Sepia photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln seated in a chair, wearing a floral headdress and a white dress.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Lincoln Family Line: A Tragic Legacy

3 min read

When Abraham Lincoln was elected, many viewed 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, Samuel, came to Massachusetts from England around 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 born in Pennsylvania and served as a captain in the Virginia militia during the American Revolution.  He then moved his family to a dangerous section of Kentucky where he 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 grieved the woman he intended to marry, Ann Rutledge, when she died in 1835.

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

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

The first son, Robert, was born in 1843 and lived a long and prestigious life. Robert was 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 cousin, Lockwood Todd, in Mathew Brady’s studio in Washington, D.C. Library of Congress Image: LC-DIG-ppmsca-19235.

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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 was eventually exhumed and accompanied his father’s to be buried in Springfield, Illinois.

The Lincolns’ youngest son, Thomas (also known as “Tad”), was born in 1853. Tad outlived 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 at the age of 17. 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 did not have children. Robert’s daughter Jessie had two children: a daughter, Mary, and son, Robert. Mary never married; she died in 1975. Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith married three times but had no children.

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.


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Connie Golding is former Groups Sales Manager at Ford’s Theatre.


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