West of Coffin’s Grove: Unresolved Murder of J.N. Covey 1856

Murder Victim

J.N. Covey
Cause of Death: Unknown, Body Not Found
Motive: Robbery

Murder Scene and Date

Buffalo Grove (Present-day Ghost Town)
Buffalo Township
Buchanan County, Iowa
June 1, 1856


By Nancy Bowers
Written April 2013

location of Independence, Iowa

location of Independence, Iowa,
west of Buffalo Grove

Until now, the story of J.N. Covey’s murder on June 1, 1856 has been told only in the century-old book History of Buchanan County, Iowa.

It’s a straightforward case of murder motivated by revenge and greed with overwhelming circumstantial evidence and convincing witness testimony that point to specific suspects.

However, there was an insurmountable problem in bringing those suspects to trial: there was no body. And without a body that showed signs of homicide, a case could not be pressed against the men who likely killed J.N. Covey.

Because the victim never received justice, the murder is technically unsolved or, perhaps more accurately, it’s unresolved.

☛ Early Buffalo Grove Settlers ☚

The principals in this murder story lived in and around a small settlement in the eastern portion of Buchanan County’s Buffalo Township, which is bordered on the north by Fayette County, on the west by Hazleton Township, and the east by Madison Township.

Buffalo Grove, Iowa

Buffalo Grove, Iowa

Situated near East Buffalo Creek, the community was known variously as Buffalo Grove, Upper Buffalo, Buchanan, and Mudville and served as the post office for the area. It is now a ghost town, long ago by-passed by the railroad in favor of Aurora.

Some of the residents put down roots there even before Buffalo Township was established in 1852; after that date, the settlement was officially platted in the southeast quarter of section 24.

Abaithar Richardson was the first settler, staking out a place in the autumn of 1849 and building a log house on the west side of Buffalo Grove and later a more substantial home. Then came Silas K. Messenger and then William Jewell, whose family is central to the story of J.N. Covey’s murder.

William Jewell, who was born in 1806 in Cayuga County, New York, to Thomas Jewell and Lucy Rogers, steadily moved westward from New York with his wife Betsy Jane Dates and their growing family — first to Pennsylvania and then to Illinois before settling in Buchanan County, Iowa, in 1850.

William Jewell was soon joined in Iowa by his four siblings: Jeremiah Rockwell “Rock” Jewell (born in 1812), James Jewell (born in 1815), Lucy A. Jewell (born in 1823 and the wife of Sylvanus Starkey), and Thomas “Tom” Jewell (born in 1825).

In 1850, Rock Jewell bought a tract near his brother William on the west side of Buffalo Grove, land which would later become part of Byron Township. Rock Jewell never built much of a house and always just managed to scrape by.

Within a couple of years, J.N. Covey came westward from Vermont; he liked the looks of Rock Jewell’s land in Buchanan County and wanted to settle there.

Covey traded Jewell for the land and in the spring of 1856 built a substantial house, while Rock Jewell and his family dwelt in a hovel nearby on the same land.

Richardson house

Abaithar Richardson’s house,
first in Buffalo Grove.

The trouble started in May of 1856 when Covey foreclosed on a chattel mortgage and seized Rock Jewell’s horses.

It was said that Rock Jewell was furious, but gave no outward sign of his anger. Every day, however, he quietly fumed about his lost land, his small house, and his forfeited horses.

☛ J.N. Covey Disappears ☚

Buchanan County plat map

Buchanan County plat map

Not long after the foreclosure, J.N. Covey made it known in the community that he was returning to his native Vermont on business and would come back to Iowa within a few weeks.

Daniel W. Hammond, who later settled on Section 33 in Buffalo Township, was boarding in a home east of Buffalo Grove. Hammond, 24, had recently married Olive M. Porter and planned to meet her in Dubuque to bring her and their household goods back to Buchanan County.

When Hammond and Covey learned that both had travel plans, they decided to journey east together as far as Dubuque.

They agreed that Covey would stop at Daniel Hammond’s boarding house at 7:00 a.m. on Sunday June 1 and the two would set out with their teams and wagons.

About 6:00 a.m. that morning, Hammond was preparing for the journey when he looked up and saw Tom Jewell, who lived on the east side of Buffalo Grove, riding south on a horse owned by his brother-in-law Sylvanus Starkey. A garden spade rested on Tom’s shoulder.

Meantime on the west side of Buffalo Grove that morning, J.N. Covey set out with his wagon and team to join up with Hammond.

But just as he pulled away, Rock Jewell emerged from his cabin and asked if he could catch a ride to a relative’s house two miles away. Trying to be a good neighbor, Covey agreed and the two set out across East Buffalo Creek and followed a path into the nearby woods.

On the other side of Buffalo Grove, the appointed time of departure came and went, and Covey did not meet up with Daniel Hammond.

Then Tom Jewell rode by again — this time at full gallop. He was hatless and without the spade. The History of Buchanan County describes what happened next:

“As soon as he came near Hammond [Tom Jewell] called out, ‘Haven’t you gone yet?’ Hammond replied he was waiting for Covey.

‘Why,’ said Jewell, ‘he went nearly an hour ago. He told me to come and tell you and I forgot it. He had to go by the south road and wants you to go on to the crossing and he will meet you there. If he don’t, you drive on to Coffin’s Grove and wait for him if he hasn’t got there. If he gets there first, he will wait for you.’”

So Hammond set out with his team and wagon, traveling along a road which ran north of and parallel to the one Jewell said Covey took. The two roads converged on a ridge three miles east of Buffalo Grove and Hammond expected to find Covey waiting there for him.

Daniel Hammond had traveled only a short distance when he saw Covey’s wagon driving at great speed on the road to the south. He thought it odd that Covey, however, was crouched down in the wagon as though hiding.

He decided Covey was having some fun with him and was racing to see which of them could first get to the spot where the roads converged.

So he urged his own horses on, but Covey’s team outdistanced him and Hammond gave up the chase. Just then, Covey’s team ran through a marsh and slowed down enough that by the time Hammond reached the place where the roads crossed, he was only 50 rods behind Covey.

But, Covey’s team and wagon didn’t turn onto the road leading to Dubuque, but instead went north onto the open prairie as fast as the horses could run.

The History of Buchanan County wrote:

“As the wagon receded in the distance, Hammond saw distinctly that a buffalo screen was spread over the bottom and that some large, loose object beneath it was rolling or bounding from side to side.”

Hammond traveled on to Coffin’s Grove, a present-day ghost town in central Delaware County; after waiting several hours for Covey to pass through, he rode on to Dubuque alone.

During the time Hammond waited for his wife to arrive in Dubuque so they could travel to Buffalo Grove, he looked all around the city and made inquiries about Covey. But no one there had seen him.

☛ Missing from Buffalo Grove ☚

Buffalo Grove residents assumed that Hammond had missed connections with Covey and they figured Covey would finish his business in Vermont and return to Iowa.


Charles Henry Jakway (from freepages.genealogy.rootsweb)

But Covey did not return and there was no mail from him or about him from the East, nor any word brought by travelers who passed through.

After exchanging telegrams with Covey’s Vermont relatives and learning he never arrived to visit them, Buffalo Grove residents feared he was dead and formed search parties to walk the wooded areas and scour the prairie. But Covey’s body was not located.

J.N. Covey was not the only resident missing from the area, however. Rock Jewell was also gone. In fact, the community became so worried about Jewell that they began a search for him, too.

In early July of 1856, 31-year-old Buffalo Grove resident Charles Henry Jakway traveled to Dubuque on business.

There on a Mississippi River levee, Jakway saw a man sitting behind a wood pile whom he recognized as Rock Jewell — but Jewell was wearing J.N. Covey’s clothes. When Jakway approached Jewell and called him by name, Jewell cursed and pulled his hat down over his face and angrily denied he knew Jakway.

Charles Jakway got word back to Buffalo Grove that he had found Rock Jewell and residents there sent telegrams to Dubuque directing law enforcement to detain and arrest Jewell.

Jed Lake

Jedediah “Jed” Lake

Not only did Rock Jewell have Covey’s clothes, but he also possessed a revolving rifle that Covey brought with him from Vermont. And he had two watches belonging to Covey that he had brought to Dubuque for an appraisal to sell to a man who was traveling with him.

It was also discovered that in Dubuque Rock Jewell used a false name to sell Covey’s wagon, team of horses, and harnesses to a Petosi, Wisconsin, man.

Twenty-six-year-old Jedediah “Jed” Lake, a boarder at the Covey place who co-owned a sawmill nearby, traveled to Petosi, Wisconsin, and recovered Covey’s horses and wagon which Rock Jewell had sold in Dubuque.

Jed Lake found a blood-like stain on the bottom of the wagon box, but so much time had passed that it was impossible to prove it was Covey’s blood or even if it was blood at all.

☛ Held For Murder ☚

Rock Jewell was taken for a preliminary hearing to Independence, the Buchanan County Seat, where court was held in a former schoolhouse south of the Commercial Bank.

The magistrate ordered Rock Jewell held in jail until a grand jury could hear testimony.

When the grand jury met in the autumn of 1856, Jewell was indicted for the first degree murder of J.N. Covey  and transported to the Delhi Jail in Delaware County 35 miles east of Independence.

Another Delhi inmate named Manehamer told authorities that Jewell confessed to him while they were locked up and even described where J.N. Covey’s body could be found.

Manehamer was taken to the wooded area where he said the murder took place, but was unable to point out the specific spot where the victim was supposedly buried.

Buffalo Grove residents believed that brothers Tom and Rock Jewell and their sister Lucy’s husband Sylvanus Starkey plotted to kill Covey during a late-night meeting on Saturday, May 31 during which they had Covey’s rifle, which had been loaned by Covey to Rock Jewell and was probably used to kill him.

Rock Jewell, it seemed, had fumed about the perceived injustices against him, known Covey would be leaving in his wagon on June 1, hitched a ride, killed him, threw a buffalo robe over his body — the object Daniel Hammond saw rolling around in the wagon — and buried him on the prairie with the help of his brother Tom who was seen with a spade that morning riding Sylvanus Starkey’s horse.

Rock Jewell was incarcerated for an entire year. During that time, the search for Covey’s body continued without results.

Because murder could not be proved through a body, Jewell was released and the case was dismissed with the understanding that he would be arrested again and tried should Covey’s body be found.

☛ What Became of the Principals? ☚

Unfortunately, there is little information available on J.N. Covey. Details about his life and family would be welcomed for this article; to send an email, click on the byline above.

By 1860, the entire Jewell family, with the exception of James Jewell whom history does not implicate in the murder, had left Buchanan County with their families for western Iowa — with Rock Jewell, William Jewell, and their sister Lucy Jewell Starkey settling near Onawa in Monona County and Tom Jewell in Cherokee.

Rock Jewell does not appear in the U.S. Census after 1870; William Jewell, who made his living as a farmer, died in 1880; Tom Jewell died in 1910 and is buried in Cherokee County; Lucy A. Jewell Starkey and her husband Sylvanus Starkey, who made his living as a merchant, died in Sloan in Woodbury County in 1902 and 1911, respectively.

Charles Henry Jakway, who discovered Rock Jewell hiding in Dubuque, lived to be 90. He was a farmer; a public official; a bank president in Aurora, Iowa; and a well-known collector, strangely enough, of small animal skulls. Before his death in 1916, Jakway dictated an historical autobiography, The Blazed Trail, which his grandson Charles Henry Jakway, II, transcribed; however, the memoir makes no mention of the J.N. Covey murder.

Jedediah “Jed” Lake, who retrieved Covey’s stolen goods, became a lawyer and was a prominent citizen and office holder in Independence, Iowa; he served his country as a Lieutenant Colonel in the 27th Iowa Infantry during the Civil War. Lake passed away in 1914.

Daniel W. Hammond — who had planned to travel with Covey and saw what was most likely his body being taken out to the prairie for burial — farmed, served as a postal agent, and ran an Oelwein hardware store before passing away in 1908.

Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.



  • The Blazed Trail by Charles Henry Jakway, I., 1911.
  • ☛ Buchanan County [Iowa] Conservation Parks.
  • History of Buchanan, Iowa, And Its People, Volumes 1 and 2 by Harry Church and Katharyn Joella Chappell. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1914.
  • The History of Delaware County, Iowa, containing a history of its county, its cities, towns. Chicago: Western Historical Company, 1878.
  • ☛ iowaghosttowns.com
  • Plat Book of Buchanan County, Iowa, 1886.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

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