The Great Divide

I was taken aback for a moment at the Lovewell Family Reunion last weekend when, minutes before I was to give my presentation on Thomas Lovewell, an attendee asked me, “You’re not going to whitewash the dark side of the story, are you?”  Pretty sure I knew what was on my Lovewell cousin’s mind, I tried to be reassuring.  I was going to tell the truth, no more, no less.  A second surprise came after I was finished talking, when another cousin apologized for being unused to speaking in public before taking the microphone and announcing the results of a DNA test provided through

This was only the second relative I know who’s taken the test or is contemplating doing it, one of Prof. Joseph Taplin Lovewell’s great-great-grandchildren being the other.  A DNA test can yield some interesting results, demolish family myths about a distant Native American heritage, reveal an unexpected Jewish kinship line, or as in the case of Billie Jean King, prove that she is the whitest white person in America, with a genetic heritage so completely unblended that her DNA strands are held together by mayonnaise.

What startling verdict was revealed to the assembled cousins last weekend?  Well, great-great-grandpa turns out to have been (insert drumroll here) a certain regionally-well-known Western pioneer named Thomas Lovewell, while great-great-grandma was a Davis girl.  Was there ever any doubt?  Oddly enough, perhaps a shred of one, at least in a few minds.  

Ancestry’s test is surprisingly affordable, but still costs nearly as much as a year’s subscription to their site.  You don’t just wake up one morning with the irresistable impulse to spit into a shiny test tube and pay someone $100 for the privilege.  Here’s an interesting non-coincidence:  both cousins who wanted to hear the unvarnished truth declared in front of witnesses last Sunday, share one special bit of genetic make-up with me.  All three of us are descendants of Thomas and his first wife, Nancy Mariah Davis.  Evidently, we’re the ones in the family history who sometimes feel like All-Stars with asterisks beside our names.  I’ve even heard faint rumblings about family members from our branch who attended reunions in the 50’s only to be greeted about as warmly as Cousin Eddie at the Griswald Christmas party.

The reason for a schism in the family, if you can call it that, may be a resounding, granite-shattering collision between long-accepted legend and a contrary piece of evidence chiseled in stone over 120 years ago in White Rock Cemetery:  according to her headstone Thomas Lovewell’s daughter “Julany” Robinson was born in 1856*.  The competing legend was also carved in stone, though much more recently, and now stands near the entrance to Lovewell State Park to remind vacationers that, among his other historic credentials, Thomas Lovewell was a “Forty-Niner”  According to the familiar story summarized most vividly by Roy V. Alleman in his 1998 novel “The Bloody Saga of White Rock,” Thomas left for California on a quest for gold in 1849, not to return for 16 years.

Dueling Monuments

In the immortal words of Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings, “There’s a Balrog in the woodpile.”

If she were born in 1856, not only couldn't “Julany” be his daughter, but, if we give any credit to Thomas’s statement on an 1898 pension form stating that Nancy died in 1853, she couldn’t even be his wife’s daughter.  I can’t blame any Lovewell cousins versed in family lore who saw my aunts and uncles sharing their potluck picnic on the grounds where White Rock City once stood, and wondered, "Who are these people, anyway?”

We now understand that part of the family legend is sheer balderdash.  The pity is, it’s not even interesting balderdash.  The facts are much more compelling, and make Thomas Lovewell out to be a far more decent man than the heartless cad who supposedly deserted his family and returned 16 years later, shocked to find loved ones dead or scattered to the winds, and weeds taking over the family farm.  We know, for instance, that Thomas never claimed to be a “Forty-Niner” but stated quite clearly that his first venture into the West was a trip to Pikes Peak in 1859.  Newspaper clippings quote him as saying he came to Kansas in 1856.  Orel Jane Lovewell’s obituary provides a clue that her parents went with him, dragging her along when she was 13.  According to Daniel Davis’s descendants, even Orel Jane’s brother Daniel and his wife Duranda decided to join the train of Iowans who were marching off to man the ramparts in Kansas.

It now seems that they may have done so at the urging of Thomas’s uncle, the Rev. Lyman Lovewell, an abolitionist firebrand who wanted to make sure that the young territory entered the Union as a free state.  We know that long after Lyman Lovewell and the Davises were driven away by drought (and the loss of Daniel and Duranda's children, including a newborn named Kansas Victory Davis), Thomas stayed on, supplementing whatever meager living he could pry from the parched earth of Marshall County by scouting for the Army during the Cheyenne and Arapaho Uprising and hauling mail between Vermillion City and Nottingham.

I wonder sometimes if my side of the family doesn’t nurse a grudge against Thomas.  Can there be some lingering bitterness, even after 150 years, about gathering at a picnic site to celebrate the life of a man who rode away one morning and left a wife and daughter alone to shift for themselves on the frontier?  Is there a chance we've turned into the Tommy Smothers** branch of the Lovewell family?

Just as Thomas and Nancy's early arrival in Kansas Territory seemed to slip through the cracks of family memory, we’re only beginning to understand his motives for heading to Pikes Peak.  Thomas must have been itching to invest his profits on the sale of Iowa farm land into a new moneymaking venture.  A few months after failing to snag one of those big, juicy mail routes in Kansas Territory in 1858, he heard about a land of opportunity opening up near the new town of Denver City.  He did not hit the heavily-traveled road toward Pikes Peak immediately, but evidently fulfilled his one minuscule year-long mail contract and then carted his family back to Iowa, moving them into a cabin a few miles from Osceola, on a farm that was situated conveniently close to Nancy’s brother Vinson and her sister Jemima.  Only after delivering them safely did he head off to hit the outfitters’ stores as St. Joe.  

According to Thomas's son Stephen, the plan was to equip a wagon with more gear and supplies than he would ever need, and either hit paydirt quickly at Pikes Peak or sell out at a profit.  If his tale of driving a dozen oxen out of St. Joe is accurate, that many beasts must have been needed to drag some very heavy and expensive hardware, not only several sets of digging tools and kegs of blasting powder, but probably a massive quartz mill for pulverizing rock, along with the chemistry set needed to separate gold from slag.  Although getting to Pikes Peak took only a few weeks, Thomas had set out on the trail much too late.  With the gold craze already dying down, some new arrivals, as well as many westbound travelers, began turning around and heading home.  Thomas could either sell all of his recent purchases at a steep loss or keep moving west.

We know which option he chose.  There is a dark side to the story, but it’s not what you'd expect.  We’ll get around to it eventually.


*As I always interject at this point, his daughter was a year younger than Thomas remembered, born in 1857.

**For those who’ve forgotten or are too young to know, Tommy’s eternal comeback to his brother Dick was, “Mom always liked you best."    

© Dale Switzer 2023