Lincoln's relatives slept here
For kin of the 16th president, it all goes back to the South Shore
Although Abraham Lincoln set foot in Massachusetts only twice, his genealogical boot prints tread back nearly four centuries to the coasts and woodlands of the South Shore.
Today, his descendants walk with quiet pride, knowing a part of his DNA mixes with theirs.
"It's just something we were born with, but he was such a great man and great president, you can't help but be proud to be connected in a small way," said Cohasset resident Rebecca Bates McArthur.
Families like the Bateses, Wilders, Smiths, Gilmans, Reveres, and Cushings - armed with marriage, birth, and baptismal records dating to the 1600s - claim kinship by marriage, if not by blood, with one of the most beloved and genealogically researched presidents in American history.
"Abraham Lincoln has been what you might describe as a target kinsman," said D. Brenton Simons, president of New England Historic Genealogical Society.
"Given the anniversary of Lincoln's birthday there has been an increased number of people seeking a connection to him," Simons said. "He is, and has been, in the forefront of family searches."
Being a Lincoln relative in 2009 takes on special meaning since the nation is poised for a nearly yearlong birthday party in honor of the Great Emancipator that goes into high gear today, the anniversary of his 200th birthday.
In this area, Hingham has been throwing Lincoln parties for more than 30 years and celebrated the 2009 version last Saturday. Its annual revelries also celebrate a lesser-known Lincoln, Benjamin, a cousin of the 16th president and a hero of the American Revolution.
But 2009 is the year of Abraham Lincoln, and all paths eventually lead back to the South Shore, Hingham in particular.
Hingham Historical Society President Alexander Macmillan said the society, town offices, and other history-related organizations are pilgrimage sites for people seeking information about their ties to the former president.
"Almost all the Lincolns in this country, or at least a majority anyway, can trace their roots back to Hingham. It all starts here," Macmillan said.
One of those seeking a path to the past was Abraham Lincoln himself, who sought information on his ancestors in a letter to Solomon Lincoln, a distant cousin and Hingham historian who co-wrote the town's first history in 1827.
The first step on the westward trail for the Lincoln family began in England, with 15-year-old Samuel Lincoln, who sailed west to the New World and disembarked at Hingham Harbor in 1637.
He and two brothers left Swanton Morley, a village near Hingham, England, after their grandfather, a distinguished church warden, disinherited their father.
At the time Samuel arrived in the Colonies, the seven-year-old port of Boston and the two-year-old village of Hingham were dots of civilization in a wild frontier besieged by Indians, disease, intemperate weather, and the hard work involved with survival in a New World - cutting timber, building houses, hunting for meat and furs, building churches, raising crops, constructing mills, and catching fish.
Hingham historian John Richardson owns what is believed to be the largest collection of Colonial memorabilia and artifacts from the town. Among his possessions is a pewter charger, or platter, once used by Samuel Lincoln.
"Many of the early settlers took very few possessions with them. This sailed with him from Hingham, England, and it's, I think, the only known remaining artifact from Samuel Lincoln," Richardson said, tilting the platter to show lines probably etched into the pewter by knives cutting through food.
Samuel, a weaver and mariner, had a hand in the formation of Old Ship Church in 1681. He and his wife, Martha Lyford, had 11 children and launched a politically successful family line that includes Massachusetts governors Levi Lincoln and his son Levi Jr., and a Maine governor, Eunoch Lincoln.
One of Samuel's children, Mordecai, became a successful blacksmith and, starting in 1703, built an iron forge, a grist mill, and a saw mill.
The mills were built in Cohasset and Scituate, towns that originally were a part of the Hingham settlement. The mill built on Bound Brook, which straddles the Cohasset-Scituate border, still stands on Mordecai Lincoln Road.
Another of the mills was built on Turtle Island in Cohasset. Nancy Snowdale, 85, whose family has owned that site for decades, has a faded, sepia-toned photograph of Martha and Thomas Lincoln on that property.
The photo was a gift from a neighborhood friend, Snowdale said. According to local lore, that friend, like Martha and Thomas Lincoln, are relatives of the 16th president somewhere down the line, she said. Snowdale guessed the photo was taken between 1900 and 1930.
The building in the photo was the property's second mill, which opened in 1814, not the Mordecai Lincoln original. Today, all that remains are stacks of a granite boulder foundation hidden by vines, shrubs, and young pine trees.
"I remember Martha walking down the street to a neighborhood grocery store," Snowdale said, noting she was a very young girl when Martha was alive.
"I didn't know him," Snowdale said, pointing to Thomas.
Records show that when Mordecai died, he left a substantial amount of land and money to his five children or their heirs. One son, Mordecai Jr., moved to New Jersey, setting off a series of migrations that eventually brought Abraham Lincoln to Illinois.
What is not etched so clearly in history is Lincoln's lineage on his mother's side.
"There are four or five major themes on Nancy Hanks's history," said Simons, referring to the president's mother. "His father's side is pretty reliable. His mother's lineage has been much murkier."
Through the years, various theories had traced Hanks's ancestors to the South Shore. But early this decade, Christopher Challender Child, a genealogist working with the New England Historic Genealogical Society, determined that she probably came from a Virginia family and has no connection to Massachusetts.
But, Child said, "We'll always take a look at any new information or documents if there is something out there."
Whatever historians find won't make much difference to those who already know that they, like Bates McArthur, have history coursing through their veins.
"It's something you always have and can tell your children and grandchildren," she said, "and they can tell their children and grandchildren."