For years, the fate of the Nelson Buck surveying party has been clouded in mystery. Now from comparing a collection of written articles and eyewitness reports, what happened to Nelson Buck and his surveying crew seems reasonably clear.
There have been many articles written about the Nelson Buck massacre. Most of the articles had obvious errors. They failed to recognize that the Buck party was attacked at three different locations. From the many articles written and verbal histories, this article is an attempt to present the facts about the Nelson Buck massacre as well as can be recorded from the information available.
The "Biographical Records of Livingston County, Illinois" was published by the S.J. Clarke Publishing Company in 1900. According to that article, Nelson Buck was born in Cheming County, New York on April 10, 1808 and was the son of Aholiab and Annis (Drake) Buck.
Nelson grew to manhood in his native county and there received a good literary and musical education. He was for some years a teacher of vocal music. He first married Miss Fidelia Withey, of Port Byron, New York. They made their home in that place until her death. With his father's family, he then came west to Peoria County, Illinois and later married Miss Annis Knapp, daughter of James and Margaret Knapp. The Knapps were from Homer, New York.
After his arrival in Peoria County, Mr. Buck learned surveying and followed the occupation of a surveyor during the remainder of his time in that county. He was a careful and methodical man. The correctness of his lines was seldom questioned. He continued to reside in Peoria County until 1840, when he moved with his family to Bloomington, McLean County, Illinois. Here he continued his profession of surveying. He also established one of the first nurseries in that vicinity, in which line of business he was quite successful. IN 1844, While residing in Bloomington, his wife died leaving him and five children.
Mr. Buck continued living in Bloomington and resumed his business there until his marriage in 1850 with Maria Fellows of Pontiac, Illinois. He then moved to that city and took charge of her estate, which consisted of a farm, hotel, many town lots and undivided real estate. By his sound judgment, he put the estate into good shape which later realized a handsome return.
In the various places where he made his home, Mr. Buck became prominent in business, social and musical circles. Mr. Buck never lost his interest in musical affairs and while residing in Bloomington, he was one of the most prominent musicians of the place. He was a leader of the choir in the Methodist Episcopal Church. Fraternally, he was a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. He was a well-known citizen of Pontiac, Illinois from 1850 to 1869.
Mr. Buck's skills as a surveyor secured him the appointment as a government surveyor in 1869. He received a government contract to do surveying in Red Willow and other counties in Nebraska for the purpose of resurveying the line between Kansas and Nebraska. For a crew he hired five young men from Pontiac, and later picked up six more men in Plattsmouth, Nebraska. They left Plattsmouth, Nebraska, July 5, 1869 for Ft. Kearny. There he left for Red Willow County to begin surveying. His party was never heard from again.
THE TRAGEDY OF BUCK'S SURVEYING PARTY
Contrary to a lot of the written stories, the massacre happened at three separate locations. The surveying party began their story 14 miles south of McCook, Nebraska, near the Beaver Creek in Red Willow County. This was a half a mile from the Kansas-Nebraska border near the town of Marion, Nebraska. Some of Buck's crew members had spotted Indians and proceeded to shoot some of them. One Indian escaped and undoubtedly this precipitated the attack by the Indians against Buck's surveying party. They were attacked at this location and some of them were killed, but several of them escaped and got as far as Hollinger, Nebraska, about 50 miles east, where they were attacked again. Buck and four other men escaped this attack and fled southeast down the Beaver Creek to the confluence of the Beaver and Sappa Creeks. Two of the men were killed in Wildcat Canyon and Buck and the other man were killed near the junction of the Beaver and Sappa Creeks. This whole scenario could appropriately be entitled the "Nelson Buck Massacre."
The Nelson Buck surveying party was massacred through what might be referred to as "a comedy of errors." Buck probably underestimated the potential danger of an Indian attack and failed to wait for a military escort. Then two members of the Buck party while out scouting ran into two or four Indians and proceeded to kill them. However, one Indian escaped and undoubtedly reported the attack to his tribe. It can be certain that this unwarranted attack resulted in the massacre of the Buck surveying party by the Indians.
The following story of the massacre is taken mostly from the Stamford Star (Stamford, Nebraska) ca 1930.
In June of 1869, Nelson Buck, then about 60 years old, with five young men, none of whom were 20 years old, left Pontiac, Illinois, for Nebraska. Buck had received a government contract to survey in the southwest part of Nebraska. The party reached Plattsmouth, Nebraska, and was present at the formal driving of the first spike in what is now the Burlington Railroad on July 4th. From there they went to Grand Island and on to Ft. Kearny, having added six more members to the party. At Ft. Kearny they asked for additional arms and an escort, but were unable to get them at this time. They started out without them.
After about ten days journey, the surveying party located the place where they were to begin running lines, and pitched camp about a half mile from the Kansas-Nebraska border, which was surveyed in 1854, close to the dividing line between Danbury and Gerver Townships in Red Willow County. This was near what later became the town of Marion, Nebraska, on a curve in the Beaver Creek.
From there, Buck sent John Nettleton and H.B. McGregor back to Ft. Kearny for arms and soldiers. But when they arrived at Ft. Kearny, they were unable to secure either, so they both got a job with other parties and heard no more about the surveyors.
The only information of the massacre was gleamed from questioning the Indians, "Spotted Tree," "Swift Bear," "Pawnee Killer," and an Indian squaw, who told of attacking and killing part of the surveying party and destroying two of their wagons. They reported that the rest of the party escaped with the other wagons. The rest of the story must be gleaned from the gruesome remains that were found by the early settlers, who came a few years later.
These remains told them that those who escaped the first slaughter started back to Ft. Kearny. They had reached a point south of where Hollinger now stands on the Harmon farm on the northwest corner of the Southwest Quarter of Section 9, Township 2 North, Range 21 West of Furnas County, where they were again attacked. This was about 50 miles east of their first camp. Their wagons were burned at this place, but at least four of the men left the wagons and continued southeast three or four miles down the Beaver Creek. Two men were killed in the canyon that is now called "Wild Cat Canyon." Later Isaiah King buried their remains in 1880. It was located in the Southeast Quarter of Section 23. This land was later owned by Maria Jane Forsythe Newton.
Captain Buck and one other of the party crossed the Beaver Creek near the fork of the Beaver and Sappa Creeks and started northeast. Here the Captain's horse was killed and he took refuge in a plum thicket, where he was slain. The other man made it several hundred yards north, where his skeleton was found.
The verification of the events that took place in Red Willow County, were given to Mr. A.C. Furman by Tom Plumb an early settler in that section, who located near that place in 1873, when he was a lad old enough to remember the events. He tells of their camp and where the fire had killed out the buffalo grass and the charcoal left, "All around here their stakes were scattered, six or eight big native timber stakes about three or four inches square, which seemed intended for section stakes. There were a lot of smaller stakes about like picket pins, which I suppose were to be used for inside corners. The big stakes had been hewn square and letters and figures carved on the sides. They would have been three or four feet above ground after being driven. We found two wagons in the creek bed in some driftwood, one was a heavy old boy and the other a light spring wagon. Lem Daniels got most of the wagons. I got a spring seat, minus the springs. It had bows over it to make shade for the driver, but they had broken off. Right over there (pointing to the southeast) on the bank of the creek, Bill Shockley and I found several feet of surveyor's chain and 20 or more Spencer rim-fire cartridges, in a wood-rat's house. Bradley Buckworth found the skull of a white man, around here somewhere, and had it on his mantle piece while he lived there on the creek. Lem Daniel's little boys found an old compass, all brass, on the quarter west of this. I used to work for Lem, and I've looked it over hundreds of times. I think it must have belonged to the Buck party. Lem finally sold it to some junk dealer for the brass there was in it."
From the Nebraska Herald in 1869, in reporting the loss of the Buck party says, "Lieut. Jacob Almy, under Gen. Duncan, reported the capture on September 26, 1869, of a squaw who told of an encounter between a party of white men and a band of Indians under Pawnee Killer and Whistler. She said that four young Indians in advance of the main body were attacked by whites and that three of the Indians and one white man were killed. The Indians pursued the aggressors in the direction of the Beaver Creek, took their horses and rations, destroyed two wagons and killed five of the whites, the rest of them escaping. This with other government reports substantiated the fact that part of the Buck party were killed in Red Willow County and that the rest escaped to be massacred in eastern Furnas County.
Some writers had the entire massacre happening in Red Willow County, while other writers of the events that took place in Furnas County, ignore the events that took place in Red Willow County and seemingly cast the whole story in Furnas County. When we look at the whole matter, we find one story simply supplements the other.
That some of the Buck party were massacred in eastern Furnas County is verified by early settlers. The principle of whom is Mrs. Daniel McInturf, upon whose farm, was found the bones of Captain Buck and another man. The bones of Mr. Buck were identified by his saddle and revolver, which had his name on it.
Mrs. McInturf said, "We found parts of the saddle and pieces of his clothing. The saddle had Buck's name on it. There were also many gun balls and arrow heads. A boy by the name of Parks Gribble found the revolver. It also had his name on it. The saddle was cut to pieces, little by little by people wanting souvenirs of the massacre. The metal stirrups were in the possession of the McInturf family for many years. Later they were given to the Hastings Museum, Hastings, Nebraska."
The exact location of the spot where the things of Caption Buck were found is 47 rods and 1 yard north; 14 rods and 4 rods east of the fork of the Sappa and Beaver Creeks in the Southwest Quarter of Section 24, Township 2 North, Range 21 West. These measurements were made by Guy Newton and the McInturf boys after Mrs. McInturf had located the exact spot, saying she had been to it many times. Mrs. McInturf tells of her husband going to the spot where the wagons had been burned to hunt bolts and iron from the wagons, as hardware was scarce in those days.
This then was the fate of the Nelson Buck surveying party.
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