Red Letter Year

One of the perquisites of going to Yale was getting a lengthy write-up in the yearly record of obituaries to note your passing.  This tradition makes it a simple matter to locate the personal histories of Thomas Lovewell’s cousins John and Joseph Lovewell, the descendants of his grandfather Zaccheus's brother Nehemiah.

Professor Joseph Taplin Lovewell was the younger brother, but the first to die.  On a cold January day in 1917, he slipped on an icy sidewalk in front of his Topeka home, broke his hip, and remained a helpless, bedridden invalid until his death at the age of 85 in September of the following year.  Around the time of Joseph’s accident, or perhaps even a year or two earlier, his older brother John moved to California where there were no dangerously icy sidewalks.  In 1923, after an illnest lasting a month, John peacefully succumbed to peneumonia and heart trouble at 92.

Besides listing educational achievements, such as John’s first Clark Premium in astronomy and his second DeForrest Prize in Mathematics, John’s obituary in particular reveals something about the state of Lovewell family history in 1923:

John Lovewell was born in Corinth, Vt., September 1, 1829, the son of Nehemiah Lovewell, a farmer and justice of the peace, and Martha (Willis) Lovewell.  His paternal grandparents were John and Vodica Lovewell, and he was a descendant of John Lovewell, who was an Ensign in Cromwell's Army in 1658 and the eldest son of John Lovewell, who came from Weymouth, England, prior to 1690 and settled in Dunstable, Mass.

A study of the families of Dunstable, published in 1911 by Ezra Stearns (See Another Fine Mess), had shown the Lovewells to be  descended from a man whose family name was often recorded as some variation on “Lowell” who was the father of John Lovewell, the man who greeted Hannah Duston and was proud to hang a shingle in front of his house saying so.  This John Lovewell was a legendary figure who was supposed to have attained the age of 120, although Stearns whittled this down to a more reasonable figure by finding the record of his birth in 1660 at Scituate.  This document also disproves the claim that he could have been "an Ensign in Cromwell’s Army in 1658.”  

Intriguingly, none of the information available to John and Joseph Lovewell, including the study by Ezra Stearns (Which the brothers evidently never saw), connected their ancestor John Lovewell with Robert Lovell of Weymouth.  Stearns seems to suggest that the name was originally “Lowell."  Nothing in the exhaustive research by T. D. Rhodes and May Lovell Rhodes, published as “A Biographical Genealogy of the Lovell Family in England and America” hints at any variant spelling of the family name, either.  In fact, according to the Rhodeses, the son of Robert Lovell whom some suspect of being the John Lowell who married 14-year-old Elizabeth Sylvester at Scituate in 1658, actually married a different woman, Jane Hatch, and had a son named John, born in 1658.

If 1658 seems to be a watershed year in the tangled history of the Lovells/Lovewells, I’ve left out one important historical event which definitely occurred that year, one which, as I’ve speculated earlier, could help to explain the evolution of the family name.  It was in September of 1658 that Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, died of natural causes.  Oliver Cromwell was a Puritan, like Robert Lovell and most other settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  When Cromwell sided with the Roundheads during the English Civil War, a number of colonists sailed back to England to join the fight against the Royalists.  Could Robert Lovell’s son have been among them?  One Lovewell tradition maintains that the ancestor who was an ensign was 25 at the time.  An ensign in Cromwell’s army may have had little to do in 1658, but in 1652, the year Robert Lovell’s son John in fact turned 25, that army was in Ireland battling an alliance of the Irish Catholic Confederation and English Royalists.   

The Commonwealth of England barely outlived its first Lord Protector.  Less than two years after Cromwell’s death the Royalists returned to power, and showed little inclination to forgive.  Oliver Cromwell had been one of 59 Commissioners who signed the death warrant for King Charles I in 1649.  In addition to several signers who were imprisoned or hanged, drawn, and quartered, three who had died before the English Restoration were executed posthumously.  Oliver Cromwell’s corpose was removed from Westminster Abbey, hung in chains at Tyburn for most a day and then beheaded.  The bodies were thrown into lime pits, while the heads of the signers were placed on 20-foot spikes overlooking Westminster Hall.

In researching Thomas Lovewell and his family, I’ve learned to put much more faith in family stories.  Even the ones that are basically wrong, often turn out to be littered with important truths.  No, old John Lovewell wasn’t as old as people thought, certainly not old enough to be an ensign in Cromwell’s army.  But he was very old.  And someone must have been an ensign, even if it wasn’t him.  And something important must have happened in 1658, something that generated lasting ripples in the family story.

© Dale Switzer 2023