Volunteer caretaker finds Lincoln family
graves after cleanup of forgotten fields
By Maura Possley Tribune staff reporter Published February 13, 2006
LA HARPE, Ill. -- The weathered gravestones were overgrown with
brush and covered with filth, but it took only a little Comet and
some scrubbing in a long-forgotten cemetery to uncover a historic
family name: Lincoln.
Amid the rambling farm fields of western Illinois, as many as 12
members of President Abraham Lincoln's extended family are buried
in the cemetery, which is marked only by a handmade sign and doesn't
even have an access road.
A few people around La Harpe knew that several of Lincoln's first
cousins were buried at the site, but it took a local resident with
some spare time one winter to uncover the actual evidence.
"It was amazing," said Jeff Thompson, the volunteer caretaker who
uncovered the headstones 10 years ago. "No one had paid much attention
The cemetery had been forgotten by its owners until 2 1/2 years
ago, when Catholic Church officials found burial records in some
old files. Along with members of the Mordecai Lincoln family, about
50 people were buried at that location, which is named St. Simon
the Apostle Cemetery, after the church that used to stand next to
Over the years, local historians have talked about ways to preserve
the historic graveyard and make it accessible to visitors, perhaps
by carving a dirt road into the fields.
But Thompson is still the only caretaker, and the single modern
improvement has been a hand-painted sign added in 2004.
Local historians don't have much money to work with, and the parish
priest is worried about disturbing the grounds.
It's an unusual amount of restraint for a community in the Land of
Lincoln, which commemorates the president's birthday with a state
holiday Monday. Some towns have put up commemorative markers for
little more than a local overnight stay by Lincoln.
In La Harpe, though, a noteworthy branch of the Lincoln family rests
in almost complete solitude. The family's rich story is known only
by a few parishioners and historians, despite the patriarch's
significance in the life of the Great Emancipator.
Lincoln might never have been born if not for the heroic actions
of his uncle, Mordecai Lincoln.
When Mordecai Lincoln was a young man in Kentucky, Indians killed
his father and captured his younger brother, Thomas, according to
Bryon Andreasen, research historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential
Library and Museum in Springfield.
According to the personal writings of Dennis Hanks, a first cousin
of Abraham Lincoln's, Thomas Lincoln asked the Indian holding him
captive to spare his life. Hanks, who some say was known to exaggerate
his tales, wrote that just as the man looked down at Thomas and
smiled, Thomas heard the crack of a rifle. The Indian fell to the
According to Hanks, Mordecai Lincoln had shot the Indian from the
loft of the family home by aiming at a silver half-moon ornament
that hung on the Indian's chest.
Historians agree that whatever the details of the encounter, Thomas
Lincoln survived to grow up and marry Nancy Hanks. They became the
parents of the future president.
Today, St. Simon's cemetery is the most significant remnant of the
Mordecai Lincoln family. Headstones for possibly a dozen family
members were placed on the plot, with a handful of headstones still
But historians don't think Mordecai Lincoln himself is buried in
St. Simon's cemetery.
The details of his death are not recorded, Andreasen said. But
according to family lore, Mordecai Lincoln was riding his horse
during a blizzard and never returned. According to the story, he
was found by his family in a field, frozen to death, and was buried
on the spot.
For years no one tended St. Simon's cemetery, and the small graveyard
became overgrown to the point that walking through it was impossible,
according to Thompson.
That was the case until Thompson, 52, a seasonal laborer from nearby
Webster, was without a job one winter and had nothing else to do.
For two months, he cut back brush with a chainsaw and mowed the
To bring the remaining headstones back to their original white,
Thompson scrubbed a few of them with Comet and a wire brush.
The historical society is now compiling information and working
with a state program that helps small towns create historic sites.
But for now, Thompson is the only one tending the graves.
"I wouldn't mind being buried back here," Thompson said. "It's nice.
You wouldn't be bothered at all."
mmpossley ,, tribune.com
[apologies for posting this to the old list earlier]
"The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the
voices you are throttling today." -- August Spies, 1887