Evidence and Expectations

I can be fairly dense.  After searching through dozens of records for months on end to find some trace of Thomas Lovewell’s first wife Nancy, after he left her in Iowa and headed for Pikes Peak in 1859, I discovered that I had been looking right past her for quite some time.

According to Civil War pension testimony, Nancy married a widower named Turnbull and died in Topeka, Kansas, in 1888.  I found the Turnbulls, Michael and Mariah and their children, living in Carbondale, Kansas, from 1875 to 1885.  In the 1880 census they lived in the same neighborhood as Edward McCaul and his wife Julia, who was Thomas Lovewell’s long-lost daughter, born to Thomas and Nancy when they lived in Kansas Territory in 1857.  Aha, I reasoned, Nancy Lovewell evidently moved in with her daughter and thus met the Turnbulls.  After Mariah Turnbull’s death, she must have consoled and then married Michael Turnbull and left for Topeka with him for some happy months together before she also died.  Mystery solved.

It was not until I read the particulars attached to Mariah, a woman born in Ohio in 1830, that the light slowly dawned.  Nancy Lovewell and Mariah Turnbull were the same woman, one who evidently did not want something in her past catching up with her, and so began going by her middle name.  She married Michael Turnbull at Richmond, Missouri, in 1872.  The couple had sixteen years together, for better or worse, before Mariah’s death in Topeka.

While I might have learned something from the experience, I had already made exactly the same mistake several times before, and wasn’t quite finished yet.  I kept looking for trails where there were none, while overlooking the ones directly in front of me, because something about them struck me as unfamiliar turf.

In the very first instance, I looked for a massacre that was supposed to have happened in 1865, as Thomas Lovewell made his way toward Iowa from California.  Stephen Lovewell described what happened while his father traveled the Platte Road:

“On his return he spent a night at Gothenberg, Nebraska, which was a government fort at the time.  Arriving at Fort Kearney, word came through that Gothenberg had suffered an Indian attack and all white personnel were killed which was the very night after Lovewell left there.  At Fort Kearney, he was confined several weeks with typhoid fever.  As soon as he could travel although still weak, he left a-foot and alone ... often bunking down without a fire.”

I searched in vain year after year, combing through military histories and pioneer memoirs, looking for something resembling Lovewell’s story.  Finally, I developed a theory that a near-disastrous attack on a fort near Julesburg in 1865 may have been distorted by being filtered through generations of storytellers, until it was transformed into a massacre at a fort which no one seemed to remember.

In fact, I had stumbled upon a major clue back in 2007, while leafing through Gregory Michno’s “Encyclopedia of Indian Wars.”  However, I disregarded this piece of evidence, because the fight described by Michno that took place in May of 1865 at Dan Smith’s Station, two miles from present-day Gothenburg, Nebraska, sounded much too insignificant.  I kept looking elsewhere for a real massacre, until learning that the fight at Smith’s Station was a somewhat dicier affair than I first imagined.  It also occurred to me that Thomas Lovewell was merely reporting a story which he had heard while suffering from typhoid fever in the hospital at Fort Kearny.  I do still believe that the burning of Julesburg sometimes got mingled with the fight at Dan Smith’s Station and the Smith Ranch a few months later, as the two stories meandered up and down the Platte.  Nonetheless, the location of the “government fort” in Lovewell’s story was staring at me for years before I recognized it.

So was the real story behind the tale about the faithful scout known as “White Lily,” an Indian killed in battle fighting alongside white soldiers, and buried with military honors.  Some years ago I had run across a memoir that contained a similar story about a chief of scouts named Stock Whitley.  I put it aside, because the incident involving Whitley happened after Thomas Lovewell’s military service, and in Washington Territory, not northern California, therefore neither when nor where I was expecting to find it.  However, about a year ago I began to be struck by how similar “Whitley” and “White Lily” can sound, especially given Lovewell’s fondness for long vowels.  “White-lee,” “White Lily.”  Very close, indeed.  Then I learned that Washington Territory was where Thomas’s brother Solomon lived at the time of Whitley’s death, only a few miles from Fort Vancouver, where Captain John Drake wrote his final report on the fight which claimed the Indian scout and several soldiers.  I had always supposed that Thomas headed for his brother’s cabin after being discharged from the Army.  I was probably right, on that score.

Hunting faithfully for the death record of Thomas’s son-in-law Edward McCaul, I ignored one that jumped out at me from 1894.  1894 was much too late, I reasoned.  It had to be another Edward McCaul.  The record did not fit the timeline, or at least, the one I had fashioned in my head.  Of course, he was the right Edward McCaul, even if he refused to die when I had decided that he must.  Edward’s demise in 1894 resulted from an accident at a St. Louis depot, perhaps as much as a year earlier.  In some odd way, by imagining and searching so relentlessly for his death long before it really happened, it now feels as if I were plotting a kind of genealogical murder, attempting to kill off a man before his time for my own convenience.

History, even family history, it seems, needs to be treated like a crime scene.  As they are always reminding us on “CSI,” we need to follow the trail of evidence, even if it doesn’t seem to lead where we intend to go.

I’ll try to keep that in mind from now on.

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com