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About the Cozad Family History

Robert Henri became one of the most influential artists in twentieth-century America but had humble beginnings as Robert Henry Cozad, The Son of the Gamblin’ Man as Marie Sandoz described him in her fictional account of his time in Nebraska.


John Jackson Cozad was born in Ohio in 1830. His mother died when he was young and he did not get along with his stepmother. At the age of twelve, he left home to make his own way in life. John worked the steamboats down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. There the boat workers taught him to play faro, a gambling game similar to blackjack. Cozad became so good at faro and poker he was banned from gambling houses across the country.


John Cozad was traveling and stayed in Malden, Virginia where he met Theresa Gatewood, the daughter of a hotel owner. The couple married and settled in the Cincinnati, Ohio area. They had six children, only two of whom survived infancy. Cozad was an intelligent, driven man who yearned to make his mark on the world. He founded the town of Cozaddale, Ohio in 1871. The town development project was not a successful one and and Cozad decided to move on.


In 1872, John Cozad set out on the Union Pacific Railroad across the United States. It is said that he made a stop on a riverboat near Omaha, Nebraska where he won $50,000 playing faro. As he rode the train, he kept his eyes open for a good location to begin a new town. In the middle of Nebraska, he sighted the 100th Meridian sign. This sign had been placed to designate a benchmark as part of the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 and to show the place where the humid East met the arid West. When the Union Pacific laid track to that point, they won the right to continue west. Cozad decided this was the perfect place to settle.

100th meridian UP 300.jpg

The Union Pacific Railroad at the 100th Meridan, 1866
Courtesy Library of Congress

Cozad brought friends and family, including his in-laws, from Ohio to settle the new town of Cozad. His wife Theresa and their two boys Johnny and Robert lived there for the first few summers but remained in Ohio where the boys attended school. They moved to Cozad full time in 1879. Johnny and Robert spent their days in Cozad fishing, swimming, and riding horses. As they got older, Cozad put them to work. When John Cozad was away, Robert was put in charge of the hay company and the bridge-building. Johnny often went to Denver to sell the hay.


As a teenager, Robert kept a diary that detailed his day-to-day life, as well as short stories he attempted to write. He enjoyed illustrating and decorating the pages. He also made scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and pictures he enjoyed. Robert had a small printing press in his office that he used to do small jobs, including the ballots for the election one year.

House Layout.jpg

Robert Henri's drawing of the family home and hotel  

(now the museum)  1880
Courtesy Robert Henri Museum

The 1870s and 1880s were a time of change on the prairie of Nebraska. Before the settlers moved in and started farming, cowboys drove their herds through the area to get them on the train to sell back east. The farmers laid claim to their land and started putting fences up. This angered the cowboys and caused tension between the two groups. As a leader in the town and a hay farmer, Mr. Cozad was right in the middle of the conflict.


There are many stories as to what happened between John Cozad and Alf Pearson, but the following is the most accurate according to eyewitness statements and court documents. Alfred Pearson was a rancher and a deputy sheriff. At some point, his herd ruined one of Cozad’s hayfields. Cozad sued him. In October of 1882, before this could be taken to court, Pearson confronted Cozad at Julia Gatewood’s store. He was very angry and started yelling at Cozad. Cozad drew his attention to Julia and asked that he not speak that way in front of a lady. Pearson apologized to Julia and they headed outside to continue the conversation. Someone called someone a liar and Pearson began hitting Cozad. John Cozad was knocked back into a shipping crate while Alf Pearson continued to beat him. Cozad pulled out his gun and shot Pearson in the face. Cozad immediately left town.

Alf Pearson died a few weeks later. Whether or not Cozad could have proved it was self-defense, the feelings in the town had turned against him. It was safest for the family to leave. Theresa and Robert disposed of all the properties including the hotel in early 1884 and the family reunited later that year in New York City before moving to Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The family changed their names, identities, and relationships with each other. John and Theresa Cozad became Richard and Tessa Lee. Johnny changed his name to Frank Southrn, and Robert became Robert Henri. The boys were then said to be the couple’s adopted sons. John Cozad was acquitted twelve years after the shooting in 1894 but the family, which had long established their new lives, kept their new names and identities. Three of the four family members returned in the years to come but Robert Henri is not believed to have returned to Nebraska.

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