Will the Real John Henry Christian Lovekamp Please Stand Up?
Click. Click. Click. That is how I add people to my family tree. I use one of the well-known genealogy research sites, and they make it very easy to add people. At this point, I have a tree with over 13,000 individual people, which includes my direct lineage and also connected extended trees for many people who are relatives.
Sometimes I make mistakes when I add people. With my great great grandfather John Henry Christian Lovekamp, I made a big mistake.
Each person in the tree has a profile where I can attach documents, stories, and photos. When I add a person, I get a little rush of endorphins, like if I had just rescued a lost friend. But I don’t add a person to the tree unless I feel certain they are related to me.
One way that you add a person is if a hint suggests that they exist in a census. The program will show you the census, and then if you think the person in the census is your ancestor, you can ask the program to add everyone in the household to your tree. The program will then automatically create profiles for each person in the household, using all the information from the census. For relatives born in the 19th century, when families could have up to a dozen children, this is a fast way to build a tree.
When I am building a tree for myself or other people, I can use hints to bounce from one census to another. There are censuses available for every ten years from 1790 to 1940 (except 1890, which was ruined in a fire in Washington DC). I can use these censuses to quickly create a skeleton of a tree, to which I can attach all sorts of other records.
The first thing you need to know about John Henry Christian Lovekamp is that Lovekamp is an extremely rare last name. It seems to derive from the German Löwekamp, which might refer to a lion’s camp. It is a unique topographic name, even in Germany. The only people in the United States with the Lovekamp spelling are all descended from my 5th Great Grandfather Jobst Herman Löwekamp (1751–1808), whose sons, daughters, and grandchildren emigrated from a small town near Hannover, Germany to Cass County, Illinois in the 1840s.
Having a rare last name is a gift to genealogists like me. If your last name is Smith, or Johnson, or any of the most common last names, you cannot be as sure that someone who appears in a document is related to you. You need a lot more corroborating evidence to make a determination.
Having your ancestor live in a small town is also a gift. A person who lives in Chicago, New York, or St Louis can get lost in a sea of similar names. They are harder to track in the censuses.
Knowing a birth year is so important. When you look at a census, the census taker recorded approximate ages, so having a solid birth year for your ancestor gives you a range to look at on census forms.
Knowing your ancestor’s middle name(s) is also a key that unlocks certainty. There is a big difference between John Smith and John Peter Maynard Smith.
For my Lovekamp side, I hit the jackpot. They have a rare name, they lived in a small town in Illinois, I had a typewritten family tree from my dad with birth years on it, and as good German Lutherans, they all had multiple middle names. This gave me a type of confidence that I did not have anywhere else on my tree. I click, click, clicked and added people as fast as my program could offer me hints.
There is such a thing as too much confidence.
As I click, click, clicked, there was an odd census for my ancestor John Henry Christian Lovekamp. It had him born in 1856 and not 1860, and married to Louisa Lovekamp and not Kate Lovekamp. But the name was right, the town was right, and the birthdate was close; that was enough for me. Often censuses have wide variability. So I added that census record and all the children who went with it.
When I add a person to my tree, I start to get new hints for that person and all the people connected to them. Those hints include photos, birth records, cemetery records, and more. This fleshes out the skeleton of the tree I get from the census.
Soon John Henry Christian Lovekamp’s profile was overflowing with documents. I had attached censuses, church records, baptism notices, death certificates, and more — for him and his children and grandchildren. If there was a hint, I clicked on it. And there was always another hint. It was a frenzy.
By the time I was done, John had 18 children from two separate marriages. I built beefy trees for the children and grandchildren and my tree had proliferated into hundreds of Lovekamps.
Something was off.
It is not unusual for 19th century German American farmers to have two families. Childbirth was dangerous, and often when a mother died, the father would quickly remarry. Sometimes they would even marry a sister of the deceased wife.
What was unusual was for a 19th century German American farmer to have two wives alive at the same time. John Henry Christian Lovekamp appeared in the same year’s census twice, once with each family. That was the start of me questioning my decisions.
At first I thought that perhaps he was a bigamist. Maybe he was counted twice, because he had two households? But then, how did he have two different birth dates? How did he have two different sets of parents? And Lutherans are not typically known for bigamy. It slowly dawned on me that there were two different John Henry Christian Lovekamps who were about the same age, both living in the same small town in Illinois. And they were coincidently the only John Henry Christian Lovekamps in the whole of the U.S.
All of the work I had done to build these elaborate trees with branches and sub-branches came tumbling down around me. I systematically erased every profile until I was back to my great grandfather, Elmer Adam Ludwig Lovekamp, and then I rebuilt the tree. I eventually found the other John Henry Christian Lovekamp was a distant cousin of my great great grandfather of the same name, so he went back in my tree, but in his own place.
I can only imagine what it must have been like for these two boys to grow up in a town of under a thousand. It was made easier by the whole multiple middle names thing. They could pick a name and one could be Henry and one could be Chris, and that is actually what happened. Perhaps they never knew that they had the same name.
This happened fairly early into my journey as a genealogist, and it is one of the reasons why I am so cautious now when I add people to my tree or to the trees of people I work with. It is also why I try to only use other people’s trees for reference and not as solid proof.
Each of us has family history that is also connected to the history of the places our ancestors lived. Each month I take a dive into some piece of genealogical research, and I bring you along for the ride. I would love to help you with your family tree. Contact me to find out how to get started. <firstname.lastname@example.org>