The Lincoln Family Line: A Tragic Legacy

When Abraham Lincoln was elected, many thought of him as a man who managed to rise to the highest position in our nation despite being born the son of a lowly farmer. In reality, he came from a long line of American-born men who became landowners in places including modern day Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky.

GIF made with the NYPL Labs Stereogranimator - view more at
GIF of the house where Lincoln was born. Made with the NY Public Library Labs Stereogranimator.

Lincoln’s great-great-great grandfather came to Massachusetts from England in 1637 and went into farming initially, but became a businessman and active member of the church. Over the generations his ancestors moved south, eventually settling themselves in Kentucky. His grandfather, Abraham, was a captain during the American Revolution but ironically was killed by a Native American while farming with his sons. He would be the first of the “Abraham Lincolns” to die a tragic death.

President Lincoln’s life was filled with death like so many who lived on the frontiers at this time. His little brother, Thomas Jr., died days after birth in 1812. Abraham Lincoln’s mother died in 1818, when Abraham was just nine years old. Then, in 1828, his sister Sarah died in childbirth, along with her stillborn baby. Lincoln also mourned the woman he had intended to marry, Ann Rutledge, when she died in 1835.

After Lincoln’s marriage to Mary Todd in 1842, the couple settled down to start their own family. They would have four sons.

Lincoln Family by Andrew O'Connor. Library of Congress image.

The first, Robert, was born in 1843 and would live a long and prestigious life. Robert became a lawyer and had a political career, at the height of which he was appointed Secretary of War under President James Garfield. Tragically, Robert’s long life was marred by encounters with America’s calamitous history. After being present at the Petersen House when his father died, he was then witness to the assassinations of Presidents Garfield (on July 2, 1881) and William McKinley (on September 14, 1901).

The Lincolns’ second son, Edward, was born in 1846 and died in 1850 of what is believed to be tuberculosis.

Willie Lincoln (center) and his younger brother Tad (right), posed with their mother's nephew, Lockwood Todd, in Mathew Brady's studio in Washington, D.C. Library of Congress Image: LC-DIG-ppmsca-19235.

Their third son, William (nicknamed “Willie”), was born less than a year after Edward’s death and died at age 11 while the Lincolns resided in the White House. A favorite of Mary and Abraham, Willie’s death was a harsh blow to the family. His body would eventually be exhumed and accompany his father’s to be buried in Springfield, Illinois.

The Lincolns’ youngest son, Thomas (also known as “Tad”), was born in 1853. Tad would outlive his father by only six years. He died at the age of 18.

The Lincolns’ only son to marry and have children was Robert. Robert Lincoln married Mary Eunice Harlan in 1868 and had three children: Mary, Abraham and Jessie. Abraham died of blood poisoning at the age of 16. He was the final Lincoln to own the name Abraham.

Robert’s girls each lived well into the 1900s. His daughter Mary had one son, Lincoln Isham, who ultimately did not have children. Robert’s daughter Jessie had two children: a daughter, Mary, and son, Robert. Mary never wed; she died in 1975. Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith married three times but had no children.

During the time Robert Beckwith was divorcing his second wife, she became pregnant and claimed the child to be his. Robert protested the paternity of the child on the grounds that he had undergone a vasectomy years earlier, and the courts ordered a blood test be performed. When the mother failed to comply, the court ruled that the child was not Robert Beckwith’s. In 1985, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, the great grandson of Abraham Lincoln, died with no heir to carry on the family name. With his death, an American family that had lived and worked in this country for more than nine generations came to an end.

Connie Golding earned a bachelor’s degree in History with a minor in Fine Arts from The George Washington University. She is former Groups Sales Manager at Ford’s Theatre.