Nancy Hanks was born in 1784 in the mountains of what was then northwestern Virginia, an area that is now part of West Virginia. Her mother, Lucy, was probably not married to Nancy’s father, and historians disagree on his identity.
At first, Lucy and her baby lived with Lucy’s parents. Nancy was only a month old when her grandfather, Joseph, moved the whole family to a new home in Kentucky, becoming part of a great migration of settlers into the new western territories. Joseph died when Nancy was 9, and Nancy lived with her mother and her mother’s new husband for a time. But in 1796, she was sent to live with an aunt, Elizabeth Hanks Sparrow, and her husband, Thomas Sparrow. It was the Sparrows whom Nancy later referred to as her parents, and she herself was sometimes known as Nancy Sparrow. Nancy got a rudimentary education, learning to read from the Bible, and became a skilled seamstress. She would sometimes stay with a family while doing sewing work for them. In the early 1800s, she was staying with the Richard Berry family of Springfield, Kentucky when she met family friend Thomas Lincoln. Thomas, a Virginia native, had also been brought to Kentucky as a small child. He began courting Nancy, and the couple were married on June 12, 1806.
The Lincolns first lived in Elizabethtown, and Thomas worked as a carpenter. Their first child, Sarah, was born there in 1807. The family then moved to a farm called Sinking Spring outside Hodgenville, where a son was born on February 12, 1809. His parents named him Abraham after Thomas’s father.
Thomas Lincoln became a victim of Kentucky’s chaotic 19th-century system of land claims when he was sued for title to the Sinking Spring land. He moved the family again, this time to a cabin a few miles away on Knob Creek. There another son, Thomas, was born but died in infancy. Abraham Lincoln would later describe Knob Creek as the first home he remembered.
Not long after the Sinking Spring lawsuit was decided against him, Thomas Lincoln heard rumors that a prior claim also threatened eviction for the families living on Knob Creek. In 1816, he made plans to move wife Nancy, daughter Sarah, and son Abraham to a new homestead in southern Indiana. He knew life would be harder there, since the land was still virgin forest—but because Indiana was a federal territory divided into well-defined plots, at least he would know he owned it.