Underground Echoes: Who Actually Saved Abraham Lincoln?

BY JUDIE & JOSEPH PALMER

This column is different than our previous submissions for instead of an Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery decedent’s bio or focusing on its history, we will be addressing the folklore contributed to one of its residents – Eliza Nottingham. She is alleged to have saved “Abe” when he was a little boy after he fell into a creek and almost drowned. However, two others are also purported for the same incident. So here are the facts that we have uncovered…

Abraham Lincoln, our 16th President, was born February 12, 1809 to Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks on their Sinking Spring Farm near Hodgenville, Kentucky. His family, including his older sister Sarah, moved to their Knob Creek Farm, also near Hodgenville when Abe was two. They lived there for the next five years before moving to Indiana where Abe’s near drowning occurred.

Replica of Abe Lincoln’s Birthplace Cabin.

As we have different accounts of what happened, we will start with the most popular one attributed to his childhood friend and neighbor Austin Gollaher. On Rodger J Norton’s website: Abraham Lincoln Research Site he writes, “As a very young lad growing up in Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln often played with a boy in the neighborhood named Austin Gollaher. Austin lived into his 90’s and told how he played with Abraham near his father’s carpentry shop, hunted raccoons with him, and had youthful adventures in the nearby woods.”

Additionally, he mentions that Austin’s story took place in 1816 when Abe was seven, quoting Austin: “I once saved Lincoln’s life. We had been going to school together one year; but the next year we had no school, because there were so few scholars to attend, there being only about 20 in the school the year before.

Consequently, Abe and I had not much to do; but as we did not go to school and our mothers were strict with us, we did not get to see each other very often. One Sunday morning my mother woke me up early, saying she was going to see Mrs. Lincoln, and that I could go along. Glad of the chance, I was soon dressed and ready to go. After my mother and I got there Abe and I played all through the day.

While we were wandering up and down the little stream called Knob Creek Abe said: ‘Right up there’ – pointing to the east – ‘we saw a covey of partridges yesterday. Let’s go over and get some of them.’ The stream was swollen and was too wide for us to jump across. Finally, we saw a narrow foot-log, and we concluded to try it. It was narrow, but Abe said, ‘Let’s coon it.’

I went first and reached the other side all right. Abe went about half-way across, when he got scared and began trembling. I hollered to him, ‘Don’t look down nor up nor sideways, but look right at me and hold on tight!’ But he fell off into the creek, and, as the water was about seven or eight feet deep, and I couldn’t swim, and neither could Abe, I knew it would do no good for me to go in after him.

Austin Gollaher’s home.

So, I got a stick – a long water sprout – and held it out to him. He came up, grabbed with both hands, and I put the stick into his hands. He clung to it, and I pulled him out on the bank, almost dead. I got him by the arms and shook him, and then rolled him on the ground, when the water poured out of his mouth.

He was all right very soon. We promised each other that we would never tell anybody about it, and never did for years. I never told anyone of it until after Lincoln was killed.”

From the Kentucky Historical Society’s website article Lincoln’s Playmate, Warren Greer writes, “So what did happen? Clearly, we cannot know for sure. Lincoln never mentions being rescued by Gollaher, who is himself the only source for this claim. Most scholars are skeptical, noting that Gollaher’s memory seems to have become more precise the older he grew.”

Next, we examine the dueling accounts of Frank Leslie “Doug” Mitchell’s grandmothers Amanda Elizabeth “Eliza” Nottingham (interred in Martinez’s Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery) and Mary Head “Polly” Berry-Mitchell (interred in Antioch’s Oak View Memorial Park Cemetery). From our research we discovered that both women came from family’s with deep southern roots. After marriage, they both relocated to California prior to the Civil War and according to family members became devout vocal supporters of the Confederacy.

Their main story is that in 1815, Eliza or Polly were accompanying Abe and his sister Sarah to their first day of school and needed to cross the swollen banks of Knob Creek. After eventually coming upon a log crossing the creek, Sarah and their companion made it to the other side before Abe fell. From there either Eliza or Polly pulled him from the swirling waters to safety.

From the February 12, 1943, Contra Costa Gazette an unknown author quotes J. P. Woods (Alhambra’s caretaker for 31 years) regarding Eliza, “It’s true alright. She saved Lincoln’s life when he was drowning. She was ten and he was six as I heard it. In later years, she said that if she knew he would live to free the slaves, she’d have left him in the water.”

Image of Knob Creek where Abraham Lincoln lived from 1811-1816 and is reputed to have fallen in the creek as a boy and nearly drowned.

However, the author stated, “Efforts to verify the incident from members of the Nottingham family at Walnut Creek proved unsuccessful…” They also found no citations of her rescue, or of her, included in the 1880 file of the Contra Costa Gazette, when she passed away at the age of 75. Nor did they find a reference to it in the April 25, 1865 edition dedicated to President Lincoln’s death. According to the author the Gazette was the only paper published in this part of the county. They concluded the story unverified, passed down by old timers claiming to have heard it from Eliza’s own lips.

From our own genealogical research, we found no proof that Eliza ever lived in Kentucky but was born March 24, 1805 in Virginia. Then in 1826 or 1828 she meets and marrys her husband in Missouri. The 1860 Census lists her as illiterate, a widow, living only with her son Commodore and her daughter Louisa in Township 2, Contra Costa County. The 1870 Census has her living with Commodore’s family in Township 2. The 1880 Census has her living with Louisa’s family in Pacheco, just prior to her death on September 12.

From the February 12, 1967, Knave supplement of the Oakland Tribune, Untold Tale: Lincoln Rescue Unfolds From Antioch Grave, an unknown author mentions that during their attempts to verify Eliza’s account they instead discovered Polly’s from Doug. When Doug was asked why he hadn’t told Polly’s story before he said, “It was talked about among the family but nobody else ever asked me. I guess nobody believed me.” Doug also noted that Mrs. Mitchell was better known as “Aunt Polly” by her entire family whom never regarded his grandmother’s tale as an act of heroism but instead as an amusing incident.

The author cited that Polly was born in Hodgenville, KY in 1801. Her family and the Lincoln’s were neighbors and friends for many years and because Polly was 14 she was asked to walk Abe (6) and Sarah (8) that fateful day. Her great grandson Victor B. Chapman (Clayton’s Constable) stated, “the family’s genealogy is what stamps the truth on Aunt Polly’s story.”

Doug continued, “I wasn’t even born when she first told her story of the Knob Creek dunking with young Abe. It all came to light during the War between the States, according to my elders including Aunt Polly. Polly, it seems, was extremely sympathetic to the cause of the Confederacy. The Mitchell’s were already residents of Contra Costa County living in the Alamo neighborhood at the time. Aunt Polly would go about singing the Jefferson Davis song and cheer the victories of the South.

Her family’s scolding’s didn’t seem to cool her valor. “They will throw you in jail if you don’t keep quiet,” her family warned. Aunt Polly responded, “I don’t care if they do. Ol’ Abe will get me out. I pulled him out of the creek once and saved his life. He’ll save me.” But I know she had great admiration for President Lincoln, even though she cheered the Confederacy. It was only natural, she having been so close to the Lincolns down in Kentucky.”

The author concluded by stating that Doug recalled his grandmother repeating the story on numerous occasions long after he was old enough to understand and his recollections and memories of her are quite vivid as she was a woman to be reckoned with even unto death. Lastly, the author mentioned that the family has several letters from President Lincoln to Polly that confirms their relationship.

In conclusion, the authors would like to acknowledge other sources were found that help confirm Polly’s story that could not be included in this article due to space limitation.

Our column is sponsored and supported by the Martinez Cemetery Preservation Alliance (MCPA), the Martinez Historical Society (MHS) and the Contra Costa County Genealogical Society (CCCGS). For more information, please visit MCPA’s website MartinezCemetery.org, MHS’s website MartinezHistory.org, or CCCGS’s website CCCGS.net. Do you have a cemetery story or images to share? Please email us at martinezcemetery@gmail.com or call us at (925) 316-6069.

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