Bizarro World

Submitted for your approval, a world where everything is slightly off-kilter, where nothing is quite what you expect.  Are the people standing in front of us old friends or complete strangers who only look vaguely familiar?  Are they impostors or doppelgängers?  How can we know for sure?  Welcome to the bizarre alternate universe of the 1870 census.

At least that’s the case for part of White Rock Township.  Excuse me, there was as yet no White Rock Township as such, just a vast, newly-populated Republic Township that was about to get itself organized.  But living out in that western hinterland there were already some recognizable names, including a few that would have a long association with the town of White Rock.

We find former New Yorker Allen Woodruff, the Welsh-born William Charles, and the Morlan brothers from Pennsylvania, Samuel and Stephen, both brothers calling themselves farmers for the moment, still a year away from buying out the stock of a local grocer and opening their own store.  Prussian immigrant Augustus “Gust” Heldt is Thomas Lovewell’s new neighbor, having moved to the farm vacated by Pontus Ross after the Cheyenne attacks of 1869.  Another Prussian, John Riehle, (The census spells his name “Riley”) is living nearby.  Within two years, Thomas Lovewell will journey over 100 miles across an arctic landscape to rescue John after a hunting mishap.  Charles Babcock, the man who would co-found White Rock is there, along with another New Yorker, Robert Watson, the man saved from Sioux raiders by Mrs. Frazier’s shotgun in 1869.

So far, so good, right?  Not really.  There are little oddities sprouting up all over the place.  Mrs. Frazier (Spelled “Fraser”) is there with her children William, Mary, Ellen, and Emily.  However, Mary Frazier’s first name is now Alice.  No problem.  Her name could have been Mary Alice, and on this day she may have felt like an Alice.  Never mind that her middle initial was actually “W,” and that “Ellen” should really be a boy named Albert.  Perhaps it was a case of pioneer gender confusion, or he answered the door wearing an apron.  But, as we take a second look at the William Charles family, there are puzzles that require even more creative explanations.

Mrs. Charles’s first name was Lydia.  But in the 1870 census, she’s Sarah A. Charles, and husband and wife are both a few years older than they should be.  The Charles children had Welsh names:  Gomer, Dewi, Morfydd, Olwan, Iestyn.  But not in 1870, when they are named Thomas J., William, Maria, Adelia, John, Ida, Grant.  We might surmise that there could have been another Welshman named William Charles who brought his wife and children to Republic County, while the William Charles family that we’re familiar with was off hiding someplace, replaced by these surrogate pod-people.  It’s possible.

But wait, it gets better.

Ah, there’s Thomas Lovewell, a man whose particulars we know oh, so well.  He was born in Ohio around 1825, so he should be forty-four years old, with a wife named Orel Jane and two children, three-year-old Josephine and a toddler, Simpson Grant.  Close, but no cigar.  This Thomas Lovewell is forty-two and hails from Indiana.  Like William Charles’s wife, Thomas’s is also named Sarah A., and is years older than we expect.  Instead of one of each, this Thomas has two boys, Thomas J., who’s twelve, and seven-year-old Royce.  Royce?

Guesses, anyone?  Well, for a few months in 1870, Thomas Lovewell and William Charles both left their wives and took up with women named Sara A., both of whom had sons named Thomas J., but later came to their senses and went back to their real families.  

Either that, or there was this overworked census-taker who could never find some of the homesteaders on their homesteads, so he sketched in fragmentary information from their neighbors, intending to make one more sweep through the far western reaches of Republic Township, but never did.  It was a hotter-than-blazes July week in Kansas, there had been sporadic Indian raids two months earlier, and it was a long, dangerous, bumpy trail to travel in order to tie up a few mundane lose ends.  Why not fill in the blanks with some reasonable guesswork, sprinkle on a few middle initials here and there to add verisimilitude, and call it done?  After all, no one was ever going to read this stuff.

And that, dear readers, is what he did.  

© Dale Switzer 2023