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The Curious Case of Lincoln’s Paternity

Anyone who has attended American grade school knows that Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, was born in a single-room log cabin in Kentucky on February 12, 1809 to Nancy and Thomas Lincoln. Or was he?

It may come as a shock to most of us, but there’s been a debate, of sorts, over Abraham Lincoln’s paternity and place of birth. The speculation and rumors go back, publicly at least, as far as 1899 — less than 35 years after Lincoln’s assassination. In his book, Genesis of Lincoln, author James H Cathey endeavored to put to pen and paper what had been swirling around as gossip years before Lincoln became a household name

The story goes that Nancy Hanks, Lincoln’s mother, was a servant in the home of one Abraham Enloe (yes, his name was Abraham too) just outside of Bryson City in what is now Swain County, North Carolina. Hanks became pregnant with Enloe’s child. Once the misses found out, all hell broke loose and the Enloes sent Hanks packing. As some who recall the controversy tell it, the Enloe’s hired a man, Thomas Lincoln, to marry Hanks and take her away to Kentucky to give birth to her son. Others contend that Hanks stayed in Western North Carolina for some time after the birth of her child, whom she interestingly named Abraham.

The Evidence

While gathering information for his book, Cathey interviewed numerous people who were alive during the Enloe-Hanks affair. One of the most important interviews conducted by Cathey was that of Wesley Enloe, the 9th and only surviving son of Abraham Enloe in 1899.

Though born after the alleged affair between his father and Hanks, Wesley had ” no doubt that the cause of my father’s sending her (Hanks) to Kentucky is the one generally alleged.” Wesley contended that while his father was always silent on the Hanks controversy, her name was oft mentioned within the Enloe household well after Hanks departed the homestead.

The most fascinating aspect of Wesley’s interview, however, isn’t what he said. Casey, immediately amazed with Wesley’s physical appearance upon their meeting, was wise enough to take a photograph of the surviving Enloe before leaving.

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Wesley Enloe, Julia Enloe (Wesley’s daughter), and Abraham Lincoln
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Left: Wesley Enloe — son of Abraham Enloe. Righ: Abraham Lincoln

The picture, when compared to the instantly recognizable image of Abraham Lincoln, is stunning. Not only are there comparable facial features, but the resemblance in frame and build is uncanny. Consequently, it appears to be an open and shut case, right? Not so fast.

The Facts

While the Enloe-Hanks theory may seem compelling, the story has an abundance of problems. First, there is an issue with the dates. For the Enloe paternity story to work, President Lincoln would have been two years old when Hanks and Thomas Lincoln wed, as copies of their marriage license still exist. This doesn’t fit the Enloe paternity theory very well.

Second, the evidence is abundant via tax records, mortgages, and records of debt that Thomas Lincoln was well established in Kentucky before and during the time that Abraham Enloe supposedly paid him in North Carolina to marry Hanks. At best, this means that Enloe journeyed to Kentucky, hired Lincoln, brought him back to North Carolina, and then sent Lincoln and Hanks to Kentucky — an unlikely arrangement.

Third, Lincoln had an older sister by the name of Sarah, born in 1807. If the Enloe story is true, then Sarah was born in North Carolina and was likely Enloe’s daughter as well. This, however, defies logic. Why would the Enloes endure Sarah’s birth only to rid themselves of Hanks two years later after she became pregnant with/gave birth to Abraham?

At any rate, the Enloe theory forces us to accept that the Lincoln family passed-off Abraham as the younger sibling when he was actually the eldest. It also forces us to accept the idea that Lincoln, throughout his entire life, was actually 5 years older than he was. While such a feat is plausible during young adulthood, it would have been a tall task during his adolescence and later adult life.

Finally, there appears to have been 16 Nancy Hanks that fit within the timeframe of the Enloe theory that lived in or around Virginia and North Carolina. Interestingly enough, the Nancy Hanks that gave birth to Lincoln had an aunt by the name of, you guessed it, Nancy Hanks.

Hanks family tradition holds that the elder Nancy Hanks did give birth to an illegitimate child. It is quite possible that people conflated the backgrounds of these two related Nancy Hanks. It is also entirely possible that Abraham Enloe did father an illegitimate child with a Nancy Hanks, but not the one of Lincoln fame.

A Sense of Belonging

In the end, the Enloe-Lincoln paternity theory is certainly fascinating and intriguing. For many of the descendants of Abraham Enloe’s clan, the theory is gospel truth. For most historians and academics, it’s patently false. At any rate, such stories are examples of how oral traditions and legends shape our culture.

They reveal how so many of us strive to link our identities to something greater than ourselves — how each of us, in our own way, longs to belong to the unfolding human saga known as history. Whether through legitimate questions of the historical record or by questionable myth and folklore, the innate human desire to feel connected, important, and memorable will always find a way to express itself.

If you’re ever in Western North Carolina and would like to learn more about this fascinating tale, stop by the Bostic Lincoln Center in Rutherford County. The center is dedicated to preserving the lore surrounding the Enloe-Hanks connection to President Lincoln.

Cathey, James H. The Genesis of Lincoln. Toccoa, GA: The Confederate Reprint Company, 2015.

Published inAmerican HistoryNC History

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