Bloody Secrets - Part 2

The previous entry dealt primarily with erroneous details of Thomas Lovewell’s personal story as presented in Roy V. Alleman’s 1995 The Bloody Saga of White Rock.  However, the book also misplaces or exaggerates a few matters of regional history.

“Fort Gothenburg”

This one drove me crazy for a while, but eventually I realized that the attack on a fort near present-day Gothenburg, Nebraska, really did happen - just not the way it’s presented in the book. 

Roy Alleman scores points for a nice dramatic moment here, having Thomas awaken from delirium at Fort Kearny, allowing the doctor attending him to jog his memory by filling in some important blanks about a massacre at “Fort Gothenburg,” where Thomas had spent the night.  

Chapter Three

Although Gothenburg was not settled until the late 1870’s, there had been a very small government fort near a ranch a few miles south of town.  Thomas Lovewell really was ailing when he caught a ride on a supply wagon bound for Fort Kearny.  

Like many other outposts on the Platte River route, Dan Smith’s Station was typically staffed by only a few soldiers.  Commissary Sergeant Hiram Creighton was killed in the attack of May 12, 1865, but the two surviving privates and other nearby troops fought a pitched battle throughout the day, resulting in a Medal of Honor for one of them. (See “The High Point of Mr. Lohnes”)

Amusingly, Alleman and longstanding family history has the Lovewell and Davis families arriving at the banks of White Rock Creek the same month when the so-called “massacre" at Gothenburg took place.  This timetable would give Thomas Lovewell no more than two weeks to reach Iowa, learn the fate of his family, woo and marry Orel Jane, and return to Kansas.  Instead, it took a year, including a winter layover near Kansas City.

“On the night of April 18…”

Alleman’s book actually improves slightly on Winsor & Scarbrough’s account of the White Rock Massacre of 1867, by sliding the date from April 9 to April 18, although it probably happened even 11 or 12  days after that.  Just as it appears in the pioneer history of the Jewell County, The Bloody Saga also puts the slaughter of six buffalo hunters from Clifton and Lake Sibley in 1868, two years too late.  

It really happened in 1866, only weeks after the Lovewells and Davises arrived on the scene, and made news headlines across the nation.  The killings probably scared off Thomas Lovewell’s chief rival for 160 acres of rich farmland where the settlement of White Rock would get its start.  

Perhaps a more significant alteration of the facts is Alleman’s account of Mrs. Marling’s July 1866 ordeal, which makes her treatment by Cheyenne captors seem far less brutal than it actually was.  In this case Alleman apparently ignored historical consensus to provide his version with an upbeat ending.

Toward the tail end of The Bloody Saga of White Rock, Thomas’s expeditions in search of gold late in life are also out of order.  His fact-finding voyage to Alaska in 1900 was not a last hurrah.  It only seemed to reignite his appetite for adventure, resulting in eight trips to Wyoming between 1901 and 1908, often made by covered wagon.  

It bears repeating that instead of bailing out of the prospecting business in his early 70’s, Thomas Lovewell doggedly kept at it until a few months before turning 82.

Published when the author was in his mid-eighties, The Bloody Saga of White Rock is a workmanlike expansion of the seventeen typewritten pages which genealogical sleuth Sherman Lee Pompey tucked into his magnum opus of Lovewell family history, The Wolf and Little Wolf, self-published in 1962.  

Tales surrounding Thomas Lovewell had been taking literary form since Ellen Morlan Warren began sharing stories about the settlement of White Rock in local newspapers in the early 1930’s.  After writing about the Dahl brothers and those early-day entrepreneurs the Morlans (Ellen’s father and her uncle), she titled the third chapter of White Rock Historical Sketches, “Tom Lovewell Was Soldier and Scout.”  That much-used halftone engraving of the grizzled pioneer appears to have been the booklet’s only illustration.  Some of the entries, by the way, were undoubtedly collaborations between Ms. Warren and Lovewell family historian Orel Elizabeth Poole.

By 1995, eleven years since Little House on the Prairie left the network schedule, time may have seemed ripe for tales of Thomas Lovewell to start making the rounds as young adult fiction.  Just as the Little House books don’t give a completely accurate account of the Ingalls household, Roy V. Alleman took some liberties with the family story, which had already undergone a light scrubbing.

A number of important details were omitted, which would have added a gritty texture to a tale of life on the frontier.

Like many parents in the Old West, Thomas and Nancy Lovewell lost several infants to childhood maladies, including a daughter named Lydia who died in 1849.  Most of these losses occurred in the early years of their marriage, before the birth of Julany Lovewell in Kansas Territory in 1857.  I have never seen a drop of evidence for an elusive child named “Nancy Jane.”

Not only were Thomas and Nancy pioneers in southern Iowa before coming to Kansas in May of 1856, but Thomas’s brother Alfred soon joined them along the Black Vermillion in Marshall County.  First, however, Alfred and his buddies had to break out of jail in Iowa where they were awaiting trial for housebreaking and stealing horses.  Alfred was young and may have run with a wild crowd.

Nancy Lovewell started divorce proceedings against her truant husband in 1865, just as Thomas was hitting the trail back to Iowa, a whole year after being discharged from the Army.  Despite dropping her divorce case, Nancy felt free to marry a widower named Michael Turnbull in 1872.  Mr. Turnbull and Nancy’s son-in-law would soon go into the bootlegging business together at Carbondale, Kansas.  

According to a family story, a daughter of Nancy's who had been born out of wedlock in 1870 operated a brothel in St. Louis.  The proceeds of a sinful professional apparently kept the family from starving during the depression of the 1890’s.

A few other details in the book have been invented or embroidered.

It is unlikely that Thomas Lovewell helped to deliver two horse thieves to a lynch mob at Salem, once a thriving settlement thirty-five miles west of White Rock.  Alleman may have written Thomas into the story as an excuse for smuggling this notorious bit of local history into his book.  The hanging of Guy Whitmore and Jake Hanes in 1871 would make a fascinating subject for another book altogether.

In another matter of summary justice, Thomas might not have learned about the shooting of Vinson Davis and Arktiles Bump until weeks after the lynching of their supposed ambushers.  He was scouting for the 10th Cavalry at the time, covering an area between the Little Blue and the Solomon River.

There are several family stories recounted in Bloody Saga that at least have some grounding in reality, such as those involving a stallion named “Black Morgan.”  Thomas did own such a horse which he enjoyed showing off to neighbors, although the book brings him to the Lovewell stable about eight years too early.  The first reported sighting of Thomas riding the three-year-old colt appeared in 1877.  

A suspiciously entertaining anecdote from the book, the one involving Thomas having a few drinks with friends and waking up in a coffin surrounded by flowers, is fairly accurate.  It did not happen in Kansas City nor late in life, as reported, but at the county seat of Belleville when Thomas was 51, only a little more than halfway to the finish line.

Gun-Shy and Illiterate?

Finding a few hints of behavior in the family tales, Alleman probably stretches them too far.  Daniel Davis may have been a lay minister and sometimes G.A.R. chaplain, but it’s doubtful that he had a strict aversion to firearms.  He had served in the infantry during the Civil War and was later a lawman in south-central Kansas.  

Orel Jane did not have to tutor her husband.  Although Thomas’s wife was believed to have been a teacher, no evidence has emerged.   Thomas himself may have been a reluctant correspondent at times but he had always been able to read and write, as his numerous published letters to various editors attest.  Samples of handwriting from Thomas and Orel Jane show that he might have been the one who put in more hours of practice wielding a pencil.

A Legitimate Saga

Roy Alleman’s book is certainly bloody enough, and the word may have been selected as an apt warning to squeamish readers.  A saga is generally described as a narrative of incidents involving a hero or a family, usually through more than one generation.  And we don’t necessarily expect a saga to get all the details right, only to have some basis in fact.  

So, well done, Mr. Alleman.  If nothing else, The Bloody Saga of White Rock has reopened a cold case, providing numerous clues for further investigation

© Dale Switzer 2023