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Mary Owens, a single woman from a plantation in Kentucky, caught Lincoln’s attention. She married Missourian Jesse Vineyard in 1839, and they settled in Weston, where she is buried today.
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Sarah Rickard was sixteen when thirty-year-old Lincoln met her. She declined his advances and married Dr. Richard F. Barret ten years later, moving to Kansas City, where she is now buried.
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Lincoln married Mary Todd, who spent time visiting family and friends in Boonville and Columbia and attending parties, dancing, and socializing
By Richard Lawrence Miller
Illinois might be the Land of Lincoln, but Missouri is the land of Lincoln’s girlfriends. Three of them—a plantation belle, a small-town teenager, and an urban aristocrat—all had connections to Missouri.
Young Lincoln was rough around the edges, having grown up in the backwoods, where he engaged in physical labor such as chopping down trees to clear farmland and splitting rails to make fences. Although Lincoln had barely a year of elementary school education, as he entered young adulthood he sought out frontier intellectuals to discuss current events, science, and philosophy. He soon became a merchant, state legislator, and law student. Muscular, smart, ambitious, and admired by the public, Lincoln was no country bumpkin. He was a catch for any husband-hunting young woman.
A Plantation Belle
Enter Mary Owens, who eventually married Missouri farmer Jesse Vineyard. In the 1830s, however, she was a single woman on an eight-thousand-acre Kentucky plantation called Lashfield, where she was hearing from Illinois acquaintances about a rising politician named Lincoln. Several of her friends and relatives had moved to the Illinois town of New Salem, a regional commercial center where Lincoln lived, and Mary decided to visit her old Kentucky acquaintances who lived in New Salem.
At that time, she and Lincoln developed no romantic interest in each other, but they did establish a congenial friendship. During the visit, Lincoln had ample opportunities to appreciate her intellect, lively conversation, saucy personality, and good looks. New Salem resident Lynn McNulty Greene wrote of her “large blue eyes with the finest trimmings I ever saw. ... None of the poets or romance writers have ever given to us a picture of a heroine so beautiful.”
At a later time when Lincoln was feeling exasperated about Mary, he penned an unflattering description of her appearance, but her appeal to the male population of New Salem suggests he was just blowing off steam.
After Mary returned to Kentucky, she heard more about Lincoln as he rose in Illinois politics. She decided to make a return trip to New Salem, a journey Lincoln encouraged by using Mary’s sister Elizabeth as a go-between. Both Lincoln and Mary agreed that her new visit was intended for them to inspect each other more seriously. Unfortunately the purpose of her trip to New Salem quickly became known to gossips among their circle of acquaintances, creating pressures that would stress even a long-standing solid connection, let alone the tentative relationship that Lincoln and Mary were nurturing.
The state capital, Springfield, where Lincoln served as a legislator, was only twenty miles from New Salem, but from the standpoint of geography’s interference with Lincoln and Mary becoming a couple, Springfield could have been on Mars. “I am quite as lonesome here as [I] ever was anywhere in my life,” Lincoln wrote to Mary. “Write me a good long letter after you get this. ... Though it might not seem interesting to you, after you had written it, it would be a good deal of company to me in this ‘busy wilderness.’ ”
He missed her but wondered if their difference in social backgrounds was an insurmountable block to marriage: “You would have to be poor without the means of hiding your poverty. Do you believe you could bear that patiently?” His concern demonstrates that he was no gold digger, that he had no expectation of sharing in the Owens’ family wealth.
The financial factor was less important to Mary than Lincoln feared. In the West of that era, plenty of well-to-do young women married gentlemen who could not keep a household like the ones they had grown up within.
In Lincoln’s favor was Mary’s interest in politics—unusual for a woman of that era. Lincoln wrote to her about governmental doings at the state capital. She later declared, “In politics we saw eye to eye,” and in other matters, as well, “We were congenial spirits.”
She found, however, that “Mr. Lincoln was deficient in those little links which make up the great chain of a woman’s happiness.” She offered an example: “There was a company of us going to Uncle Billy Green’s. Mr. Lincoln was riding with me, and we had a very bad branch to cross. The other gentlemen were very officious in seeing that their partners got over safely. We were behind, he riding in never looked back to see how I got along. When I rode up beside him I remarked, ‘You are a nice fellow; I suppose you did not care whether my neck was broken or not.’ He laughingly replied (I suppose by way of compliment) that he knew I was plenty smart to take care of myself.”
Mary included Lincoln among the “gentlemen,” but he failed to exhibit condescension toward ladies that gentlemen were supposed to show. A Kentucky gentleman familiar with drawing room etiquette and who paid no attention to a belle while they forded a stream would have been insulting her. Lincoln, who grew up in forests, intended his indifference as a compliment. Mary knew Lincoln’s behavior demonstrated high opinion of her, but his demonstration grated.
One can sense her exasperation as she related another story: “He was crossing a prairie one day, and saw before him a hog mired down, to use his own language; he was rather fixed up and he resolved that he would pass on without looking towards the shoat. After he had gone by, he said, the feeling was irresistible, and he had to look back. And the poor thing seemed to say so wistfully—There now! My last hope is gone, that he deliberately got down and relieved it from difficulty.”
He would spoil his clothes for a pig but not extend his hand to a lady.
Month after month, Lincoln and Mary tried to build a relationship, but the necessary foundation to support a marriage just wasn’t there. She returned to Kentucky in 1838, where the next year she married the wealthy agriculturalist Vineyard, whose brother John had earlier wed Mary’s sister Nancy. Mary and Vineyard headed to western Missouri, where John and Nancy already resided and where their kinsman Sam Owens of Independence was a prominent merchant and politician. Mary and Vineyard located their homestead near Weston, a Missouri River town between present-day Kansas City and St. Joseph. There, Vineyard was a founder of Pleasant Ridge College.
As years passed, the old political congeniality between Mary and Lincoln ended. “We have differed as widely as the South is from the North,” she admitted.
Testimony in a congressional investigation conducted during the 1850s documented Vineyard’s participation in activities of border ruffians, slavery advocates who, among other things, would cross the Missouri River into Kansas Territory on election days to stuff ballot boxes and prevent anti-slavery Kansans from voting. Declared one witness, “Mr. Jesse Vineyard told me their determination to come here and vote on all occasions. ... Jesse Vineyard told me ... they intended ... to make this a slave state at all hazards.”
Not only did he help promote the travails of Bloody Kansas, but his sons fought in the Confederate Army. Mary’s husband’s health declined in the late 1850s, and he died during the Civil War. Probably few, if any, of the Vineyard family’s Missouri friends and neighbors knew Lincoln had invited Mary to wed him.
After the Civil War, Mary was adamant about suppressing public knowledge of her connection with Lincoln. Possibly her attitude was motivated by fear. Ex-Confederate guerillas such as Jesse James, who lived in nearby Kearney, roamed the countryside, seeking opportunities to take vengeance against anyone whose political sympathies could be considered pro-Lincoln.
After Mary’s husband died, she left their isolated farm and moved into the town of Weston, where she resided in a house near Main and Walnut streets.
An acquaintance wrote, “I often met Mrs. Vineyard in her declining years, and even then she was handsome, dignified, and refined.”
Mary outlived her old Illinois friend Lincoln by a dozen years, dying on July 4, 1877. The grave of Mary is located at the Pleasant Ridge United Baptist Church graveyard, at Highway P and Woodruff Road near Weston.
A Small-Town Teenager
A very different romantic interest with a Missouri connection was Sarah Rickard, with brown eyes and hair. She was a member of a politically active Illinois family. Her brother-in-law Jacob Early was a Democrat activist killed by an opponent who was acquitted through keen defense work from attorney Lincoln. Lincoln’s roommate, Joshua Speed, was a prominent Whig who pursued Sarah romantically. After Speed left town in 1841, Lincoln eventually took up lodging in Sarah’s house, where she lived with her sister Elizabeth and brother-in-law, William Butler, who was a close political and personal friend of Lincoln. Speed’s involvement with Sarah had been intense enough that Lincoln sent his old friend reports that Sarah was weathering Speed’s departure.
What Lincoln didn’t tell Speed was that Lincoln himself had begun an involvement with Sarah. Being members of the same household, Lincoln and Sarah had plenty of interaction. She was amiable enough about his attentions, accepting gifts, attending the theater with him, and going on other outings.
Having learned something from the Mary Owens experience, Lincoln was “attentive to the point of gallantry” with Sarah, according to someone who later conversed with her on the subject. The involvement of Sarah and Lincoln was public knowledge, and Lincoln remained welcome in the Butler home. There was at least one significant problem, however.
Sarah had just turned sixteen years old when Lincoln started romancing her. He was more than thirty years old. While such an age differential doesn’t preclude sentimental attachment, Sarah (like most teenagers) seemed to regard a thirty-year-old man as ancient.
“He knew I was not thinking of marrying,” she said decades later. “I was too young, and he was much older than I. But he hinted marriage to me several times.” She brushed off those hints, although subsequently she acknowledged, “If I’d known that he would have been President, I would have paid more attention to him.”
In 1850, ten years after keeping company with Lincoln, Sarah married Dr. Richard F. Barret. The couple moved west, where eventually President Lincoln appointed Dr. Barret registrar of a Nebraska Territory federal land office, where fees were virtually a license to print money for personal income. Eventually, the couple relocated to Kansas City, Missouri, first at 2011 Indiana Avenue and subsequently at 3737 Central.
Dr. Barret practiced medicine in that city. Sarah lived until 1911, and her grave is in Kansas City’s Elmwood Cemetery.
An Urban Aristocrat
While Lincoln was living in the Rickard household, one outing they attended in 1842 was the wedding of her friend Martinette Hardin, sister to US Representative John Hardin, who was a rival of Lincoln in Illinois politics. At the celebration, Sarah noticed Lincoln conversing pleasantly with Mary Todd.
He and Mary had been having an intense on-and-off relationship.
Like Mary Owens, Mary came from an aristocratic background. Her father was a wealthy businessman and politician in Kentucky’s cultural center of Lexington. Perennial presidential candidate and longtime national Whig Party leader Henry Clay lived near the Todd residence and was a family friend. One of her sisters had married Illinois Attorney General Ninian Wirt Edwards, and back home in Springfield, Illinois, the Edwards couple began hosting one Todd sister after another for extended visits, introducing them to marriageable gentlemen. Mary’s turn had come.
Although she hadn’t found a husband yet, Mary had found enjoyment in politics during the 1840 “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” presidential election campaign, in which supporters of the soon-to-be victorious Whig nominee William Henry Harrison were welcoming female participation—a dramatic innovation for the era. “I became quite a politician,” she told a friend, “rather an unladylike profession, yet at such a crisis, whose heart could remain untouched while the energies of all were called into question?”
In early June 1840, Springfield hosted a giant statewide Whig convention. At a barbecue, more than six hundred feet of tables were loaded with meat and bread. During after-dinner speeches, Mary’s uncle, Judge David Todd, was introduced as an old military associate of General Harrison. David was visiting from his home of Columbia and on his return to Missouri, Mary accompanied him.
“This portion of the state is certainly most beautiful,” she told a friend, “and in my wanderings I never encountered more kindness and hospitality.” For example,“We returned from a most agreeable excursion to Boonville, situated immediately on the river and a charming place. We remained a week, attended four parties during the time; one was particularly distinguished for its brilliancy and city-like doings. ... Dancing was carried on with untiring vigor, kept up until three o’clock. ... I felt exhausted after such desperate exertions to keep pace with the music. Were Missouri my home, with the exception of St. Louis, Boonville would certainly in my estimation have the preference.”
Her charms made at least one conquest. She confided to a girlfriend, Mercy Levering, “If you conclude to settle in Missouri, I will do so, too. [There] is one being here who cannot brook the mention of my return, an agreeable lawyer and grandson of Patrick Henry. Uncle and others think he surpasses his noble ancestor in talents, yet Merce I love him not, and my hand will never be given where my heart is not.”
A legend holds that during Mary’s Missouri residence from June to September of 1840, Lincoln attended the state Whig convention held in Rocheport and visited her in nearby Columbia, but he was conducting court business in Illinois at the time. The legend is not true.
We do know, however, that her regimen of partying all night and sleeping all day apparently caused her to become so corpulent that upon her return to Springfield, Illinois, she startled friends who hadn’t seen her for months. We also know that Lincoln was repelled by overweight appearance in females. His reaction upon first seeing her when she returned from Missouri isn’t hard to guess. She may have started a weight loss program; at least such might be inferred from her comment in December that she had “not quite as great an exuberance of flesh as it once was my lot to contend with, although quite a sufficiency.”
Despite this and other challenges to their personal relationship, Lincoln and Mary eventually married. Although their marriage has been called stormy, neighbors universally described the couple as devoted and fun-loving. Indeed, children from blocks around thronged to the Lincoln house, which probably would not have happened if its atmosphere was full of strife.
When Lincoln and Mary left Springfield and moved to the White House, their relationship suffered. They always loved each other, but demands from the Civil War forced Lincoln to pay less attention to Mary. Death of one son in Springfield and another at the White House devastated both parents.
And then Lincoln was murdered as the couple sat together one night, trying to forget their cares. Losing him and his steadying influence was a blow from which Mary never recovered.
Mary Owens, Sarah Rickard, and Mary Todd each taught Lincoln about life and love, and their connections to Missouri help make the Show-Me State a part of Lincoln’s history.
Richard Lawrence Miller wrote the four-volume biography Lincoln and His World. His other books include Truman: The Rise to Power.
This story originally ran in the February 2013 issue of Missouri Life. For more stories like this, subscribe to Missouri Life.