- 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
They were practical folk. When his first wife died, the aging Nick entered into what Simms calls a “voluntary marriage” with Mrs. Polly Phye. It seems that Mr. Phye had decamped some years previously and no one knew whether he was alive or dead. Fearing to be charged with bigamy should her husband return and find her married to another, Mrs. Phye preferred the informal arrangement. This rather bothers Simms, but he says, “Let the stickler for a rigid adherence at all times to established laws without reference to their operation, imagine this case wholly their [sic] own, before they [sic] feel prepared to condemn the course of this couple, or brand their conduct with the title of crime.” That seems fair enough. Finally, after the death of Mrs. Phye-Stoner, Nick married a third time, another widow, some thirty years his junior. She survived him.
The answer to the second question—how a brawler like Nick entered into local hagiography—is a bit more complicated, but perfectly comprehensible upon deliberation. In his early years Nick was but one of numerous prominent woodsmen; such fame as he had was perhaps tinged with notoriety on account of his excessive homicidal tendency. But he did not die early. He did not die until 1853. In the meantime his compeers had passed on and his notoriety had dimmed, and Nick, past ninety, survived, an ambulatory anachronism, a relic from another world. The Revolution had ended seventy years before; yet there was Nick, a soldier who had served honorably, if without distinction, in that contest. Likewise, though men still hunted for sport, the day of the professional hunter and trapper was long gone in the Mohawk Valley; long before 1850 an Indian in those parts would have been as rare as an Indian there today. Nick, still wandering about in his coonskin cap, was the last leaf upon the dead tree of the frontier. The contemporaries of his last years saw in him the archetype of the noble frontiersman and made him into a living legend, a legend his compatriots have kept alive to this day.
But what are we to make of him, we who have a concern for getting history straight? Shall we pull him from his pedestal and cast him, debunked, into darkness? Not at all. For, to begin with, he is not ours to dethrone; he belongs to Fulton County, and no amount of setting the record straight will dim his luster there.
And then we must be mindful of a signal service which Nick Stoner has unwittingly performed. His longevity, so vital to his apotheosis, is undoubtedly what invited the Simms biography. And the biography, for all its sometimes silly faults, gives us, even though unconsciously, a very good picture of a hardy breed of man. Nick’s warts are large, but his kind subdued a continent.