Charting the Tangled Web 

After being off the case for a few years, I decided to try once more to tackle the problem of John Robinson, the elusive father of Lillian Robinson Logan (See Before Time Runs Out) and to put my back into it this time.

You may recall that the main problem with John Robinson is that there were so many of them.  His name may have been the most common name in America in the 1800’s.  Putting a high degree of trust into family researcher Rhoda Lovewell’s suggestion that his middle name was “William,” gets me a little further down the road, because I do believe I’ve caught him using his middle initial on a public record exactly once.  

But there is also no shortage of John W. Robinsons.  Some them were well-known or even notorious.  And even for the one John W. Robinson who married Susan Turnbull in Osage County, Kansas, and lived with Thomas Lovewell’s daughter Julany in Jewell County, Kansas, some of the evidence I’ve assembled has seemed frustratingly contradictory.

Clearly, it was time to make a chart.  It’s a small chart, because I’ve located only a few solid pieces of evidence with clues concerning Mr. Robinson’s vital statistics.  There were three which I was certain, had to apply to him.

Three Sure Bets

On the 1879 marriage license to wed Susan Turnbull in Osage County, he gave his age as 24, with a probable birth year of 1855.

According to my notes from the 1885 Kansas Census he was 38 years old when he and his two little girls were living with the McCauls and Turnbulls in Carbondale, Kansas.  If correct, his age as reported in 1885 would yield a birth year of 1847.  His birthplace is listed as Kansas, but so is almost everyone else’s.  I suspect that those little ditto marks were sometimes “dunno” marks.  

Ten years later, following the death of his wife Julany Robinson, formerly known as Julia McCaul, John Robinson was a 46-year-old widower working out of Lovewell as a railroad engineer.  Being 46 in 1895 means he would have been born in 1849.  He named Delaware as his birthplace.  Thus far, I had birth years of 1855, 1847, and 1849.

In addition to these sure bets, I’ve been known to put stock in a record from the 1880 census which has two Robinson brothers, John W. and James, married men living apart from their wives in North Platte, Nebraska, while earning a living from the railroad.  John was an engineer, James a conductor.  Both men are listed as hailing from Pennsylvania.  James was then thirty-five, John was thirty-one. 

Railroad engineer John W. Robinson of North Platte had been born in 1849, the very same year as the railroad engineer who would take up residence in Lovewell fifteen years later.  Coincidence? d Perhaps not.   

Making a fresh check of source material I discovered that I had made a serious numerical error many years ago, misreading a zero as a swiftly scribbled “8.”  A look at several pages of the census revealed that the census-taker made every zero look a bit like a truncated “8.”  He just went overboard on this one.  Julia McCaul (or whoever supplied the information for the 1885 census) believed that the man who had married  Susan Turnbull six years earlier was not currently thirty-eight, but only thirty.  I had made a mistake, but so had she.

Not an 8

Now I actually had two sets of matching birth years, both of which made perfect sense.  One set was potentially accurate, while the other set was a lie, or two lies stemming from the same source.  

Include 1880

When he proposed to seventeen-year-old Susan Turnbull in 1879 (she would turn eighteen a few days later), John Robinson had not been twenty-four, but thirty.  To seem a more suitable match for the young girl, he shaved six years off his age.  

It may have been the new young lady on his arm who repeated the fib six years later when he was not thirty, but thirty-six.  He had told the truth, however, to two census-takers fifteen years apart when neither lady was present, and he thought no one else would ever know or care.

© Dale Switzer 2023