Sunday, January 24, 2016

Revisiting the Lincoln-Calhoun debate

Judge Felix Alley's 1941 book tried to show the underlying resemblance between Lincoln and Calhoun.
 The last time The Stoneman Gazette delved into Abraham Lincoln's parentage, the Yankees were in Lincoln County, N.C., where it was widely rumored that that the president had been born in the hills nearby.
 Now that DNA tests have traced the lineage of Lincoln's mother, let's explore another possible root of Lincoln's family tree. This one involves John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina statesman who was known as the "Father of Secession."
 Could Calhoun have also been the father of the president who defeated secession?
 Indeed, it appears likely that Calhoun had a fling with a young lady named Nancy Hanks. She lived in Anderson County, S.C., and may have been a distant relative of mine.
 After further review, however, I would say it is unlikely that she was the same Nancy Hanks who married Thomas Lincoln and gave birth to Abe, not necessarily in that order.
 Unlikely—but not impossible.
Lloyd Ostendorf's 1963 portrait
 of the enigmatic Nancy Hanks Lincoln
 Nancy Hanks was a common name. After Lincoln disclosed his mother's name in his 1860 campaign biography, more than a dozen Nancy Hanks were mentioned as the possible mother of the president. Hanks families here and there were suddenly reminded of young Nancies who had moved west over a half-century earlier. "Do you think Lincoln's mother could have been OUR long-lost Nancy?" You can see how rumors got started.
 Similarly, Calhoun is just one of a dozen men who have been investigated as Lincoln's possible father. You can read about them in The Many-Sired Lincoln, a 1925 story in The American Mercury magazine by a University of North Carolina professor named J.G. de Roulhac Hamilton.
 Regarding Calhoun, Hamilton reported:
     At Craytonville, Anderson County, South Carolina, was a stage-road tavern kept by one Christopher Orr. In Orr’s employ was a girl from the neighborhood, named Nancy Hanks, who was possessed of unusual beauty. At Abbeville lived Calhoun, a young, unmarried lawyer who made frequent trips to Pendleton by way of Craytonville. When he reached Orr’s tavern he nearly always developed a sick headache of such severity as to compel his stopping. Presently it was discovered that Nancy, free of favors, of course, was the cause of his visits and that presumably he was responsible for the condition which led to her discharge, and to her rejection by her own people. Calhoun then bought a horse and saddle and sent her off with some horse-drovers to Kentucky, where she had an uncle. Two months later her child was born and named for her uncle, Abraham Hanks. Six months later, the ever-obliging Thomas Lincoln married her. A variant of this is that Thomas Lincoln came to South Carolina with the horse-traders and for a consideration agreed to take Nancy off Calhoun’s hands. A frill on the story is that Calhoun once left Washington on horseback, bound for Kentucky, ostensibly to visit Henry Clay, but really to see his son Abraham. The rumor does not indicate whether he admired him or not.
       There was undoubtedly a Nancy Hanks at Craytonville, but she never married Thomas Lincoln nor gave birth to Abraham Lincoln. She did marry and was living long after the death of Nancy Hanks Lincoln [in 1818]. Whether or not the story of her relations with Calhoun is true is a matter of no importance so far as Abraham Lincoln is concerned.
 The Calhoun-Hanks relationship is no secret to historians. Margaret Coit detailed it in her 1950 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, John C. Calhoun, American Portrait. (Flip to pages 49-52.) She wrote that Hanks "may even have been related to the Kentucky girl who became the mother of Abraham Lincoln."
 Coit does not mention a pregnancy but says that Calhoun had lifelong regrets about the relationship, even suggesting that it may have haunted him in his own presidential aspirations.
 The key to the story, of course, is whether the Nancy Hanks from Craytonville was the same woman who gave birth to Lincoln. Some members of the Hanks and Calhoun families believed she was.
 However, the recent DNA tests have traced Nancy Hanks' bloodline to ancestors in Virginia, rather than South Carolina. She was the daughter of Lucy Hanks and the granddaughter of Ann and Joseph Hanks, a Virginia farmer. Lucy was 17 and unmarried when she gave birth to Nancy Hanks in 1784 in Virginia. A month later, Lucy’s father Joseph moved the entire family to Kentucky.
 Lincoln cited his mother's Virginia roots in biographical information he wrote in 1859 and 1860. Abe idolized his mother, who died in 1818 when he was just nine, though he hinted to his law partner and biographer that he might have been born out of wedlock.
 Calhoun’s Nancy evidently came from a different branch of the Hanks family that settled on the South Carolina frontier near the Anderson-Abbeville county line.
She was said to be the daughter of Luke and Ann Hanks, and many of her kin (and mine) are buried at the Ebenezer Methodist Church in lower Anderson County. Luke Hanks evidently was from Virginia, so it is possible that Calhoun's flame and Lincoln's mom were cousins.

 Hamilton concluded that Craytonville's Nancy Hanks moved to Huntsville, Ala., married a man named Richard South, and lived into the 1830s. If this is true, it would rule her out as Lincoln's mother, who died in 1818. However, I think this is incorrect. What I have found online indicates that Huntsville's Nancy Hanks South was born in 1768, while Craytonville's Nancy Hanks was born 19 years later in 1787. Lincoln said his mother was born in 1784.
 John C. Calhoun was born in 1782 and would have been a 26-year-old bachelor in 1808 when Lincoln was conceived. In 1811 he married one of his cousins, Floride Bonneau Colhoun, and they had 10 children. Their fourth child, Anna Maria Calhoun (1817-1875), married Thomas Green Clemson (1807-1888). After he outlived his family, old Tom Clemson specified in his will that Calhoun's Fort Hill plantation would become the Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina. To this day, Mr. Clemson's will guides the selection of the university trustees.

This marker was erected in 2019 by the Belton Area Museum Association

Craytonville: A crossroads for Stoneman's Raid
 The Craytonville crossroads also had what-if implications for Stoneman's Raid. A battalion of the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry commanded by Medal of Honor winner Lt. Col. Charles Betts rode through Craytonville on May 2, 1865, on their way from Laurens to Anderson in search of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Some of them were involved in a brief skirmish with rebels.
 If the westbound Yankees had turned south at Craytonville, they could have captured Davis 20 miles away in Abbeville. That same day, Davis was at the home of Armistead Burt, where he presided over the last cabinet meeting of the Confederacy. Davis eluded capture for eight more days.
 By the way, Jefferson Davis' father, Samuel Davis, was also among those implicated in The Many-Sired Lincoln. If that had been true, the rival Civil War presidents would have been half-brothers. 

The paternity case for John C. Calhoun

 Would you think more highly of John C. Calhoun if you knew he was Lincoln's daddy? It's an interesting premise that some of Calhoun's apologists tried to advance in the context of the "Lost Cause" following the Civil War.
 Among them was Armistead Burt (1802-1883), a five-term U.S. Congressman who was Davis' host at Abbeville. Burt had married Calhoun's favorite niece, Martha, so he knew the family secrets. According to some accounts, he confided with friends that he believed President Lincoln was the son of Calhoun and the Craytonville barmaid, Nancy Hanks.
 Judge Felix Alley of Waynesville, N.C., attempted to legally prove that Calhoun was Lincoln's father in his 1941 book, Random Thoughts and the Musings of a Mountaineer. (Flip to page 371). He made an interesting point when he said the Nancy Hanks of Craytonville was the niece (rather than the daughter) of the South Carolinians, Luke and Ann Hanks. If that was the case, it's possible that the Nancy Hanks in Craytonville was from the Virginia family identified by DNA tests. On the other hand, Alley thought Nancy's mother Lucy was actually a Shipley, and this was disproven by DNA.
 Judge Alley's research appears to be well-documented, but TIME magazine scoffed at his conclusions:
Last week a judge of North Carolina's Superior Court handed down his considered opinion that Abraham Lincoln was the illegitimate son of South Carolina's fire-breathing State's-righter John C. Calhoun. Since the day Lincoln was nominated for the Presidency, amateur historians of North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains have tried to prove that he was illegitimate. The Calhoun theory was not new. When it was first advanced, in 1911, it was soon shown that the Nancy Hanks in the case eventually became a respectable Mrs. South.
 The Great Smoky Mountains Colloquy published "The Curious Paternity of Abraham Lincoln" in 2008, referencing several publications that traced Lincoln's roots to the Oconoluftee Valley near Cherokee, N.C.
 If you dare to Google, you can find even more. Here is a link to one account that appears to have been written in the 1960s. It is probably based on a series of newspaper articles by D.M. Knotts published in Columbia, S.C., in 1911, which in turn may have been based on 1893 stories in the Charlotte Observer. It is fascinating to read, but it is unsigned and includes several glaring historical errors, so I can't vouch for any of the testimonies or details. In particular, it refers to Abbeville courthouse records where Calhoun agreed to pay Hanks $100 per year to support an illegitimate son born February 12, 1809 (Lincoln's birthday). What's more, the legal witnesses included none other than Thomas Lincoln.
 Such a document would be a blockbuster, but as far as I know it does not exist. Many of Abbeville's historic court records were destroyed in a fire in 1872. 

I have overlaid red arrows on this 1845 map to show Calhoun's 50-mile route from Abbeville to Pendleton via Craytonville (labeled as Creytonville). Northwest of Pendleton, "J.C. Calhoun" marks the site of Fort Hill, which was Calhoun's plantation and is now the campus of Clemson University.
Blue arrows show the route of Stoneman's 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry. On May 2, 1865, they passed through Craytonville en route from Laurens (labeled as Laurensville) to Anderson. They missed a chance to capture Jefferson Davis, who was fleeing via Abbeville (yellow arrows).

To see the entire map, click here. It was drawn before the creation of Oconee County in 1868, Saluda in 1896, Greenwood and Cherokee in 1897, and McCormick in 1916.


  1. John Calhoun was in Abbeville during the time Lincoln was conceived. Not necessarily proof, but interesting to note,

  2. Thank you for your comment.
    The Calhoun connection has always seemed far-fetched to me, but the possibility is too intriguing and entrenched to let go.
    As for assumptions about Lincoln's conception, that depends on whether we can trust 2/12/1809 as his birthdate.

  3. Why don't they just do DNA testing on a Calhoun descendant and a Lincoln descendant. Seems like that would settle the matter once and for all. As for physical appearance, Lincoln and Calhoun share some similar facial features. However, it doesn't really matter. Whether he was a Lincoln or a Calhoun, the man was the best president we ever had.

    1. There are no descendants to do DNA testing on.

  4. Lincoln probably has no living descendants. However:


  5. I am a member of the South Carolina Hanks family..The "portrait" of Nancy Hanks could be of my daughter, Judith Bradford.. The resemblances between Lincoln and my Hanks uncles is very marked.

  6. The portrait I included above was painted in 1963 (145 years after Nancy Hanks died), and as far as I know it is not based on any historical image. She is portrayed with long fingers which might be a symptom of Marfans syndrome.