Ripping Good Yarns

Occasionally I am reminded of family stories that haven’t been covered in my book or my blog, including some really good ones.  For instance, there is the incident when Thomas Lovewell bent down to skin an antelope he had just killed.  As his granddaughter Orel Poole wrote for the Belleville Telescope in 1958, Thomas raised his head suddenly, just in time to see the shaft of an Indian arrow suddenly sprout from his kneecap, occupying space where his head had been only an instant before.

“As quietly as possible without much movement he picked up his ever-ready gun that was leaning against a tree by his side and fired.  The Indian’s head that was showing over the bank disappeared.  ‘He caused me no more trouble,’ said Mr. Lovewell, ‘but the knee did; it would slip out of joint.  Once while hunting I stopped to get a drink from the creek, as I stooped down my knee slipped out of joint.  I traveled three days before I met another hunter who helped me set it.’”

The story is retold now and again with surprisingly few variations, although the animal in question is sometimes called an elk, and in Mrs. Poole’s version, the incident takes place in the evening.  Ellen Morlan Warren omits it altogether from her pamphlet “White Rock Historical Sketches,” published in 1933.  Orel Poole appends it to her father’s 1945 memoir in her writings about the settlement of White Rock for the Belleville Telescope, but it is not one of the stories from Stephen Lovewell’s own hand.  Unless it can be found among the monographs written or dictated by Orel Jane Lovewell, the tale makes its first written appearance in 1958.  It shows up again in Gloria G. Lovewell’s “The Lovewell Family,” published in 1979.  Roy Alleman does it up in grand style in his 1995 “Bloody Saga of White Rock,” with Thomas gulping swigs from a bottle of laudunum while Orel Jane extricates the point of the arrow from his knee.

It’s one of those stories that can’t be disproven, although it could have been verified by Thomas himself in 1891, during a physical exam to qualify him for a disability pension.  While the examining physician listened to Thomas’s complaint of rheumatism, and even took note of a varicose vein on his leg, disappointingly enough, he perceived no scar on either knee and reported hearing no grumbling about a kneecap that sometimes slipped out of place.  Drat the luck.  

However, the absence of forensic evidence to support the story should not be counted as evidence against it.  If the story is true, the detail that Thomas had to ride for three days to find a fellow hunter who could help put his leg right, seems to place it early on in Territorial Kansas, when he was ranging far and wide on his scouting expeditions for the government in 1857 or 1858.  Even if the scar had not faded over the course of three decades, an old wound suffered before his Army days might not have seemed to matter much by 1891.

I have learned over the past few years to put my trust in Thomas Lovewell.  When he told his family a story about an Indian named White Lily who died fighting alongside Army troops, or reported heading east from a fort at Gothenburg just ahead of a massacre, or recalled with some chagrin that he woke up one morning after a drinking party with some friends, lying in state in a coffin surrounded by flowers, all those stories once sounded to me like improbable yarns.  Now I know they are all basically true, and even rather accurately reported.  The Indian’s name was not “White Lily,” but it was very close.  What happened at Gothenburg can’t be called a massacre, but it very nearly was.  Thomas walked out of the fort before the start of a tense and bloody day.  As for the business with the coffin, there may have been no flowers.  Then again, there could have been a few.    

If Thomas said he was shot in the knee by an Indian arrow, I have to believe that there is some truth in it.  If he did not tell the story, then it is still a ripping good yarn.

© Dale Switzer 2023