James J. Gathings, real estate developer and rancher, the son of James and Jane (Jackson) Gathings, was born in Anson County, North Carolina, in 1817. At the age of twenty-one he married Martha Wall Covington; they had thirteen children. After a brief stay in North Carolina, the family moved to Mississippi, where for the next decade Gathings oversaw a cotton plantation. In 1849 he left Mississippi for the promise of cheap, fertile land in Texas. He arrived with his family and more than thirty slaves at a spot near the headwaters of Richland Creek in what was then Navarro County and today is just south of Itasca in Hill County. Later he moved north and purchased more than 10,000 acres of land in north central Hill County. At this site he built twenty houses, including a large storehouse and office. In addition, he quickly established friendly relations with the Indians in the area, many of whom became regular customers at his general store.
With the threat of Indian attacks removed, Gathings laid off a 100-acre townsite, which he named Covington in honor of his wife. Soon thereafter, he established the community as a manufacturing center for saddles, boots, farmwagons, flour, and cloth, in essence any item needed by newly arriving settlers or farmers and ranchers. Initially much of this equipment was the work of his slave labor force. Gathings and his brother Philip also developed a successful ranching operation that at one time included 1,200 cattle and 700 horses. He and T. M. Westbrook are credited with introducing Durham cattle into Texas. By the late 1850s Covington had become the retail center for the area, and in July 11, 1855, Gathings became the community's first postmaster. Conservative in temperament, Gathings insisted that no businesses in town be allowed to sell alcohol. He established Gathings College, which operated from the early 1860s to 1885 and at one time enrolled 200 students.
Gathings's personal fortunes and business success declined, however, after the Civil War. His wife died in 1870. Covington was bypassed by the railroad, and its importance as a retail point declined; businesses and residents subsequently moved to nearby railroad towns. In 1871 his eldest son, James Jr., was accused of murdering a black couple. When police officer W. T. Pritchett organized a patrol to chase James, Jr., Gathings countered with a group that "arrested" Pritchett while his son escaped. On January 15, 1871, the elder Gathings was arrested and fined $3,000, which was judged to be the cost of enforcing martial law in Hill County as a result of his actions. Gathings died on December 24, 1880.