The Unabashed Abolitionist

In August of 1881 the editor of the Smith County Pioneer, published at Smith Center, Kansas, probably hoped to extend the paper’s readership outside the boundaries of his own county by offering a few words concerning the history of his nearest neighbor to the east:

The story of Jewell county has been quite as remarkable as that of the early settlement of New England, the record of which has been presented in school history for two hundred years, and, singular, I notice among the bravest of the pioneers of the region the name of Thomas Lovewell, recalling that of the brave Captain Lovewell, who figured in the colonial fighting days of Massachusetts and New Hampshire.  Who knows but the Kansas Lovewell may have been a [descendant]* of the hardy Puritan, the “old blood” asserting itself after a lapse of six or seven generations.

The story of Captain John Lovewell’s fatal 1725 expedition against the Abenaki was dusted off every few years in American newspapers, but the Pioneer may have been the first publication to muse about a family connection between the valiant captain and a locally-well-known 19th century Kansas frontiersman.

The conjecture was wrong on a few points.  Instead of six or seven generations, only three had elapsed since the colonial hero’s demise, and there had never been enough of a lull to allow the “old blood” to cool.  It seemed there was always a ruckus getting started in America.  Captain John Lovewell’s son Nehemiah, born eight months after his father’s death in the celebrated Abenaki ambush, served in the Seven Years’ War, known stateside as the French and Indian War, and enlisted along with his own son Zaccheus in the American Revolution.  Zaccheus’s son Moody Bedel Lovewell, whose middle name honored his father’s regimental commander, shouldered a musket during the War of 1812.

Thomas Lovewell, the great-great-grandson of Captain John Lovewell and the middle son among Moody Bedel Lovewell’s crop of boys, served as a government scout as early as 1857 during tumultuous times on the Kansas frontier.  He joined the 3rd California Infantry while prospecting in the Golden State at the start of the Civil War, was employed once more as a scout and guide in Kansas in 1867, and patrolled fledgling settlements along White Rock creek as a ranger captain until 1870.

Besides his well-documented history as a soldier, scout and relentless gold-seeker, there was another side to Thomas Lovewell’s life which researchers have had to infer.  The case for his role in the fight against slavery in “Bleeding Kansas” may seem weak because it’s been woven entirely out of circumstantial threads.  

Thomas Lovewell brought his family to Marshall County, Kansas Territory, in May of 1856, settling in the southwest corner of the county in the valley of the Black Vermillion River, where they became part of a little community known as Vermillion.  In 1858 Thomas was awarded a government contract to haul mail between Vermillion and a postal destination called Nottingham, which lay about twelve miles to the northeast.  This was an interesting route for the present discussion, because it connected Vermillion with Barrett’s Mill, founded by a Quaker from Pennsylvania named A. G. Barrett, who would be immortalized as the hero of George W. Schiller’s historical narrative, “The Abolitionist.”  A cave near Barrett’s Mill was long rumored to be a stop on the Underground Railroad, smuggling runaway slaves to freedom.

Given Thomas’s family pedigree, a career as a free-state activist would make perfect sense.  His uncle was the Rev. Lyman Lovewell, whose “Sermon on American Slavery” was preached in New Hudson, Michigan, and circulated among the faithful as a pamphlet in 1854.  Newspaper editor and Republican firebrand Horace Greeley was a Lovewell cousin, one whose speeches in Pittsburgh in 1855 propelled anti-slavery colonists to Kansas, among them, A. G. Barrett, Captain S. B. Todd, and D. C. Ault, a few of the more outspoken voices among Thomas Lovewell’s neighbors in the Black Vermillion valley.   

However, I never could put my finger on a definite statement declaring Lovewell to have been an abolitionist - until a few days ago.

An item in the October 7, 1897, edition of the Burr Oak Herald puts any question about the matter to rest:

John Brown

Thos. Lovewell, of Lovewell, one of the first settlers on the White Rock, was also one of the followers of Old John Brown, of Osawattomie.**

Although the Herald provides no context or attribution for its cryptic blurb, it seems safe to assume that the source was Thomas Lovewell himself.  By 1897 Thomas was a member Mankato’s Jim Lane G.A.R. Post 34, named for James Henry Lane, a controversial figure in Territorial Kansas who became one of the state’s first senators, before commanding a band of irregulars who looted and burned pro-slavery settlements during the Civil War.  Joining the Jim Lane post must have stoked long-buried memories for the Kansas frontiersman, who evidently regaled fellow veterans at the post with stories about the tooth-and-nail battle for the soul of Kansas in the 1850’s.

Thomas may have admired John Brown and followed the wild-eyed figure’s exploits with avid interest, but was that all he meant when he called himself a follower?  Or was Lovewell one of the miscellaneous free-staters who marched on Lawrence or fought in vain to hold off a horde of boarder ruffians at the Battle of Osawatomie?  

While his role probably involved nothing more than cheering from the sidelines, that one simple statement from a Jewell County newspaper provides food for thought … and for further research into exactly what went on in Kansas Territory.

* The editor of the Herald actually used the word “defendant” when he surely meant “descendant”

** There’s an undeniable temptation to double some letter in “Osawatomie,” a word created by merging the names of two streams, the Osage and the Pottawatomie.  To confuse matters further, referring to the Potawatomi Nation instead of the stream requires a nip and a tuck.  It’s a distinction that’s separated the men from the boys in Kansas spelling bees for decades.  

© Dale Switzer 2023