Wishful Thinking

When I gave a little presentation on the life of Thomas Lovewell for the 2013 Lovewell/Davis family reunion at Lovewell State Park in Jewell County, I disappointed a few attendees by casting doubt on Thomas Lovewell’s bona fides as a “49’er.”  I pointed out that as far as I could tell, it was a distinction Thomas never claimed for himself, even though the inscription on a monument near the entrance to the beautiful recreational spot where we gathered on that day in early June, describes Thomas Lovewell as a “Soldier, Government Scout, Forty-Niner, Hunter, and Frontier Guide.”  The one time he talked to a reporter about his younger days, he explicitly stated that his first great adventure in the West began in 1859 with a trip to St. Joseph, Missouri, his point of embarcation for the trail to Pikes Peak.  As far as I was concerned, that brief memoir was the final nail in the coffin of the “49’er” business, as far as he was concerned.

However, that granite monument at the park bears witness to a longstanding tradition in the Lovewell family that old Tom joined the throng of eager prospectors bound for California in 1849.  Stephen Lovewell’s outline of his father’s life, written in 1948, has him making the trip across the plains, mountains and deserts almost exactly a century earlier, stopping briefly at Pikes Peak before heading on to Nevada, California, and the Pacific Northwest by 1850.  Roy Alleman’s fictional treatment “The Bloody Saga of White Rock” follows suit, explaining that Thomas was drawn to Denver by rumors of a gold strike, one which history tells us would not happen for another ten years.  Disappointed by the slim pickings near Pikes Peak, according to Alleman, he kept moving west.

One of the earliest tales recounted about Thomas’s experiences in California is the one about making a thirsty ramble through Death Valley in search of phantom treasure, only to stumble out, half-dead, leaving an unfortunate partner buried under a pile of rocks.  It’s the sort of thing that probably did happen when hundreds of novice gold-hunters descended on that aptly-named valley - in the spring of 1860.  Even though everything about Thomas’s stories suggest that he left Iowa in 1859, the same year he explicitly named while talking to a reporter from the Courtland Register, it’s hard to let go of a venerated belief.  After concluding my talk in 2013, touching on all the reasons Thomas probably wasn’t a “49’er,” one family member sidled up to me and confessed, “I still like to think he was.”

I have my own confession to make.  I like to think he was a “49’er” too, but I understand that such faith hangs on something only slightly more substantial than wishful thinking.

I’ve seen no evidence that Thomas Lovewell went anywhere in 1849, beyond the everyday trips back and forth between his farm in Warren County, Illinois, and nearby settlements that were large enough to support a general store.  However, there are a few loose ends that could be tied up neatly by assuming that the Lovewell boys aimed their wagon toward the sunset during the California Gold Rush.

First, there’s the evidence of the 1850 census for Warren County, which finds William and Christopher Lovewell living on the farm owned by their 24-year-old brother Thomas.  Thomas had married Nancy Davis in Ohio in August 1846.  The couple were still childless in 1850, their infant daughter Lydia having died of a fever sometime during the year prior to the census.  Christopher was 22 in 1850, William 29, and both men gave their occupation as carpenters.

I sometimes have to fight the urge to view their situation in 1850 not as a living arrangement, but as a rendezvous point, a gathering of three brothers who weren’t really there at that precise moment, having struck out for California some months earlier.  Even if Thomas, William and Christopher were away on such a trip, they would have been counted as residents in the 1850 census, so long as they were expected to return soon.  It’s the same reason Thomas would be numbered among the family members living in his cabin at Clarke County, Iowa, ten years later, when he was actually prospecting in Virginia City.

Then there’s the matter of William Lovewell, who apparently ducked out of a first marriage to Charlotte Bohall, deserting his wife and their two small boys to join his brothers.  Was there more to it than merely forsaking his new family and running back to his old one?  When men bade farewell to their families in that era, it was usually to head for the beckoning gold fields of California, not the verdant farm plots of western Illinois.

According to the 1889 “Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Northeast Arkansas,” William Lovewell didn’t just go missing from his household at the southwest tip of Indiana - he dropped dead at Natchez in 1850.

John A. Lovewell, a prominent farmer, and at present deputy sheriff of Mississippi County, Ark., is a native of Warrick County, Ind., born in 1848, and the younger of two sons born to William A. and Charlotte (Bohall) Lovewell, natives of New York and Indiana, respectively. The father was a building contractor, and while following this business in Natchez, Miss., in 1850, he was taken sick and died.

Although I used to take it at face value, the little paragraph concerning John A. Lovewell’s parentage continues a few errors.  His father’s middle initial, if rendered correctly on the record of his marriage to Charlotte Bohall, was not “A” but “B,” as in Bedel.  John’s own middle name was Alfred, which was also the name of William Bedel Lovewell’s youngest brother.  If John A. Lovewell’s father was indeed the same William Bedel Lovewell many of us think he was, then he wasn’t born in New York, nor did he die in his twenties at Natchez.

While researching the Lovewell family and their neighbors I’ve happened upon several wives who were deserted by their husbands in the mid-19th century, but who tried to put an honorable face on the situation by inventing fictive deaths for their absent spouses.  Charlotte Lovewell seems destined to take her place alongside Nancy Lovewell, Mariah Setzer, Hanna Bartlett, and Orel Jane Moore, wives who preferred to be thought of as grieving widows rather than wronged women.  Another status the latter four share is that they were forsaken by their husbands, not for other women, but for a chance to strike it rich in the West.

If William Lovewell fled the southwestern tip of Indiana to lead his brothers to the promised land in 1849, he was back in Illinois in time to marry Martha Ogden at the end of 1850.  Four years later, Thomas, Solomon, William and Martha Lovewell arrived in Iowa with the means to invest in hundreds of acres of farm land which quickly increased in value.  

Despite the fact that Thomas Lovewell never claimed to be a “49’er,” there’s an outside chance that he was one.  That's at least enough reason to indulge in some wishful thinking.

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com