Sunday morning, Sept. 1, we found ourselves heading for the Bristol Cemetery which is about 25 miles northwest of Pioche. We had seen an announcement for a memorial service and dedication for William R. Thomas/Riley J. Westcott.
Because of our personal interest and love of this area we were anxious to check it out and to be involved.
We found ourselves standing in the wide open desert sagebrush with friends and family members who had gathered for this occasion. With this wonderful setting the story began to unfold.
Very little was known of William R. Thomas as he lived and died at Bristol, Nev. The family had run into many dead ends as they searched for some thirty years for his genealogy. His grandson Mark was the one to continue the pursuit. All that anyone had told him was that he was killed in a robbery near Bristol Wells, Nev. They also knew that he served in the Civil War.
In 1872, he married Jane Wignall and in 1873 they lived at Bailey Springs Station on the Salt Lake Road. The station is about five miles north of Bristol Wells and at one time was called Thomas Station. Jane apparently returned to Nephi, Utah to have a baby.
Searching newspaper records they found that in 1880 information shows William in Frisco, Utah employed by Smith the dairyman. The “Salt Lake Herald” reports of an incident involving William and describes it as a shooting in a saloon with a gambler by the name of Curby. William was injured and Curby was killed but no arrest was made.
Continuing the search through newspaper records they found an account in the “Pioche Weekly Record” dated Jan. 26, 1884 and described William R. Thomas as being fatally shot by a man named Lesher at Bristol. There had existed hard feelings between the two men.
As Mark continued his search he found subsequent articles about William in two of the February 1884 issues of the “Pioche Weekly Record” with additional information. They learned that William R. Thomas was really R. Wescott and his widowed mother lived in Watertown, Wis., and also that during the rebellion (Civil War) he belonged to Company D, 5th Iowa Regiment. His arm bore a tattoo of his name, company and regiment.
After all of these years of searching they had some real answers to the lost years of William R. Thomas.
At this point they were able to find out that he fought at Chattanooga, Tenn., he was in the Battle of Mission Ridge, captured as a prisoner of war and imprisoned at Camp Sumter at Andersonville, Ga., where conditions were horrible.
By 1865 William had mustered out. However, later on in the same month he joined the First Nebraska Cavalry in Omaha, Neb., company C. They served as scouts and escorts through South Dakota, Nebraska and into Colorado Territory.
At this time Colorado was the headquarters for the Overland Stage Co. It was probably filled with the excitement with the opening up of the west. The family feels that this was probably what lured Riley Westcott to leave his position in the cavalry and change his name. They also speculate that he may have taken the name of William R. Thomas because that was the name of a fellow prisoner who had passed away while in prison and he may have known him. At this point he probably headed deeper into the west.
The search to find this man has been extensive. The Internet and newspaper databases were used along with Civil War records, census records and many other sources.
Then one day, to Marks surprise and delight, he received an email from someone he did not know. He would usually not open this type of email but felt that it needed to be opened. It was a man by the name of Chris Fingle and he was an official volunteer trying to find unmarked graves of the Iowa Civil War Soldiers. It was the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and also of his capture at Chattanooga. It was a perfect time to also honor this Civil War Soldier. They knew he had been buried at the Bristol Cemetery near Pioche, and it was their quest to place a Civil War Marker on all of the graves they could including William R. Thomas/Riley J. Wescott with no charge to the family.
With additional emails between Chris and Mark, along with support and help from the Bureau of Land Management and locals, this dream came true. No cemetery records had been kept so it was unknown where he was buried. There are mounds of dirt to indicate graves and one marker for a Hamilton Slough along with a wooden cross. The new marker was placed next to them and is a lovely addition.
Mark Jolley, himself a veteran of Viet Nam, and his family can be proud of their accomplishment and the tribute to William R. Thomas/Riley J. Wescott, 1843-1884, who lost his life at the age of forty-one.
I can in no way do justice to the wonderful and inspiring story we heard at the dedication of the grave marker and sacred spot of William R. Thomas/Riley J. Wescott. The Pioche American Legion, represented by Bill Lloyd, Bill Devlin, Frank Cheeney and Chuck Adams, posted the American Flag and led us in the pledge. Chuck Adams offered a prayer of dedication and the music “Amazing Grace” filled the air coming from several clumps of sagebrush at our backs.
Mark’s story was so very touching as he presented books recording his research to the family members there who represented four generations. Those not present will also receive a book at another time.
It was a beautiful Sunday experience and a story that has certainly touched many of our hearts as they honored this man and his family and we were honored to be able to share in their joy of a task well done.
This story was submitted to the Lincoln County Record by Peggy Draper Hone