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


Mr. W. S. Benchley, of Newport, N. Y., who was well acquainted with Uncle Nat, and who has often been on Brown's tract with Foster and since his day; has at my request kindly furnished me by letter with several incidents in the old trapper's life, and a description of the tract, or a portion of it, which letter I shall do my readers a favor to present in his own words; notwithstanding he tells me at the outset he is "entirely unused to writing other than common business transactions." I trust he will pardon me for the liberty I have taken with his name and letter.

I have long been acquainted with a part of that region of country called Brown's Tract. At an enormous expense, Brown has opened three roads on to his tract (12). The route now taken to approach it from this direction is, to leave the northern turnpike at Boonville, Oneida county. Taking a northeasterly direction, you pass the last improvement some eight miles from Boonville, beyond which the road is impassable for carriages. Packhorses, or what we call drays are used for carrying our provisions, &c., in our hunting and fishing excursions; last September (1848) I went in with a dray.

"On reaching Moose river, about five miles from the last settlement, we have to scow our luggage over; and frequently to swim our horses. Moose river at this point is twice as large as the West Canada creek and quite rapid. In fact, the entire length of the river is one continued fall, or succession of rapids; making sufficient waterpower, if improved, for the use of the whole state of New York. From Moose river to the first clearing we reach on Brown's tract, is eleven miles, over a most horribly rocky, stony, cold region; though very well covered with timber, such as spruce, balsam, beech, birch, some maple and hemlock (18).

"The first clearing you enter is called Coal hill, from the fact, I believe, that most of the timber from this clearing was made into coal for the use of the ironworks erected by Herreshoff, son-in-law to Brown. A short distance from this you enter a large improvement with one framed house, where Herreshoff used to live. (This is in township number 7.) In this clearing he expended a large amount of money in searching for iron ore; blasting and digging at the base of a rocky hill or mountain running through this improvement. Failing to accomplish what he expected, he became discouraged: his friends at the same time refusing to advance him any more funds, funds and left alone as he was, to bear the blame of failure; disheartened and spirit-broken, he died, 'as the fool dieth,' by blowing out his brains with a pistol.

"Since Herreshoff's death, the improvements made by him have been mostly abandoned, except by hunters and fishermen. There is still one settler residing there, however, a Mr. Arnold, who has a large family. He accommodates fishermen with boats. He keeps several cows, horses, &c., and raises a large quantity of oats yearly, which he draws to market in the winter. On leaving this clearing you cross one branch of Moose river, which is the outlet of eight small lakes, of which I shall speak hereafter. Passing through several improvements for two and a half miles, you reach the spot where once stood the forge, a sawmill, and gristmill, with several dwellings; but now entirely gone with the exception of one barn-frame with the roof on, otherwise entirely stripped of covering.

"All the improvements at one time must have covered some two thousand acres, with about forty families upon them. All the buildings now remaining are two dwellings, one barn, and two frames of barns divested of covering. When Foster left the tract (1833), some remains of the forge, mills, &c., were still standing. Iron was manufactured at this forge of a good quality, though said to be at a cost of one dollar per pound. I have no doubt iron ore abounds in this region, in inexhaustible quantities, with other valuable ores, waiting for enterprise to develop them after the gold fever has subsided. Where Herreshoff erected his mills, is one of the best water powers in the world. A dam some forty feet long is still standing, and when first constructed, raised the water on the Fourth lake about two feet This dam is about three miles below the First lake. (The lake usually denominated the First lake in this chain, is, in truth, the last, or Eighth lake; but approached as they generally are from Moose river, the last is recognized as the first, and the reader will understand when the relative numbers of those lakes are given, that they number upward, or from west to east.) After this dam was built, it was three months before the water flowed over it; in fact, search was made supposing the water had found some other outlet.

"At Herreshoff's dam we take boats for fishing excursions, and three miles up the stream we enter the First lake, a beautiful pond, say one mile by one and-a-half miles in extent, containing one small island, called Dog island; a dog having been found upon it by an early visitor. About half a mile down the outlet, and near a point of land now called Indian's point, Uncle Nat shot the Indian. Leaving this lake you pass into the Second lake, separated from the First by sandbars, with a narrow channel some twenty feet wide. This lake is some longer than the First, but is not as wide, and has no islands. Along the north shore of Second lake, rises a most grand and sublime mountain, presenting a front of naked rock for nearly one mile, at a height of several hundred feet. On its summit Uncle Nat told me he had often been, 'that from it he could see numbers of lakes; and that there he could enjoy himself, and not be troubled by the d-d Indians.' This bold promontory I shall take the liberty to call Foster's Observatory.

"From the Second you enter the Third lake by passing through a strait of some ten rods. It is a pretty, pure, deep pond, about the size of the First and Second. In this lake is a small island, called Grass island, because it is well covered with grass, and has few trees or bushes upon it. Leaving the Third you pass up a stream some fifty or sixty rods, and enter the Fourth lake, which is seven miles long, and from one to two miles wide. It has four islands the first of which in ascending is called Deer island: containing about 100 acres of well timbered land."

Desirous of permanently fastening the names of the most celebrated Nimrods of this region upon its scenery, I shall take the liberty to call this island Benchley's island, after George Benchley; who shantied at the head of Third lake, but a short distance from the island, and who perished in the wilderness while following the fortunes of a trapper.

George and Joseph Benchley (brothers of my correspondent), were engaged in trapping in the fall of 1819, in the region of country under consideration. George, who was the oldest, possessed a roving and very romantic disposition. For a while he was engaged in a seafaring life, but tiring of its monotony, he severed the halliards which bound him to the "rolling deep," and returned to the home of his childhood. The pursuit of a forest-hunter seemed well suited, from its excitement to his danger-daring temperament.

The brothers had a line of marten traps, extending from the Fulton lakes to some point on the State mad, running from Wells to Russel, not far from Racket lake, where they had a shantee. The line of traps extended thirty or forty miles, with several hunters' cabins on the route. They were engaged in their pursuits until the last of November, having two men employed to assist them. They took turns in traversing the route, and George was alone on the eastern end of it, when a heavy fall of snow suspended their operations. Joseph and the assistants were at the main shantee, at the head of Third lake, where they remained several days anxiously awaiting the return of the senior hunter. As he did not come in, two unsuccessful attempts were made to seek for him; but the great depth of snow in that direction prevented the possibility of reaching him without snowshoes, and they had not a pair with them.

While in a feverish state of anxiety about their absent friend, not caring or perhaps not daring to return home without some tidings of him, an old hunter, named Morgan, arrived at their lodge on snowshoes. He had come, he said, directly from their eastern shantee on the State road, and assured Joseph that his brother was well, and had gone out to Lake Pleasant to obtain food. Giving full credit to Morgan's statement, Joseph and his men returned home.

The winter wore away, and nothing further was heard from the absent hunter by his friends at Newport; but, as he was a single man, and well weaned from home, little anxiety was felt about him, as they supposed him safe at the house of some backwoodsman in Hamilton county. In the spring a message reached Newport, that the body of a man had been found by Indian hunters, in a shantee near Racket lake. The probability was, that Benchley's shantee was indicated, and his brothers Jenks and William, anxious to know his fate, made a journey out there, in company with two other persons. The body, which had been buried, was exhumed, and their worst fear were realized-the remains were those of their kinsman.

Dark mystery has ever hung over the last moments of this unfortunate hunter, and suspicion over the character of Morgan, who was doubtless the last individual who saw him alive. The hunter was not very scrupulous of his acts, as was well known, and it I ever since been surmised that he seriously injured Benchley in some manner, took his fur, if he had any, and left him to perish. The Indians found his gun in the shantee, but no fur; and, as he had gone over the whole line of traps, it seemed impossible that he should have taken none. Morgan had considerable fur when he left the forest. That Benchley suffered most acutely in his last hours, there can be no doubt. He had, with his hunter's knife, evidently cut small pieces of wood to feed his fire, from the logs of which part of the hut was built, while he had strength to do so; but, how long he hungered-how keenly he suffered, in body and mind-how many cold, dark and dreary nights he lay shivering, without an earthly "eye to pity, or an arm to relieve," is only known to Him to whom no mortal's fate is a mystery.

Joseph Benchley was a musician; and the fall he was hunting with his brother, he had his violin with him, and often played it, "to drive dull care away,' and afford a pastime for the wild animals within its hearing. Orpheus, a celebrated Greek musician of lang-syne, is said to have called down the mountains to listen to the melody he discoursed in the valley3. It would have troubled him, we opine, to have started any of those on Brown's tract, as their roots were too long; and Benchley, aware of the fact, very properly chose his position, not at their base, but upon their summit.

The hunter Morgan, was a morose and rather petulant fellow, and not very popular among the craft. He traversed the forest for several years, on and about Brown's tract, but finally went off to Canada and died there. He was pretty successful in taking fur, and at times was accused of getting it unjustly. He was one of those devil-daring woodsmen of whom the Indians stood in awe. From this digression I return to Benchley's description of the country.

"The next island in Fourth lake (above Benchley's island), contains about one quarter of an acre, is a of bare rocks, and is known by the name of Elba; which name can not fail to remind the reader of the ambitious and unfortunate Buonaparte. It produced a solitary pine, which for many years was its only object of attraction. A Vandal hand has lately cut it, to the deep regret of all sentimental hunters. (App. E.)

"The third island in Fourth lake contains ten or fifteen acres of land, and is called Bear island, an early hunter having killed one of those animals upon it. Near the head of this lake, and some fifty or sixty rods from Bear island, is a small island called Dollar island, from its rotundity of shape. There is, in shoal water, between Elba and Bear island, and about a mile distant from the former a bare rock, called Gull rock. This rock is said to be on the line between Herkimer and Hamilton counties. Brown's tract extends across Herkimer, and into the counties of Lewis on the west, and Hamilton on the east.

"On the forest-bound Elba of Fourth lake, I have shantied several times with Foster. On one occasion, when there, the Indian (whom he afterwards killed) and his squaw, came and spent the night with us, taking from the lake their bark canoe and dried moose-skin for a shelter. I have spent several days upon this lake with Foster. He conversed but little, and his restless, roving eye was never still. With his rifle beside him, he seemed ever anxious to discover something on shore, worthy of his never erring aim.

"The bald-eagle, which frequents this region, he would never disturb, for he thought those noble birds were made to live unmolested by man, 'although,' as he said, 'the c--d Indians killed them.' He seemed to feel as though he was lord of Brown's tract, and that no one else, especially an Indian, had as good a right there. With the Indian he shot, I was well acquainted. He was indeed a noble looking fellow in appearance. He was of the St. Regis tribe, with a cross of French blood. (Says Mr. Graves, in a communication to the author, "I have often seen the Indian Foster killed. He was a very friendly, intelligent man, and belonged to the St. Regis tribe on the St. Lawrence.") His wife was slender and very feminine, and was no doubt often ill treated by him when tipsy: in fact, I believe that his and Foster's difficulties commenced when they had both been drinking.

"Frequently, when on these waters, Foster would direct my attention to an object on some distant, grassy beach, saying, 'See, there is a deer; watch, and you will see it move.' He was never mistaken; still a man unacquainted with the wood, would very seldom suppose that any thing of the kind was in sight. "At the head of Fourth lake was formerly a grove of white pine, (To this grove Herreshoff was going when he was compelled to take a cold bath.) Five distinct echoes to the human voice may be heard at this place, and here I have repeatedly discharged a gun, to hear mountain after mountain send back its tardy response, until my rifle's shrill note had been mimicked by five (as I suppose) mermaid hunters.

"Lying parallel to the Fulton chain, and mostly opposite Fourth lake, say two miles to the north of it, is a chain of three small lakes, several miles in extent, which also discharge their waters into Moose river. The stream is called the North branch, and the lakes are known in the forest by the name of North Branch lakes.

Leaving the Fourth, you pass up the inlet some half a mile, into the Fifth lake, a small pond of eight or ten acres. From the Fifth to the Sixth lake, is a continued fall of three-fourths of a mile. Here is a carrying place; and Foster, at the age of sixty, would take his skiff upon his head and shoulders and carry it from one lake to the other, with but one stop. In fact, at that age, Foster was known to carry a deer three miles on his back. With a single lock between Fifth and Sixth takes, a water communication might easily be obtained the whole extent of the eight lakes.

"The Sixth lake is quite small, and after wading and pushing up a narrow, rapid stream, say one and a half miles, you enter the 'Noble Seventh,' as Uncle Nat called it. The visitor on entering this lake, meets with a grand and beautiful view. The lake is about four miles long and two wide, with a nameless island near its centre, of some fifty acres, covered with rocks and pine timber. (I have mentioned in these pages a forest-trapper named Green White, who was often on the island under consideration. With the reader's permission, I will call this island White's Island (19). Near this island, on its south shore, we frequently get the salmon trout in 100 feet depth of water. (Another informant says they are caught here weighing fifteen or twenty pounds.)

"At the head of Seventh lake is a grove of pitchpine timber, which timber is not elsewhere seen in the district. On entering this lake at one time with Foster, he discovered a deer feeding upon a grassy beach, nearly half a mile distant. Said he, 'B., put me on shore and I will give you some venison for dinner.' I did so, and then rowed out into the lake, far enough to see the deer. After remaining some time, I saw Foster step suddenly from the bushes upon the beach, some distance from the deer. Almost the very instant the deer raised its head from feeding, I saw the flash of his rifle and the deer fall. At Foster's call I went ashore, he not knowing that I had seen the deer fall. Well, Uncle Nat, said 1, have you killed him? He straightened up like a soldier, with his head erect, and eyes glistening; and grasping his rifle in his right hand and holding it above his head, he said, 'B, he never told a lie. When you hear him speak, he always tell the truth.' I stepped on shore and found he had put his ball precisely in the centre of the deer's forehead. He must have been full twenty-five rods from the animal, and fired the instant it raised its head. In a very few minutes he had a fine piece of venison roasting before a good fire, and ere long we had a sweet morsel to dine upon.

"At another time, while we sat fishing from our boat, he discovered an old doe with two fawns, the latter about as large as lambs at two months old. They were feeding and playing upon the beach, perhaps a quarter of a mile distant. Foster was on fire immediately. If he could kill the old doe, he said, he could kill the fawns, and their runnets would bring him fifty cents each. I remonstrated against killing the little fellows for so small a gain, and proposed to pay him the dollar and let them go. But no; nothing would satisfy him short of a shot. I then rather refused to row him within shot; but one look from him satisfied me that I might as well comply. However, I managed in the operation to make noise enough to frighten the old doe; but not without strong suspicions on his part, that it was done intentionally.

"From the Seventh to the Eighth lake is three or four miles, and the lake is some four or five miles long. From these eight lakes runs the stream or which the mill on Brown's tract were erected. A carring place from the Eighth lake some two miles, brings you to what is called the Racket inlet, running easterly, down which you can go in a skiff into Racket lake, and from thence down Racket river to the St. Lawrence.

"The poor Indian Foster killed, was buried on a point near where the mill dam now stands, and a rude cross was erected at his head by his friends. Last September (1848), 1 looked for the grave, but it was so overgrown with grass and bushes I could not find it. When he shot the Indian, he went about five miles to gain Indian Point before his victim arrived."

The Indian here alluded to, is said to have been quite successful in killing deer. He often floated for them. This was done in the night time. In his bark canoe, behind a few green boughs, he would proceed as silently as possible along the shore of a lake, and shoot the timid deer there feeding on grass, or standing in the water's edge to cool, as they gazed in wonder at the torch light in the bow of the craft, which seemed at times to fascinate them. This mode of killing deer much displeased Foster, and is believed to have been one cause of difficulty between them.

Besides the lake already named in the region of country under consideration, there are several others of greater or less importance. The Jerseyfield lake, a handsome sheet of water some two miles long, and around the shores of which Foster, in his earlier days, used to hunt, lies in the easterly part of Salisbury. Black creek, which is one of the tributaries of West Canada creek, has its source in the Jerseyfield lake.

Jock's lake, so called after Jock (Jonathan) Wright, an early trapper upon its shores, is a very pretty lake, five or six miles long, though not very wide; and is situated in the northeastern or wilderness portion of Herkimer county, some ten miles from a place called Noblesborough. Its outlet is one of the sources of the west branch of West Canada creek. Some four miles south of Jock's lake is a small sheet of water called Little Salmon lake, and about two miles to the westward of Jock's lake, is another trout inhabiting pond, called Black River South lake. Around those lakes, and along their streams, were favorite haunts of the trapper Wright.

Of the physical outline of Hamilton county and the northerly part of Herkimer, Prof. Lardner Vanuxem, thus remarks in his volume of the Geology of New York. "The most interesting feature of the wilderness region is its chain of takes, placed so nearly to connect those of three counties together. The lakes of Herkimer and Hamilton are arranged upon a line which is parallel with the St. Lawrence river and Ontario lake, and with the Ohio, &c.; appearing not to be accident merely, but the result of a law whose operations were in their direction, and on several parallels. These lakes, were a communication opened from east to west, would be much resorted to. The beauty of their waters, their elevation, and the wild scenery which surrounds them, would not fail to attract visitors."

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