THE QUEST FOR ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S BRITISH KIN
In 1637, Samuel Lincoln, an apprentice weaver in Norwich, left the obscure Norfolk village of Hingham to brave a voyage across the Atlantic. He had no idea he would survive to raise a family in the new colonies of America, let alone that his great great great grandson Abraham would become one of the greatest figures in American history.
In spring 2013, to help celebrate the British launch of Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, Illinois Office of Tourism hired me to find British relatives of America’s most famous president.
The call, put out through major genealogy websites including Genes Reunited and Find My Past, blogs, genealogy magazines and the Eastern Daily Press, produced a huge response. I had suspected there would be a lot of Lincoln relatives out there but was still delighted with the huge number of responses I received.
Although several members of the Lincoln family went to America, the majority remained behind in Hingham and its neighbouring villages. They proliferated down the centuries and numerous people in East Anglia and beyond – one response came from Aveimore, Scotland – either bear the Lincoln surname, or have ancestors who did.
Because Abraham Lincoln became so famous, most people with Lincolns in their family trees have a story that they are related to him and he has been an influence in many lives.
Billy Lincoln, a British staff officer in the Second World War was nicknamed ‘Abe’ by the American General Eisenhower.
One man who has Lincoln blood told me that he took great pride in having a heart defect because Abraham Lincoln had had one too.
Another man wrote ‘Abraham Lincoln has been my hero since I was 6 years old. I am now close to 81’.
Several people remembered their deceased relative John Lincoln, a former rag-and-bone man from Norwich, who was invited to witness the American Ambassador unveiling of a bust of Abraham Lincoln at Hingham, Norfolk in 1919 – though one version of the story, interestingly garbled, maintained that John had been taken all the way to see the unveiling!
Several people claimed connections to Abraham Lincoln through his mother, Nancy Hanks. The most distant connection was that of a member of Genes Reunited, who claimed descent from Richard de Clifford in the 12th century, whose brother Walter was an ancestor of Abraham Lincoln’s Hanks ancestors.
The most intriguingly indirect link was that of a lady who said that ‘Abraham Lincoln is the grand nephew of the wife of the grand uncle of the husband of my 2nd cousin 3 x removed!’
Unfortunately, several people had inherited or been given family trees which were incorrect, the work of lazy genealogists who had traced back so far, and then simply grafted the earliest Lincoln in their tree onto the pedigree of the Lincolns of Hingham.
In fact nobody presented a Lincoln connection that was 100% certain. There is a very good reason for this. Abraham’s migrant ancestor Samuel lived in the early seventeenth century as part of a normal, small agricultural community. They were not particularly well-off and of course nobody at the time had the slightest idea they would one day become famous. Therefore, the connections rely almost exclusively on Norfolk parish registers which are not very detailed in the information they give. Connections made through such records are seldom going to be 100% proven, but in some cases one can say that links are highly likely indeed.
Of these the winner was Robert Gilchrist of Sydenham, London, who heard about the search in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine’s weekly news e-mail. Robert had traced back up his mother’s line to Samuel Gilman who was baptised in Hingham in 1644. Samuel’s father Robert Gilman was almost certainly the son of an earlier Robert Gilman who lived in Hingham and who was the younger brother of Edward Gilman. The names, dates and place all fit perfectly. Edward’s daughter Bridget was the mother of Abraham Lincoln’s migrant ancestor Samuel Lincoln. Bridget was Abraham’s 5 x great grandmother, making Robert Gilchrist an eighth cousin three times removed of Abraham Lincoln.
‘It was incredible to discover that I am a relative of Abraham Lincoln’, said Mr Gilchrist. ‘I have always had an interest in history and been an admirer of Lincoln, who I think was one of America’s most iconic presidents. He was such a great guy and a really influential figure in American history, highlighted by his abolishment of slavery’.
Robert will be flown to Illinois, the home state of Abraham Lincoln to see its many Lincoln attractions including the house Lincoln shared with Mary Todd, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the Springfield cemetery where Lincoln is buried.