Because the west was so wild in the mid-1860s, with hostilities between Plains Indians and soldiers running rampant and danger seemingly waiting for emigrants and homesteaders around every corner, stories of survival from that time and place have a real appeal. One such survival story involves two brothers who were victims of a seemingly deadly Indian attack but who beat the odds to escape their plight. The basic facts of their stirring tale are chiseled into a granite marker at the intersection of Platte River and Alda roads, a few miles west of Doniphan, Nebraska:
Nathaniel Martin age 15 and Robert O. Martin age 12 while fleeing from a war party of Sioux Indians were struck by two Indian arrows, one of which pinned the two boys together. They fell from their horse and were left for dead, but survived.
The memorial—dedicated on June 20, 1965, in a ceremony attended by Mrs. Alva (Viola) Johnston, daughter of Nathaniel and niece of Robert—stands a scant 800 feet from where the incident occurred. Along with the words, the marker features a depiction of the boys’ frantic escape on horseback—Henry Nathaniel (“Nat”) Martin seated behind younger brother Robert Ouer Martin and holding on for dear life.
The boys’ parents, George and Anna Ouer Martin, journeyed to the United States from England in 1850. George had worked as a jockey and horse trainer, while his wife, previously widowed and the mother of a small son, George Weaver, had been a nurse. The young family, including daughter Hephzibah and son Nathaniel, both born in England, settled first in Ohio before traveling farther west to Illinois, where they spent nine years. When Illinois grew too populous for him, George Martin pulled up stakes and moved the family to Fremont County, Iowa. It was a short trip from there to Nebraska.
Having traveled the fertile Platte Valley corridor en route from Nebraska City to Denver during time spent as a freight hauler, George Martin found the area much to his liking. One late summer day in 1862, he stood surveying the 160 acres that would soon be his and remarked to son Nat, “Here is a good place to locate.” To 13-year-old Nat, it certainly must have seemed so at the time.
Just two years later, though, father and son had plenty of reason to sing a different tune, and so did 15-year-old Nat’s younger brother Robert, who was actually 11, not 12 (according to a later statement by Robert as well as his death certificate), at the time of their ordeal. On a sultry August afternoon in 1864, the trio had just finished haying when a band of marauding Indians attacked. Some Sioux warriors were involved, according to A.F. Buechler in his 1940 book Who’s Who in Nebraska, but also some Cheyennes. In a 1921 article that appeared in a Nebraska newspaper, the Hastings Tribune, Nat recounted the events of 57 years earlier.
“It was about 6 o’clock in the evening,” Nat said. “Father, Robert and I had been out making hay all day and were just about ready to drive our loads home when a band of nine Indians rode up.
“They made for Father first. He was about three-fourths of a mile ahead of us, driving a pair of stallions to a big load. They began shooting at him. Grabbing his gun, a repeating rifle…he wounded one Indian. With the second shot he crippled one of the Indian ponies just as the rider drew back his bow to shoot under the pony’s neck at Father. The pony was unable to hold up his head so that Indian gave up the battle and took off down the road to see what we boys were doing. When we saw him coming, we unhitched the yoke of cattle…and turned them loose. After putting my brother on the horse first, I climbed up behind and we hid on the other side of a little knoll.
“Indians continued after Dad who was making heroic efforts to reach the house. He let the horses go and devoted all of his time to his gun. When the Indians heard him shoot the third time, most dropped back in surprise…thinking they had Father cornered when the second shot was gone. [Martin’s gun was probably a Spencer seven-shot repeating rifle.] An arrow struck Father, slicing the jugular vein and lodging in the collarbone.
“By this time, they were close to the house and as the team tore past the door Father dropped off. The Indian followed him and would have ended his life but for my sister, Hephzibah, who rushed out of the house with an old shotgun and drove him off. Mother dragged my father into the house and resorted to swift first aid. She sewed up the gash in his jugular vein with a pin and ran to the barn after a horse hair which she twisted round and round the pin, thus closing the wound and stopping the flow of blood.
“When the Indians found that the family at the house were armed, they fled back a way, except one who swung in by the barn picking up my brother’s herd pony, driving him north. This gave him a view of our hiding place and he signaled the other Indians….As soon as they saw us, they rushed in our direction, driving us about half a mile away from the house. Then the old horse upon which we were riding refused to be driven any farther and returned home. [The brown mare had a colt in the barn.]
“The Indians seemed to want to drive us away, capture us without killing us and to get our horse. One brave, thinking he could head off our mad rush toward the house by getting in front of us and yelling, got a little too close to our mare and she grabbed his pony by the nape of the neck and almost threw him. I tried to grab his bow but we both failed and he began shooting. The first arrow lodged in my right arm between the bones of the forearm causing great pain. I grabbed at the shaft and broke it off, throwing it into the face of the Indian. The second arrow entered my back just under the shoulder blade and went through the right lung.
“The arrow came out below the right breast and stuck into Robert’s backbone tight enough to hold. The third one grazed my hip and lodged in Bob’s hip. Still we were rushing on toward the house…and that arrow shaft…working back and forth in my lung caused intense pain. I began to get faint and as I fell, I grabbed at Bob’s waistband and pulled him with me. Bob was 11 years of age and I was 15.
“We lay together and the mare plunged on toward the house. The two Indians who had been after us the hardest came to see if we were dead. They walked round and round us, paying little attention to me since they thought that anyone with an arrow clear through him could not possibly live. They hit Bob on the head a number of times and then one said, ‘Shall we scalp them?’ ‘Papoose scalp no good,’ the other replied. ‘No honor kill papoose.’ ”
The Indians then mounted their ponies and left. Later, the Indian conversation in Nat Martin’s account was called into question by Marvin Kivett, then director of the Nebraska State Historical Society. “It can’t be proven the Indians said there was no honor in scalping children since they scalped all ages,” Kivett wrote in a July 23, 1964, missive to Emil F. Roeser of the Hall County Historical Society. Kivett also asked the valid question, “Would the Indians be speaking in English?”
When the brothers fell from the horse, the arrow shaft pulled out of Nat’s body and blood spurted from his wound. The boys lay still for a long time afraid to move and almost too weak to do so. Finally, long after the Indians had left, Nat and Robert crawled to the top of the knoll and looked toward their home, about a quarter-mile distant. Both boys were suffering greatly, and Nat had lost much blood. Somehow they made it to the barn. Robert, the stronger of the two, went to the house to see if the rest of the family was alive. Nobody was there, and he could only hope they had all fled to safety. Dispirited, the boy returned to the barn.
Indeed, the rest of the Martins had fled. From a vantage point atop the “root house,” George and Anna Martin had seen their sons shot off the back of the horse. Believing the boys to be dead and afraid to remain at the ranch, they had hastily prepared for a journey west to Fort Kearny with the other children living at home— Hephzibah, Annie and William. George cut loose the horses from the hay wagon for the journey. Late that night, they came upon a freighter’s train of 22 wagons. Deciding that Fort Kearny could wait, they begged the freighters to return with them to pick up the bodies of their sons. The men refused. In the morning, though, a wagon train heading east came by and they joined it, since it would take them back home. They arrived at the ranch about 2 p.m., at least 20 hours after George and Anna had seen the two arrow-struck boys go down. Finding Nat and Robert there, both terribly bloody but alive, must have been a shock to the rest of the family… a wonderful shock.
“Every one of them was glad to see us,” Nat Martin recalled in the 1921 interview. “Mother knelt beside us and immediately examined us for our wounds. We were both bloody from head to foot but Mother washed us off and did the best she could for us. She found the wound on my chest where the arrow had come out and said, ‘Here is his wound.’ ‘That is where it came out,’ I told her. ‘Where it came out!’ she exclaimed. ‘Where did it go in?’ I told her and they turned me over to see. Then they found the string that held the arrow head to the shaft I had broken off in my arm. The arm was swollen so that the head of the arrow was concealed.
“Dad got his shoeing pincers and endeavored to pull it out. The pincers slipped and I lost consciousness. They tried it again and this time two men held my arm while my father braced his feet on either side of the elbow and pulled. It [the arrowhead was constructed of steel and was of Pawnee workmanship, according to Emil Roeser] measured four inches in length and they got it that time, but I didn’t know anything until 9 o’clock the next morning. When I woke up, they were trying to load me into the wagon and I was then 10 miles from home—they had gone that far the night before—on their way to Nebraska City, 160 miles away to get help from the nearest physician. I thought I could not stand the terrible jolting, but they said it was necessary and we went on. On the third day we reached Beaver Crossing and I refused to be reloaded after passing the night in a deserted log cabin….I was so sore that I begged them to go on and let me die. Father concluded to not try to take me farther.
“My brother suffered considerably, but was able to get about. Father went back to Fort [Kearny] to try to get help from the soldiers, but they refused. Our horses were all gone and so were our provisions.
“When father returned in about two weeks, we decided to go back to the ranch….By that time, I had sufficiently recovered to be able to sit up on a wagon seat, although I could neither get up nor down.
“It was about a year before I was able to do any great amount of work or gain my strength. My brother had pain in his back much of the time for a number of years and his death in later life was due to spinal trouble which may have been the result of the injury he received.”
Nat Martin’s 1921 narrative ends there. In such incredible survival stories, mental and physical scars often linger and plague the survivors. Robert, the younger brother and initially the less seriously wounded, suffered crippling back pain the rest of his life. He died on March 20, 1899, in Ellsworth, Kan., at age 47. Indeed, his death was attributed to spinal trouble, perhaps spinal meningitis, no doubt exacerbated by his childhood wound. As an adult, Nat farmed 1,200 fertile Hall County acres, raising Durham cattle, Poland-China hogs and horses. When Emil Roeser interviewed him at his home in Doniphan in September 1927, Nat exhibited “two scars below his rib case, on his ride side.” A Dr. Geer, a member of the Hall County Historical Society, remarked, “The arrow pierced the liver, and this heals rather quickly, and if it had punctured the lung…he would not have had any descendants.” Nat Martin retired about that time and moved to Hastings, Neb. He died on May 22, 1928, at age 79 and is buried in Doniphan’s Cedarview Cemetery, not far from his family home and the site of the arrow incident.
The grisly token of the Indian attack on the Martins, the arrow that pierced and temporarily pinned together the bodies of Nat and Robert, was kept by the younger brother. After Robert’s death, Nat held on to it and other arrows. In 1945 Nat’s daughter, Viola Johnston, donated the arrows to the House of Yesterday, which is now called the Hastings Museum.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.