Military Monday – Benjamin Bursley – Civil War veteran

With stories of pilgrims and Revolutionary War ancestors, tales of Indian uprisings and cousins scalped, its no wonder I became a genealogy addict at a very young age. My mother must have been quite astounded that her seven-year-old daughter repeatedly asked about her heritage. Mom’s usual response was, “You’re English, Irish, Scotch, Welch, German and Norwegian.”  She didn’t have much else to offer me, but my grandmother sure did. While we didn’t know WHICH ancestor came on the Mayflower, or who was in the Revolutionary War, we did know it was her mother’s Bursley side that was impacted by the 1862 Sioux Uprising in Minnesota. And, years later, I now know it was also the Bursley lines that had the Mayflower ancestry as well as service in the American War of Independence. So today, Veteran’s Day, I offer this tribute to Benjamin Bursley, my grandmother’s great-grandfather, Civil War veteran and descendent of some of America’s earliest settlers – the Pilgrims.


Benjamin Bursley, the sixth of 13 children born to Lemuel Bursley and Lavina Spencer¹,², was born about 1810/11 in Farmington, Maine.³ No doubt influenced by their colonial roots, the Bursley family was quite patriotic, having descended from Pilgrim John Howland, who had made the voyage to America aboard the Mayflower. Nearly 150 years after the Plymouth settlement, Benjamin’s grandfather, Benjamin F. Bursley, helped gain America’s freedom from England with his role in the Revolutionary War.4,5 The patriotism continued with our subject’s father, Lemuel, who was an Ensign in the War of 1812, serving in Daniel Beale’s Company of Foot. (See Annual Return with roster posted here.)

Lemuel was well-respected in the small town of Farmington Falls, Maine. From the obituary of Benjamin’s brother, Lemuel Jr., we get the following glimpse of his father:

“Mr. Bursley belonged to a worthy family. His father, Lemuel Bursley, sen., was among the early pioneers who located their future homes on the banks of the Sandy river. He selected a lot on the western side of the river, about a mild and a half above Farmington Falls, and cleared the farm and erected the buildings on the place which was, we believe, occupied by Mr. J. Allen at the date at which the County Map was published. He came from Barnstable, Mass., – was a carpenter by trade, became a successful farmer, and on his farm successfully trained a large family of children, and led a useful, exemplary and religious life, till increased age induced him to sell his farm, accept the care of his son, Col. Bursley, and remove to the Falls. Eleven out of thirteen children of the Bursley family lived to become heads of families, and all led honorable and useful lives.”6

Benjamin left his family and home in Farmington, and married Cynthia S. Day7 , the daughter of Aaron Day and his wife Martha. It seems likely that the marriage took place in either Milo, Piscataquis County, where Aaron and Martha were living about 1835, or in LaGrange, Penobscot County, where Julia, Arlette, Benjamin Jr., and John – the oldest of Benjamin and Cynthia’s children – were born.8

We know the young parents suffered the tragedy in the early loss of three of their children. One of the oldest daughters, Julia or Arlette, appears to have died before Benjamin was listed in the 1840 census, as there was only one female child listed under the age of five.9 Benjamin Jr. was apparently still alive at that time, represented by the single male under 5, but by 1850, both he and his remaining older sister apparently died, as only his younger siblings, John, Susan and Lavina were enumerated with Benjamin and Cynthia, who had moved to Bangor, Maine sometime between 1848 and 1850.10,11

The Princeton Union, by John M. Bursley

The Princeton Union, by John M. Bursley

It is not yet known what prompted Benjamin to pack up his family and head to Minnesota. However, what IS known is the frequent advertisements in Maine newspapers, luring able- bodied men west, where the lumber industry was gaining speed. From an article written by Benjamin’s son, John, we learn that Benjamin arrived in Minnesota in November 1854, and obtained lodging from J.W. Tibbetts, who had a tavern and inn for lumbermen12 , presumably in the area near Big Lake.

By May 1, 1855, Benjamin had staked his claim to 39 acres on Lot 2, Section 8, Township 121, Range 24, Wright County, Minnesota. His claim, near what is now modern-day Monticello, was the very first in that township.13 He completed the purchase at $1.25 per acre on August 4, 1857, with testimony that he had built a 16’ x 20’ log house, 10’ high, with board floors, two doors and four windows. Three acres of the land had been fenced and cleared.14 From the land entry files, we learn that Benjamin and Cynthia had tables and chairs, bedsteads and bedding, as well as a cooking stove and utensils among their household belongings.

Shortly after settling, our pioneer family was faced with the locust raids, described in detail in The History of Wright County as follows:

“August 19, 1856, is a date not likely to be forgotten by the early settlers of this county, for on that day arrived the advance guard of that all-devouring army of winged gourmands whose ravages spread terror and panic among the inhabitants, and almost depopulated the young settlements. The flying hoppers were seen going southeast about noon, and at 2 o’clock in the afternoon they began their work of destruction, eating every green thing. In Otsego and Monticello, about the only places in the county where wheat, oats and rye were raised to any extent, the loss was greatest. In attacking the oats the grasshoppers trimmed off every green leaf and then cut off the small stems on the heads, leaving the bare stalk standing and the oats all on the ground. Much of the wheat was of the Rio Grande variety and was partly protected by the heavy beards, but every leaf was cut off’. The rye was hard and just ready to harvest, so to a large extent it escaped the general ravage.

“The hope of relief occasioned by the sudden disappearance of the hoppers in the fall was blighted by their appearance in largely increased numbers the following spring, and a number of families, overcome with fear and discouragement, gathered their personal effects together and took their final departure.”

While one can assume the family was rather isolated in the forests of Minnesota, Benjamin managed to make connections with other settlers, and on July 2,1855, he was selected for the Grand Jury. History books do not elaborate on his activities immediately after his selection, but in 1859 Benjamin served on the jury that acquitted Oscar F. Jackson of the murder of Henry A. Wallace, a well-known and respected farmer in Wright County. The acquittal resulting a lynching mob and ultimately the death of the defendant, and became known as the “Wright County War.”15 It is most certain that the jurors who found Mr. Jackson not guilty would have, at minimum, been ostracized by certain members of the community, if not downright harassed. Benjamin and his fellow jurors likely did not sleep well in the days and weeks following the tragic incident.

While life returned to normal in Wright County with farming and lumbering, America crept towards its next battle. This time, the foe was within, and the call for volunteers to fight the Confederates was published in newspapers throughout the north. Clearly inspired to action, Benjamin’s son John decided to join the Union troops and enlisted as a corporal in Company “G” of the Fourth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. Family tradition states that Benjamin was so upset to have his young son marching away that he himself decided to enlist; however, John was actually a man of 20 years when he chose enlist, fit and able to serve. His father, on the other hand, was not; at 51 years of age, Benjamin was in no way prepared for the rigors of military life. Nevertheless, on November 7, 1961, he joined Company G as one of the regiment’s drummers. While his own role was certainly less challenging than that of the younger men in combat, it is quite difficult to imagine Benjamin having the physical stamina to keep up with the troops and to march the number of miles required to get from place to place. Perhaps hardship was minimized at the onset, as noted from the following which was posted on the Minnesota Historical Society’s MNopedia.org website:

“In September 1861, with two Minnesota regiments already in service, Governor Alexander Ramsey received a request from the Secretary of War for two more regiments. Ramsey directed John B. Sanborn, the state’s adjutant general, to issue the necessary orders. As a result, the Third and Fourth Regiments of Minnesota Infantry were formed.

“The Fourth Regiment mustered into federal service between October and December. In November John Sanborn was named as the regiment’s colonel. At first the Fourth Regiment was retained in Minnesota to garrison the state’s frontier posts. This “home guard” status caused some derision at the expense of the regiment, but the men believed that the war would be a long one and that they would get a chance to go south before it was over.

“The men got their wish the following April. Late that month the regiment embarked on the steamers Sucker State and Hawkeye State and headed for Missouri. From May 1862 to September 1863 the Fourth operated mainly in the state of Mississippi.”

Thankfully, Benjamin mustered out July 6,1862, having been discharged due to disability and old age.16

Benjamin Bursley Certificate of Disability for Discharge

Benjamin Bursley Certificate of Disability for Discharge

This proved to be especially fortuitous for Cynthia and her daughters, who would likely have been home alone without men for protection. Just one month after Benjamin mustered out, another crisis befell Minnesota – the Dakota War of 1862.

What actually transpired we learn from history. The following is from Abraham Lincoln’s Second State of the Union’s Address, given December 1, 1862:

“In the month of August last the Sioux Indians in Minnesota attacked the settlements in their vicinity with extreme ferocity, killing indiscriminately men, women, and children. This attack was wholly unexpected, and therefore no means of defense had been prodded. It is estimated that not less than 800 persons were killed by the Indians, and a large amount of property was destroyed. How this outbreak was induced is not definitely known, and suspicions, which may be unjust, need not to be stated. . . . . The State of Minnesota has suffered great injury from this Indian war. A large portion of her territory has been depopulated, and a severe loss has been sustained by the destruction of property.”

The fear this uprising invoked upon the residents of Minnesota cannot even be fathomed. Over 100 years after the Dakota War, my grandmother relayed to me stories told to her from the events of that long ago summer, and how her own grandmother Lavina Bursley had witnessed the scalping of a cousin. While evidence of this has yet to surface, and the truth of the family legend has yet to be verified, what is certain is the year of 1862 was quite traumatic to the Bursleys and other early inhabitants of Minnesota. The following appeared in the obituary of Martha E. (Bursley) Orrock, my great-great grandmother Lavina’s sister:

Obituary of Martha E. (Bursley) Orrock

Obituary of Martha E. (Bursley) Orrock

She was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Bursely, who had come to that village from Maine. During the Indian outbreak of the Civil war Mr. Bursley moved his family to Ft. Abercrombie, N.D. Mrs. Orrock frequently recalled incidents of that winter which she as a small child spent at that fort. After the war the family settled on a farm in Santiago and were among the oldest white settlers in that township. Some of the original white settlers had moved from Santiago during the Indian uprising and ever again returned.17

Benjamin, never deterred, not only returned, but in August 1873 applied for an 80-acre land patent in Sherburne county (Section 35, Twp 58, Range 26).18

On April 26, 1881 Benjamin, cared for by his daughter Martha and son-in-law Rev. William Orrock, died. His obituary was brief:

Benjamin Bursley, an old resident of Santiago, died on the 28th ult. Bursley was a queer sort of chap and was well known to many residents of this village.19

Our patriarch, Benjamin Bursley, left this world after a long, full life. A determined individual, he came to the rugged woods of Minnesota, survived the locust raid, served on a jury, on an impulse joined the Union forces in the Civil War, kept his family safe during an Indian uprising, and continued on, availing himself of the opportunities that were presented to him. He was not one to easily give up; he was a fighter, a survivor, a true pioneer. And I’m proud to call Benjamin, the “queer sort of chap,” my great-great-great grandfather.

1 Benjamin Bursley, death certificate (1881), Elk River Minnesota Clerk of Court, Elk River, Sherburne, Minnesota.

2 Obituary of Lemuel Bursley, Jr., Farmington Chronicle, Farmington, ME, 19 August 1875, Vol. XXX , No 33.

3 Benjamin Bursley, Certificate of Disability for Discharge , (carpenter, Company G, 4th Regiment, Minnesota Volunteers). Washington: National Archives.

4 Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War: A Compilation from the Archives, Prepared and Published by the Secretary of the Commonwealth in Accordance with Chapter 100, Resolves of 1891. Vol. 2. Boston: Wright and Potter Print., State Printers, 1896. Internet Archive. 2 July 2008. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.

5 Membership application, Elizabeth Catherine Bursley, No 871721, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, Office of the Registrar General, Washington, D.C.

6 Obituary of Lemuel Bursley, Jr., Farmington Chronicle, Farmington, ME, 19 August 1875, Vol. XXX , No 33.

7 Lavina Stanwood, death certificate 18937 (1920), Minnesota Department of Health, State Registrar, Minneapolis, Hennepin, MN.

8 Lagrange, Penobscot Co, ME, births recorded in town records, transcribed by James Christopherson.

9 1840 U.S. Census, Penobscot County, Maine, Lagrange, 200, Benjamin Bursely (sic); NARA microfilm publication M704, 149.

10 Benjamin Bursley, 1850 U.S. Census, Penobscot County, Maine, population, Bangor, 57A, 844; National Archives micropublication M432, 264.

11 “Obituary of Lavina (Bursley) Stanwood,” obituary, The Princeton Union (Princeton, MN), 19 February 1920, obituary of Lavina Stanwood; online archives, Library of Congress (http:// chroniclingamerica.loc.gov : database online 11 November 2011), Chronicling America.

12 Library of Congress, “Chronicling America,” database, Library of Congress, Chronicling America (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov: images online 19 January 2013), John M. Bursley; citing Minnesota Historical Society; Saint Paul, MN.

13 Curtiss-Wedge, Franklyn. History of Wright County, Minnesota. Chicago: H.C. Cooper, 1915. Internet Archive. Internet Archive, 6 July 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.

14 Benjamin Bursley (Wright County) cash entry file, certificate no. 2158, Minneapolis Land Office, Land Entry Papers, Records of the Bureau of Land Management, Record Group 49, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

15 Charles S. Bryant, Editor, History of the Upper Mississippi Valley (Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Company, 1881), 485; images online, Google, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 10 November 2013.

16 Benjamin Bursley, Certificate of Disability for Discharge , (carpenter, Company G, 4th Regiment, Minnesota Volunteers). Washington: National Archives.

17 Obituary of Martha E. (Bursley) Orrock, Sherburne County Star News, Elk River, Minnesota, 17 March 1932. Photocopy on file at Sherburne County (Minnesota) Historical Society.

18 Benjamin Bursley (Sherburne County) cash entry file, certificate no. 1590, Minneapolis Land Office, Land Entry Papers, Records of the Bureau of Land Management, Record Group 49, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

19 Library of Congress, “Chroniciling America,” database, Library of Congress, Chroniciling America (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov: images online 11 November 2013), Benjamin Bursley death announcement; citing Minnesota Historical Society; Saint Paul, MN.


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