First Person Singular

When Roy Alleman’s book “The Bloody Saga of White Rock” was published in 1995, a descriptive summary on the back cover described the work as being “Based in part on the diaries of Tom’s wife, Orel Jane Lovewell…”

Some of Alleman’s lightly-varnished version of Thomas Lovewell’s life was indeed distilled from stories told or written down by Orel Jane Lovewell.  Many were taken almost verbatim from tales that were included in “The Lovewell Family” by Gloria G. Lovewell.  Some of the best of these are Orel Jane’s account of being terrorized by a buffalo hide she mistook for a wild critter, her trials and triumphs as a turkey-hunter, and the long hours she spent stranded on the prairie halfway to Junction City, when the couple’s mule tried to high-tail it back to Clyde, and Tom had to leave her alone with the wagon to go in pursuit.  

While these are among the stories which seem to be personal memoirs, all told from a single point of view, were they ever part of anything that deserves to be called a diary?

There is a collection of handwritten monographs kept by a member of the Lovewell family, which some have dubbed “The Orel Jane Diaries,” and may be the same sheaf of papers which Roy Alleman consulted during his research.  However, at least one Lovewell cousin believes the handwriting on the pages appears to be that of Orel Jane Lovewell’s granddaughter and Lovewell family historian, Orel Poole, who died in 1983.  The writings may turn out to be Orel Poole’s handwritten manuscript for a pamphlet she called “Sketches of the White Rock,” a project which seems to have proceeded no further than some copies run off on a spirit duplicator, before the Belleville Telescope published portions of it for a wider audience in 1958, during the weeks leading up to the dedication of Lovewell State Park.

In “The Lovewell Family,” Gloria Lovewell often draws a sharp distinction between the writings of Orel Jane Lovewell, and the stories her children and grandchildren remembered hearing her tell.  An example of the latter provides a good lesson in why that distinction is worth preserving.

Another story that Mrs. Lovewell liked to tell concerned a well-to-do couple who came from New York.  They stopped at the Lovewells’ home at White Rock.  They were on their way to North Branch then called Yorkville.  It had been settled by Quakers from new York and they wished to join that settlement.

The couple hired two local boys to take them to the settlement.  They started early in the morning so as to make the drive in one day, but they only got as far as the “Narrows” on the Pontas Ross farm when they saw Indians coming.  The boys jumped down from the wagon, cut the horses loose and dashed away on their backs, leaving the man and woman in the wagon.

When I first started to read the account from Gloria Lovewell’s book, it seemed to be a previously-unknown tale, until the second paragraph, when events begin to follow a path that is at once familiar and foreign.  This turns out to be another version of the story of the Ackerlys, newlyweds who joined Excelsior colonists from Brooklyn for a very brief but memorable stay in Jewell County in May of 1869.

Every stage of the couple’s ordeal was observed by a number of eyewitnesses who wrote about the portion of it which they saw.  Washington County Deputy Sheriff C. M. Murdock and ten men who were with him ran into the Ackerlys when they were fleeing from the Indians and heading for the Lovewell cabin in the middle of the night.  Excelsior colonists included another part of the tale in a letter they wrote to their fellow members back in Brooklyn who were waiting for their turn to come to Kansas.  Thomas Lovewell was no doubt the source for the story as it appears in Winsor and Scarbrough’s 1878 pamphlet of Jewell County history.  Finally, Ernest Ackerly himself described what happened in the wagon after the “local boys,” William and Frank Frazier, galloped away, hoping to draw the indians away from the Ackerlys while riding on their desperate mission to warn the rest of the colonists.

Most of this testimony fits together quite neatly, except for the version remembered by Orel Jane’s family, which is confused on a number of points, from the very beginning.  The Ackerlys were not on their way to the New York colony when the Indians attacked the wagon.  They had arrived a few days earlier.  Ernest Ackerly realized almost at once that he had brought his new bride to a dangerous spot, and hired the Fraziers to take them back to the railway station at Waterville.  The detail that the colony was made up of Quakers is a new wrinkle, perhaps accurate, or perhaps another story that has bled into this one, an anecdote about clothing donated by Quakers and delivered to destitute settlers in Jewell County.  

The tale may have strayed off-course immediately because it was not about an event which Orel Jane Lovewell personally witnessed.  In 1869 she was probably safely back at Clifton taking care of a two-year-old and a newborn during the series of Dog Soldier attacks in the last week of May.  It was not one of the stories she wrote down, but only one she “liked to tell.”  Even the stories she did write, may have been produced later in life when she had some spare time to fill, and wanted people to understand what early days along the White Rock had been like.  Though we may not have diaries or journals which the lady kept day-to-day while she was living that great adventure with her husband, we can be grateful for what she did leave us.

© Dale Switzer 2023