- 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
One fine day Nick, in his capacity as deputy sheriff, drops in at De Fonclaiere’s Tavern, making his rounds like the hero of any western. A party of seven Canadian Indians who are in Johnstown trading happen to be drinking in the tavern kitchen. Nick joins them and adds some of their booze to a load he has taken on previously. Thus stimulated, he addresses an Indian of light complexion and twits him about the color of his skin and what this implies about his parentage. The Indian addressed does not object, but another Indian takes vigorous exception. Stoner, “who never would take an insult from an Indian with impunity,” feels obliged to clout the offending redskin.
At this point things become confused. There is enough scuffling, shoving, and roughhouse to turn the kitchen into a shambles. Finally Stoner picks up the Indian and attempts to throw him into the blazing fireplace. His aim is bad and the Indian falls short of the primary target and into a kettle of scalding hot gravy.
During the melee, however, M. de Fonclaiere, the proprietor, has done what all lovers of law and order have long been hoping to see someone do in one of these affairs—he rushes off to a justice of the peace to get a writ. The writ is denied on the grounds that “Captain Stoner is apt to be deranged with the changes of the moon.” Poor M. de Fonclaiere cries, “O! le diable, vat shall I does then? me ruined sartain!” (All of Simms’ dialect characters, whether French, German, Negro, or Indian, sound very much alike, and are usually treated humorously, no matter what their predicaments.)
Meanwhile, back at the tavern, Nick has completed the wrecking of the kitchen and, presumably after some reinforcing shots of firewater, starts for the barroom. To get there he must pass through a hall, and in the hall he stumbles over an Indian called Captain John, lying there “in a state of beastly drunkenness.” Captain John is wearing, as many in those days do, an earring. Grasping the ornament in his hand and placing a foot on the Indian’s neck for leverage, Nick rips off the earring.
Staggering on to the barroom, Nick enters just in time to hear (by his account) an Indian boasting that he is the one who scalped Nick’s father. Overcome with grief, rage, and firewater, Nick rushes again to the fray. Perhaps not wishing to soil his hands by touching his father’s supposed murderer, and having no weapon with him, he grasps the first instrument of destruction he can find—an andiron from the roaring fireplace. This he hurls at the offending redskin, catching him in the neck with the hottest part of it.
At that point, cooler and more sober heads intervene and the Indians are induced to take their wounded companions away. A doctor examines the one burned with the andiron and gives it as his opinion that it is very doubtful whether he will live.
In the next reel, after Nick sobers up he is put in jail. This is not, as Simms makes clear, through any animosity toward him, but because the townspeople feel that if nothing is done about the affair the Indians may return and take revenge indiscriminately upon the community. But after a few days the town regains its collective nerve and takes a more manly if less legal course. A crowd of local freedom buffs rallies round and springs Nick from jail—a sort of reverse lynching. After jollifying a good bit and thwarting the efforts of the jailer to reclaim his prisoner, they send Nick home to the bosom of his family. After this happy fade-out, Simms tells us, “the prowess and fearless acts of the Johnstown warrior gave him no little celebrity along the water-courses of Canada; and many a red papoose was taught in swaddles to lisp with dread the name of Stoner.”
There you have “old Nicholas Stoner … the man whose praise we sing.” Is this the stuff of which heroes are made? How came this murderous brawler to be a folk legend?
The answer to the first question, unfortunate though it may be, is apparently yes. The frontier was never a place for niminy-piminy folk. Frontiersmen had to be tough to survive. Tough people tend to be crude. And that is the picture of them we get from Simms—a people whose “risible faculties” are stimulated by other people’s misfortunes, who fight off boredom with the bottle, who quickly resort to violence to accomplish their ends; a people not greatly more civilized than the aborigines they supplanted. They think no lofty thoughts about subduing a wilderness but are concerned primarily with making a living the best way they can. It is not surprising to find Nick Stoner a prominent citizen among such as these.