Dry weather brings an unknown sickness.
The plant that causes the milk sickness is common along the Ohio River Valley and its tributaries. These early settlers had no idea of what caused the milk sickness, but they noticed that cattle got sick at the same time people did and began to suspect that humans got the disease from drinking milk.
Cattle did not care for white snake-root. They ate it only when there wasn't enough grass for forage. Around 1815, a twenty-year period of dry weather caused insufficient grass to be produce in the farmer's fields. Cattle began to eat the less desirable white snake-root and the milk sickness would soon become a major problem.
The milk sickness was known to kill half of the people in many settlements. The worst case recorded was the epidemic of 1818 in Pigeon Creek, Indiana. Almost all of the residents died.
In 1821, the Tennessee legislature passe an act requiring fences to be made to keep cattle away from some unknown vegetable in the woods that caused the disease. In 1830 the Kentucky General assembly offered a $600 reward to anyone discovering its cause.
In 1838, an Ohio farmer named John Rowe believed that the white snake-root plant might be the cause. He fed some of his cows the leaves of the white snake-root and they developed the disease. John Rowe published his find in the local newspapers.
Symptoms of the poison began with a feeling of weakness and lassitude. Soon the legs would become painful and tremble. Later the appetite would become impaired followed by severe stomach pain when eating. These symptoms could last for two weeks and many would die.
Death comes to the Lincoln family.
In 1817, Elizabeth and Thomas Sparrow along with their wards, Dennis Hanks and Sophie Hanks, moved next to the Lincoln family at Pigeon Creek. Thomas and Nancy Lincoln had finished their cabin and moved out of their lean-to, also called a half-faced camp. The Sparrows were given the lean-to to live in while they built their cabin. Shortly after the Sparrows arrived, Nancy bought six cows to provide milk for the two families. Cows don't give milk without calves. Probably, those six cows consisted of three mother cows and their calves.
In the fall of 1818, a neighbor told Nancy and Elizabeth about a sickness in the area. She called it the milk-sick and told them that people were dying from drinking milk. To be safe Nancy and Elizabeth stopped the children from drinking milk. Thomas Lincoln didn't drink milk. He preferred whiskey.
Thomas and Elizabeth Sparrow had been drinking the milk for over a year and believed it safe. They continued to drink the milk rather than dump it out. A short time later, Thomas and Elizabeth became sick. Maybe they had the milk-sick and maybe they didn't. Nancy decided to drink some of the milk to see if it were safe. It wasn't. She and the Sparrows died of the milk-sick.
Why would Nancy test the milk by drinking it? To understand her decision, you must comprehend the extreme hardship of her life.
Nancy Lincoln's suicide
Twenty-two year old Nancy became pregnant by one of the farmers she worked for. Elizabeth Sparrow raised Nancy and she wanted the baby to have a name. So, she arranged a marriage. She gave a man five gallons of whiskey to marry Nancy.
His name was Thomas Lincoln. He was a drunk. At ten-years-old he developed genital bumps and had to be castrated. He never attended school a day in his life and he could only count to ten. As an adult, he had no ambition or desire to improve himself. He married Nancy, but he did not love her and Nancy did not love him.
He owned land near Elizabethtown, but made no attempt to build a home there. He moved his new bride into a shed located in an alley of Elizabethtown. Nancy had no furniture, only straw to make her bed. On a bed of straw she gave birth to a baby girl. Because Nancy was married, the baby had a last name, Lincoln. Sarah Lincoln was born on a bed of straw, inside a shed, located in an alley.
A year later, Nancy met a man and fell in love. She became pregnant by him. Thomas knew that the baby was not his. To appease Thomas, Nancy's lover gave Thomas a cabin at Nolin Creek. Thomas and Nancy moved there. It was at this time that Nancy had the highest standard of living she would ever have. Two years after Sarah's birth, Nancy had a baby boy. He was named Abraham Lincoln.
The family moved from place to place. Finally ending up at Pigeon Creek, Illinois. The family settled on a tract of land in the woods. There was nothing but trees and raw land. Thomas gave no thought to the availability of water. The nearest stream was over a mile away. Thomas and Nancy build a lean-to to live in while they built their cabin.
Nancy helped Thomas build the lean-to and later she helped with the cabin. She had to fetch water from the stream that was over a mile away. She had to take her two children and care for them along the way. They were seven and nine years old. Nancy had to cook the meals in a large pot over an open fire. She planted a garden. Cared for the children. Got firewood and never allowed the fire to go out. She cleaned the dinnerware and the family clothes. From the time she woke up to the time she fell asleep, she worked.
In 1818, Nancy was worn out and tired. Her face was weathered and wrinkled. Her teeth were rotting and painful. She was an old hag at thirty-four. Nancy was in a loveless marriage and had nothing to look forward to. Death would be a welcomed relief. She tested the milk, not caring if she lived or died.
Troy Cowan, author of Lincoln, Davis, and Booth: Family secrets