Like most of the women who wound up in the new town of Laramie, Martha Salisbury Boswell didn’t do anything particularly spectacular, she stayed in the background but showed a level of commitment to her marriage that survived some serious trials. What she endured might make the bride of today rue the day that she ever was wooed by the young man who swept her off her feet in the 1850s.
Left with her parents
Martha Salisbury Bowell (1836-1893) was living with her parents in Elkhorn, Wisconsin at the time the census-taker found the family in 1860. She had already been married for two or three years, but her husband, Nathanial Kimball Boswell (1836-1921) had “gone west.”
Martha’s parents were Russel and Mary Salisbury, except the surname was spelled “Sailesbury” in the census. There were three siblings listed:,Sarah, age 19, Barton, age 11 and Rebecca J. age 7 along with Martha who was 23 at the time. Their father, Russel, was listed as a carpenter.
They may not have been well off—there were six other families with a total of 11 other children who were enumerated at the same “address“ as the Sailesburys in that census. However, that may indicate a lack of house numbers, not necessarily a single rooming house.
“N.K.” or “Boz” as her spouse was usually called, had been born in East Haverhill, New Hampshire. He was somewhere in the middle of the 12 children born to Lucinda and John Boswell, both of Scottish heritage.
At the age of 19, his father gave Nathaniel “majority” status and probably conferred his blessing for the son to go off and make something of his life. What he did was go west to Wisconsin, where his life as a timber cutter was almost the death of him.
As the story goes, N.K. and two other men set off in a boat headed for an island in Lake Michigan to cut wood. The boat capsized, one man drowned, and though the remaining two were rescued, Boswell contracted pneumonia.
We will probably never know how N.K. came to meet young Martha Salisbury. What we do know is that the two knew each other before the boating accident, and that Boswell was one of a horde of young men busily cutting down all the trees in Wisconsin at the time.
Family lore also indicates that Martha and N.K. were married in her hometown of Elkhorn. His obituary says it was Feb. 21, 1858, other accounts say it was 1857. Regardless of the year, shortly after the marriage, Boswell left and the two never lived together again for at least 10 years. “Lung fever” as pneumonia was called at the time was a serious health complication, and Boswell got advice that it would be good to venture further west where the air was cleaner to regain his health.
What did Martha do?
We are left with almost no information about what Martha did for 10 years except stay close to her parents and siblings. There is plenty of information about what her young husband did, he was busy prospecting for gold in Colorado and practicing what would become his legendary prowess with a gun. He did not sign up for the regular Army during the Civil War, but did join a regiment of Colorado Volunteers.
One bit of action he saw, unfortunately, was late in 1864 after the war ended, when the Colorado Volunteers participated in what is called now the “Sand Creek Massacre.” Over 100 unsuspecting Native American leaders, their women and children were annihilated in a military attack in southeastern Colorado. Boswell said he was an early casualty of that operation, which might have meant friendly fire, as the Indians lacked arms.
It would have been possible for the wounded Boswell to go to Martha in Elkhorn—he could even have gone by railroad if he could have gotten to Omaha, and then headed north. It’s nice to think that he and Martha might have been together at least a few times in the 10 or more years of separation. Surely they did exchange letters.
By 1867, Boswell had gotten tired of soldiering and prospecting, and traded his mining claim to a would-be prospector for the contents of a drug store. Boswell, with no background at all in the drug business, saw an opportunity to be the first druggist in the new town of Cheyenne. He set up shop with a partner named Taylor, and apparently came to Wyoming Territory with another man he’d met in Colorado, Nick Spicer who later became the mayor of Laramie.
Rowdies who arrived in a new town as the railroad moved along included an element that had to be encouraged to leave town immediately. Spicer and Boswell may have been the ringleaders of a vigilante mob that got organized and successfully ridded Cheyenne of undesirables. While this was going on, the tracks reached Laramie, and Boswell and Spicer decided to move to Laramie and help another new town get law and order.
But Boswell set down roots in Laramie by building a more substantial drug store than the one in Cheyenne had been. He sent for Martha late in 1867, and she arrived soon after by train. They set up housekeeping in back of the drug store with her long-lost husband.
Nurse and jail cook?
The Boswell store was where wounded men were taken for their injuries to be treated, there being no doctor in Laramie or other medical facilities. Was Martha forced into becoming a nurse? We will never know for sure. Boswell said the injured were usually the victims of the outlaw saloon-keepers and gamblers who came along with the railroad, and violence was their stock in trade.
Boswell and Spicer organized a “vigilance committee” in Laramie also, and after a few hangings, had Laramie more or less cleaned up also. Boswell’s leadership ability and reputation as a gun handler caused Territorial Governor John Campbell to appoint N.K. Boswell as the Sheriff of Albany County on June 7, 1869.
For the next ten or so years, Boswell was often the elected Sheriff; he and Martha set up housekeeping in their apartment which was in the basement of the new Albany County Courthouse, near the jail. Martha probably did her part as the cook for the inmates as well as for her family. During this time, the Boswell’s only child, Minnie (1876-1932) was born.
Also residing in the Sheriff’s quarters in the Courthouse was Martha Boswell’s sister Rebecca, who was married to Richard Butler, who was made deputy Sheriff by his brother-in-law, N.K. It is their granddaughter, Lois Butler Payson, a professional librarian, and a Salisbury cousin, Charles Pope who have provided some details and photos of the Boswell’s extended family, now at the UW American Heritage Center and the Laramie Plains Museum. These artifacts and memories are mostly the result of research done by Mary Lou Pence, for a book she produced on the life of N.K. Boswell in 1978.
A home of their own
In 1882 the Boswells arranged to have an officer’s house from Ft. Sanders moved into Laramie and placed on a lot at the corner of 5th and Grand Ave. (it is now moved to LaBonte Park and city-owned but rented to a non-profit). For the first time, Martha had a regular dwelling to be “keeping house” in. The military fort three miles south of Laramie was being decommissioned by the military, and many of its buildings like the Boswell’s were moved to town.
By 1883 Boswell was fed up with being Sheriff. He was forced by the county commissioners to be their agent to collect back taxes from residents who were delinquent in their payments. In the early days of his tenure, that could have meant a horseback ride all the way to the Montana border—the northern limits of Albany County went to Montana until changed in 1875.
He devised a unique but probably unpopular solution by publishing names of delinquent taxpayers and amount owed in the newspaper. He hoped to shame them into paying up rather than forcing him to ride to the four corners of the county collecting taxes in person. He didn’t run for sheriff again and became the chief of the detective bureau of a stock growers association, with headquarters in Denver.
In 1881, Boswell started buying land in the area around what is now Wyoming State Highway 10 on the border between Colorado and Wyoming. Sometime after 1882, he acquired a half-interest in a ranch in the area on the Big Laramie River. A ranch house was already there which the Boswells may have enlarged, and he and his son-in-law Charles Oviatt built the large log barn that still stands on the property.
Summers were spent on the ranch, which was a favorite destination for Laramie picnickers. One anecdote is that Martha Boswell was famed for her berry pies that were produced in abundance for summer visitors. If newspaper accounts of the visitors to the ranch throughout the 1880s report only a fraction of those who came to see “Old Boz,” there truly were hordes for Martha to feed. One could hope that at this stage in her life she had plenty of help in the kitchen.
Throughout her life, Martha appears to have had support from her two sisters and their families. The only extant photo of her is a damaged print taken in Laramie of an aged Martha with her two younger married sisters who, together with their husbands, answered the call to come to Laramie and help out at the jail and then at the ranch.
A quiet death
Martha did not live to see the marriage of her only child, Minnie, so she never knew her two grandchildren, Clarence and Martha Oviatt. She died on May 1, 1893, and although there is a marker for her at Greenhill Cemetery, there is no record of her burial there.
The only public notice of Martha later in life was a note in the newspaper on April 27, 1893 that she was “very low and unlikely to recover.” Since there was no obituary for her published, she may have been quietly buried at the ranch with only the immediate family in attendance. N.K. continued on with his rounds of social activities and was the oldest and most respected resident of Laramie at the time of his death, nearly 30 years later.
Editor’s Note: This series honors the sesquicentennial of the bill passed by the Wyoming Territorial Assembly in December 1869 granting women the right to vote and hold office—first unit of government in the U.S. to do so. Judy Knight is collection manager at the Laramie Plains Museum. Email her for more information about this or other history columns. See the full series posted on the website www.wyoachs.com.