelve years of formal education in classical and popular literature and music."

Mary Todd's life is placed in the context early 19th century Southern culture, with particular attention on her father's insistence that she "be involved, be aware," and become an interesting conversationalist in order to interact with the leading figures of enterprise and politics regularly visiting the Todd household.

Historians dwell on the death of Abraham Lincoln's mother, but often fail to mention the death of Mary Todd's mother, according to Ogden. "It's important to recognize that while Abraham was nine when his mother died and subsequently was raised by a supportive and loving stepmother, Mary was only six when her mother died and she lived with a stepmother who did not like her. This affected her profoundly."

Abraham Lincoln is sometimes portrayed as someone who ventured, failed, tried again and failed, until one day he got up from a log cabin and entered the White House. By contrast, The Lincolns shows how Abe planned out his life in the manner of a career politician.

He served appointed positions as a surveyor and postmaster before studying law. He built a lucrative practice representing the railroad industry, during which time he most certainly acquired the expertise and backing he needed to run for political office.

We observe Abraham and Mary Lincoln as an upper middle class professional family. We learn that during much of the time their eldest son, Robert, was growing up, Abraham was traveling, making Mary Robert's primary caregiver. Understanding this is important in sorting out the truths surrounding actions regarding his mother in later years. Some historians have rendered him heartless, but this exhibit asks us to look at all aspects of the situation, in light of the early bonding between Mary and Robert.

It's through Robert's marriage with Mary Harlan - and their children and grandchildren - that the exhibit looks at two more generations of Lincolns and their impact into the 20th century.

As part of the Civil War sesquicentennial running through 2015, this is an extraordinary portrayal of a real family. What makes the show essential is the way it strips away errors and builds up truth.

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Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn has been covering craft beer and the arts for NUVO for two decades. She’s the author of True Brew: A Guide to Craft Beer in Indiana.

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