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


Stoner's opinion of Foster's and his own skill as marksmen-How Drid's friends received his death-Advice to Foster's family- Drid's wife returns to the St. Lawrence-Foster removes to Pennsylvania-Returns to Boonville and dies there-The Indian Hess-Importance of a country tavern-How Foster and Hess meet and part -Running fight with a moose bull-Sudden appearance of Hess-He threatens to kill Foster-Falls from a log over his own grave-Mysterious sayings-How he shot eighteen otters-His eyesight improved by venison- Signification of Oswegatchie-How Foster carried bullets- Anecdote of his rapid firing-How he made his camp in the woods-How he accounted for the chase.

About the time of Foster's trial, to an interrogatory from the Hon. Charles Gray, whether he did not consider the lives of the white hunters as greatly endangered, when he directed the balls between them only a few feet apart, which penetrated the heart of his victim? he replied, "Not not at all! my old rifle never made so great a miss as that!"

Remarking to Maj. Stoner my surprise, that Foster should have dared to fire between two white men in a changing position at a third person, the old Natty Bumpo replied, "Poh! 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." 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.

When a sufficient length of time had transpired after this Indian's death for intelligence of it to go to his friends near the river St. Lawrence, a brother-in-law of his, who was a chief of the St. Regis tribe, and a very likely man, came down to Brown's tract to remove his sister. He said the deceased was at times a bad fellow, and had been expelled from their tribe for some misdemeanor. He had even threatened the life of this chief more than once; and he did not express any regret that he was killed; on the contrary, he said he thought Foster was justifiable in taking his life under the peculiar circumstances. Drid's squaw was present when the body was brought down, but instead of manifesting sorrow she smiled, and with a pair of scissors she cut out a piece of his blanket or shirt, having in it a ball hole, and placed it carefully away in a work-pocket. Her brother had the body taken up and interred in Indian style; and before its reburial he cut out that part of the blanket having the remaining bullet holes in it; which he carried home with him. Foster had been sent to Martinsburg before this Indian arrived; but previous to leaving the tract, he advised the members of the Foster family still living there, to leave the place, as they were innocent of Drid's death; and it was possible some of his blood might attempt to revenge his death. He took his sister and her children back with him, that he might attempt to revenge his death. He took his sister and her children back with him, that he might provide for their wants.

After the death of Drid, Foster visited Brown's tract but once. He feared the Indians might catch him napping; indeed, it was said that several were there in wait for him, but a correspondent who says he was there the next season, saw no Indians. Foster removed with his family to Boonville, Oneida county. From thence he went to reside for several years in the north part of Pennsylvania, where he again followed his favorite pursuits. His mind seemed never at rest after killing this Indian, says a friend, and he would not, after his return to Boonville from Pennsylvania, venture out of doors in the dark. He died at the house of Mr. Edgerton, his son-in-law, in the western part of Boonville (now Ava), Oneida county, in March, 1841; at the age of about 74 years. His widow died at the residence of her son, Amos Foster, in Palatine (near Stone Arabia), Montgomery county, in December, 1844.

It is the belief of very many of Foster's acquaintances, that Drid was not the only Indian with whom he had had a fatal rencontre. The following story furnished the author by Mr. Frederick Petrie, comes so well authenticated and corroborated, that there can be very little doubt of its truth.

Before the American Revolution there dwelt about two miles from the present village of Little Falls, an Indian named Hess, who took an active part in that contest as a hireling of Britain; and who undoubtedly was one of the most cruel and blood thirsty of his race. Some ten or twelve years after the war, this Indian returned to his former hunting grounds, to prosecute his favorite employment. A country inn at this period was, for the spread of knowledge to be smoked in and watered, a kind of "circulating medium," a place where in the absence of our now thousands of newspapers, the people of the surrounding country met to learn news from quidnuncs; and as Little Falls, with possibly her dozen (much scattered) insignificant dwellings, was then a place of some notoriety, on account of her new inland locks, and old moss-clad rocks, the barroom of the village one-story tavern became the place where all the classic events of olden time, and all the improvements of modern days, particularly those which aided the river sailor in navigating the far famed Mohawk were, sans parliamentary forms, freely discussed.

On a certain occasion Foster met the Indian Hess in the barroom of the Little Falls tavern, and observing that his dress-a-la-mode was that of a hunter, he attempted to engage him in conversation. He feigned ignorance of the English language, however, until his white competitor in beaver skins oiled his tongue freely at the bar, when lo! the seal upon his lips was broken; and he spoke English tolerably well. The two hunters soon after left the village and traveled some distance together, when the conversation turned upon Revolutionary scenes: boasting of his individual exploits on the frontiers of New York, the Indian exhibited a tobacco pouch. "This," said the crafty warrior, "me got in the war. Me kill white woman; rip open belly; find papoose; skin him some; make pouch!" He also opened the box in the breech of his rifle, and exhibited some evidence he there carried of the number of prisoners and human scalps taken by him in the war; the tally ran up to the almost incredible number of forty-two. Just before parting, the Indian inquired of Foster his name, and on hearing it he exclaimed, "Ha! Nat Foster! you bad man; you kill Indians!"

On the Indian's making the recognition of him, Foster thought he detected in his look and manner a lurking devil that seemed to say, "if ever you fall in my power you will feel it;" and hearing himself called an Indian killer, he believed the old hunter, if opportunity presented, would not scruple to take his life. The boast of murdered innocence drew a frown across the sunburnt brow and stern features of the young hunter, that seemed to send back defiance to the red man's look of meditated death. They parted soon after, and if not as friends, certainly not as avowed enemies; but each no doubt felt apprehensive, that a second interview might not terminate so fortunately for them both; and certain it is, that one at least resolved not to be overreached by the other.

Not long after the above incidents transpired, Foster was threading the forest alone, in the northerly part of Herkimer county, in the pursuit of game. In a secluded spot, he came unexpectedly upon and shot a moose cow. While securing the noble game, its mate, a most ferocious bull, attracted to the spot by, the bellowing of the dam, attacked him with great fury. In a dodging fight, the hunter was obliged to make some half a dozen shots in rapid succession. Foster reloaded his rifle before he ventured to approach an animal that had been so tenacious of life, although dying (he seldom changed his position in the woods without a charge in his gun); and while advancing to it, he was startled to hear a footstep within pistol shot distance of him, and was possibly not less surprised to find in the person of his new visitant, the muscular form of the Indian Hess.

Supposing, as is presumed, that Foster's rifle was, unloaded, his recent acquaintance, who now experienced no difficulty in "murdering the King's English," at the end of a whoop that told credibly for his lungs and the absence of balsams, shouted aloud, "Now Foster me got you! me kill you now!" Between Hess and his intended victim there was a marsh, over which was a fallen tree. Mounting the log to approach the white hunter, with uplifted tomahawk and death- boding mien, the report of a rifle again echoed amid the fir-tops of the forest, and up sprang the Indian high in air from the log. A bullet had plowed its way through his heart, and with a guttural groan, the dark warrior fell dead upon the marsh. Lest Hess might not be unattended in the forest, the eagle-eyed marksman, whose rifle had not only been quickly loaded but quickly discharged, stamped the carcass of his victim deep into the mud. Dark mystery hung over the fate of this lone hunter

for years. Many remembered that his disappearance was sudden and unexpected; and others that they had heard Foster say, shortly after his interview with him at Little Falls, that he had met him once, and only once after that time. He confidentially communicated, many years after, to Jacob I. Christman, with whom he was hunting, the fate of this unfortunate savage, for whom

No solemn bell's metallic tongue
E'er toll'd its death note on the breeze:
Zephyrs alone his requiem rung,
Where ivy green her mantle hung
Mid plumed and bowing trees.

Foster, although a man of undoubted veracity, when speaking of his own exploits, made use of aphorisms, or such unexplained expressions, as left them a mystery to his auditors. This was particularly the case where legal advantage could be taken of his sayings and doings; hence, it is impossible to arrive with positive certainty, as is believed, at some of the most interesting incidents in his life. On this point, says a correspondent, "Foster would occasionally tell some of his exploits, but in such a way you could hardly guess his meaning. For instance, 'The best shot I ever made, I got two beaver, one otter, and fifteen martin skins; but I took the filling out of a blanket to do it!' And again, 'I was once in the woods, and saw an Indian lay down to drink at a brook; something was the matter; he dropped his face into the water and drowned; I thought I might as well take his fur, gun, blanket, &c., as leave them there to spoil.' "

Says the same correspondent, "On his way to jail, I saw Foster;" he said to me, 'Brother B., I am the man that pushed the bull off the bridge; I never liked Indians!' While confined at Herkimer, he was asked how he fared? He replied, "0, very well, only I don't like to be stall fed among gentlemen!"

About the time of Foster's trial, while some friends were speaking of his success as a hunter and extraordinary skill as a marksman, he said the greatest shot he ever made was at otters, securing eighteen of their valuable pelts at a single shot. Although the fame of the (then) old hunter was very great, this story seemed to stagger the faith of his most confidential auditors; and when one ventured to express a doubt as to the truth of the assertion, he explained as follows. In a hunting excursion he had once fallen in with an Indian, who carried upon his back eighteen otter skins; that he had no intention of harming the Indian; did not know that he had killed him; but that he never let an otter skin escape him alive. He fired; they all fell; he picked them up and came away.

In the latter part of his life, Foster's sight began to fail him. His brother, Shubael Foster, who is many years younger than Nathaniel, says he was deer hunting with the latter, not many years before his death, in St. Lawrence county, on the Oswegatchie (21), in which excursion they killed twenty. Informant shot several before his brother got any; when they came together, the latter procured a good slice of venison, saying that if he could get a piece of deer into him, he could see to shoot them. During this hunt, they one day cornered a flock between them and a ledge, exposing the innocent creatures to their crossfire. They drove the terrified animals from one to the other until they secured five of their number, four of which fell before the old rifle of the senior hunter. So much for eating a good steak of venison.

Foster and Stoner were both remarkably expert at loading their rifles, but the former most so, at least if it became necessary to make several shots in hot haste, and at a short distance. Foster has been known repeatedly, upon a wager, to commence with his rifle unloaded and fire it off six times in one minute. This, to the reader, if a modern marksman seems incredible, but it is nevertheless true. While hunting he usually wore three rifle balls between the fingers of each hand, and invariably thus in the left hand, if he had that number of balls with him. He had a large bony hand, and having worn such jewels a long time, they had made for themselves cavities in the flesh, which concealed them almost as effectually as they were, when hidden in the molds in which they were run from the fused lead. The superficial observer would not have noticed them.

Foster's quick shooting was in the days of flint locks. He had a powder flask with a charger, and with six well pared balls between his fingers, he would pour in the powder, drop a ball that would just roll down without a patch, and striking the breech of his gun with his hand, it was primed, soon after which the bullet was speeding to its mark. These rapid discharges could only be made at a short distance, as to make long shots it became necessary to patch the balls and drive them down with a rod, the latter being dispensed with in the former case.

Foster would make his six shots, so as to kill so many men, within one minute, at a distance not exceeding ten rods. A regiment of such riflemen, in close action, would soon decide the fate of a battle.

In the second American war with Great Britain, the following incident, says Shubael Foster, took place in Manheim, Herkimer county. A company of riflemen, under Capt. FORSYTH, passed through that town on their way from the Mohawk valley to the military lines between New York and Canada, and encamped there over night to wash their clothes. The celebrity of Foster, as a marskman, coming to the ears of Capt. Forsyth, as the hunter was in the vicinity, he had him called to the camp. The most expert rifleman in the company was a man named Robinson, from South Carolina. The Captain was desirous of seeing whether Foster or Robinson could make the most effective shots in a minute, at a target ten rods off, each commencing with unloaded rifles. They began to load at a given signal, and Foster sent six bullets into the target within the minute; his competitor putting the sixth bullet into his piece, as that of his own rifle sped to the mark The whole company was astonished to see their fellow member-able, as was supposed, to make the most shots in a given time of any man in the world -fairly beaten by a New York trapper. A murmur of applause ran through the ranks, and Foster at once became a lion in the camp. Surprised at the unexpected skill of a New York woodsman, and anxious to secure his services, Capt. Forsyth offered Foster thirty dollars a month to join his company with the complimentary assurance that he should eat at his own table; but as Foster did not approve of the war, he could not be prevailed upon to adopt the life of a soldier.

When hunting, Foster would make his camp in forty-five minutes, where the snow was a foot deep. He usually set up two crotches, laid a pole across them, and others from thence to the ground upon the sides and one end; covering the whole with hemlock boughs. In front of the open end, for his own comfort and security against wild beasts, he built a good fire. Provisions placed under his head for a pillow at night, were often frozen hard in the morning. In cold weather, he carried a blanket, strapped upon his shoulders as a knapsack. He usually wore a hat, but at times a cap, and uniformly a coat when hunting; over his shoulders were strapped a powder horn and bullet pouch, of sufficient dimensions to warrant a lengthy hunt. He was always careful to have a pocket compass with him when in the forest.

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