Both my Dad and I are avid readers of Western paperback novels. One of our ancestors, Thomas Wells Cover, had a life story every bit as interesting and exciting as the stereotypical protagonist in a western novel. In fact, Tom Cover is the subject of a biography by Dan L. Thrapp titled “Vengeance! The Saga of Poor Tom Cover.” The author of this well-researched book describes Tom as “one of the most venturesome and daring men of the American West.” I read this book a number of years ago and enjoyed it very much. Unfortunately, this book is now out of print but used copies are available on Amazon albeit at very high prices.
I thought I would provide you with the Readers’ Digest version of Tom Cover’s life. To say that Tom had a fascinating life would be putting it mildly. Tom’s life was marked by high adventure, gold fever, controversy, prominence and great financial success. Tom’s death, or actually disappearance, is cloaked in mystery and actually plays a prominent role in Tom’s biography.
Tom had a habit of thrusting himself into risky situations, even long after he was a very wealthy man. Tom’s biographer notes that this trait was clearly at odds with Tom’s usually retiring and almost shy nature. Tom’s exploits, presumably the circumstances leading to his disappearance, were featured on an episode of the TV western “Death Valley Days.” As I will outline below, Tom and his partners were the founders of the richest placer gold strike in the history of the world.
Tom was born in 1831 in Frederick County, Maryland, one of the children of Daniel and Lydia (Stevenson) Cover. One of Tom’s siblings was Mary Margaret Cover, mother of Martha Ellen Biddle, who married Henry Albert Snyder. Tom’s parents moved to Ohio when he was a young boy, buying an 80 acre farm in what was then Richland County but is now Morrow County. The farm was located on Biddle Road and one of Dave Snyder’s Christmas letters indicated that this farm was located adjacent to the farm where Thomas Lucas lived the first two dozen years of his life.
Toughened by farm work and naturally restless as all Covers were known to be, Tom got the itch to go west in 1851 at the age of 20. Tom spent two years in Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa before returning to Ohio briefly. Tom got the itch again and in 1854 set out for the North Woods of Minnesota, where Tom was attracted by the booming lumber business. In 1859, Tom took part in the Colorado gold stampede, one of the biggest of its time and then he drifted down to New Mexico to investigate another major gold strike at Pinos Altos, a few miles north of present day Silver City. Tom’s biographer notes that there is some indication that Tom mined or prospected in Mexico as well.
Eventually, Tom returned to Colorado and learned that a new gold rush was beginning in Montana. This is where Tom’s story really starts to get interesting. Having developed a thirst for mining and adventure, Tom put together a party of 26 men who took off from Denver, hoping to find fortune in the new goldfields of Montana. Notably, Tom was elected captain of this party for the long journey through the wilderness of Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Montana. The Cover expedition arrived in Montana in the summer of 1862 and began prospecting.
In the winter of 1862-63, Tom and seven others left their gold camp for the Deer Lodge Valley where they hoped to obtain good horses from the large Indian herds in that vicinity. Well, you guessed it, Tom and his party ended up being captured by Crow Indians and were taken as prisoners to a village of about 1,000 Indians. Ultimately, they were freed by the Indians.
Tom and his party found gold at Alder Gulch. While Tom didn’t know it at the time, he would never be broke again. As Tom’s biographer noted, there was another thing Tom failed to grasp: he had contracted a fatal disease–prospecteritis. Eventually, it would do him in, though not for many more years. Tom and his five partners staked the first six claims at Alder Gulch. Within a year, 10,000-15,000 miners and opportunists had arrived at the booming Alder Gulch mining camp, which was officially named Virginia City. Over 40-50 years, the Alder Gulch gold strike would yield 236.5 tons of gold. At today’s gold price of around $1,277 an ounce, the Alder Gulch gold would be worth in excess of 7 trillion dollars.
As was the case with any gold mining boom town in the Old West, the discovery of gold in Virginia City acted like a magnet for desperadoes, who began pouring into Virginia City in large numbers. As Tom’s biographer put it, “A coterie of gun-packing, bowie-wielding, whiskey-drinking, blood-letting, whoring, conscienceless badmen” arrived in Virginia City. The streets of Virginia City were full of uneducated miners who carried firearms and large amounts of gold while spending much of their funds and free time drinking alcohol in the local saloons. It soon became common for miners, as well as freighters who transported gold and supplies, to be frequently robbed and murdered.
Due to a lack of any meaningful justice system and widespread corruption, there was no law and order to remedy this problem. To make matters worse, it became apparent that this crime wave was being orchestrated by an organized group of outlaws known as “road agents.” Tom and a number of other good citizens formed the Montana Vigilantes committee. This was a secret organization that took the law into their own hands and dealt a good dose of frontier justice to the outlaws. Over several years, it is estimated that the Vigilantes lynched and hanged 15-30 outlaws, including the Sheriff Of Virginia City, who was a ringleader of the outlaws.
Tom Cover became one of the principal movers and shakers in this secret Vigilantes group. Tom was actively involved in the hanging of one of the more notorious outlaws, Boone Helm. As Boone Helm was ready to be hanged, Tom kicked the box out from under the outlaw’s boots and Boone dropped three feet before the rope twanged taut and the hangman’s noose did its job.
Tom sold his Alder Gulch mining claim by 1864. He was reported to have sold his claim for $75,000, an amount that does not seem large today but which was a very nice sum at that time. Knowing that lumber was costly in Virginia City and needed for mining operations, Tom and a partner started a lumber business. Soon, the lumber operation employed 20 men with sixty yoke of oxen skidding saw logs from the great forests to their lumber mill.
Tom returned to Ohio and spent the winter of 1865-65 there, no doubt sharing with his friends and family tales of his adventures. During that winter, he met Mary E. Hess, the comely daughter of the wealthy Judge J. Daniel Hess of Columbus. Upon returning to Montana in the spring of 1865, Tom and his partner opened a flour/grist mill in a new town being established by John Bozeman. Tom was elected Clerk of Gallatin County, Montana later that year but resigned several months later. Tom returned to Ohio again in late 1865 and married Mary Hess on New Year’s Eve. Mary was described as a “cultured, lovable woman who won the hearts of all who met her.”
Tom had a number of scrapes with Indians when he was in Montana. In April of 1867, Tom and John Bozeman left by horseback for Fort C.F. Smith on the Bighorn River in Indian country, to see about a flour order for Tom’s mill. While stopped for lunch the next day, five Blackfeet Indians, pretending to be friendly Crow Indians, visited their camp, shot and killed John Bozeman, wounded Tom and stole most of their horses, pack horses and supplies.
Before the Indians got away, Tom managed to shoot and kill one of the Indians with his Henry rifle. Nevertheless, Tom was stranded in the wilderness with a shoulder wound and no horse. Tom started home afoot, fatigued and weak from blood loss. Tom occasionally applied snow to his shoulder to stop the bleeding and walked all night until he came to the Yellowstone River. Tom swam across the river and, after having walked over twenty miles, came across other travelers who brought him home.
At this point, Tom was known as one of the wealthiest men in the area, having succeeded in prospecting, mining, lumbering, flour milling, freighting and merchandising ventures. But Tom became restless again and traveled to California in 1868 and invested substantial money in the Southern California Silk Center Association, which purchased 8,629 acres of land, sixty miles east of Los Angeles, for the purpose of cultivating silk worms. That project did not come to fruition but Tom was instrumental in using that acreage to become one of the founders of the city of Riverside. Tom and his wife moved from Montana to Riverside in 1870.
Tom was appointed superintendent of construction of an eight mile canal to bring Santa Ana river water to the thirsting acreage of Riverside. With the canal complete, Riverside became a natural location for citrus trees. Tom’s brother, Josiah Cover, was one of the group who initially planted navel orange trees in Riverside. Tom quickly became aware of the promise of this new variety of orange and was prominent in its cultivation. As an orange grower, Tom was one of the pioneers of the navel orange empire in Riverside that exploded with the planting of some 25 million trees in Southern California.
Tom and his wife were noted as having a large and elegant mansion, named “Mountain View” that was valued at $30,000 in 1880. Tom and Mary had two daughters, Carrie, who was born in 1869 and Blanche who was born in 1875. Tom was financially independent and wealthy with his orange orchards and he even had a street in Riverside named after him, an honor he had received in Virginia City, Montana as well.
Yet, Tom’s restless nature was not content with merely raising oranges and accumulating additional wealth. Gold fever struck Tom again at age 50. Tom became intrigued and ultimately consumed by the legend and tales of the lost Pegleg Smith gold mine in the Southern California deserts far south of Riverside. In 1879, Tom decided to prowl the desert himself to see if he could find the Lost Pegleg mine. Tom’s initial foray into the desert did not prove fruitful. Tom made similarly unsuccessful expeditions into the desert mountains in 1880, 1881-82 and 1882-83. On the latter trip, Tom fell and badly sprained his ankle, which proved to be a crippling injury that required a long recuperation.
Tom and his partner, Wilson Russell, drove their team out of Riverside on September 16, 1884 on Tom’s fifth and final expedition to try and find the Lost Pegleg mine. On the morning of September 22, the two decided to separate for the day and search in different directions. Tom’s partner was to drive the wagon and team to a camping place agreed upon about twenty miles away. Tom took off on foot with his pick, planning to meet his partner later at the agreed upon location.
And that was the last time any law-abiding man ever saw Tom Cover. Tom did not show up to meet his partner. Tom’s partner enlisted the aid of another individual and together they searched for three days for Tom without success. On September 28, Tom’s partner telegraphed the sad news to Mary Cover and Riverside authorities, triggering a massive rescue effort, involving several search parties. A $1,000 reward was offered for information regarding Tom’s disappearance. However, no trace of Tom was ever found despite some discredited reports years later that a skeleton was found with Tom’s Mason ring still present on the finger.
What happened to Tom? Tom’s biographer had a theory. While he lived in Montana, Tom had been prominently involved in the hanging of Boone Helm, a notorious outlaw. A number of Boone Helm’s cousins, who had a penchant for violence and criminal conduct, had a ranch in the general area where Tom disappeared. Tom Cover was a very well-known and successful businessman and his biographical profile in the 1883 history of San Bernadino County included mention of his prominent involvement in the work of the Montana Vigilantes. Tom’s biographer theorizes that the Helm cousins likely became aware of Tom’s involvement in the hanging of their cousin.
An article appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News in 1885, linking Tom’s disappearance to the Helm cousins. Both before and after that article, Turner Helms wrote several letters, attempting to implicate Tom’s partner in his disappearance, perhaps to draw suspicion away from the Helms clan. The timing of some of Turner Helms’ letters seem to indicate that he was attempting to implicate Tom’s partner even before there was any belief or thought of foul play with respect to Tom’s appearance. While it is only a theory that the Helm cousins were responsible for Tom Cover’s death, Tom’s biographer developed some compelling circumstantial evidence to support his theory, including the motive of the Helm cousins—-Vengeance!!