Robert Henri became one of the most influential artists in 20th Century America, but had humble beginnings as Robert Henry Cozad, son of the gamblin’ man.
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. Mr. Cozad became so good at faro he was banned from gambling houses across the US.
John Cozad ended up in Malden, Virginia where he met Theresa Gatewood, the daughter of a wealthy hotel owner. The couple married and settled in the Cincinnati, Ohio area. They had six children, only two of which survived infancy. Mr. Cozad was an intelligent, driven man who yearned to make his mark on the world. He founded the town of Cozaddale, Ohio in 1870. It did not survive long, and Cozad decided to move on.
In 1872, John Cozad set out on the Union Pacific Railroad across the United States. 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 spot to start a new town. In the middle of Nebraska, he sighted the 100th Meridian sign. This sign had been put up as part of the Pacific Railway Act of 1862. When the Union Pacific laid track to that point, they won the right to continue west. Mr. Cozad decided this was the perfect place to settle.
Mr. Cozad brought his 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 about 1879. Johnny and Robert spent their days in Cozad fishing, swimming, and riding horses. As they got older, Mr. Cozad put them to work. When Mr. 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.
The 1870s and ‘80s 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 Mr. Cozad and Mr. Pearson, but the following is the most accurate according to eyewitness statements and court documents. Alfred Pearson was a rancher. At some point, his herd ruined one of Mr. Cozad’s hayfields. Mr. Cozad sued him. In October of 1882, before this could be taken to court, Mr. Pearson confronted Mr. Cozad at Julia Gatewood’s store. He was very angry and started yelling at Cozad. Mr. Cozad drew his attention to Julia and asked that he not speak that way in front of a lady. Mr. Pearson apologized to Julia and they headed outside to continue the conversation. Someone called someone a liar and Mr. Pearson began hitting Mr. Cozad. Mr. Cozad was knocked back into some crates while Mr. Pearson continued to beat him. Mr. Cozad pulled his gun and shot Mr. Pearson in the face.
Mr. Pearson died a few weeks later and Mr. Cozad left town. Whether or not he could have proved it was self-defense, the feelings in the town had turned to hate and anger. It was safest to leave. Theresa and Robert tied up loose ends over the next year or so, and eventually joined Mr. Cozad and Johnny in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The family changed their names. Mr. and Mrs. Cozad became Richard and Tessa Lee. Johnny changed his name to Frank Southrn, and Robert became Robert Henri. The boys were viewed as the couple’s adopted sons. Mr. Cozad was acquitted about 12 years after the incident, but thought it best to keep the new name and life.