Nancy Hanks Lincoln
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.