No Small Potatoes

I took some of my own advice a few days ago, and in addition to searching newspaper archives for “Thomas Lovewell,” I also opted to try “Thos. Lovewell.”  Now, I’ve submitted this abbreviated form of his name from time to time, but new sources come online continually and on this occasion a couple of interesting items popped up which I’ve never seen before.  They’re admittedly small discoveries, and I probably should fight the urge to connect them with facts already known, but it’s so tempting.  

Twenty-six years before the Daily Champion reported on Thomas Lovewell’s lawsuit against Atchison’s rich new widow, Marie M. Everest, it ran this in its October 29, 1870 edition:  

Republic County - We clip the following items from the Belleville Telescope of the 21st.

— Thirty white covered wagons loaded with immigrants, arrived in Belleville on Friday and Saturday last, all hunting land.

— Mr. Lovewell, of White Rock, informs us that off two acres of land he will have four hundred bushels of potatoes.

While this one might seem trivial, it’s significant not only for being topical, what with “The Martian” still playing in theaters right now, introducing the growth-cycle of potatoes to a new generation, but for being the first known appearance of Lovewell’s name in the Belleville paper, and one that comes to light indirectly.  Although the Telescope was established on 20 September 1870, preservation of issues before 1876 was spotty.  The October 21st edition of its freshman year is among several which are missing from the newspaper’s own archives.  A tiny item about Lovewell’s four-hundred-bushel harvest exists today solely because its promise of fertile land farther west was deemed worthy of being reprinted in the Atchison Daily Champion.

There was also something about that potato crop on his two-acre field that set the wheels in my head to turning.

Attacks by Cheyenne Dog Soldiers in late May of the previous year had driven away several of Thomas Lovewell’s neighbors, including Pontus Ross, who fled to Junction City leaving four acres planted to corn and half an acre of seed potatoes.  While farms along western Republic County and nearly all of Jewell County lay untended through the rest of the year, we know that Lovewell remained on his, or at least dropped in occasionally.  In August of that year he installed a newcomer named Peter Kearns on a homestead site that was near the scene of the 1867 Jewell County Massacre.  An emigrant family crossing the Republican River at Christmas were invited to stop at the Lovewell cabin and share his holiday feast. 

To produce a yield of 200 bushels of potatoes to an acre requires about 15 bushels of seed potatoes per acre, for a total of 30 bushels to seed Thomas’s two-acre plot (Isn’t the Internet a wonderful place?).  Where did Thomas get his 30 bushels of seed potatoes in 1870?  My brain automatically jumped to an unwarranted conclusion.  Thomas might have been planting potatoes since 1867.  In fact, he may have given Ross the seed for his half-acre.  It sounds like something he would do.  

Still, it would have been a sin to let all of those hills of potatoes in Ross’s abandoned patch rot in the ground, wouldn’t it?  Just a thought.

Although we can’t be sure any money changed hands over it, the May 22, 1879, issue of the Atchison Daily Champion carried the equivalent of a help-wanted ad from Thomas Lovewell, his name again lightly camouflaged by abbreviation.   

Thos. Lovewell of White Rock, Republic county, wishes a colored farm hand; a single man under forty is wanted.  Scandia is the nearest railroad station.

We might guess that Thomas was only angling for a bargain in a hired man, if we knew nothing more about his background:  for instance, that his uncle Lyman Lovewell was a fire-breathing abolitionist, that Thomas had joined a Free-State settlement in Territorial Kansas in 1856, and scouted for Buffalo Soldiers from one of the Colored Regiments in 1867.  Viewed in that context, Thomas's search for a “colored farm hand” resembles an early form of affirmative action along the Kansas frontier.

The ad also could have been submitted with a touch of mischief, since it doesn’t seem to have been clipped from another paper, but appears in a column of news notes mingled with paid advertisements disguised as news, all under the title “Street Gossip.”  Curious readers could quickly glean such interesting local facts as, “The subscription papers for the Atchison Public Library were prepared yesterday,” or “The new carriage factory walls mount upward,” and in the next sentence learn that “You can now buy one of those stylish $10 cheviot men’s suits for $8 at N. Stetter’s.”

Perhaps we need to be reminded that Atchison was a town named in honor of Senator David Rice Atchison, the border ruffian who summoned a mob of fellow Missourians to Kansas Territory in 1855 to vote a pro-slavery territorial legislature into office, even if they had “to kill every God-damned abolitionist in the district.”  If Thomas Lovewell deliberately used the Atchison Daily Champion to advertise for  an African-American farm hand, it may have been a sincere recruitment effort that also looks like a one-fingered salute to an old foe.  That's going too far.  Let’s just say he may have written the ad with a twinkle in his eye.

It was not the last item about Thomas Lovewell to be printed in the Daily Champion that has been waiting to be discovered by searching for him as “Thos.”  In their 9 January 1896 edition, the paper published a tribute that was distilled from an item printed in the Scandia Journal two weeks earlier.

Thos. Lovewell, of Republic county, was a terror to the Indians in the ’60’s, when there were but a few settlers along the White Rock to resist the depredations of the red skins.  His bravery and knowledge of fighting the Indians saved the handful of settlers along the White Rock, where that town and Lovewell now stands, from being massacred.  He is getting aged, but he can relate many thrilling incidents of his pioneer life.

The original story carried in the Scandia Journal had a fuller and much more touching conclusion. 

But the old man’s step is growing unsteady and the gray locks tell that time is weighing heavily upon him, still he can relate the thrilling incidents of his frontier life as clearly and readily as though they had happened only last month.  It’s a treat to hear the old man relate his interesting life.

Seven months after the Daily Champion paraphrased the Scandia Journal article, the old and unsteady pioneer with the gray locks sued an Atchison socialite for $6,000.  No small potatoes indeed.

© Dale Switzer 2023