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LaRue County’s official historian, James D. LaRue Jr., has compiled a lifetime of notes and research into a biography about his family’s matriarch.
His book, “Mary Brooks: Portrait of a Kentucky Pioneer, Granny Woman, Family Matriarch,” covers the life of Mary Brooks who was born in 1766 in Virginia and died in 1843 – the year LaRue County became an official county of Kentucky.
James LaRue, 93, who still works at his family’s business in Hodgenville, said Mary Brooks was one of the earliest settlers of this area. She arrived in Kentucky in 1784 with her husband John LaRue and their 6-month-old baby. She was barely 18 and four months pregnant with her second child.
The family floated down the Ohio on a flatboat with her sister-in-law, Sarah LaRue, and Sarah’s husband, Robert Hodgen.
They eventually made their way to Phillip’s Fort near present day Hodgenville (Phillips Lane area). The fort had been settled some three years earlier by the Ashcrafts, Phillips, Brownfields and Kirkpatricks and others. The threat of Indian attacks continued for at least 10 years after Mary Brooks arrived at the fort.
It’s not clear why the couple set out for Phillip’s Fort – but an earlier event provided clues. In 1781, John LaRue, Benjamin Lynn and John Garrard were encamped on one of the mounds north of town. (Editor’s note: Two mounds now exist. They are best viewed from U.S. 31-E, on the left, in a field just outside Hodgenville city limits.)
“Lynn went hunting along and after some time, a search was made for him, resulting in the naming of our creek as “Nolynn” (or No Lynn),” said James LaRue.
Their arrival could also be tied to their connection with Squire Boone, a brother of Daniel Boone.
“(Squire) Boone had been this area locating lands for the LaRue family as early as 1779 according to affidavits he had given in 1797 regarding those lands,” said James LaRue. “And also John LaRue’s brother, Isaac Jr. is named in a November 1784 Jefferson County court order establishing a road from the salt works in Jefferson County to the station at Nolin.”
Mary Brooks outlived three husbands (John LaRue, Isom Enlow and Thomas Rathbone) and gave birth to at least 11 children (four LaRues and 11 Enlows). Her descendants are numbered in the thousands.
James LaRue said it was important to preserve the research for his family and the community-at-large that bears his family’s surname.
“I actually started writing the book about three years ago,” said James LaRue.
“For years I have been searching various courthouse records here in LaRue County as well as Hardin County for interesting items of history - estate settlement books, wills and deed books as well as county court minutes. Instead of searching any one thing, I found myself making notes of history not related to my project. My files are loaded with those notes.”
“Occasionally you find interesting things on Google,” he added. “But unfortunately sources are generally not listed."
“Then, too, in the 55 years I have had an office on the square here in Hodgenville, perhaps a thousand or more folks have dropped by in search of family history – some not related at all to the LaRue family. Many of these people have added to the record – even for Mary Brooks. I have freely shared my records with them.”
In one instance, a family relative from Illinois visited LaRue with a copy of an estate settlement that recorded the only time known when Mary Brooks provided medical assistance to anyone.
“The clerk in entering the details of the settlement included a receipt for payment of $5 in Commonwealth paper for her services to a servant.”
He received additional assistance from the late Robert Lewis Enlow, who descended from Mary Brooks’ second marriage.
“I had given him a draft of the story early on and he became a source of a lot of old papers handed down through the Enlow family for 200 years. The joy and excitement upon looking at those old papers was very, very satisfying.”
More information continues to come in after the book was published, James LaRue said.
He credits his son, Stephen, with completing “the most difficult part” of writing the book: online contact with the publisher.
“We went through four proofs before authorizing to print,” he said. “Without him, I might have left publishing to posterity.”
More than a granny woman
Mary Brooks has several claims to fame. According to James LaRue’s book, She was a woman of great beauty and intellect, studied medicine and may have been the midwife – or “granny woman” – who attended Nancy Lincoln at the birth of her most famous son, Abraham. The Lincoln family had settled at Sinking Springs Farm outside Hodgenville, near the Enlows. (Mary Brooks was married to Isom Enlow at the time. Their son, Abraham Enlow, then a teenager, is credited with “fetching the midwife” for the Lincolns.)
The National Park Service leans toward the idea that Mary Brooks’ daughter, Margaret, was the midwife on Feb. 12, 1809. But according to LaRue family tradition, “(Mary Brooks’) eyes were the first to behold and her hands the first to handle the baby body of the immortal Abraham Lincoln.”
Some of her descendants were famous in their own right. Mary Brooks and John LaRue’s grandson, John LaRue Helm, was a two-time governor of Kentucky.
John LaRue Helm’s son, Benjamin Hardin Helm, married Emilie Todd, half-sister of Mary Todd Lincoln. Emilie was permitted to visit the Lincolns at the White House despite having Confederate leanings.
Mary Brooks and her third husband were buried in the old Phillips’ Fort cemetery.
The cemetery, which contained the remains of LaRue County’s earliest settlers, was destroyed – perhaps by plow, perhaps by heavier equipment – sometime between 1940 and 1950.
James LaRue said he has been at the “general location” of the graveyard and found stones in a gully at a corner at the fence.
“Why some of my grandfather’s generation did not pay attention to the cemetery, is odd,” LaRue said. “ I was too young to have much contact with them.”
“Mary Brooks: Portrait of a Kentucky Pioneer, Granny Woman, Family Matriarch” is available at The Lincoln Museum in downtown Hodgenville and “Create Space.”
More information is available at MaryBrooksTheBook@wordpress.com.
A book signing and launch party will be 3-5 p.m. Aug. 18 at the Hodgenville Woman’s Club, Lincoln Square.
“I am somewhat overwhelmed by this book signing affair,” said James LaRue. “Stephen has planned it entirely. All I have to do is be there and be able to write my name if requested to do so.”
A second book on LaRue family history is being planned.