Someplace Else

When the country's most recent economic catastrophe struck in 2008 and papers began reporting on the latest rounds of layoffs, plant closings,  rising unemployment figures, and home foreclosures, I took heart because of a little news item I found which seemed to put the moment in perspective.

Get used to it, was the gist of the piece.  This is the new normal, the writer warned.  Our gravy days are over.  The country must now grow accustomed to the sight of shuttered businesses, empty streets, and abandoned homes with weeds growing up to the stoops.  Welcome to the New America of dismal business activity, chronic joblessness, and dulled dreams.  This how it’s going to be from now on.

The glum business editorial cheered me up because, if memory serves, it was published in a Baltimore newspaper in 1814.  The dire words were prophetic, at least in the short-term.  There had been a downturn in commerce because of a trade embargo, which was extended and deepened by a blockade of British warships.  This was followed by a full-fledged depression at the end of the decade, one of the nation's earliest.  There were various booms and bubbles to come, interspersed with a regular parade of busts, recessions, depressions, and financial panics, lining up as if waiting to punch a clock.  By some estimates there were panics in 1825 and 1837, recessions in  1847 and 1857, then panics in 1873 and 1884 that are sometimes linked to form an era known as the Long Depression, gliding into a steep downturn from 1893 until almost the end the century.  Several economists argue that the period from 1873 to 1898 might well be considered one continuous depression.

The news item popped into my head again after reading sea captain John Lovell’s account of coming to Athens County, Ohio, in 1814 because the shipping business was slow.  We don’t know exactly when Moody Bedel Lovewell and his future bride Betsey arrived, but it must have been no more than a year or two after Capt. John Lovell and his brother Russell brought their families to southeastern Ohio by yankee wagon and flatboat.  If there was a motto to 19th century America, it might have been, When the going gets tough, the tough get going … someplace else.

If hard times in the East in 1814 brought families of Lovewells and Lovells to the Ohio Valley, it is probably no coincidence that the recession of 1847 aligns with the Lovewell family’s removal from Ohio to western Illinois.  When times were hard where you lived, there was always a chance life was easier someplace else, and after the war with Mexico, an already spacious land accumulated a whole new assortment of someplace-elses.  One of these had been known as Alta California before Mexico ceded most of the present-day American Southwest with the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  Alta California was the site of a fort and mill built by a Swiss immigrant named Johann Augustus Sutter, who hoped to keep the discovery of gold by men who were building his mill a secret, not because he wanted all the gold for himself, but because he knew it would mean the end of his dream of an agricultural empire.  There is a family legend that Thomas Lovewell joined the ranks of 300,000 other adventurers who stampeded across Johann Sutter’s sprawling acreage during the California Gold Rush.  

Thomas's career as a 49’er is probably only a family legend, but he and two of his brothers certainly joined the throng headed toward Pikes Peak during the economic slump that started in 1857 and continued until the outbreak of the Civil War.  Like many other prospectors who found Denver already picked clean, Thomas, Alfred, and Solomon Lovewell pushed west toward California and Washington Territory.

Thomas Lovewell may never have been reunited with the young daughter he left behind, if not for the economic doldrums of the 1880’s and 1890’s.  Known to her neighbors in Carbondale, Kansas, in 1884 as Julia McCaul, she and the children were abandoned by her husband Edward, who left the listless business district of Carbondale to open a billiards parlor in St. Louis.  In his absence she welcomed the attentions of a miner named John Robinson, who would whisk her and the children away to Portland, perhaps to join him while he searched for employment, or maybe just so Julia could bear their child out of sight of the gossips at Carbondale.

John Robinson’s dreams of opening a construction business in Portland must have been smothered by the depression that settled over the country in the early 1890’s.  By 1893 Julia McCall had fled to St. Louis, desperate for a husband with a job who could support her family, which now included six children, the three she had with Edward McCaul, John Robinson’s two girls, and her youngest, Lillie, the girl she and Robinson had together.  Edward, who had given up on his goal of becoming a successful entrepreneur, finally went back to his old career as a railroad carpenter.  A fall from the roof of the almost-completed St. Louis depot took away even that.  Julia's only hope now was news about a town in northern Kansas that may have been named for her father, a clue that led to a brief, bittersweet reunion.

In our minds, frontier families were always on the move, crisscrossing the country, driven, we’ve always imagined, by wanderlust, a search for elbow room, a better life, or dreams of El Dorado.  Considering how hard the times were for much of the 19th century, pioneers may simply have been waiting for the chance to slip out of town in the dead of night ahead of the bill collector, no real goal in mind, just headed someplace else.  

© Dale Switzer 2023