The Name Game

Our names may tell us little about ourselves, but at least they preserve a thought that must have flashed through our parents’ minds around the time of our birth, and thus tell us something about the world we were born into.

Sometimes it seems that our ancestors must have sifted through the Bible every night on a search for obscure names for their dozen or fifteen children.  Many of the names from Colonial times have a Biblical source, but they also tend to run in particular families.  The Lovewells seem to have been fond of Zaccheus and Nehemiah for boys, Hepsibah or Hepsibeth for girls, the latter two not quite Biblical, but derived from Hephzibah, a Hebrew word meaning “My delight is in her.”  Another popular choice, Moody, has nothing to do with the Bible, being an English or Scottsh word meaning “courageous."  All of them seemed to fall out of style among later generations.  

Part of the fun of leafing through census records decade by decade, is that we can see tastes and traditions shifting at a vastly accelerated rate, like one of those time-lapse films which show seedlings erupting through the soil or satellite views of desert sands nibbling away at the edges of fertile farms.  We can see the preference for Biblical names cross the boundary from Old Testament to New (At least, among Christians), and leaning toward boys’ names that have a heroic English heritage - Thomas, William, Alfred, John, James, George.  After the middle of the 19th century, other books besides the Bible seemed to capture imaginations.  One of my favorite examples is from the Turnbull household at Carbondale, Kansas, where a blended family assembled around Thomas Lovewell’s former wife Nancy and her new husband, Michael Turnbull.  In the 1875 census, there are five girls in the Turnbull house, including Michael’s teenage daughter Susan.  It may be coincidence, but of the younger girls, all born a few years after the publication of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” three out of four are named Alice.       

During the two decades when Moody Bedel Lovewell and his wife Betsy were growing their family in Athens County, Ohio, the couple managed to avoid calling any of their progeny Nehemiah or Zaccheus.  There is a rumor about an Ebenezer, about whom nothing more is known.  The children who were given what may strike some of us today as quaint names were Moody, Jr., Solomon and Hepsabeth.  Another daughter was named Rhoda, which is Greek for “rose,” also the name of a very minor figure in the New Testament, but a name that seemed so up-to-date in the 20th century that Stephen Lovewell gave it to his youngest daughter, born shortly before the start of World War II.  The word can also mean “from Rhodes,” which brings us back to the question about the origin of Stephen Rhodes Lovewell’s middle name.

Stephen’s grandson Dave quickly responded to the hint for info from my previous blog with the following report:  “I always thought my grandfather Stephen’s middle name was taken from Cecil Rhodes the Englishman.  This seems unlikely because Cecil Rhodes would have been only 21 when Stephen was born in 1874.  My misassumption was reinforced by the fact that Stephen’s eldest son was named Cecil Rhodes.”

Cecil Rhodes, the De Beers chairman and politician, the man for whom Rhodesia is named, did cross my mind.  Like Dave Lovewell, I also crossed him off my list of possible candidates when I learned that he was young and virtually unknown in 1874.  After discovering that he was the son of a vicar who took pride in never delivering a sermon that was over ten minutes long, I thought Thomas might have named his boy after him… but, no, not really.  However, there was another minister named Rhodes who shouldn’t be overlooked.

The Reverend Mr. Pearce T. Rhodes was born in Ohio around 1820.  Like the Lovewells, the Rhodes family moved to western Illinois, where Pearce became a Methodist circuit minister.  He later asked to be transferred to Kansas, arriving at Shawnee by 1870.  A decade later he was living in Baldwin, in Douglas County, but as an itinerant preacher he would have traveled the state, establishing churches and even colleges, reportedly sometimes paying for building costs out of his own pocket, which must have run deep.  I’ve found nothing which definitely connects him with White Rock or even Republic County, but he generally does seem to have followed Thomas Lovewell’s trail.

Was Stephen Rhodes Lovewell’s middle name a nod to a Kansas clergyman, or was it just a masculine way of paying tribute to his aunt Rhoda?  By the time Stephen and Villa Lovewell's children were being born, both Cecil Rhodes and De Beers were famous, thanks in part to a relentless advertising campaign waged by the diamond cartel to convince Americans that diamonds were rare, valuable, and a traditional way of cementing a loving relationship.  They seem rare only because De Beers tightly controls their flow into the market, have little intrinsic value beyond that, and have now become a traditional gift because we bought the campaign.  More than that, the ads may have convinced Stephen Lovewell to name his boy after the company’s chairman.    

© Dale Switzer 2023