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? 


  1. Maryland, U.S., Compiled Marriages, 1655-1850 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2004.
  6. 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: 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
  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.
  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.

H.L. Reed arrives in Mansfield

In an earlier post, we looked at the early life of Horace Lafayette Reed before his arrival in Mansfield.  At the end of the Civil War, Captain H. L. Reed made his way to Mansfield and began working with his older brother, John Henry Reed.  J. H. Reed, a few years earlier, had taken over the popular business of Sturges & Pritchard, dealers in books, stationery, and wallpaper.  It didn’t take long for the business to be known as J. H. Reed & Brother and, in 1868, the total sales for the business were $92,724.64.  In 1872 the business began operating on the corner of Main and North Park Streets on a site purchased from the Sturges Family.  The business suffered for some reason and an ad in the Mansfield Herald on September 3, 1874, shows the business was taken over by C. N. Pendleton.  J. H. Reed stayed in Mansfield for a few more years before heading out to Nebraska and eventually Riverside, California, where he planted oranges and became instrumental in the citrus industry.  John Henry Reed died in Riverside, California on February 20, 1920.

Page 3 of Mansfield Herald,published in Mansfield, Ohio on Wednesday, May 25th, 1864

Mansfield Herald, Wednesday, May 25th, 1864, p. 3


John Henry Reed

Captain H. L. Reed wasn’t discouraged and, in 1875, went into business with John B. Ink and Pinkey Lewis, opening Reed, Ink, and Lewis.  The business did well and, in 1879, posted sales of $74,580.  On January 3, 1884, it was reported in the Mansfield Herald that Pinkey Lewis was retiring from the firm.  John Ink stayed on for another 10 years, leaving in 1894.  After this, the firm became known as H. L. Reed and Company and Reed took on a new partner, his son-in-law, James L. Lauck.  The store continued to be successful and on February 7, 1903, The H. L. Reed Company was incorporated, with Reed serving as both president and treasurer and Lauck serving as secretary and assistant treasurer.  Henry Goetz, who had started with the firm in 1880 when he was 14 years old, was named the manager of the new company.  By this time Reed was suffering greatly from his Civil War wounds, one leg had been amputated and he was confined to a wheelchair.  His health began to fail and on September 17, 1915, Captain Horace Lafayette Reed died.

P-25 Horace reed portrait

Horace Lafayette Reed

Reed was not only a well-respected businessman but, according to his obituary, a senior deacon of the First Congregational Church.  He was especially interested in the Sunday School at the Mayflower Congregational Church, which he attended and aided in all possible ways.  He was the first president of the Mansfield Chamber of Commerce, a member of the executive committee of the Mansfield Savings Bank, and had a life membership in the Loyal Legion of the G. A. R., which was one of his most prized possessions.  The store would survive for another 78 years until on Monday, April 19, 1993, Reed’s Department store closed its doors for the last time.

Reeds google

In Douglas Cook’s book Reeds… A Tale of the American Spirit, he reprints a poem by an anonymous author which was written and circulated at the time of H. L. Reed’s death titled “Our Gallant Captain’s Final Muster Out.”

Another of our Boys in Blue has crossed the great divide,
He’d served his country all these years ‘till arms were laid aside.
He smiling answered Lincoln’s call “Three hundred thousand more”
And as smilingly the Saviour’s calling from the Other Shore.

A Christian, sunbeam Captain in life’s battle every day
Scattering helpful sunshine all along the weary way
The poor man’s stay and comfort, the mourner’s soothing friend,
Thinking still of others to his own life’s peaceful end.

His battles were not ended with our peace declared,
He kept God’s armor buckled on all his conquest shared,
The soldier boy is going home with no more foes to rout,
And the angels smiled this morning at his final muster out.

The march through death’s dark valley had no terror for his soul.
For he knew the Christ was with him, clear to the shining goal,
Green pastures all before him with heaven all about
And God’s smile answering his own at his final muster out.