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


Nathaniel Foster, justly celebrated as a hunter and trapper of northern New York, was a native of Hinsdale, Windham county, Vermont; the town is now called Vernon. He was named after his father, and was born about the year 1767. At the age of three or four and twenty he married Miss Jemima, daughter of Amos Streeter, of New Hampshire; a year or two after which, and nine or ten years subsequent to the close of the Revolution, he removed to the town of Salisbury, Herkimer county, New York; at which time the country around his new home was mostly a wilderness.

In person he was nearly six feet high, erect and strongly built, with a large muscular frame that seemed well fitted for fatigue. His features were commanding, though not finely marked, and when cheerfulness lit up his countenance through his keen dark eye, they were rather prepossessing. His complexion was sallow, his hair was a sandy brown, but not very gray to the hour of his death, although he grew bald in the latter part of his life.

At the time of Foster's emigration to New York wild game was so abundant in the northerly part of Herkimer county, that, with his fondness for the excitement attending a hunter's life, circumstances combined to make him a perfect Nimrod. To adopt the language of a correspondent, "He was a Leatherstocking of an original stamp, and devoted to a wildwood life." He began his pioneer residence in the winter, and the following spring he took a sufficient quantity of fur, principally beaver, to purchase a cow and many articles necessary in housekeeping. He afterwards obtained yearly quantities of valuable fur, such as beaver, otter, muskrat, marten, &c. He has been known to have three or four hundred muskrat traps set in a single season, employing at times several men to help him tend them.

Deer, bears and wolves were so numerous for years after Foster made his home on the borders of the forest, that he slaughtered them in great numbers. Indeed it is believed, that he has killed more of those animals collectively, than any other individual in the state during the same period; having slain no less than seventy-six deer in one season, and ninety-six bears in three seasons. He has also been known to kill twenty-five wolves in one year; having a line of traps set for them from Salisbury to the St. Lawrence. These animals were so great a pest among the sheepfolds when the country was new, that a liberal bounty was paid for their destruction by the state; increased at times by the liberality of certain counties and towns in which they were the most numerous. The avails of his hunting and trapping amounted in one year, when a liberal price was set upon wolves, to the sum of twelve hundred and fifty dollars. He occasionally killed a panther.

The bounties paid for the destruction of wild animals, often made the taxes of frontier towns a burden; and a wealthy farmer in the neighborhood of Foster, took a stand one season which prevented the paying of such a reward for the destruction of wolves as hunters thought they deserved. The consequence was, that all the old and young Nimrods in the vicinity turned their attention to other game, and purposely let the wolves alone; which in a year or two more were greatly on the increase. Foster told his farmer friend at the election, he would be sorry for the manner in which he had voted, and after the animals had had time to increase, he was not much surprised, one morning, to hear a most pitiful story from him, about the injuries he had sustained the night before by wolves; they had been into his sheepfold and destroyed more property in a single night, than his tax, when the highest bounty was paid for their scalps, had amounted to in several years. He soon found, to use a hunter's phrase, he was barking up the wrong tree for sympathy. "Well," said Leatherstocking, with not a little manifest indifference, "I don't know as I can pity you much. If you are unwilling to pay me for protecting your sheep, you must buy traps and take care of them yourself." It is perhaps unnecessary to add, the penurious farmer was ready to vote a more liberal bounty than ever for the destruction of wolves, at the next proper election.

Some winters Foster turned his attention almost wholly to the killing of deer, disposing of their saddles and skins for the eastern market. The visitor to the Albany Museum will there see the skin of a large moose which was shot by this hunter, and for which he received from the property some fifty dollars. There is the skin of another large moose in a New York or Philadelphia museum, also killed by this hunter. The following incident attended the death of one of those animals. Foster had a favorite dog, as fond of hunting as was his master. The bay of this sagacious animal one day called its owner to a retired spot in the forest, where he discovered Watch holding a moose by the nose; keeping his own body between the forelegs of his adversary, to avoid the heavy blows aimed at him with the antlers of the enraged animal, which formidable weapons weighed together nearly thirty pounds.

On nearing the spot Foster sent a bullet through the heart of the moose, which in its death-struggle dashed the dog off with a terrible blow. The print of the dog's teeth remained upon the nose of the moose, but both animals appeared to be dead. Foster took off his coat and laid his canine friend upon it, at which time a partner in the hunt arrived upon the ground. With a heavy heart Foster prepared to skin the game, when his comrade observed a moving of the muscles about the dog's neck, and told the former it would recover, but the old hunter shook his head doubtingly. After a while Watch raised his head slowly from the ground to receive the caress of his master; but as soon as his eye rested upon his fallen antagonist, he sprang to his feet and seized the lifeless moose by the throat, from which he was with no little difficulty removed. The restoration of his favorite dog to life, caused Foster more real joy than could possibly the killing of a dozen moose.

One or two years after Nathaniel Foster settled in Salisbury, his father removed from the east with his family, and located in the same town. He, too, was something of a sportsman. Nathaniel had two brothers younger than himself, who, as they attained sufficient age, indulged occasionally in hunting deer. The following incident will show how providentially the elder brother was once saved from harm. His brother Elisha having on some occasion borrowed his gun, sent it home by a young son. The lad as he neared the dwelling saw his uncle going in at the door, and to be very smart, as boys sometimes are, he drew up the piece and snapped it at him. On entering the house he told his kinsman what he had done; when the old hunter took the piece from the hand of his nephew, walked to the door and snapped it, and a bullet whizzed through the air from its muzzle. He remarked as he went to set it away, that he had shot seventy-six deer with his rifle that season, and it had not before missed fire in a single instance during the whole time.

The rifle with which Foster usually hunted would carry two balls as well as one; and when he desired to render the death of large game doubly sure, he loaded with two bullets. Foster and Stoner had each a rifle at one time made after the same pattern, by Willis Avery, of Salisbury, and called double shotters. They were made with a single barrel with two locks, one placed above the other far enough to admit of two charges, and have the upper charge of powder rest upon the lower bullet. The locks were made for percussion pills, and when the pick which crushed the pill at the first lock was down, there was no danger to be apprehended in firing the lower charge. These rifles cost about seventy dollars each. That of Stoner was borne by a soldier into the late Florida war

The following incident will serve to show one of the numberless perils to which hunters are exposed in the forest. Nathaniel Foster and his brother, Shubael, were on a deer hunt many years ago in St. Lawrence county, when the former came suddenly upon two noble bucks trying titles to the soil. To end the dispute, he drew up and shot one, and as it fell, the other bounded off a few rods, and halted to witness a more novel engagement than its own recent one. The fallen deer was not killed, but was badly stunned by the fall striking it near the backbone, and as the hunter ran up to cut its throat, the animal sprang upon its haunches, and in its own defence struck furiously at him with its antlers. Quick as thought, this modern Leatherstocking placed the knife between his teeth, and grappled the weapons of his unexpected foe. The struggle for the mastery was long and fierce, the hunter not daring to let go his hold; but, as good luck would have it, he got the head of the deer between two trees, against one of which a horn was broken, and the worried animal thrown down. Before it could recover, the hunter dealt it a blow upon the head with a club fortune had placed at his command, when he succeeded in cutting its throat. The tussle lasted more than thirty minutes; and when his brother arrived upon the ground, he found the grass and bushes trampled down for several rods around. The strength of the hunter was nearly exhausted in the engagement; while his tattered garments gave evidence, that a visit to his wardrobe would alone restore his outward man to the condition it was in an hour before.

On a certain occasion, Shubel Foster visited wolf-trap, in company with his brother, Nathaniel in which a wolf was caught by one of its hind legs. It crawled under a log on their approach; and the senior hunter conceiving it would make him a fine pet, resolved to take the snarler home alive. With a forked stick he fixed a kind of halter upon its nose, and loosening it from the trap, he thus led the captive home. It would go ten or fifteen rods as quietly as a dog, and then spring at their faces with all its might. He kept it muzzled and fasting about the house for several days, much of which time it concealed itself under a bed. It was finally slain and a bounty taken for its scalp.

Nathaniel Foster was familiarly called Uncle Nat, among his intimate friends. His early advantages at school were limited, as were those of many of the hardy pioneers of western and northern New York, who chanced to be boys in the great American con test for liberty. When he settled in Salisbury, he could neither read nor write; but about the year 1810, William Waterman, then a merchant in Salisbury, learned him to write at his store, as he in formed the author.

The northerly part of Herkimer county was not only a wilderness when Foster began the life of a a hunter, but much of it is still in a state of nature. It is dotted with numerous crystal lakes and rivulets, to the shores of which Foster was invited in his hunting excursions, as wild game grew scarce nearer his home. About the year 1793, or 1794, John Brown, a capitalist of Rhode Island, purchased a tract of two hundred and ten thousand acres of wild lands about the head waters of Moose river, a tributary to the Black river. Lying in the northeast part of Herkimer and the western part of Hamilton counties, is a connected chain of eight small lakes, and their outlet forms one branch of Moose river. It is known there, however, as the Mill stream. These lakes, which lie in a line running nearly cast and west, are called in Gordon's Gazeteer, the Fulton lakes, but why they are so called, does not appear.

Brown did not purchase this land of the government, as I am informed, but got it of some individual in payment for a debt, and soon after opened a road from Remsen to it. It is said to have cost Brown some thirty cents an acre. He visited the tract in the winter of 1798 and 1799, and had then, or previously, several log dwellings, a gristmill and a sawmill erected upon it, with the view of bringing it into market. He spent very little time upon the tract, however, and had not accomplished much in the way of subduing those wild lands at the time of his death, which took place in 1806.

Charles F. Herreshoff having married the widow Francis, a daughter of John Brown, resolved upon making a permanent settlement upon Brown's tract (so called since his purchase), and went on to it with that intent about the year 1812. He has generally been regarded as a German, but in answer to an inquiry, he assured Darius Hawkins, he was a Prussian by birth. He had a commanding appearance, being over six feet high and well formed. He was very gentlemanly in his deportment, though extremely proud and aristocratic. He is said to have been a finished scholar. On entering the forest he declared with an oath, that he would settle the tract, or settle himself.

Herreshoff spent the greater part of his time on the tract for several years, but his wife, it is believed, was never there: she disapproved of his seemingly visionary operations. Although he was not as well calculated as some men of a less enterprising spirit are to settle a new country, still, considering the great difficulties he had to encounter, which are of a magnitude people living at ease in cities can hardly conceive, he had accomplished much towards the fulfillment of his purpose. He repaired the mills Brown had erected, and in the course of a few years he had cleared up nearly two thousand acres of land, the greater part of which had been heavily timbered, and erected thereon some thirty or forty buildings. The mills were nearly three miles from the most westerly lake of the Fulton chain, and at that place he built a forge for the smelting of iron ore. He also opened several roads to the nearest settlements.

He had expended, it is said, more than fifteen thousand dollars (some persons have named a much larger sum), with as yet the prospect of its paying little or no interest, and made a call on his Providence friends for more money, But alas! for his peace of mind the draft was dishonored. Unwilling to survive the mortification attendant on a failure of his schemes, and unable to prosecute them any further for the want of means, he became disheartened, loaded a pistol, went into the yard in front of his dwelling, and blew out his brains; thus effectually settling himself. The report of the pistol instantly brought out the inmates of the house, who found the victim of ambition sitting upon the ground, where, in a few moments he lay a gory corpse.

Such was the melancholy and tragic fate of one of the most enterprising men that ever entered the wild lands of New York, to subdue them. It would almost seem as though he had lived before his time. Large sums of money he had expended, were exhausted in searching for iron, where it is very possible, with the knowledge modern science has at her beck, little or no expense would have been incurred. That iron and perhaps other valuable ores abound in that part of the state in large quantities, is not unlikely; and some more fortunate, though less enterprising man than the first active settler upon Brown's tract, may yet reap a rich harvest there for his labors '

The death of Herreshoff took place December 19, 1819, at which time he was boarding with Gardner Vincent, whose family resided on the tract. Herreshoff took three hundred merino sheep on to his clearing, where he also kept a span of horses. The body of Herreshoff, after his death, was carried out to Russia Corners, a distance of nearly fifty miles, where an inquest was held upon it by Henry S. Whiting as coroner. Several citizens of Boonville were there at the time, who requested to take the body to that place, after the inquest, for burial, and they were permitted to take it. Says Mr. Henry Graves of Boonville, N. Y., in a communication to the writer: "At this place I examined the wound of Herreshoff. The ball entered the right temple and passed through the head." A few years after his death Herreshoff's friends placed at his grave, which is near one corner of the village graveyard in Boonville, a marble slab with the following inscription:

Obiit Dec. 19th,
aetat 50.

Herreshoff is said, on good authority, to have manufactured just a ton of iron at his forge, from ore obtained on Brown's tract. It was of the very best quality, and cost, when ready for use, just one dollar a pound. Says a correspondent, "Black sand found upon the lake shore, and separated by magnets, was principally used in making his iron. He, however, expected to find mountain or rock ore, and in one case he followed a small vein in the rocks some 200 feet, at an enormous expense." Some have stated that the quantity of iron made by Herreshoff was less than is named above, and a friend writes that "every pound of iron he made cost him more than an ounce of gold." The cost of his iron gives a principal reason why he committed suicide. The taxes upon the tract were also heavy for unproductive property. The assessor's valuation was one shilling an acre. Samuel Giles went in from Russia two seasons (believed in 1813 and 1814), and collected the tax, which was sixty dollars each year.

Stephen Smith, 2d, of Russia, was engaged as a surveyor on Brown's tract, in the years 1815, 16, and 17. He was employed by John Brown Francis' a step- son of Herreshoff, who has since been governor of Rhode Island. The tract was divided into eight townships, numbering from one to eight. Names are said to have been given to those paper towns, two of which are believed to have been Economy and Frugality: names very proper for any of those townships, and indicative of the virtues it would be necessary to practice, in order to live there.

In 1817, Smith was engaged in laying out a public road through the tract. It began two miles cast of Boonville, and striking the tract it ran through townships number 1, 2, part of 3, and all of 7. From Herreshoff's mills it ran up on the north side of the lakes, terminating at the Sacondaga state road, leading from Russel, St. Lawrence county, to Lake Pleasant, in Hamilton county, then being surveyed by judge Atwater, of St. Lawrence county, and located by John Fay, Esq., of Fish House, as commissioner. This road extended southerly to the town of Wells, as I have elsewhere shown. The greater part of it is now overgrown with trees. The road opened 'by Smith was 40 miles long and intersected the Sacondaga, road twenty-seven miles from Lake Pleasant. Smith was engaged on his road, of which he was also a commissioner, sixty days, with nine hands. Bridges and crossways were not made by the surveying party.

Moose lake, after which Moose river is called, is one of the largest and purest lakes on the tract, being several miles in extent, and very deep. It lies a few miles south of the western end of the Fulton chain. Southerly from Moose lake, and farther to the eastward, heads what is called the South branch of Moose river. It is three miles from Moose lake to the South branch; on which stream, and nearly opposite Moose lake is a small clearing of several acres, called Canashagala, an Indian name. Some suppose this clearing was made by the Indians, and others that the timber was destroyed by fire. The stream at this point is a remarkable spot for fishermen.

The survey for the road was first extended up on the south side of the Fulton chain, and north side of Moose lake, to Fifth lake; but as the route was found impracticable for a good road, on account of the difficulties to be overcome in the make of the land, it was located on the opposite side of the lakes. The road laid out by Smith, struck the Black river ten miles from the starting point: from thence to Moose river, was six and a half miles; from which place to the middle settlement, or the Herreshoff dwelling, it was nearly five miles more, making the whole distance from Boonville nearly twenty-four miles. The land on each side of the road was taxed to defray the expenses of its survey. Going in from the Remsen road, Moose river is crossed about one mile south of the clearing. Near the road from the middle settlement (on the right in entering), is a little lake of several acres, called Huckleberry lake, those berries growing on its shore. The outlet of this pond runs into the Mill stream.

Few incidents attending the survey of Brown's tract are now remembered. A porcupine, one day, claimed a preemption right to the soil, and evinced a disposition to dispute the surveyor's title, planting itself in a bristling posture directly in the road. It was an ugly customer to handle without mittens, or rather tongs, and surveyor Smith, acting upon the forest hunter's rule, that might makes right, willfully and maliciously slew the varmint with his compass staff.

Herreshoff was a good feeling man, and at times rather jovial, liking a little fun withal. On some occasion, Smith, accompanied by Herreshoff, Vincent and Silas Thomas, went in a boat to the head of Fourth lake, to select some pine timber. Passing one of the islands in the lake, probably Bear island, Herreshoff desired to be set ashore on a bluff extending some rods into the lake. As is generally the case with foreigners, who find tobacco very cheap in this country, he was a great smoker, and having lit his pipe, he concluded to increase the fumigation by also lighting the grass and dry brush around him. A few minutes only sufficed, with the breeze then puffing, to spread the flame over the bluff. The wind drove the heat toward him, and calling for the boat to come to his assistance, he gained the extreme point of land, in the hope of escaping the fire. Before the boat could get to him, however, the flame drove him out upon a tree which extended horizontally over the water.

The craft seemed to him to move like a snail, as the heat and smoke of which latter commodity he for once had enough-became more and more insufferable. He held on to his footing until he saw a sheet of flame coming directly in his face, when he sprang off into the water, among the trout. He did not glide along as noiselessly though as they did in that element, for he foundered like a porpoise; and for once, if we mistake not, quit smoking with tobacco still in his pipe. He was finally rescued by his companions, though half drowned and half frozen, as he took the unexpected bath in September, and shivered for hours to pay for it. This, it is said, was not the only time he came near being scorched by his great passion for fire and smoke.

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