- 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
Soon after returning home from the Revolutionary War, Nick took himself a wife. The lady, one Anna Mason, had been an early sweetheart of Nick’s. Simms tells us that she “was a maiden very fair to look upon. Nature had given her charming proportions; a stature seemly, gracefully jutting out where swellings were most becoming, and bewitchingly tapering where diminution is sought in female form. Her skin was clear and fair, and her hair and eyes black, the latter shaded by raven lashes under control of muscle, that gave the organs of love a most melting expression.” With allurements such as these it is not surprising that she was so much sought after that while Nick was away at the war she married another man. But the young husband was killed in the war and Anna was again free when Nick returned. He courted her, and “although her affection had been chastened by the blight of sorrow, her young heart was still susceptible of an ardent offering to one who had inspired the first budding of love there.” Their marriage lasted more than forty years and produced four sons and two daughters.
When Nick settled down in Johnstown, he was for three years a deputy sheriff, from time to time held various town offices, and for a while was a captain of militia. But the bulk of his productive life he spent as a farmer and trapper. These occupations are compatible since they take place in alternate seasons. There was, of course, nothing unique or even unusual about that; thousands of others living on or near the frontier did exactly the same thing. Stoner’s prominence depended not so much on his skill in woodcraft as on his contentious nature.
Nick’s natural hunting grounds were the Adirondack Mountains, the traditional domain of the Iroquois Indians. Allied with England in the Revolution, the Iroquois afterward had to abandon their ancestral home in the Mohawk Valley and establish themselves in Canada. But Iroquois still hunted and trapped in the Adirondacks, and this often brought them into conflict with Nick and other Mohawk Valley whites. In fact, Nick may be pardoned a certain animosity toward them, for his father had been killed and scalped in an Indian raid during the war. Many other whites had lost relatives in the same bloody way, and the antipathy between the races smouldered for a long time. But as the memory of the war faded, a spirit of tolerance grew up, and whites, including Nick Stoner, often hunted with Indian partners. But these were good Indians—a good Indian apparently being defined as one whose interest was the same as one’s own.
If an Indian’s interest crossed that of Nick’s—if a red man poached on what Nick considered his territory, above all, if Nick so much as suspected one of molesting his traps—he gave him short shrift. Simms recounts no fewer than three occasions on which Stoner shot and killed Indians while on trapping expeditions. Even by Simms’ account, which is essentially Stoner’s at second hand, on only one of these occasions was he in any personal danger. Mostly they were just altercations in which Stoner was the first to run out of words and reach for his gun.
The most dastardly episode is given in some detail. Nick was hunting with a white partner, a comparative greenhorn. Examining one of their traps, they found that it had been sprung and its catch removed. The greenhorn suggested that it might have been done by a bear, but Nick examined the ground carefully and scornfully inquired how long it had been since bears began wearing moccasins. He found a hiding place near the trap, and, with loaded gun, waited in ambush. At last an Indian appeared and approached the trap, crossing a nearby river on a fallen tree. Nick had no evidence at all that this was the thief; indeed, no evidence that the thief was an Indian, for white men, including Stoner, also wore moccasins. Yet, when the Indian reached the middle of the river Nick fired, toppling his victim dead into the stream. He had plugged him, Nick said, to “let the succotash out and the eels in"—another example of the celebrated Stoner humor.
It is futile at this distance in time, and with so little evidence, to search for hidden motives. Yet a modern reader finds himself wondering what connection there may have been between the fact that Stoner was very free with accusations that his traps had been robbed, and the fact that stories often circulated that Stoner’s own great success as a trapper was not entirely due to his woodcraft. When such stories came to his own ears, he cheerfully denied them.
Nick’s most notable bit of Indian fighting took place not in the Adirondacks but in the wilds of a Johnstown tavern. In this scene he makes a strong bid for a place in the very front rank of all-time tavern hooligans. His work has such style, persistence, and bounce that one wonders how Hollywood has come to overlook such an inspiring example for the young. Here is a synopsis of Simms’ preliminary script.