Secret Identities

Philip Thornton, a contributor to this site, recently sent a photocopy of an outline map he found at the historical society in Weymouth, Massachusetts, last year.  The piece of it included on the Maps, Etc. page consists of only a third of the original, which seems to have been prepared in 1907, sketched from descriptions written in Weymouth town records in 1642.  While not quite a 17th century artifact, the map does provide a visual connection with Robert Lovell, the man who brought his family to join a Puritan colony in the New World in 1635.

What transformed the family name to make Robert Lovell the progenitor of generations of American Lovewells?  While we’re not quite sure, it may have had something to do with Puritanism, Oliver Cromwell, the beheading of Charles I, and the Restoration of the Monarchy.  Were the Lovells appalled by Cromwell’s brutality and the killing of a king, or did they fear a round of reprisals following the Restoration?

Early biographical sketches of Captain John Lovewell claim that his father had served as an ensign in Cromwell’s army.  Some Massachusetts Bay Colonists did return to England, where they joined the ranks of their fellow Puritans.  However, our only solid guess is that Robert Lovell’s descendants wanted to put some distance between themselves and the whole nasty business back in the old country.  As Lovells migrated away from their neighbors at Weymouth, they tended be transformed into Lovewells.

America has long represented a fresh beginning, not just a place for starting over, but a land where newcomers could completely reinvent themselvs.  It was also the world’s safety valve, a land of opportunity for victims of famine and persecution.  The West was America’s America.  Tides of emigrants were not only lured there by the promise of riches, but simultaneously pushed forward by hard times nipping at their heels.  These transplanted Americans also sometimes required a makeover.

As I read the skimpy biographical material available for Robert Lovell, I began counting in my head the number of persons I had run across while gathering material on Thomas Lovewell and the West, who had concealed old lives with new names, or were indulging in a case of outright identity theft.  The first of these was “John Smith," a mysterious figure in Eugene Ware’s classic account of the Plains Indian War, said to have been a Yale grad and former newspaper editor who "got in a woman scrape” in Iowa, and began drifting about along the frontier.  Ware seemed to gain Smith’s confidence, but never did learn his real name.

A woman was expected to assume her husband’s last name after saying her vows, the way Thomas’s daughter, fourteen-year-old Julia Lovewell had done, becoming Julia McCaul in November 1871.  But, a few months later, her mother Nancy went an extra step when she married Michael Turnbull, shedding her former husband’s surname and her own Christian name at the same moment.  From that day on she was known as Mariah, which was her middle name.  Had she grown weary of the other one, or was she hiding her tracks, removing a clue to her current whereabouts, perhaps even hiding something about her past, the way “John Smith” had tried to do?  Or am I being too suspicious?

Thomas Lovewell’s second wife, Orel Jane Lovewell, was just as suspicious about another name-change in the early 1900’s, when she heard from Emery Perry Moore, a Texan who claimed to be her son from a first marriage, the boy whom she had named Vinson Perry Moore.  The man's explanation for the new name, that he had always been fond of “Emery,” seems lame, his memory of family matters was spotty, and by his own account he was seven or eight years too young to have been Orel Jane’s son.  Besides that, he immediately hit her up for money, and might have challenged her will, if he had not died so shortly after she did.

When I was looking at Thomas and Orel Jane Lovewell's old neighbor Pontus Ross, I resorted to land records to verify the spelling of his first name, which is sometimes recorded as Pontas or Pontius.  Pontus seems to be the preferrred form, but according to information provided by a family researcher on, none of them was his real name.  Petrus Eliasson had been a sailor, first setting off to sea from Sweden as a cabin boy, and making four voyages to America before finally emigrating.  When he did, Petrus remembered meeting someone named Ross aboard a ship he had served on, and evidently thought it seemed a more properly American name than Eliasson.  He settled in Michigan for a while, then came to Kansas, one more of the vast tide of newcomers to the West from all parts of the world and other parts of America, ready to start life anew. 

© Dale Switzer 2023