The image above pairs the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, with Ralph Lincoln, an 11th generation Lincoln and third cousin of the late president.
The likeness is striking. It’s a powerful reminder that history lives among us. As William Faulkner once quipped, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
So, who is Ralph C. Lincoln? And what does it feel like to be a descendent of the 16th president?
Ralph Lincoln shares a common ancestor with America’s 16th president. His 5th great-grandfather is Mordecai Lincoln — and Mordecai Lincoln is Abraham Lincoln’s great uncle. That’s to say, Mordecai’s brother, Captain Abraham Lincoln, was the president’s grandfather.
On the site he runs about his family ties, Ralph Lincoln notes that you can find several members of the Lincoln family in a “small, obscure” cemetery in Fayette County, Pennsylvania including Mordecai Lincoln. Mordecai Lincoln, like his nephew the president, served his country — he fought during the Revolutionary War, and his 5th great-grandson Ralph Lincoln is a member of the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR).
Ralph Lincoln, like Mordecai Lincoln, lives and works in southwestern Pennsylvania. His side of the Lincoln clan stayed close to that part of the country. However, it seems that Mordecai Lincoln’s brother, Captain Abraham, decided to head out West. (There is some inconsistent information about the location of Captain Abraham’s burial site — some sources list his grave as being in Pennsylvania, and others list Kentucky.)
Captain Abraham Lincoln’s death stands out as a piece of Lincoln family lore: The Captain was killed by a Native American while working his field. His son, also named Mordecai, shot and killed the attacker. Abraham Lincoln later wrote that this “is the legend more strongly than all others imprinted on my mind and memory.”
Abraham Lincoln — the president — was born in Kentucky. He spent his childhood in Kentucky and Indiana before moving with his family to Illinois. There, as a young man, the future president studied law and became involved in politics.
Ralph Lincoln is not only related to the 16th president — he bears a striking resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. It hasn’t gone unnoticed by his family or by strangers. According to Ralph Lincoln, people have told him, “You look just like Abe”. He always responds, “Which one? There are several Abrahams in the family.”
Ralph’s family can see the resemblance, too. After convincing her son to shave his moustache, Ralph Lincoln’s mother pointed to a picture of Abraham Lincoln and said, “Go to the mirror and look at yourself. You look just like your cousin.” (Ralph Lincoln lists himself as Abraham Lincoln’s third cousin, although he is technically a third cousin several times removed.)
Generally, Ralph’s side of the Lincoln clan is unfazed by their famous relative. “For us,” Ralph Lincoln said, “it’s basically ‘Ok. Next subject.'”
The family may shrug off their connection to Abraham Lincoln, but Ralph Lincoln has used his resemblance to the 16th president to educate the public about his ancestor. On his site, Ralph Lincoln writes that he is a “proud member of organizations dedicated to bringing Abraham Lincoln to life, to educate, entertain, inspire, and honour his words and works.”
One such organization is The Association of Lincoln Presenters. The group states that it seeks to bring “Abraham and Mary Lincoln to life” and to “preserve the legacy of Abraham and Mary Lincoln.” The association offers a choice of over 150 Lincoln lookalikes. Ralph Lincoln has appeared at multiple events as his famous relative — even at Ford Theater where, in 1865, the president was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.
Ralph Lincoln can tell his audience nearly anything about his “cousin”, Abraham. But his own history is more muddled. As a result of a brain tumour in 1982, Ralph Lincoln lost many of his own memories. Today, he keeps a journal to make sure he has a record of things he’s done.
One thing that Ralph knows for certain is that he’s “honoured” to be related to the 16th president. Through his presentations of Abraham Lincoln, he’s making sure that the country knows his ancestor’s impressive story.
Abraham Lincoln has no direct descendants. Of his four sons with Mary Todd Lincoln, three died young.
His only living child, Robert Todd Lincoln, had several children and grandchildren. However, the last of the direct Lincoln relatives, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, who could claim the president as his great-grandfather, died in 1981. Before his death, the last direct Lincoln descendent donated a variety of Abraham Lincoln memorabilia — documents, artwork, and furniture — to the state of Illinois. With his death, the direct Lincoln line ended.
So, what about people like Ralph Lincoln? People who may be cousins several times removed?
In fact, there are multiple people today who can draw a line between their family tree and Abraham Lincoln’s via a common ancestor. Notable distant relations include actors like Tom Hanks (who is related to the president through Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks) and George Clooney (who is related to Abraham Lincoln’s grandmother, Lucy Hanks).
Tom Hanks may have a distant claim to Lincoln’s ancestry, but his son Colin Hanks says that one thing has been passed down through generations. “It may explain the beard situation. I can get one of these really good,” he said on the Rachel Ray Show, drawing his fingertips along his jawline. “Not so much in here,” he added, gesturing to his upper lip.
It’s certainly possible that more descendants of Abraham Lincoln exist. Lincoln’s father and grandfather each had multiple siblings.
But until more descendants emerge to take on the mantle, Ralph Lincoln seems happy with his role as a distant cousin of the famous president. His lifetime membership to The Association of Lincoln Presenters ensures he’ll be telling the story of Abraham Lincoln for a long time to come.