Thomas Wells Cover
Last year on the “In Search of Tom Cover” tour, my dad, brother and I stopped at the library in Virginia City, Montana to see if we could learn any new information about Tom Cover. The librarian was very nice—she located several articles about Tom Cover and provided me with copies of those articles. One of those articles was a manuscript prepared in 2002 by Gary R. Forney, a retired college administrator, for the Fourteenth Conference of the Gallatin Valley Historical Society/Pioneer Museum in Bozeman, Montana. I thought you might enjoy reading his article entitled “Thomas W. Cover–Gallatin Valley Pioneer.”
Like many of the early arrivals in the Montana Territory, Tom Cover appears to have been born under a wandering star. Born on March 31, 1831, Cover was only four years old when his family moved from his birthplace in Westminister, Maryland, to Richland, Ohio. Cover was educated at Sloan’s Academy before leaving Ohio, at the age of twenty to explore some of the western territories for nearly two years. Following a brief reunion of a few months with family back in Ohio, Cover left again in 1854 to search for adventure and fortune in the wild and untamed American west.
During the next eight years, Cover briefly spent time as a lumberman in Minnesota before catching a case of “gold fever,” which led him to the goldfields of the Colorado territory and, reportedly, into Mexico. In the early spring of 1862, Cover led a group of twenty-six men (including Samuel McLean, another man destined to become prominent in Montana’s history) from Colorado to the gold discovery sites of central Idaho. Quickly disappointed by the lack of opportunity in this area, Cover followed the rumors of new gold strikes across the Bitterroot mountains to a site known as Gold Cree, where he made the acquaintance of men who would change the course of his life–and help in that elusive quest for fortune. Among those Cover met were brothers James and Granville Stuart, who convinced him to join those traveling to the new diggings along Grasshopper Creek (Montana Territory). Once again, Cover was on the move, joining others in a rush south to another boomtown. “The settlers of Bannack in 1862-63, included those who arrived with Woodminister’s train, September 8, 1862, were…..Thomas W. Cover…Barney Hughes…..”)
Although Cover did not find enough gold at Bannack to make his fortune, he soon found a group of men who shared his dream. By the winter of 1862-63, Cover was part of a “company” with William Fairweather, Henry Edgar, Barney Hughes, George Orr, Michael Sweeney and Harry Rodgers—Cover being the only American citizen of the group. This little band was invited by James Stuart to join a prospecting expedition he was organizing to travel into the Yellowstone region in the early spring of 1863. Without going into the extraordinary details of the group’s adventures, the men (sans Orr) discovered what was to become one of the richest deposits of gold in America on May 26, 1863, along the banks of Alder Creek. Several communities soon appeared along the Alder Gulch and, although Cover maintained his original claim and filed several additional new claims, he quickly recognized the potential for wealth was not restricted to what could be washed from the stream banks.
Cover formed a partnership with Perry (“Bud”) McAdow to establish a sawmill along Granite Creek and was also operating a lumber yard in Virginia City by the summer of 1864. The demand created by the exploding population growth along the Alder Gulch for lumber to build new shops, saloons, homes, sluice boxes, and coffins made Cover a wealthy and prominent businessman of the territory. The well-sharpened instincts of a traveler served Cover very well, and he sold most of his mining claims and commercial interests with the intention of relocating to the Gallatin Valley. One report that may have come from Cover himself, said that he was paid $75,000 for his claims. During the winter of 1864-65, while Virginia City experienced “Flour Riots,” Cover returned to Ohio to visit his family, purchase grist mill equipment and begin the courtship of Mary Hess.
Tom Cover, with brother Jason, returned to Montana in mid-May of 1865 and. still in partnership with Bud McAdow, soon began building a grist mill near the new settlement of Bozeman. Located on the east side of town and a few blocks north of the principal thoroughfare, the mill was an imposing 3 and 1/2 story building bordered by a grain field of 150 acres that Cover had planted. By the time the mill opened for operation in September, Cover had been elected clerk of Gallatin County in the county’s first election, but he resigned that post by late November in order to accept a new title–husband.
Cover returned to Ohio to wed Mary Hess on December 31, 1865, in Columbus. The ceremony was officiated by Mary’s father (Judge Daniel Hess), and the couple spent their honeymoon traveling to New York City and Washington, D.C. In late March of 1866, the couple—with new equipment for the grist mill–boarded the steamboat Bighorn at St. Louis for the long journey to Fort Benton, then traveled by stagecoach to their home in the growing community of Bozeman. By that autumn, the grist mill was operating at full capacity, and the Covers had established themselves as leading citizens. Mary was cited in the Montana Post as “a cultured, lovable woman, who won the hearts of all who met her, ” and Tom was a charter member of the Gallatin Masonic Lodge founded in October of 1866. The couple also donated funds to help found the first church in Bozeman: “John Bozeman gave twenty-five dollars, the more affluent Tom Cover gave one hundred dollars.” As bright as the future may have seemed, however, a dark cloud was moving over the Gallatin Valley and the life of Tom Cover.
Although some have accused Thomas Francis Meagher (the acting territorial governor) of initiating the so-called Indian War of 1867, it is more accurate to recognize that one of the first links in the chain of events that led to the “war,” and Meagher’s death was forged in the Gallatin Valley. From the earliest arrival of the Anglo-European fur trappers in the land that would become Montana, there had been conflicts between the whites and the Indians. With the Alder Gulch discovery, and the subsequent opening of the Bozeman Trail, the number and intensity of these conflicts had gradually increased as thousands of prospectors and settlers swarmed into the territory. Governor Sidney Edgerton unsuccessfully attempted to form a militia in the spring of 1865 following the incident where ten white men had been killed by Blackfoot warriors near Fort Benton, and acting Governor Meagher had been frequently petitioned by citizens and civic officials , who cited acts of Indian violence and urgently requested protection. From its first issue, the Montana Post had featured a column entitled “Indian Movement” which called, in no uncertain terms for decisive action in esolving the hostilities.
During 1865 and 1866, the military posts of Fort Reno, Fort Kearny and Fort C.F. Smith were established along the Bozeman Trail to help provide protection for the emigrant trains, but they could do little to offer security to those beyond their very limited reach, including their own troops. On December 21, 1866, near Fort Kearney, eighty men under the leadership of impulsive Captain William Fetterman, earned the distinction of being the first significant command of regular army troops to be annihilated in Montana by an overwhelming force of combined Indian tribes.
At a public meeting in Bozeman on March 18, the citizens decided to erect a stockade at the Cover/McAdoo mill for protection from the perceived Indian threat. The assembly also passed a resolution calling for Acting Governor Meagher to provide arms and ammunition for the local residents and appointed Thomas Cover as a delegate to deliver the resolution. John Bozeman added his significant influence to the cause in a letter to Meagher dated March 25, 1867, in which he declared: “We have reliable reports here that we are in imminent danger of hostile Indians and if there is not something done to protect this valley soon, there will be but few men, and no families, left in the Gallatin Valley.”
In early April, despite all the concerns of possible Indian attacks—or perhaps sensing opportunity—Tom Cover determined to visit the military forts along the Bozeman Trail in an effort to secure contracts to provision those posts. Cover was able to enlist John Bozeman as his guide for the trip, although Bozeman reportedly had grave misgivings regarding the likelihood that he would return safely. The pair departed early on the morning of April 17 and spent that night at a cow camp on the ranch of Nelson Story (near present-day Livingston) before proceeding on their journey. In the early morning of April 19, Cover rode back into camp—wounded in his left shoulder and without Bozeman. The story, and intrigue, of Bozeman’s death has been recounted by several authors and will not be further narrated in this article. On April 22, Cover sent to Acting Governor Meagher a report on the death of Bozeman at the hands of a party of five Blackfeet Indians, concluding that” “From what I can glean in the way of information, I am satisfied that there is a large party of Blackfeet on the Yellowstone, whose sole object is plunder and scalps.” The news of Bozeman’s murder created new waves of panic among the residents of the Gallatin Valley, and fear combined with an urge to revenge the death of a popular young man spread throughout the territory.
In early June, Cover, accompanied by a guard of forty men from the newly established militia, was sufficiently recovered from his wound to lead a train of ten wagons of supplies to Fort Smith. Throughout the summer months, Cover was active in provisioning the territory militia, and in October he would lead thirty-six wagons to Fort Smith. Although there were no military engagements with the Indians, and the militia was dismissed in early October, the conflict between whites and Indians was far from resolved. Frustrated by a continuing series of raids, and unwilling to engage in an all-out war, General-in Chief Ulysses S. Grant directed in March of 1868 that all the military posts along the Bozeman Trail be closed.
Once again, C0ver’s intuitive sense of timing would serve him well. By the late autumn of 1868, Cover had become intrigued with the idea of silk production in southern California. It is certainly reasonable to conclude that this new interest may have been stimulated by a combination of factors, including competition from new grist mills, the closing of the Bozeman Trail and perhaps whispers of doubt regarding his role in the death of John Bozeman. Whatever his interest, Cover sold his interest in the mill to William McAdow (Perry’s brother) and moved to southern California by the spring of 1869 with Mary.
Although the plan to raise silkworms never reached fruition, Cover did not lose his “Midas Touch” with his move to California. Purchasing large tracts of land which soon became prosperous orchards and the town site for Riverside, Cover continued to add to his material wealth.. The “fever” which had been dormant for several years flared again, however, in 1879. Cover became obsessed with the story of the Peg-Leg Mine, which according to popular lore, was located in the desert south of Riverside in the area known as the Salton Sea. On September 16, 1884, Cover, accompanied by Wilson Russell, left Riverside for his fifth expedition in search of the legendary treasure. The men separated on the morning of September 22, agreeing to meet later that day at a known point but it was the last anyone would see of Tom Cover. Despite the exhaustive efforts of Russell and several search parties, the body of Tom Cover was never found. Stories that a skeleton was found wearing Cover’s Masonic ring , and that he was murdered by relatives of a victim of vigilante activity, in which Cover had reportedly played a role, are alluring but not factual.
Since 1884, Riverside, California has developed into a large city within the urban web of Los Angeles and the idea of open spaces, beautiful orchards and silk worm farms are as distant and unknown to its residents as the name of the man who first settled there. Except for the few weeks each summer when tourists crowd Virginia City and make their motorized pilgrimage to Boot Hill, Cover Street is a quiet residential byway that Tom Cover would likely recognize even today. Cover’s mill was razed in 1812 to make way for the Chicag0-Milwaukee railroad line into Bozeman and its mill s stones were moved—-and remain—in what today is the southeast corner of Beall Park.
In the quiet of a summer’s evening, when the laughter of children playing on the playground at Beall Park has turned to slumber, and the public pavilion is empty, if one listens very carefully while sitting beneath those beautiful trees, the breezes moving about those mill stones will whisper stories from a long time ago. A time when thousands of new emigrants, flushed with dreams of fortune, surged through a new community, when Indians were struggling to protect the way of life known to them and their ancestors, when men and women risked their lives for a fresh beginning…….. the time of Tom Cover’s mill.