The Mysterious Life of Thomas W. Cover

The Cover family arrived in Ohio sometime between 1832 and 1834.  The family had traveled from Frederick County, Maryland where Daniel Cover had married Lydia Stevenson on April 2, 1822.[1]  The couple had at least four children while in Maryland: Jason Jerome (b. February 5, 1823[2]), Upton Aquila (b. March 18, 1826[3]), Josiah Stevenson (b. July 16, 1829[4]), and Thomas Wells (b. March 31, 1832[5]).  By 1850 the family had settled in Perry Township, Richland County, Ohio and added six more children to the family: Mary, Martha, Eliza, William, Daniel, and John.[6]  Thomas Wells Cover left the family in the 1850s, traveling west to make his fortune.  His journey would take him to Montana as a gold prospector and vigilante and on to California, where he and one of his brothers would grow prize winning oranges.  His death would come early and be filled with as much mystery as his life, where he would be the villain in some peoples stories and a hero in others.

Historical and Biographical Record of Southern California by J.M. Quinn

It’s unclear where Thomas Cover was in the 1850s.  In 1860 a man with the name Thomas W. Cover purchased land in Buffalo County, Wisconsin[7], but there is no other mention of him in the area.  The next time we see Thomas is May 26, 1863, when he and 5 other men were prospecting for gold in Montana. The group set up camp in Alder Gulch. Thomas and three other men went out hunting while William Fairweather and Henry Edgar stayed behind. While waiting for the men to return, Fairweather and Edgar began panning for gold hoping to get enough to buy some tobacco when they returned to Bannack.  The first pan turned up $2.40 worth of gold and the men laid claim to the area when they returned to Bannack and bought supplies.  They tried to keep the claim a secret, but word traveled quickly and, less then a month later, cabins and tents filled the hillside and Virginia City, Montana was born.  It’s estimated more than $30,000,000 in gold was taken from the Alder Gulch in the first three years.[8]

Hydraulic gold mining in Alder Gulch, 1871. Photo by William Henry Jackson

Cover and others didn’t feel local law enforcement was doing enough to stop crime in the area, particulary those being robbed on the trails while transporting gold, and a group of men started vigilance committee to take the law into their own hands.  The committee would track down those they thought guilty and, often with little evidence, hang them.  One of the most famous was local sheriff Henry Plummer.  The vigilantes claimed Plummer was not doing enough to stop the crimes or even aiding some of the robbers.  This small group of vigilantes acted as judge, jury, and executioner, often not sharing the views of the community as a whole.  Many believe the vigilantes were the true villains in this story, getting rid of the sheriff and others for their own nefarious reasons.[9]

With his newfound wealth, Thomas returned to Ohio, marrying Mary E. Hess in Franklin County, Ohio.  The couple would have three daughters Estell, Camille, and Blanche.  It didn’t take long for Thomas to return to Montana with his new wife.  Once back in Montana, he began working with John Bozeman, the creator of the Bozeman trail which led from the Oregan Trail to Virginia City and who is the namesake of Bozeman, Montana.  Thomas was with Bozeman when he was murdered by a group of Blackfeet while traveling along the Yellowstone River on April 20, 1867.  Though many at the time and today think Thomas Cover was the true murderer.  It appears John Bozeman had a habit of making advances at other men’s wives and Mary was no exception.  It’s possible Bozeman’s past caught up with him and Thomas Cover took the matter into his own hands.[10]  Whatever happened that day, Cover made his way to California a short time later, settling in Los Angeles.

The Death Of John Bozeman by Edgar Samuel Paxson

The first record of Cover in California is in April of 1869 when he purchased a small lot in Los Angeles for $600.[11]  It looked like California would be a new start for Thomas Cover.  He was a father of one daughter, with another on the way.  A year later Cover would purchase the “extensive Robedeaux Ranch, in San Bernardino County”  and began growing oranges.[12]  Thomas’ brother, Perry Daniel Cover, would join him in California and the two would grow prize winning oranges throughout the 1870s.  The Covers were one of the first to import navel oranges to California.[13]  The tame, horticulturist life didn’t appear to be enough for Thomas and he soon caught gold fever again, making trips to the Colorado Desert in search of the fabled Peg Leg Mine.

Thomas “Peg Leg” Smith had allegedly found a hill littered with gold-bearing quartz while traveling from Yuma to Los Angeles.  Peg Leg was never able to relocated the hill and efforts were made by many throughout the years to rediscover its location.[14]  Cover made many of these trips into the desert, the last happening in September of 1884.  Cover and fellow horticulturist, Wilson B. Russell, and a team made their way out to the desert. The two split up, with Russell taking the team and Cover taking a short cut on foot.  When Russell made it to the agreed upon meeting place, Cover was nowhere to be found.  Russell continued on hoping to find Cover, but with no luck and returned to Riverside to organize a search party.[15]  A $1,000 reward was offered for his whereabouts or body and this brought in many stories of bleached bones found in the desert belonging to Cover.  In 1891, reports began to circulate that Cover had run off to Mexico.  Cover had his life heavily insured and the insurance company had yet to pay on his death.  The company sent a man to Mexico to investigate the claim, but Cover was never found.[16]  In 1901 bones were found many miles from where Cover was last seen and trinkets next to the body were identified as once belonging to Cover. His brother, W. H. Cover, was notified and many believed the mystery was finally solved.[17] 

But what happened to Cover on that September day in 1884?  Did the experienced prospector get lost in the desert, wandering for miles and finally succumb to the elements?  Or was he murdered by some person he had wronged in the past, possibly during his time as a vigilante?  Or did he simply stage his death, starting a new life in Mexico? 


Sources:

  1. Ancestry.com. Maryland, U.S., Compiled Marriages, 1655-1850 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2004.
  2. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/128791382/jason-jerome-cover
  3. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/71688767/upton-aquila-cover
  4. https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/family-tree/person/tree/12092200/person/-336844705/facts
  5. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/132245432/thomas-wells-cover
  6. Ancestry.com. 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.                                                                       
  7. Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records; Washington D.C., USA; Federal Land Patents, State Volumes
  8. https://virginiacitymt.com/Preservation/Area-History
  9. https://thekeep.eiu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2488&context=theses
  10. https://bozemanmagazine.com/articles/2015/02/01/101576-the-real-john-bozeman-with-sneaky-ways-and-low
  11. Los Angeles Daily News, Volume 1, Number 94, 15 April 1869, p. 2.
  12. Weekly Butte Record, Volume 17, Number 12, 8 January 1870, p 2.
  13. Daily Alta California, Volume 31, Number 10621, 12 May 1879, p. 2.
  14. https://truewestmagazine.com/peg-leg-smith-lost-gold-mine/
  15. Riverside Daily Press, Volume XXXVII, Number 89, 14 April 1922, p. 4.
  16. Los Angeles Herald, Volume 35, Number 175, 8 April 1891
  17. Butler Enterprise, published in Butler, Ohio on Friday, March 29th, 1901, p. 2.

One thought on “The Mysterious Life of Thomas W. Cover

  1. With all respect, I believe the record has shown that Thomas did not kill John Bozeman as determined by the examination of Bozeman’s body and confirmation by the Indian Agent a few weeks after the incident.. Thomas led his friends to recover Bozeman’s body, hardly an act of a guilty party. Henry rifles were known to jam and were not reliable although a beautiful weapon. The Bureau of Indian Affairs visited the Indian tribe where the Chief confirmed Thomas ‘s account of the incident. There were no charges brought against him and no evidence of his wife committing adultery. The picture by Paxson is not consistent with the testimony and the fact the Indians did not have ponies. They approached Cover and Bozeman to steal their horses. Also, Thomas’s older brother Josiah with a man named McCoy developed the first navel orange plant from a seed brought back to California from Brazil by their neighbor. It is true Thomas’s wealth probably paid for the venture. There has not been a record to prove that Thomas was a vigilante except his membership in the Mason lodge.

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