Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

Trappers of New York
by Jeptha R. Simms
A Reprint with New Supplementary Matter
Printed by Enterprise and News
St. Johnsville, N.Y. 1935

Albany: J. Munsell, 82 State Street. 1850


<-Jeptha Simms

PARENTAGE OF NICHOLAS STONER. Description of his person-his trapper's dress-His schooling-First settlement of Fonda's Bush-Signification of the name-First settlement at Fish House-Sorne account of Sir William Johnson-His style of living at Johnson Hall-His household-First school-house, In Johnstown -School children how 'treated-Manners taught-Anecdote of Jacob Shew at school-Schools of former days in New England and New York-Johnson's Fish House when built-Its site-Fonda's Bush-Plank roads and stage routes-Village of Northville-Its first settlers-First settlers at Denton's Corners.

Incidents of greater or less interest occur in the lives of almost every member of the human family, which only need be known to be justly appreciated, or subserve some good and wise purpose; but occasionally an individual crosses the broad landscape of life, whose career may be said to consist of a bundle of incidents-the greater part of whose existence is in fact so full of novelty as to claim, for at least a portion of it, a record for the benefit or amusement of mankind. Of the latter class is Major Nicholas Stoner, some of the most romantic and daring of whose adventures are presented in the following pages.

To say that a man lived through the American Revolution and participated in its perils, is alone sufficient guaranty that he can, if at all intelligent, recount unique and thrilling scenes as yet untold in history; but when we meet with one who has not only been exposed to the perils of an eight years' war, but has shared in the dangers and hardships of a second war--one, in truth, whose life has been chequered with a thousand hazardous exposures between and subsequent to those wars; we may expect, almost as a matter of course, to learn from him not a little that will prove acceptable to the general reader, nourishing

"The seeds of happiness, and powers of thought."

The facts here given of this celebrated warrior, were noted down by the writer from his own lips at personal interviews; not a few of which have been corroborated by the testimony of others. It is the fortune of very few individuals to pass through a long life surrounded by such a variety of perils, without receiving more personal injury.

Henry Stoner, the father of Nicholas, emigrated from Germany to the American colonies, as is believed, nearly twenty years before their emancipation from British tyranny. He landed at New York, and after a short residence in that city removed to the colony of Maryland, where he married Catharine Barnes, by whom he had two sons, Nicholas and John.

Nicholas Stoner, who was about a year the senior of his brother, was born Dec. 15, 1762 or '63; which year is not now known with certainty, the family record having been burned with his father's dwelling in the Revolution. He is five feet eleven inches high, of slender but sinewy form; and though his light brown hair is now (1848) silvered by the frosts of fourscore winters, and his body is a little bent, yet his step is still firm without a cane, and his intellect vigorous. He has from boyhood worn a pair of small rings in his ears. His complexion, owing to his mode of life, is now swarthy. In his younger days he must have been a man of uncommonly prepossessing personal appearance; for his acquaintances of forty years' standing, speak of him "as one of the likeliest looking men they have ever known." His walk-indeed, almost every motion, betrays his forest life, for he moves with the caution of a trapper and the stillness of a panther; added to which he becomes impatient and vexed at restraint.

<-Nick Stoner

The frontispiece, which gives a good likeness of him at the age of about eighty-three, exhibits him accoutred as a trapper. He usually wore a fur cap when hunting, and a short coat, or cloth roundabout. A belt encircled his waist, at the foot of which was fastened a bullet pouch, and beneath which upon the left side were thrust a hatchet and knife; while under his right arm hung a powder horn of no mean capacity. When trapping for beaver, he was often loaded with a bundle of double-spring steel traps; which were suspended beneath the left arm. The frontispiece was engraved from two daguerreotype likenesses, one of which was taken in the village of Johnstown, on the loth of Sept., 1846; and as there was a militia general training in the village on that day, the old hero was not only accoutred with little trouble to visit the artist, but was greeted at every turn by numerous friends and acquaintances, all eager once more to grasp his hand and give him a friendly salutation. The other miniature, although it does not exhibit the old trapper in his forest garb, was taken subsequently at his place of residence, and is by far the best likeness. A borrowed cap seen in the picture, conceals much of his intelligent brow.

New York city again became the residence of Henry Stoner while his children were quite young, during which Nicholas went to school and learned to read. He was sent to school by John Binkus (if I have the orthography correct), a man of wealth, who had married Miss Hannah Stoner, a sister of the young student's father. During the Revolution, this Binkus became a refugee officer in the famous corps of Gen. De Lancey. Henry Stoner, who had been a kind of trafficker or speculator in a small way since his arrival in the colonies, after a second residence in New York of a few years, resolved to become a pioneer settler, and removed with his family to Fonda's Bush, a place in the Johnstown settlements, so called after Major Jelles Fonda, who took a patent for the lands. The place is situated about ten miles north of each from the village of Johnstown, and the same distance west of north from Amsterdam.

Fonda's Bush signifies the same as if it were called Fonda's Woods, a dense forest covering the soil at that early period-bush being the usual term for woods on the frontiers of New York. Indeed, the Sugar Bush is the present appellation given to woods from which maple sugar is made. At the time of Stoner's arrival, Johnstown, though but a small village, was becoming known abroad, as it was the residence of the baronet, Sir William Johnson (after whom it was called), who as Indian agent for the Six Nations, and as a military man of repute, was notorious in what was then Western New York.

As Stoner was the first settler at Fonda's Bush, he left his family in Philadelphia Bush, while he was erecting a log dwelling four miles distant. The last mentioned place, now in the town of Mayfield, obtained its name from the fact, that one or more of its first inhabitants were from Philadelphia, or the vicinity of that city. Some two years after Stoner fixed his residence in the wilderness, Joseph Scott, and about the same time Benjamin De Line, also located in his neighborhood. I say neighborhood because they were the nearest neighbors of the Stoner family, although from one to two miles distant. His residence was still on the wild-wood side of his pioneer brethren. The next man who fixed his residence in the vicinity of Stoner, was Philip Helmer, who drove the wild beasts from their haunts and broke ground two miles to the eastward of him.

Andrew Bowman, Herman Salisbury, John Putnam, Charles Cady, and possibly one or two others, also settled in and about Fonda's Bush before the Revolution. Cady, who married a daughter of Philip Helmer, was one of the first settlers at the west village. He is believed to have gone to Canada with Sir John Johnson.

It must have been about the time of Stoner's location in Fonda's Bush, that Godfrey Shew, a German, made the first permanent location near Sir William Johnson's fishing lodge, denominated the Fish House, and situated on the Sacondaga river, eight miles northeast of Stoner's dwelling. Before Shew planted himself at the Fish House, several families of squatters had been there, who had gone "to parts unknown," and desirous of getting a wholesome citizen to remain there, the baronet held out liberal inducements to Mr. Shew, of which he accepted.

In my History of Schoharie County, etc., I have given some account of Sir William Johnson, with several anecdotes of him-described his stately mansions, and told the manner of his death, &c., &c.; but at the time of publishing that work, I was not aware that he had a more celebrated summer residence in the latter part of his life, than that denominated the Fish House. From conversations held within the past year (1849) with the aged patriot Jacob Shew, who is a son of Godfrey Shew named above, I am enabled to garner up some more incidents in the life of this nobleman, and authentic memoranda of the classic grounds under consideration, which can not fail to prove interesting to future generations, even though they are little appreciated by the present.

Sir William Johnson, after establishing himself at his Hall in Johnstown, no doubt lived in greater affluence, or more in the style of a European nobleman of that day, than ever did any other citizen of New York. His household was quite numerous at all times, and not infrequently was much increased by distinguished guests. He had a secretary named Lafferty, who was a good lawyer and did all his legal business. He had a Bouw-master, an Irishman named Flood. Bouw is a Low Dutch word signifying harvest-or as here used, an overseer or manager of the laborers of the Hall farm. From ten to fifteen slaves usually performed the labor on the farm, and they were under the immediate direction of the bouw-master. The slaves, some of whom had families, lived across the Cayadutta creek from the Hall, in small dwellings erected for them. They dressed much as did their Indian neighbors, except that a kind of coat was made of their blankets by the Hall tailor.

He had a family physician named Daly, who practiced but little out of his own household. Doct. Daly was a very companionable man, and often accompanied Sir William in his pleasure excursions. He had a musician, a dwarf some thirty years old, who answered to the name of Billy. He played a violin well, and was always on hand to entertain guests. He had a gardener, who cultivated a large garden, and kept that and the grounds about the Hall as neat as a pin. He had a butler, named Frank, an active young German, who was with him a number of years, and who made himself very useful to his master. Frank remained about the Hall until the Revolution began, when he went to Albany county. He had a waiter named Pontioch, a sprightly, well disposed lad of mixed blood, Negro and Indian, who was generally with him when from home. He had a pair of white, dwarfish-looking waiters, who catered to his own and his guests' comfort; their surname was Bartholomew, and they are believed to have been brothers.

The secretary, physician, bouw-master, and all the waiters remained, after the death of Sir William, with his son, Sir John Johnson, until the Revolution began, and then followed his fortunes to Canada. The Baronet had also his own mechanics. His blacksmith and his tailor, had each a shop just across the road from the Hall. They did very little work for any one out of the royal household. Sir William was a large, well-looking and full-flavored man. "Laugh and grow fat," is an old maxim, of which his neighbors were reminded, when they beheld this fun-loving man. He was well read for the times, and uncommonly well versed in the study of human nature. Near the Hall he erected two detached wings of stone, the west one of which was used by his attorney Lafferty, for an office, and the other contained a philosophical apparatus, of which he died possessed. The room in which the apparatus was kept, was called his own private study. On seeing him enter it, Pontioch used to say:"Now massa gone into his study to tink ob somesin me know not what."

Sir William erected a schoolhouse in Johnstown soon after he located there. It was an oblong building with a desk at one end, and stood on the diagonal comer of the streets from the county clerk's office--on the present site of Lucius I. Smith's store. To begin a village, he also erected at the same time six dwelling-houses in the vicinity of the schoolhouse. They were each some 30 feet long fronting the street, by 18 or 20 feet deep, were one and a half stories high, with two square rooms on the floor. Those dwellings and the schoolhouse were all painted yellow. One of the earliest if not in fact the first teacher of this school, was an arbitrary Irishman named Wall, who taught only the common English branches. An Episcopal church was also erected in Johnstown under the patronage of Sir William, several years before his death.

In the street in front of the schoolhouse, public stocks and a whipping-post were placed, the former of which were a terror to truant boys, whose feet not unfrequently graced them. Before Godfrey Shew removed to the Fish House, he resided a mile west of the Hall, at which time his children, with those of a neighbor or two, went to school. In the vicinity of the Hall were usually to be seen a dozen or more Indians, of whom the children were afraid; and the fact coming to the knowledge of Sir William, he spoke to a chief in their behalf, and then assured the little urchins, with whom he liked to chat, that they need borrow no more trouble about their red neighbors.

He had six children at that time by his handsome brown housekeeper, Molly Brant; and the three oldest, Peter, Betsey and Lana, went to school--George and two little girls being thought too young to send. Wall was very severe with most of his pupils, but the Baronet's children were made an exception to his clemency-they ever being treated with kind partiality and pointed indulgence. He observed the most rigid formality in teaching his scholars manners; a very important branch of education, and quite too much neglected in modern times. He required his pupils, however, not so much to respect age and intellect in others as in himself. If a child wished to go out, it must go before him with a complaisant please master may I go out? accompanied with a bow, a backward motion of the right hand, and drawing back upon the floor the right foot. On returning to the schoolroom, the pupil had again to parade before the master, with another three-motioned bow, and a very grateful-thank you, sir!

The lad Jacob Shew, on becoming initiated into the out-and-in ceremony, accompanied his first bow with a scrape of the left foot. Tak the other fut, you rascal! was roared with such a brogue and emphasis by old Pedagogue, as to confuse him, and he flourished the left foot again. Take the other fut, I tell ye came louder than before, attended with a stamp that carried terror to the boy's heart. Comprehending the requirement, he shifted his balance-scraped with the right fut-heard a surly that'll doh! and went on his way rejoicing though trembling.

In nearly every school of New England and New York twenty-five years ago, the scholars on entering and on leaving the schoolroom during the hours of school, had to make their manners-the boys to bow, gracefully if they could, but at all events to bow, and the girls to courtesy, genteelly, of course. Not were the manners of the children confined to the schoolroom; for on meeting any sober person in the street, they had to make their obeisance, and learned to take pleasure and pride in so doing. It was then a very pretty spectacle to pass a country schoolhouse at noon, or when the children were out at play, and see them parade as if by military intuition, and give the traveler a united evidence of good breeding. This sight is occasionally seen at the present day, where female teachers are employed.

Traversing the forest in the French war, from Ticonderoga to Fort Johnson, his then residence, no doubt first made Sir William Johnson familiar with the make of the country adjoining the Sacondaga river; and soon after the close of that war he erected a lodge for his convenience, while hunting and fishing, on the south side of the river, nearly eighteen miles distant from his own dwelling. The lodge was ever after called The Fish House. It was an oblong square framed building, with two rooms below, and walls sufficiently high (one and a half stories) to have afforded pleasant chambers. Its site was on a knoll within the present garden of Dr. Langdon L Marvin, and about thirty rods from the river. It fronted the south. Only one room in the building was ever finished; that was in the west end, and had a chimney and fire place. The house was never painted, and in the Revolution it was burnt down, but by whom or whose authority, is unknown. The ground from where the building stood, slopes very prettily to the river. No visible trace of this building remains.

A village has grown up at this place, containing several hundred inhabitants, and bearing the historic name of Fish House, although the post office is improperly called Northampton, the village lying mostly in one corner of that town. The village is built upon gentle elevations, and a degree of neatness and thrift pervades it, that agreeably disappoints the visitor. Among its early influential inhabitants, were Asahel Parkes, John Trumbull, John Roosevelt, Alexander St. John, and John Fay. The last one named located here in 1803, and the others a few years before.

Where the Stoner family settled in Fonda's Bush, a pretty village has also sprung up. It is built mostly upon level sandy land, and contains double the population of Fish House. It is situated in the town of Broadalbin, and like its sister village, has the misfortune to have its post-office called after the town instead of itself, a discrepancy that should never exist where it can be avoided. A plank road went into operation in 1849, from Fish House to Fonda's Bush, a distance of eight miles; and another from the latter place to Amsterdam, a further distance of ten miles, bringing the three places within a few hours' ride of each other.

The villages of Fish House and Fonda's Bush must grow in importance with their improved facilities for business-indeed, the travel to those places has been on the increase for several years. From Edinburgh, a little hamlet in Saratoga county, six miles down the river from Fish House, a stage runs twice a week to Ballston Spa, stopping at Fish House; and another runs through the place three times a week, from Northville to Amsterdam. Both are mail routes. Northville deserves a passing notice in this place: it is a charming inland village in the town of Northampton, containing two or three hundred inhabitants, romantically embowered among the hills on the north bank of the Sacondaga, six miles above the Fish House, and is fast increasing in importance. The first settlers at this place were Abraham Van Aernam, Paul Hammond, John Shoecraft, Daniel Lobdell and Daniel Bryant. It is now in contemplation to build a plank road from Northville to connect at Johnstown with the one from that place to Fultonville, on the Erie canal.

At a little place about equivalent between Fish House and Northville, on the south bank of the river, with a post-office called Denton's Corners, settled Garret Van Ness, Abel Scribner and John Brown. They located there soon after the war of the Revolution closed; and as they had all three been participators in its perils, they must often have met of a long winter evening and fought their battles over. There is at this place, a bridge across the Sacondaga.

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