By Debbie Burke
Bozeman, Montana is known for Montana State University, world-class outdoor recreation, expensive homes (median price is $845,000), and the unsolved homicide of the city’s founder more than 150 years ago.
John Bozeman was a pioneer who blazed the Bozeman Trail as a shortcut from Wyoming to the Montana Territory gold fields, although he was unsuccessful at gold prospecting.
In 1867, he became a murder victim.
In the Montana Territory, tension existed between white settlers moving west and Native tribes who, despite treaties, were displaced.
In April, 1867, Bozeman and mill owner Thomas Cover were on their way to Fort C.F. Smith to secure a flour contract for Cover. They spent a night at a cattle ranch belonging to wealthy Nelson Story, Sr.
For unknown reasons, Bozeman was concerned for his safety and expressed his worry in a letter. That night, he shared a room with W.S. McKenzie and “begged” McKenzie to take his place on the journey, even offering his clothes and boots.
One possible reason for Bozeman’s fear is that he evidently had made advances on Cover’s wife, Mary, according to this article from The Sherman Room.
However, the next day, Bozeman and Cover resumed their journey together. According to Cover, when they stopped for a meal near the Yellowstone River, five Native men approached.
A shootout ensued in which Bozeman was struck twice in the chest, killing him. Cover claimed he had been shot once in the shoulder from the rear. He also said Blackfeet men stole their horses. He escaped and returned to the ranch for help.
The next day, Nelson Story arrived at the ranch and sent a trusted guide to study the murder scene. Story examined Cover’s wound, noticed powder burns indicating a shot from close range, and was suspicious that the bullet had entered from the front, contrary to Cover’s claim.
The guide returned and said he’d found Bozeman’s body, along with his valuables, undermining Cover’s claim that theft was the motive for the murder. He found tracks of only Bozeman’s and Cover’s horses, with no indication of five Native men Cover claimed had shot them.
However, soldiers from Fort C.F. Smith later encountered a camp where five outcast Natives bragged that they had killed Bozeman and had his horse.
Shortly after Bozeman’s murder, Cover moved to California and, for a time, successfully raised navel oranges in San Bernardino. In 1884, while searching for gold in the desert between Los Angeles and Yuma, Cover disappeared and was never found.
Years later, Nelson Story’s son said his father told him Cover had killed Bozeman then shot himself in the shoulder to disguise his guilt.
Another version of the murder surfaced when a man named Thomas Kent claimed Nelson Story, Sr. hired him to kill Bozeman.
Hearsay, rumors, and gossip promoted various theories but none of the possible scenarios could be proven with evidence.
John Bozeman’s murder remains a fabled but unsolved mystery.
Renee Carlson’s well-researched article about the homicide was published in Distinctly Montana magazine. Here’s a link to her story.
TKZers: Any theories about this very cold case?
A young Native inmate shouldn’t have gone to prison. Now he’s dead and video evidence is overwhelming against a female guard who swears she’s innocent. Investigator Tawny Lindholm plunges into the sinister world of deep fakes where “proof” isn’t truth.
Available at Amazon and major online booksellers.
That’s quite a story, Deb. Some things never change. Thanks.
Have a great rest of the week!
Good morning, Joe. Humans are always human. That’s what gives us material to write about.
Happy Memorial Day weekend!
Great story. History proves that some things like lust and murder never change. This sounds like a new Debbie Burke book.
Thanks, Brian. You’re right–some things never change, except the names, dates, and places.
Interesting story, Debbie. It sounds like Brian is on to something – a new book. And I bet you will add even more characters to muddy the water, wash up gold, and keep the reader reading into the early hours of the morning. And Brian’s probably already at work on a new cover.
Can’t wait to read it!
Steve, you’re always coming up with new jobs for me 😉 I’m still busy following through on your last idea!
Kidding aside, you’re a constant source of fresh ideas and I value them.
Happy Memorial Day!
It’s an interesting tale. Those who study human nature opine that there are a number of motives to kill, and it is usually a relative or close associate. Random homicide is relatively rare.
A few things occur to me.
On the frontier at the time, it would have been very convenient to blame the Native Americans for the crime.
Also, we can rule out robbery according to the reports, at least at the immediate scene.
The cheat sheet above my desk says that most murders are associational, that is, the murderer knows someone and has a grievance. The cheat sheet goes on to say people kill for money, sex, drugs, ambition, revenge, concealment of something-incest,m family secrets, escapes, desires, and action to obtain status.
I reckon Cover was involved, confronted Bozeman over the affair, shot him and cooked up the story to blame the Indians.
For my favorite unsolved Iowa case I turn to that of Myrtle Cook of Vinton, Iowa.
In the 1920s the county was a hotbed of bootlegging and criminality, and the Ku Klux Klan was very active. Myrtle Cook seems to have been something of a gadfly, was a leading member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a Klan auxiliary, and a staunch prohibitionist. She wasslated to give a blockbuster speech to the WCTU that would create major problems for the moonshiners. On a dark and stormy night before the WCTU fandango, she was practicing her speech in her home when a bullet entered her living room where she was practicing and shot her dead in her chair. Suspiciion fell on her husband
but he had an alibi and the trail went cold.
The case remains unsolved. All this came from a little book called Tobin Tales, published by a district court judge in the county.
Robert, your theory certainly fits well with the known facts.
“the murderer knows someone and has a grievance. The cheat sheet goes on to say people kill for money, sex, drugs, ambition, revenge, concealment of something-incest, family secrets, escapes, desires, and action to obtain status.” That’s an excellent cheat sheet to keep in mind.
Thanks for sharing the fascinating story of Myrtle Cook.
Money, lust, and revenge. Lots of motives for murder.
Thanks for another interesting True Crime Thursday, Debbie.
You’re welcome, Kay. Unsolved historical crimes can certainly take one down a rabbit hole.
I’m familiar with the story. What struck me as odd, was that Thomas Kent confessed he was a paid assassin, and yet it’s not a closed case based on that confession.
This also got me thinking, (about 20 years ago when I first came across the tail), that it’s hard for people to accept closure. Perhaps, this is one of those things where it’s better to keep the mystery alive than accept an explanation of the events.
Insightful observation about closure, Ben. From what I read, Thomas Kent’s “confession” was passed down in his family w/o other corroboration. Nelson Story was a wealthy cattle rancher with considerable influence. Soooo who knows?
Sounds like Cover did it. Blamed the usual scapegoat — Native men.
Sue, seems awfully suspicious the only tracks found were Bozeman’s, Cover’s, and their horses.
Debbie, I’m so glad that we got to connect on account of this mystery. Thank you so much!
Have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend!
Renee, thank you for writing a great story that was the inspiration!
TKZers, Renee just shared this fun bonus fact: “William McKenzie is buried and shares an obelisk headstone with John Bozeman in the Story family section of the cemetery.”
Are you going to spend Memorial Day weekend prowling historic cemeteries: