And the Question Is...

I’ve written before about a slight disagreement I have with the birth year given for Thomas Lovewell by other sources, including his obituary and his headstone.  I also question whether he went to California, or anywhere else in 1849, as family memoirs claim, or chose to stay on his farm in Warren County, Illinois.  On the other hand, there can be little doubt that he was prospecting in what would soon be Nevada Territory in the summer of 1860, after a brief but disappointing stopover north of Pikes Peak, even though that year’s census also lists him as a resident of Clarke County, Iowa.

Interpreting the census can be a bit like playing a round of “Jeopardy,” the game show with a well-known gimmick of blaring out the correct answers, while contestants must ring in with the matching questions.  On census returns in 1850 and 1860, Thomas Lovewell gave answers of “24” and “34” respectively.  What question was asked those years, and in most, if not all, of the following census years?  Did it leave room for ambiguity?  No.  The wording of the question to be asked was spelled out quite clearly for all assistant marshals who were conducting the census.

Under heading 4, entitled ‘‘Age,’’ insert in figures what was the specific age of each person at his or her last birthday previous to the 1st of June, opposite the name of such person.

Since his birthday was December 20, the answer consistently supplied by Thomas Lovewell makes sense only if he had been born in 1825.  It also dovetails with his announcement in December of 1895, that he had just celebrated his 70th birthday.  But why is it that we have two census returns for him in 1860, one in Clarke County, Iowa, and another at Virginia City?

The answer has to do with the phrasing of a question asked in 1850 and again in 1860, which occasionally allowed some leeway for interpretation.

Under heading 3, entitled ‘‘The name of every person whose usual place of abode on the 1st day of June, 1850, was in this family,’’ insert the name of every free person in each family, of every age, including the names of those temporarily absent, as well as those that were at home on that day.

Anyone who is temporarily absent on a journey, or for other purposes, without taking up his place of residence elsewhere, and with the inten­tion of returning again, is to be considered a member of the family which the assistant marshal is enumerat­ing.

Since Thomas was in Virginia City in 1860, the person answering the question back in Iowa must have assumed that the head of household was only "temporarily absent" and would return home one of these days with a sackful of gold.  However, in this case the absent member was months away, and his intentions could only be inferred.  Answering the same set of questions in a miner’s shack in Utah Territory, Thomas Lovewell may have had other ideas about his permanent place of residence.

There is some irony that the question was phrased for the 1850 census and was asked again in 1860, both years when tens of thousands of family members were absent on journeys of indeterminate length, a great many of them never to return.  Thus, it is hard to know, based on census data alone, whether Thomas Lovewell journeyed to California in 1849.  I’ve searched fruitlessly for his name on lists of emigrants who joined wagon trains headed to the gold fields, and leafed through the diaries of prospectors who might have run across him.  When he was an old man he told a newspaper reporter that he did not head west until 1859, but he was never eager to discuss the time period between 1846 and 1859, years when he was married to a woman who apparently made his life miserable.

Does it strike anyone else as odd that, for a country that regarded the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right, no census-taker was ever instructed to aske the question, “Are you happy?”  Or, at the very least, “How’s the pursuit going?  Find anything yet?"

© Dale Switzer 2023