The Lost Ranger

Trolling Kansas news archives of the late 1800’s for the name “Lovewell” never fails to turn up the usual gallery of suspects, familiar figures who attained varying degrees of fame.  

Thomas Lovewell was venerated as a local folk-hero in a section of Kansas which had been subjected to frequent Indian raids during the 1860’s.  Later in life he dropped into newspaper offices to chew the fat with editors, and could be counted on to provide a printable quote about the hazards of the old days or the current political climate.  His comings and goings and celebrations of personal milestones were often noted by the local press.  

Thomas Lovewell’s brother William generally seemed to shun the limelight, but generated a few paragraphs of newsprint in spite of himself.  When he was picked up for being drunk and disorderly in his hometown of North Lawrence in March 1868, the police report on the matter was confined to a page of the Lawrence Daily Journal reserved for local happenings.  In December of that year, when the man who had become known as “The Reverend” for muttering convulsive Jeremiads as he marched the streets, did some actual preaching, he encouraged the same paper to advertise his speaking engagement.  

The Rev. W. Lovewell will give a discourse here to-day on the subject of Christianity, or in other words, Campbelism.  He is said to be an able expounder of the tenets of his church.  Go out and hear him.

Hearing their sect referred to as “Campbellism” probably raised the hackles of members of the Church of Christ, a Protestant denomination established a few decades earlier along the American frontier.  However, the item was free publicity, even if it amounted to no more than three sentences in a local paper and included one slur aimed at his faith.  

If William deliberately maintained a low profile, on August 20, 1870, his cover was blown when he pulled a gargantuan haul of catfish out of the Kaw River near his home.  News of his skill as an angler suddenly echoed across a corner of Kansas stretching from Atchison to Marysville and all the way to Washington County, practically on the doorstep of White Rock, where his brother Thomas Lived.  It may be only a coincidence that the following year William pulled up stakes, moving to the sparsely-settled anonymity of southeast Kansas where he lived out his few remaining years on a farm near the Marais Des Cygnes River south of Trading Post.

Joseph Taplin Lovewell (a cousin to Thomas and William), was a scientist and professor at Washburn College in Topeka whose prominence spread far beyond the halls of academia because of his common touch.  Prof. J. T. Lovewell knew how to wow the masses with his demonstrations of the technical wonders that would one day become commonplace.  In his day, Prof. Lovewell may have been the most-acclaimed popularizer of science west of the Mississippi.

Yet, if we measure popularity in column-inches of newsprint, the clear winner is not any of these three Lovewells, but their great-great-grandfather, Captain John Lovewell, the hero of blood-drenched tales and ballads from Colonial times.

Though it may have been used mainly as filler, every now and then readers were invited to relive the story of John Lovewell’s expeditions against Abenaki marauders in the wilds of Maine from 1724 to 1725, including the ambush which led to his death along with about a third of his company.  Anyone interested in catching up on the story today may choose from a few published summaries of Lovewell’s brief career.

Historical Memoirs of the Late Fight at Piggwacket is the text of a sermon preached by Rev. Thomas Symmes in 1725, only months after the famous battle.  It was reprinted during the Civil War era along with some supplementary material as The Expeditions of Capt. John Lovewell and His Encounters With the Indians by Frederic KidderBoth books are readily available in several formats, inluding free downloads from Archive.org.  For a modern take on the Captain’s adventures, as well as an ambitious summary of the history that led to it, there’s The Scalp Hunters: Abenaki Ambush at Lovewell Pond - 1725 by Alfred Kayworth and Raymond Potvin, published in 2002 and still in print.

I was surprised when a reference to “The Journal of Capt. John White” popped up a several weeks back while I was searching for documents with some connection to the Lovewell family.  I was intrigued to learn that White, who died in 1725 (the same year as Captain Lovewell) had been one of Lovewell’s Rangers, moreover, one who evidently kept a journal.  Digging further into his life I found that White had accompanied his more famous captain only one time, on Lovewell’s second and most successful expedition.  

White’s journal covers his own foray into the wilderness, leading a different group of frontiersmen on a scalp-hunting campaign.  While the timetable of John White’s journal overlaps Captain Lovewell’s final encounter with the Abenakis, White spent his 35 days wandering about without running into a single Indian.  Returning home in May to learn of Lovewell’s fate, White organized a fresh team of men and hurried to the scene of the ambush at Saco Pond to help bury the dead.  

Fired with the zeal of retribution, he next tried to persuade some Mohawks to join him in a raid on the Abenakis’ Canadian stronghold at St. Francis, a feat which would finally be accomplished 34 years later by Rogers’ Rangers.  Turned down by the Mohawks, White settled for an expedition against a much closer Abenaki fort, but fell ill along the journey and only managed to make his way home before dying.  John White’s journal is a catalog of the perils lurking in the Colonial wilderness, and the misfortunes that could befall a company of rangers, including an elusive prey, hostile elements, and freak accidents.  It is also a tangible reminder that standardized spelling was in its early stages, especially for a provincial colonist who made his living as a blacksmith and coopersmith.

A true jurrnall of my travels began the


5th of April 1725 we traveld to Groten 12 milds and there stayed by reson of foul wether


6 day     We travelad to dunstabel 12 milds and thear Lay the night


7 day     we Lay still by reason of foull wether


8 day     we mustared and went over the river to the house of John Talars about 3 milds


9 day     we marched up the river about 8 milds and then campt one of our men being taken verey   sick for he could travel no farther.  His name was Thomas Simson and doctor Joseph Whetcomb that night set his fut into a ketel of biling broth so that he could travel no ferther

I have to admit that after hastily skimming White’s account of April 9, I misunderstood the ailing Thomas Simson to be a victim of Dr. Whetcomb’s barbaric medical treatment, not realizing that it was the doctor’s own “fut” which he had accidentally plunged into a boiling kettle.  White’s later report to Governor Dummer specifies that of his thirty men, two “came back in a short time, one of them being taken sick, and ye other having scalt himself very badly.”  On April 24 Sam Mossman (in his journal White calls him “Moosman") of Sudbury “actidently kild himself with his own gun.”  As Mossman grabbed the barrel of his musket and pulled it toward him, the lock snagged on a bush, triggering the weapon.  He was shot through and died immediately.

Although short, this installment about a few Lovewells appearing in the Kansas press in the second half of the 19th century has taken many days to write.  After first stumbling across Captain White’s account from 1725, I wrote a brief introduction and then prepared to download the document to quote from it, but couldn’t recall the ranger captain’s name.  Using the same search terms that first led me to John White, yielded only the various editions of Captain John Lovewell’s story.  

The intro grew longer while I marked time fiddling with it, but I still couldn’t find my way back to that obscure diary with its many eccentric spellings.  Hmmm.  What example could I remember precisely?  “Biling broth” had stuck in my mind, so I searched for that, and presto!  I was rewarded with half a dozen links to the journal of John White, mostly from websites devoted to New Hampshire history.  As it turns out, “actidently kild” also works, but you have to mangle the phrase precisely the way John White did, to strike paydirt.

© Dale Switzer 2019  dale@lovewellhistory.com