Most people don’t know that Abraham Lincoln had a sister. Two years and two days older than her famous brother, Sarah Lincoln remains the most elusive member of the Lincoln family.
Most historians spend little time describing Sarah because the evidence is so contradictory. We don’t really know what she looked like. A childhood friend described her as “heavy built,” but added that she looked like her brother. A cousin couldn’t do much better, calling her a “short built woman,” but he too contradicted himself by claiming she was 5’10”.
Her personality is a little easier to get to. Classmates, a brother-in-law, and a cousin agree—she was a “smart woman.” Sources echo the assessment of an employer, who called her a “good, kind, amiable girl.”
Sarah was just eleven when she lost her mother. The death of a parent often represents the death of a way of life and this case is no exception. The domestic duties fell onto Sarah’s shoulders. She cooked, cleaned, mended clothes, and became a surrogate mother to her nine year old brother. The daily tasks might soon become routine, but the emotional toll was immense. “She’d git so lonesome, missin’ her mother, she’d set by the fire an’ cry,” remembered a cousin.
But Sarah, her brother, and father were survivors. Thomas Lincoln eventually remarried and the cabin was soon filled with new stepsisters and a stepbrother.
On this date, 181 years ago, Sarah Lincoln married Aaron Grigsby in southern Indiana.
The Lincolns knew the Grigsby family well. Their cabins were only three miles apart, they belonged to the same church, and their children attended the same schools; however, they were considered more prominent than the Lincolns. Reuben Grigsby had fathered 16 children and built the only two-story cabin in the neighborhood, causing one historian to dub them the “aristocracy of the backwoods.” Sarah Lincoln’s new husband was the oldest Grigsby, he had received a substantial education, and may have even studied law.
Less than a year after the marriage, Sarah became pregnant, but like so many stories from the period, there was no happy ending.
Something went terribly wrong on January 20, 1828. Though it is impossible to know how far along she was in her pregnancy, neighbors said Sarah Lincoln Grigsby went into labor. A young neighbor remembered that her mother went to Sarah’s bedside, but quickly recognized she was in trouble. She yelled for her husband to get a doctor, but it was too late. “They let her lay too long,” she concluded.
Lincoln broke down when they told him his sister had died. “I never will forget that scene,” said Redmond Grigsby, “He sat down in the door to the smokehouse and buried his face in his hands. The tears slowly trickled from between his bony fingers and his gaunt frame shook with sobs.” He was so distraught, the Grigsbys simply “left him to his grief.”