- Historic Sites
THE MAN WHOSE PRAISE WE SING
To become a successful local hero, get a good biographer and outlive your detractors
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
The good citizens of Fulton County, New York, have a historical hero all their own, one Major Nicholas Stoner. Although the country at large has never heard of him, in his own territory Nick Stoner is still revered, more than a century after his death. His name has been given to a lake, an island, another lake, an inn, and a golf course, which boasts a bronze statue of him near the first tee. State highway No. 10 is known locally as the “Nick Stoner Trail.” What is perhaps most touching of all, the students of Gloversville High School have adopted Nick as a sort of familiar spirit and carol him lustily in a song of which all of the music and most of the words have been lifted from Amherst College’s “Lord Jeffery Amherst.”
There follows a refrain and then another verse in which the Gloversvillians tell the students of nearby Schenectady, Amsterdam, and Johnstown high schools to prepare to see the Gloversville High football teams do to their teams what Nick did to the poor red men.
Who was this Nick Stoner? Just what did he do to the Indians?
The author once put these questions to a number of Gloversville High School students. The answers he received were vague at best and contained no more information than there is in the verse quoted above, apparently the sole source of student information.
Fortunately for the curious there exists a biography of Stoner that gives his life in considerable detail: yet anyone who reads it will find himself wondering how Nick ever attained the status of hero, even locally. The biography is included in a rambling volume called Trappers of New York, by Jeptha R. Simms. The lives of several other trappers are also given in it, but Stoner is obviously Simms’ greatest hero, and more than half of the book is devoted to him.
Simms writes in a stilted and florid style strongly reminiscent of another upstate New Yorker, James Fenimore Cooper. The patient reader will be rewarded with a fairly authentic account of the life of Major Stoner. It may be called authentic because Simms, unlike those who wrote “true” lives of Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, and other western dreadfuls, is considered a reputable historian. Moreover, he wrote it in Stoner’s lifetime, read it to his subject, and got his imprimatur. (Reading it to him was necessary; while Nick had been to school for a few terms, reading was not his forte.)
It is true that Simms is at times overcredulous of the exploits of his woodland heroes, most especially their prowess in marksmanship. He takes Nick at face value when the latter says of a fellow trapper: “Foster would have shot the Indian’s eye out had he desired to! The truth is, either of us could send a bullet just about where we chose it.” Apparently Simms’ Leatherstockings had been shown in competition to be something less than infallible, so he goes on to say, “At an inanimate and fixed target they were not so remarkably celebrated as marksmen, but give them game moving sufficiently to excite their anxiety, and these two modern Nimrods may be said to have been a dead shot." At a reasonable distance they would have driven an apple every time from the head of some young Tell, and scarcely displaced a hair, provided the head was moving.” But if Simms could swallow a lot, he has painted Nick with all the warts of his personality clearly visible, and even seems to find them pretty.