Martin Luther Benson – 2001 Inductee

His tombstone in the Downs Cemetery lists the name as “General Martin Luther Benson,” which was impressive enough.  In 2001 what could be found out on the man came from five newspaper interview articles published in Osborne County newspapers in the 1870s and 1880s.  From these the following story of his life was gleaned.

Martin Luther Benson was born February 2, 1812, in Providence, Rhode Island, and was the son of Martin and Amy Benson.  For many years, General Benson was United States surveyor of public lands.  He accompanied Col. John C. Fremont on his second expedition in September, 1847; laid out the town of St. Joseph, Missouri, when it was known as Robeando’s Landing; was at Kansas City when it was only a wood yard for river steamers; and was at Sioux City, Iowa, when it was known as Sergeant’s Bluff.

In 1849 Benson did the first surveying at Kanesville, where the city of Council Bluffs, Iowa, now stands, and published the first paper ever issued there, called the Frontier Guardian.  In 1850 he ran the first line in laying out Omaha City, and had interest in the first paper ever published in the territory of Nebraska, called the Omaha Arrow.  In 1851, in the fall, at the time of the Indian troubles he volunteered at his own expense to take ten Omaha chiefs and six squaws to Washington via overland route to Chicago and the lakes, as there were no railroads on that route at the time.  He effected the first peace treaty mentioned in history that was made west of the Mississippi River [Volume 2, U.S. Treaties, page 996]. He accomplished it all at his own private expense and had a petition now filed in Congress for remuneration of the sum of $600,000 signed by some fifty of the national leading men at the age, such as Generals Thomas H. Benton, L. Cass, Henry Dodge, and others.

In 1854 Benson had a call to go to Wisconsin and re-survey the swamp and state land, in the term of Governor Bashford, which was executed with honor to himself and his country.  In 1859 he went to Chicago and assisted Col. James A. Mulligan, of the Irish Brigade, in raising his army, and superintended the first building up of Camp Douglass.  He then served as one of the pallbearers at the burial of Stephen A. Douglass.

Benson was a general in the Civil War and after serving two years was believed to have been transferred to Chicago, as Pay Master General.  He then received an honorable discharge.  In 1862 he went to Syracuse, N. Y., and was a bold speaker for the Union in different parts of the country.

After the war Benson was appointed U.S. Government Surveyor of Public Lands.  In 1869 he moved to Missouri and located near Jefferson City, spending his time working at his profession in various parts of the state.  In 1878 he had an appointment to raise a company of 60 men and go to Arizona on a surveying expedition, but when about ready to start was called to suspend his trip, owing to the trouble with the Indians on the Santa Fe Trail.  That same year he was ordered to Western Kansas to re-survey the lands and locate lost corners.  He located and laid out the town of Downs, Kansas and the Downs Cemetery, where he is now buried.  In 1879 he moved to Osborne City and established most of the lost corners around there, also around Bull City, later called Alton, and was there the day General Bull was killed by the Elk.  Martin Luther Benson died June 28, 1885, in Jewell County, Kansas, and was buried in the Downs Cemetery.

Very impressive stuff, and good enough for induction into the Osborne County Hall of Fame in 2001.

Now eleven years passed, and by 2012 many aspects of Benson’s life were looked into with more detail.  In doing so it turned out that many of the items published on Benson were greatly embellished, if not outright fabrications.  What follows, then, can be considered a more accurate accounting of the man’s life.

Martin Luther Benson was indeed born February 2, 1812, at Providence, Rhode Island, and was the son of Martin and Amy Benson.  Unfortunately no proof can be found to support the long-held claim that he accompanied John C. Fremont’s 1847 Second Expedition to the American West.  He name is not mentioned in records of the surveying and laying out of either Kanesville or Omaha, and it was Orson Hyde and Daniel E. Reed, not Benson, who published the Frontier Guardian and Omaha Arrow newspapers, respectively.  While Benson may have been part of the guard that accompanied the part of Omaha Indians to Washington, D. C., in 1851 his name is not mentioned in official records.  Nor to date has any record of a petition before Congress in his name for renumeration come to light.

Benson was not a pallbearer at the funeral of Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, as has been previously alleged.   During the Civil War Benson was never a general but instead served as a sergeant in Company K of the 130th Illinois Infantry, Union Army.  He never received the appointment as U.S. Government Surveyor of Public Lands but instead was employed by various railroads to survey and re-survey lands through which they were building rail lines through.  In this capacity he was an employee of the Union Pacific Railroad when he surveyed and laid out the town of Downs, Kansas and the Downs Cemetery, and the line of the Central Branch of the Union Pacific through Osborne County.  During the final five years of his life Martin Luther Benson lived with a daughter in Jewell County, Kansas.  He died there on June 28, 1885, and was buried in the Downs Cemetery.

So what can we take from all this?  That Martin Luther Benson no doubt led a very interesting life during a very interesting time of United States history.  Therefore let us view him in terms of the Osborne County Hall of Fame as a symbol for those who also struggled to survive and prosper during this period of the American West.

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