Harriet Hanks, Lincoln’s Cousin-Niece

It’s a complicated family line.

The Lincoln-Hanks Kinship

Abraham Lincoln, as everyone knows, was the son of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks.

A photograph of Thomas Lincoln, coupled with an “imagined” picture of Nancy Hanks Lincoln.

Nancy Hanks, Abe’s mother, had an aunt, also named Nancy Hanks, who had an illegitimate son named Dennis, born in 1799, about seven years before Tom Lincoln and Nancy Hanks married. At an early age, Dennis (whose mother presumably died) went to live with Elizabeth and Thomas Sparrow, aunt and uncle to the Aunt Nancy Hanks. His great-aunt and -uncle.

When Abe was around six, the Lincolns decided to move to Indiana. The Sparrows joined them, and took Dennis. Within three years, Nancy Hanks Lincoln died. So did Elizabeth and Thomas Sparrow. Dennis Hanks moved in with Tom Lincoln and his two young children, Abe, now nine, and Sarah, two years older.

The only known photograph of Sarah Bush Lincoln, taken in her elder years.

Realizing his children’s need for a mother, Tom Lincoln went to Kentucky to look up an old childhood friend who he had learned was a recent widow. Some months later, he returned with his new wife: Sarah Bush Johnston, and three children of her own, fairly close in age to the Lincolns. The eldest was a daughter Sarah Elizabeth, who they decided to call Betsey, since three Sarahs in the small cabin was overkill.

A newspaper photo of Betsey Johnston Hanks and Dennis Hanks.

Adding to the already convoluted family-line, Betsey Johnston, Abraham Lincoln’s step-sister, married Dennis Hanks, his (perhaps) second cousin once (or twice) removed. When the Lincoln family later moved to Illinois, Dennis and Betsey Hanks went with them, finally settling in Coles county. By this time, Abraham Lincoln was twenty-one, beginning his own life.

Harriet Hanks, Godsend. Maybe

Abraham Lincoln did not marry until he was nearly thirty-three, and his financial readiness for matrimony was precarious. As a struggling attorney, he “rode the circuit” from courthouse to courthouse, drumming up business when the courts were in session.

The Lincolns had only been married a year. Robert was a baby, and their house required furnishing and home-making. He was understandably concerned about his wife, the former Kentucky belle Mary Todd. She was left alone for weeks at a time. Thus, when a letter came from Harriet Hanks (1828-1915), Dennis’ seventeen year old daughter, he viewed it as the answer to his predicament.

Harriet wanted to improve her education. Lincoln offered to pay her tuition at the Springfield Female Seminary, plus her room and board. She in turn, would help Mary with housekeeping and baby-care. His tacit underlying thought was likely that she might be company – or at least another person in the house for Mrs. Lincoln. Arrangements were made.

Mary and Harriet, Oil and Water

A composite photo of the Lincolns; they were never photographed together.

Mary Todd Lincoln was indeed a Kentucky belle, born to a well-to-do Lexington family of stature. When her oldest sister Elizabeth married Springfield attorney Ninian Edwards, Jr., the son of Illinois’ first Governor, three Todd sisters were urged to live with them, to marry prominently, and form the core of Springfield’s upper crust society. They did.

Mary had been accustomed to slave-servants in the Todd House, all of whom “knew their place,” and how to manage their respective duties. The well-to-do Edwards’ of Springfield had no slaves, but immigrant or local hired girls were engaged to perform household tasks for room, board and a dollar a week.

William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner. He never liked Mrs. Lincoln.

Harriet Hanks was a poor girl, with little pretensions of elegance. Nevertheless, she considered herself Lincoln’s “family,” and expected to be treated as such. This did not set well with Mrs. Lincoln, who saw Harriet more as “hired help” than quasi-kin, and treated her as such. In short, Mary was not thrilled to be related to the girl, no matter how quasi that in-law-ship was. According to Lincoln’s law partner and later biographer William Herndon, Mary Lincoln held the Hanks’ in complete contempt.

Nevertheless, while Harriet fared well enough at the Springfield Female Academy, her relationship with “Cousin-Aunt” Mary was tenuous at best. Mary was a not only a snob, she was a scold, and never satisfied with Harriet, or indeed, any of her household help. Ever.

According to Daniel Mark Epstein in The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, Harriet expected to eat at the family table and sit with them in the parlor. In addition, if guests came to call, Harriet, as kin, expected to be included in conversation. This grated on the aristocratic Mrs. L.

Lincoln, as was his nature, was oblivious to the social-nuances of parlor society – at least in those early years. The story goes that he was home one evening when a neighbor came to call on Mrs. Lincoln. He answered the door himself – in his shirtsleeves! – already anathema to his wife, and asked the lady to have a seat while he “trotted out his women-folk.”

Harriet managed to last a year before she returned home.

Harriet Hanks Chapman

Harriet Hanks Chapman lived a long life. Nearly ninety!

Within a few years of her stay with the Lincolns, Harriet married Augustus Chapman, a dentist in Charleston, Illinois. This was a huge social step upwards for her, and she seems to have managed it well.

After Lincoln’s death, his former law partner William Herndon began organizing interviews with various people who knew Lincoln at various times of his life.  This was eventually compiled into a book co-authored by Jesse W. Weik. Harriet Hanks Chapman was pleased to discuss the late President, who she recalled with affection, but as for Mrs. Lincoln, “I would rather say nothing about his wife, as I could say nothing in her favor.”


Baker, Jean- Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography – W. W. Norton & Company, 1989

Berry, Stephen – House of Abraham: Lincoln & The Todds, A Family Divided by War – Houghton Mifflin, 2007

Epstein, Daniel Mark – The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage – Ballantine Books, 2009

Herndon, William H. and Weik, Jesse W. – Herndon’s Life of Lincoln – DeCapo Press, 1983




About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
This entry was posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Abraham Lincoln, Nifty History People and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Harriet Hanks, Lincoln’s Cousin-Niece

  1. energywriter says:

    Interesting story, though a bit hard to follow. But, aren’t most families like that? I wonder what attracted Lincoln to Mary. She was always such a snob.

  2. sheafferhistorian says:

    Reblogged this on Practically Historical.

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