Death, sickness played major role in pioneer lifeOctober 9, 2018
By LEANN BURKE
LINCOLN CITY — Sandpaper scraping the panels of a plain wooden coffin and the sound of an approaching horse-drawn cart broke the silence as over 100 visitors observed a recreation of Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s funeral Saturday at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial.
Nancy Hanks was the mother of former President Abraham Lincoln, who grew up in Spencer County before becoming the president who oversaw the Civil War. Saturday’s reenactment marked the 200th anniversary of Hanks’ death. She died of milk sickness in the Lincolns’ log cabin and is buried atop a hill visible from the memorial’s visitor center.
Milk sickness passed to humans through the milk of cows that ate white snakeroot, a native plant that is poisonous. If milk-producing cows ate the plant, the poison would pass into the milk without the cows showing any sickness. According to Lincoln Boyhood’s Chief of Interpretation and Resource Management Mike Capps, people drank the milk untreated, so the poison was consumed along with the milk. Two weeks after showing symptoms, people with milk sickness died. During pioneer times, the disease wiped out entire families and communities.
“Milk sickness was feared only second to cholera,” Capps said during a presentation prior to the reenactment.
The presentation, called “Death in a One-Room Cabin,” focused on the hazards pioneers faced as they made their homes in the forests of Indiana in the 1800s. Death and sickness, Capps said, played a major role in pioneer life.
“It’s a part of the story that we don’t talk about very often, but it’s a very important part of the story,” Capps said.
At that time, Indiana was covered with large trees that had to be felled to make way for pioneers’ homesteads. Ax injuries were common, as well as injuries from falling trees. At the time, even a minor injury could become infected and end in death, Capps said.
In addition to the injuries, pioneers faced a long list of diseases — cholera, malaria, typhoid fever and milk sickness, to name a few — threatened to wipe out large portions of the population. In 1821, Capps said, 900 of the 1,000 people living in Indianapolis were ill, and one-eighth of the sick died.
Medicine at the time was primitive, and the treatments were dangerous, often involving bloodletting via leeches or purging, which involved doctors inducing vomiting. Doctors were also few and far between, so neighbors ended up caring for sick people in their communities. Caring for sick neighbors is likely what led to Hanks’ death, Capps said.
Mr. and Mrs. Sparrow, who also lived in Pigeon Creek and were Hanks’ relatives, were the first to be infected with milk sickness during the outbreak that killed Hanks. Hanks and another lady in the community went to care for them, Capps said, and likely unknowingly drank the same infected milk that had infected the Sparrows.
From there, it was only a matter of time before the women died. Milk sickness has no cure.
“She knew she was going to die,” Capps read from a letter by Dennis Hanks, a relative who watched Hanks progress through the disease. “And called the children to her dying side and told them to be good and kind to their father, to one another, and to the world.”
The Lincolns were part of the Pigeon Creek community that was located on the grounds Saturday’s reenactment was held. The event gave visitors a chance to feel like they were attending Hanks’ funeral 200 years ago.
Women dressed in period clothing and worked in and around the log cabin, while men, also dressed in period clothing, constructed the coffin, creating the scene that greeted the visitors as they walked up the hill leading from the parking lot to the log cabin that sits on land that was part of the farm Abraham Lincoln’s father, Thomas, owned.
Capps asked the visitors to be quiet and respectful as they passed through the log cabin as if paying their last respects to Hanks. Outside the cabin, they watched as a horse-drawn cart made its way to sit next to the cabin, and the men carried the empty coffin inside. The doors closed and the pounding of a hammer on wooden nails echoed through the area as the coffin lid closed. The reenactors then carried the coffin out of the cabin, slid it onto the cart and, with heads bowed, followed the cart down the trail away from the cabin.
The period after Hanks’ death was filled with uncertainty for young Abraham Lincoln and his family, Capps said. Eventually, Thomas remarried Sarah Bush, who had a strong relationship with Abraham, just as Hanks had. The two were so close that when, years later, Lincoln penned the words “All that I am, or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother,” people were unsure if he referred to Hanks or Bush.
Today, scholars believe those words were written about Hanks, heralding back to what are known as Lincoln’s “formative years” in Spencer County.
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