I thought I knew the story

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I’ve written before that I’m a Junior, and my full name is the same as my father’s. The first and last name, when combined, are very common, but the middle name–Lincoln–really stands out. I use it in my email address, in part to stand out from all the others who share my name, and in part to pay tribute to the man who hasn’t yet ceased to amaze me with the things he wrote and did in his lifetime.

I had always assumed, since my father was born on Lincoln’s birthday, in Lincoln’s hometown, and when his family lived on Lincoln Street, that the choice of his middle name had something to do with one or more of those factors. But when I brought this up to him within the past few years, he told me that wasn’t it at all. And the real story is much more meaningful to me, and so I’ll have to share it here.

My father was the fifth child–all of them boys–born to my grandparents. On the day my father was born, sixty-nine years ago today, the phone rang at his house. On the line was my father’s great aunt, the sister of my father’s grandfather. She was 80 years old, and she was calling with a request. She wanted to name the baby that had just been born. Her wish was granted, and so she named the baby (my first name) Lincoln (my last name). Little could she have known that she was also naming me, who she never got to meet. But I’m happy it worked out like it did.

So where’s the big interest here? Anybody can choose the name Lincoln for their child if they want to. And this is certainly true. However, my father’s great aunt had a reason for choosing that name. Her father, who gives me my family’s surname, married a woman who was the daughter of one Newton Walker. Probably you have never heard that name before, so I’ll share his backstory here.

Newton Walker was born in Virginia in 1803. He was made a major under the military laws of Virginia as a young man, and as a result he came into contact with James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and others from the Revolutionary era. He also escorted the Marquis de Lafayette on his tour of the U.S. in the 1820s. So he got to met a few people in his time.

In 1835, Major Walker and a traveling party of about three dozen left from Virginia and traveled westward. They crossed the Illinois River in the fall of 1835, and settled the town of Lewistown, Illinois. Major Walker, as everyone called him, designed the courthouse for this new county, and he was elected to the Illinois legislature, where he served as an ally and a mentor to a young and unknown Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln and Major Walker’s relationship was described by Ida Tarbell as mutually beneficial. Lincoln would tell Walker his stories, and Walker would play his fiddle at Lincoln’s request.

Major Walker served a single term in the Illinois legislature, while Lincoln served for another decade until he was elected to Congress in 1846. How often their paths intersected after that isn’t clear, but there is one encounter that has been documented. It happened in 1858, shortly after Lincoln gave his famous “House Divided” speech and was nominated to challenge Stephen A. Douglas for a Senate seat from Illinois.Everyone knows of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates that year, but what most people don’t know was how they came to be. Lincoln made it his practice to show up in a place where Douglas had already spoke, and give his response to what Douglas had said. He did this in Chicago in July of 1858, and again in Lewiston in early August. Douglas accepted Lincoln’s offer for one-on-one debates, in part to get Lincoln to stop following him around the state.

In early August, as the details for the series of debates were taking shape, Lincoln came to Lewistown and delivered a speech on the steps of the courthouse that Major Walker had designed. Lincoln’s speech is referred to as the “Return to the Fountain speech” and it presages what Lincoln would later say in the Gettysburg Address. After the speech was over, Lincoln rode to Major Walker’s house in Lewistown, and he had dinner there with his old friend.

So if my geneology is correct, Major Walker would have been my great-great-great grandfather. One of his granddaughters named my father and he, in turn, named me. It’s a legacy that I’m very proud to have, and one which I had only learned about after my own children were born and named. I wish I had given Lincoln’s name to one of them, but telling this story is the closest I’ll come to passing it on. It will just have to be enough.

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