April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
To become a successful local hero, get a good biographer and outlive your detractors
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.
Nick Stoner was born in Maryland, about 1762. His family moved while he was still a boy to what was then the frontier at Fonda’s Bush, now part of Broadalbin, New York, about ten miles from Johnstown. In 1777, though merely in his middle teens, he enlisted in the Continental Army as a fifer and served to the end of the war as a fifer-soldier. His father and younger brother also enlisted, and for the first part of the war all three were in the same regiment.
Nick saw action with General Benedict Arnold at the relief of Fort Stanwix in August, 1777, and at the battles of Saratoga a few weeks later. In the Bemis Heights section of the latter, Nick was a member of the small band of Americans whom Arnold led into the Hessian camp. It was there that Arnold received the leg wound that left him with a limp and Nick Stoner was severely wounded in the head. The hearing in his right ear was permanently impaired, and he was invalided home to Johnstown for the winter.
The next summer found him serving in Rhode Island. One night when his company was on a patrol they were surprised by a larger British force and, after a skirmish, captured. They were held captive several months, but were finally exchanged. As the war drew to a close, Nick was present at the siege of Yorktown and witnessed the surrender. After that he was in Colonel Marinas Willett’s regiment as it marched into New York City after the British evacuation. And he was a member of the band that played Washington off on his barge when he left the Army at New York. By this time Nick was playing the clarinet instead of the fife.
Nick also played on a grimmer occasion. He was a fifer of the guard that conducted the spy Major John André to the gallows, which may or may not have eased that unhappy gentleman’s departure from this world. The grisliness of the occasion does not seem to have dampened Nick’s appetite, for he tells of buying a pic from a lady who was selling them nearby, paying for it one hundred dollars—Continental money, of course.
Military life was not without its lighter side. Simms wishes us to know that Nick was a waggish lad, always ready for a romp. But the samples he gives us of Nick’s humor make one wonder just how recent an invention the “sick” joke is. Example: It seems that at one point there was a one-eyed boy who used to hang around the camp. Nick got hold of an eye from a slaughtered beef and roguishly offered it to the boy. When the boy’s mother complained to the captain about Nick’s impertinence, Nick was sentenced to a whipping. Outraged, not at the captain but at the boy’s mother, Nick filled a hollow beef bone with gunpowder and set it off as close as he could to the offending lady. The explosion tore her dress and injured her arm. Result: Another whipping for Nick. Simms concedes that Nick deserved to be punished, but he just can’t bring himself to get angry with Nick because he was so comical.
Other people’s troubles were a steady source of merriment to many of Nick’s contemporaries. For example, there was a Negro soldier in his camp who had lost several toes through frostbite while doing winter duty with the Army. The injury gave him, as Simms says, “such difficulty in walking that few could observe his peculiar gait, without having their risible faculties get the mastery.” But it remained for Nick to josh the unfortunate fellow and call him a “stool pigeon.” This almost earned Nick another whipping, but his colonel was so amused by the affair that he let him off with a reprimand. There was no meanness about Nick, you understand—he was just a fun-loving lad bubbling over with mischief.
Nick served in the Army until the end of the war and then returned home. But let Simms tell it: “When the war of the Revolution dosed and the dove took the place of the eagle—when the prattling infant could nestle in its mother’s bosom secure from midnight assassins—when the warrior once more laid aside his sword and musket to grasp the hoe and spade of thrift—when commerce again spread her white wings without fear of the foeman’s fire—when art and science smiled o’er hill and dale, enriched by the blood of freemen slain—when LIBERTY, with a home of her own, invited the oppressed of the earth to her embrace, extending to the penury-stricken the horn which needed only his industry to become one of plenty—then and not until then did our hero, grown to man’s estate, return again to reside in the vicinity of Johnstown.”
Nick had another brief period of military life during the War of 1812. Though he was then past fifty, he enlisted again as a fifer. He was promoted to fife major, whence came the title of “Major” which he bore the rest of his life. He took part in the fighting around Plattsburg when the British invasion was repulsed there, but aside from that interlude, he spent his post-Revolutionary life in the Johnstown area.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.