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!!
The written proceedings for the Kansas State Bar Association in 1917 included the following tribute to William:
“Judge Biddle, late of Ft. Scott, died at Portland, Oregon, January 26, 1917, and was buried in that city Monday, January 29th, two days before the convening of this Association in regular annual session. Judge Biddle had not been an active member of the Association for a number of years, but his death in another jurisdiction, his burial on Kansas Day, his prominence as a lawyer and jurist in Eastern Central Kansas for a life time, justify honorable mention in this report. C.E. Cory of Ft. Scott, an old law partner, paid fitting tribute to his friend and comrade of a generation ago, and in due time submitted the following tribute to the memory of the deceased, and it was ordered spread of record:
William Rinehart Biddle was born November 22, 1840 in Wayne County, Ohio and died at Portland, Oregon, Janaury 25, 1917, so that at his death he was somewhat over 76 years old.
His father, Alexander Biddle, of German blood, was a United Brethren missionary, who with Mr. Biddle’s mother, Magdalena Noftzinger Biddle, endured the racking trials and privations incident to the
“Winning of the Wilderness.”
Central Ohio in the early part of the nineteenth century was not a delectable land, and the long, weary task of operating a farm in the forest, and the long, weary trips together on horseback, or on foot, to the sparse settlements in their church work, may account in a considerable degree for the peculiarly strong mental and physical makeup of their son, our departed friend.
Mr. Biddle worked on the farm and attended the district school until the spring of 1861, when he joined the Oneida cavalry, an independent company of picked men, where were employed especially as orderlies and scouts. He was made sergeant and busily served in the Army of the Potomac through his term of enlistment.
After the close of the Civil War, he taught school for a short time. He entered the law department of the University of Michigan and graduated in 1868 and was admitted to the bar at Bucyrus, Ohio. Shortly afterward, he joined the crowd of young “veterans” and came west to Holden, Missouri, where he tarried but a short time, moving on to Mound City, Kansas, the county seat of Linn county, where he established himself in the practice of his profession.
In those days, Linn county changed its county seat several times and in order to be at the seat of justice, he lived in LaCygne a short time, and then followed the county seat to Pleasanton, where he remained until he came to Fort Scott in 1887, and was here until a short time ago, when he retired from active practice and removed to Portland, Oregon, where he died.
While at Mound City, Mr. Biddle was married to Lauretta S. Streeter of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, who survives him. to this family were born two children, of whom but one is now living—Mrs. Maude Biddle Combs, the wife of George W. Combs, Jr., of Portland, Oregon. He was blessed in his old age by seeing two strong young men, his grandsons, William Biddle Combs and Albert Nelson Combs of Portland, Oregon, to succeed him.
During his residence in Linn County, he took an active part in Republican politics. He served as county attorney and was for three terms in the legislature. An examination of the house journals, from 1876 to 1879, will show many traces of his ability and diligence that are now found in the statutes of Kansas.
At Pleasanton, he was a partner of the late Col. Richard W. Blue, and the firm of Biddle & Blue was a strong one, of statewide influence. He removed to Fort Scott in 1887 to form a partnership with Eugene F. Ware, Charles L. Ware and C.E. Cory, as Ware, Biddle & Cory, which firm continued until 1892. After that, he practiced with Louis C. Boyle (afterward attorney general, and now of Kansas City) and Jacob L. Sheppard, under the firm name of Biddle, Boyle & Sheppard. He afterward was associated with John H. Crain, as Biddle & Crain, and with Hubert Lardner as Biddle & Lardner. At the time of his retirement, his associate was Harry Warren, the firm name being Biddle & Warren.
W. R. Biddle was one of the really eminent Kansas lawyers. He was a tireless and dauntless worker. He was always ready. He always knew his case. No work was too strenuous for him, and his brother lawyers have remarked that when anyone in court secured anything from Biddle’s client he surely earned it.
It was as a trial lawyer that he particularly excelled. With remarkably full knowledge of procedure, he added the rare ability to think on his feet, to catch a point in the bustle of a trial and act upon it instanter.
In his prime, no better trial lawyer was ever at our bar. He was a princely opponent and a knightly fighter.
He always took a wide-awake interest in the Grand Army of the Republic, and in everything affecting the interests of his former comrades in arms. He was affiliated with a number of other fraternal societies.
But his characteristics as a man endeared him most of all to his friends. It was once said of him that he was a splendid specimen of that manhood which had settled in Kansas and made the state the imperial commonwealth that it is. No one ever had any doubt about his position upon any question of public interest or concern. You might not always agree with his views but you could not deny your admiration for his frankness, his fearlessness and his sincerity in stating them. A life-long adherent of one political faith, yet he did not hesitate to say when he thought his party was wrong.
Never a trimmer, he frequently was disappointed in laudable ambitions because he was unwilling to sacrifice his principles for expedience. In personal qualities, those qualities which compel men to love a man, he was distinguished. No lawyer in Kansas, possibly, ever had more young men study law at his office, and no preceptor was ever more kind or attentive to the young men within his influence. It was his boast, and not one much beyond the truth, that he had made more good lawyers than the state university. And no young man was ever associated with him who did not, ever afterward, retain sentiments of love and respect for him.
As a neighbor, he was ever kind and courteous. As a friend, he was ever true and openhanded. His many acts of charity and help to the needy were entirely unknown to many of his acquaintances, for truly he did not left his left hand know what his right hand was doing. A young man who was associated with him in his last years in Kansas says that no needy person ever applied to Mr. Biddle for help and was denied, and that his habit of lending money to those who could not borrow elsewhere was simply reckless. If it be true, as we know it is, that “He who giveth to the poor lendeth to the Lord,” Mr. Biddle’s account in the Record Book of Life must be all to the good.
We know that he committed some errors, but they were errors of a manly and not of a mean man. “His faults we write upon the sands and his virtues upon the tablets of love and memory.”
Here are some old photos that you might find interesting. These photos were all made from color slides that Helen Snyder allowed me to copy some time ago. Considering that many of the photos are 50 plus years old, they turned out pretty good I think.
In February, a friend and I spent a half day at the Ohio Genealogical Society outside Bellville. The OGS has past issues of the Bellville Star on microfilm. I began researching back issues of the Bellville Star, starting in 1941 in hopes that I would learn more information about my grandparents as well as my father and his siblings. Unfortunately, I have not been able to resume that research project as I have been inundated with work at the office since that time. I did, however, find some interesting information and thought that I would share with you some of that information.
1. During World War II, Marion (Lucas) Snyder was a member of the Navy Mothers Club. Her son Robert Lucas Snyder was in the Navy. I noted from various articles about the meetings of the Navy Mothers Club that Larry Hoffman’s mother, Mrs. C.W. Hoffman, was also in the same Navy Mother’s Club. I believe that Larry’s older brother, Warren Hoffman, was in the Navy in World War II.
2. Ora Otis (Pete) Snyder, Jr. , one of the sons of Marion and Ora Snyder, was a freshman at Bellville High School in 1942-43. While I knew that Uncle Pete played sports in high school, I did not realize what a great athlete he was. He earned varsity letters in both football and basketball in his freshman year. The basketball team won second place that year in the Richland County tournament, losing to Union. The article about that game noted that Pete Snyder was limping because of a bad ankle but nevertheless played.
3. As you might expect, I found numerous articles dealing with how World War II was impacting Bellville. Blackout tests were held in Bellville as part of air raid defense preparations. The Snyder Funeral Home in Bellville received the blackout warning notices and, in turn, transmitted them to the Bellville Mayor and Fire Chief. After the blackout orders were received, it was noted that a steady two minute blast of the village siren followed, which was heard for miles out into the county. Thereafter, Air Wardens followed up and reminded people to turn off all the lights. After the blackout tests were over, someone from the funeral home, usually one of the kids, would be sent up to the cemetery to advise city officials that the blackout test was over.
4. The Bellville Junior and Senior High Schools presented the operetta, “Rio Rio” in late March of 1943. Ora (Pete) Snyder was noted as having a leading part in this production and Gifta (Bowers) Snyder was noted as being one of the student directors of the production.
5. Every issue of the Bellville Star during World War II included a column entitled “News Items Concerning Bellville Service Men.” The December 3, 1942 issue of the Bellville Star included the following note: “Robert Snyder, who has been stationed at Great Lakes Naval Training School in Illinois, spent a sixty hour leave with his parents during the weekend. Other guests in the home of Mr. and Mrs. O.O. Snyder on Saturday evening included Mr. and Mrs. Richard Snyder, Stanley Parrott, Misses Betty Snyder, Dorothy Clever and Mary Shortes, all of Lexington.”
6. An advertisement from Stoodt’s Grocery indicated that a quart of peanut butter was 42 cents, a bottle of catsup was 15 cents, two boxes of Wheaties were 23 cents and 3 cakes of Lifebuoy soap were 21 cents.
7. One article that caught my eye was a letter in the August 5, 1943 edition of the Bellville Star written by two Bellville boys, Leo Fry and Charles Peters, who were stationed at Camp Carson, an Army training camp outside of Colorado Springs. This caught my eye because I believe that Dave Snyder was also stationed at that camp at one point during World War II and got his introduction to Colorado there. The letter read as follows:
“We want to write a few lines to the people of Bellville. Due to the fact that we can’t write a letter to each one, we address this letter to all. We are just fine out here in Colorado and we hope everyone back in Bellville is the same.
The Army is treating us fine. We have very good jobs. We get three square meals a day and plenty of hard work.
We certainly do miss the little city of Bellville and would like to see everyone. Our life is much different from that when we were home. We certainly enjoy reading our Star paper to the boys in the kitchen. When we start comparing our little town with some of the boys’ other home towns, we usually get a loaf of bread or a dishrag, or maybe even a broom, thrown at us, as everyone sticks for their own home town.
Cooking is a very interesting life. On maneuvers, it is a very hard job. Camp Carson is a very nice camp. It is located 7 miles south of Colorado Springs, Colorado at the foot of the Cheyenne Mountains, near Pikes Peak. The altitude of our camp is 7.000 feet. The climate is wonderful. The state of Colorado is the most beautiful state I ever saw. We have visited some very beautiful and interesting places, such as the Garden of the Gods, Cave of the Winds, The Great Royal Gorge and the worlds’ highest bridge. It is a state of beautiful scenery.
When we were camping on maneuvers at Lake George, Colorado, we saw numerous wild animals. Some of the boys from our division caught three young wildcats. One boy from our company caught a young eagle. It was a very pretty bird.
There is nothing more to say, so we will say so long, hoping to see you soon. “