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Nancy Hanks Lincoln

Nancy Hanks Lincoln Grave

On October 5, 1818, Nancy Hanks Lincoln died of milk sickness. This mysterious and dreaded illness was feared by the pioneers because its cause was unknown. Mrs. Lincoln had nursed and comforted some of her neighbors with the disease until she became too ill and eventually died.

Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby, called Dr. Anna on the frontier, is credited today with identifying white snakeroot as the cause of the illness, but she was said to have been told about the plant’s properties by a Shawnee woman she befriended. United States medical science did not officially identify the cause of milk sickness as the tremetol of the white snakeroot plant until 1928, when advances in biochemistry enabled the analysis of the plant’s toxin.

The pioneers often grazed their cattle in frontier areas where white snakeroot grows. They were unfamiliar with the plant and its properties as it is not found on the East Coast. The high rate of fatalities from milk sickness made people fear it like the infectious diseases of cholera and yellow fever. Cattle will not graze on the plant unless other forage is not available; but, when pastures were scarce or in times of drought, the cattle would graze in woods, the habitat of white snakeroot. Nursing calves and lambs may have died from their mothers’ milk contaminated with snakeroot, although the adult cows and sheep showed no signs of poisoning. Cattle, horses, and sheep are the animals most often poisoned.

The “Pioneer Cemetery” at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial contains Mrs. Lincoln’s gravesite as well as other marked and unmarked graves of area residents from the 19th and early 20th centuries. For many years after the Lincolns left Indiana, Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s grave was unmarked. In 1879, this permanent marker was erected to honor the mother of our 16th president.

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7 responses

  1. I find it amazing that as short a time ago as 1928, this was figured out. Do you realize how far we have come since then? But then sometimes, I think we haven’t come nearly as far as we should have.

    Very well-written piece. And I love the picture. I love going down there and just sitting at the cemetery and thinking about what life was like for them. xxoo

    November 22, 2011 at 7:18 AM

  2. Magpie

    It is fascinating how much we know, but then how little it really is. Very interesting. You should do travel logs and documentaries and stuff…wait I think you already do. 🙂

    November 22, 2011 at 8:35 AM

  3. goodness…it is hard for me to wrap my head around just a few years back and how far we have come but then again there are still diseases and such that we have no clue on ….this was a cool glimpse a bit further into your visit..

    November 22, 2011 at 1:24 PM

  4. What an interesting story. We have something called milkweed around here but I don’t think it’s deadly.

    November 22, 2011 at 2:28 PM

  5. What an interesting post! I love it when I learn something new.

    November 22, 2011 at 3:43 PM

  6. This is all very interesting, Tracy! I never knew Lincoln’s mother died at 35 of milk sickness from cows that grazed on snakeroot in the woods. Amazing that her grave was unmarked for all those years. The current marker is lovely.

    November 22, 2011 at 4:34 PM

  7. Interesting post. Nice photo too.

    November 22, 2011 at 9:40 PM