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


Since the preceding chapters were written, Col. DANIEL C. HENDERSON, of Norway, has kindly furnished me with some interesting memoranda in the life of Jonathan Wright, a hunter previously named; and several incidents worthy of notice, of several others of like craft, who followed trapping many years ago on and contiguous to Brown's tract. From Henderson's manuscripts I glean the following facts.

Jonathan Wright, or Jock, as he was called in the wilderness, was a native of Hinsdale, Cheshire county, New Hampshire; and of respectable parentage. He was about five feet ten inches in height, rather stoutly built, with a sallow complexion. In the latter part of his life, and when known to my correspondent, he had a very stooping gait, and a walk peculiarly his own; lifting his feet high as though treading upon something light. His peculiarity of motion was no doubt acquired by carrying, as silently as possible, heavy burdens upon his shoulders in the forest, such as traps, wild game, provisions, canoes, &c. He had a keen eye shaded by heavy brows; and upon the whole was rather good looking. He was a man of few words, but they were pithy and uttered with energy. His education was such as the common schools of New England afforded at that early day, he being a schoolboy just before the Revolution.

But little is known of Wright's youthful days, except that he was rather eccentric; and early evinced a disposition to be alone in the woods, with his dog and gun. At the age of eighteen he had, in the pursuit of wild game and fur, reconnoitered the northerly part of his native state, knowing more, doubtless, of its topography than of its improvements. When our Revolutionary difficulties began, he was found among the champions of liberty; and five days before the Bunker Hill battle, accompanied by a neighbor named Moffatt; both armed cap-a-pie for action. He was a volunteer under the brave Prescott, to aid in fortifying Bunker Hill the night before the battle, in which he took an active part. When Wright got back to his quarters in the evening, almost exhausted, he heard a call for a guard to prevent surprise from the enemy, "There's no danger of that," he exclaimed, "the rascals have enough to do to dress their shins and wrap their fingers for the next twelve hours, without beating up our quarters. I shall sleep for the next ten hours without fear."

The reveille and tattoo savored too much of restraint for the tameless spirit of a hunter, and tiring of camp monotony Wright returned home, and did not again join the army until Arnold's retreat from Quebec to Ticonderoga; when he there enlisted under Capt. Whitcomb; preferring to perform scouting or other hazardous duty. Capt. W. had been accused of shooting Major Gordon, a British officer, and rifling his pockets; of which act General Carlton complained, and demanded his trial for murder The American officer in command did not think the act, which was one of daring, demanded such a title; but viewed it as a consequence of war, and soon the matter was hushed.

While on duty at Fort Ticonderoga, Wright and his captain went on a scout toward the lower end of Lake Champlain, where they unexpectedly fell in with and captured two British officers well mounted. They proved to be a paymaster and lieutenant; who, not expecting a foe so far from the American camp, were off their guard, and easily secured by their rifle-poised captors. The horses could not be taken along, and they were set free in the road, to return to their masters' former quarters. After the prisoners were dismounted and disarmed, they inquired the names of their more fortunate companions, At hearing the name of Whitcomb the paymaster turned deadly pale, and inquired with evident agitation, "Are you the man who shot Major Gordon?"

"I suppose that I am;" replied the captain. Wright, who witnessed the effect of this announcement, divined that a desperate effort might be made by the prisoners to escape, and advanced with a ready rifle to a commanding position; when he assured them they should have good quarters, and not be injured unless they tried to escape; in which event they would be sent to oblivion in a hurry! This assurance tended to quiet their fears, and soon the party were threading a circuitous route for Ticonderoga. The paymaster chanced to have no funds on his person, on which account he may have felt the more secure. When the captures were made, the scouts were just out of provisions, and early the next morning, as Wright was the best runner, it was settled that he should proceed to the fort with all possible dispatch; obtain food, and return to succor the party, which was to proceed up the lake shore, The adventure was carried out as anticipated, and in a few days all arrived safely at Ticonderoga, Soon after, the captives were exchanged.

Wright ever spoke highly of this lieutenant, whose name is now forgotten. Just before they parted, the latter addressed him as follows, "Wright, you have been kind to us, and I shall always retain grateful feelings toward you. We shall be down the next campaign, and then you may rely on my friendship, as you must and will be subjugated!"

"You go to the devil!" replied Wright. "If you when you come again, you fetch your coffins with you, for you'll surely want them!"

He continued with the northern army, acting much of the time either as a scout or a spy, until after the surrender of Burgoyne. Some few days before that event, being on a scout in the vicinity of the British army, a violent rainstorm came on, and he sought a temporary shelter beneath the trunk of a leaning tree; with his blanket over his shoulders, and his rifle in a position to be kept dry. While thus situated, his quick ear detected amid the roaring elements, an approaching footstep; and looking up, he saw a large wolf just ready to spring upon him. He carefully raised his piece, and without bringing it to his shoulder, discharged it, the muzzle being within a few feet of the animal's head, which was literally blown off. Thus did he scalp one English ally.

Recollecting his former friend, the British lieutenant, Wright sought for him among his vanquished and found him an object of commiseration. He had been wounded, and what with his sufferings and privations, had grown dejected; sick in body and mind! and did not readily recognize his former captor. When he did he saluted him with great emotion. Indeed, the meeting was such as caused the better feelings of both to mingle in a flow of tears. Wright was the first to regain his self-possession, and broke forth in a strain between seriousness and jesting much as follows:-"By-! you are a lucky devil though. I supposed you long since dead, as

I told you you would be at the end of this campaign; but I rejoice to find you still alive, and hope you may live to repent of your sins; but by the heavens, if I ever find you in arms against the States again, I will surely blow your brains to the four winds!"

Wright with no little trouble got his friend in a wagon and conveyed him to a place of security, where he was well cared for, and soon after they parted, as they supposed, for ever. The winter following, the lieutenant was retained with many other prisoners in Boston; and having occasion to visit that city in the mean time, Wright and his British friend again met; the latter then in good health and fine spirits. After several days of social intercourse the friends finally parted, but not until the lieutenant had pressed upon the acceptance of his guest numerous presents; with an assurance that no consideration would ever induce him to be found in arms again, against so brave and generous a people. Wright said in the latter part of his life that of all the friends he ever met, this military foeman gave him the heartiest welcome."

Wright took no active part in the war after 1777, but followed his favorite avocation of a hunter in the northerly part of New Hampshire and Vermont; which the neutrality of the latter state, then a territory in dispute, enabled him to do. Soon after the war, he, and a cousin of his, named Belden, who was usually called the Rattlesnake hunter, began to frequent the shores of lakes Champlain and George, and their inlets; as also the sources of the Hudson, in quest of fur. Belden bore a deadly hatred to rattlesnakes, and when near their haunts was continually warring with them; hence his significant appellation. The following incident attending his snake-killing, I shall give very nearly in my correspondent's own words.

"One day in early spring, as they were on the west shore of the lake near fort Ty., and upon a ledge of rocks; they came to a den just as the snakes had crawled from their winter slumber, and lay basking in the warm noonday sun. Belden was dressed for hunting, having on a loose woolen frock retiring below the knee, with shoes and leggings to match. Armed with a long stick in one hand, and a short one in the other, Belden led the way to the snakes; and Wright followed with his companion's dog and gun. Belden's eyes flashed fire at the sight before him, and a smile on his lips betrayed that their snakeships' quarters would surely be beaten up. He began the onset striking and dealing death at every blow, jumping and springing from one to the other' in fear that some might take shelter in the rocks.

"In his eagerness, his foot slipped as he was aiming a blow at a monster that lay in a fighting attitude, and he fell forward. He tried to keep himself off from the dangerous reptile, but without effect, and it struck his frock near his chin, and hung fast by its fangs. Both fell down together, rolled off the ledge and down a declivity, some twelve feet, tumbling over and over; the snake coming up at the last toll. Belden bounded up, seized the snake round the neck, loosened its fangs, and whipped it to death against the rocks; as his sticks had been lost in the fight. Wright often said this was the only time he ever saw Belden either scared or even started by danger; but the snakes had rest the remainder of the day.

The two friends followed trapping for several seasons in the region of country under consideration, and until beaver began to grow scarce; for the reader must not suppose that they were sole monarchs there; Indian hunters were continually crossing their tracks. As game grew scarce, however, they occasionally hunted for a season as far eastward as the present state of Maine. While hunting in the neighborhood of Lake Champlain they used a light skiff to coast with, and navigate streams. On one occasion when they had moored their little barque in some safe nook, they set off to visit their traps in different directions; to meet at night at the starting point. Wright returned just at sunset much fatigued, and as his companion was not there, he deposited his game, laid down in the boat, and was soon in a sound slumber; from which he did not awake until it was quite dark.

He was then aroused by what he supposed the halloo of his companion, and while listening to hear the voice again, Belden made his appearance, loaded down with a deer and other game, which he deposited in the boat. Wright asked him if he had heard a human voice, or any thing resembling it, and was answered in the negative. Wright stepped to the bow of the boat to loosen it, when he was met by a loud scream and the glaring eyeballs of a monstrous panther >directly before him. "Well Belden," he exclaimed starting back, you have brought a fine friend to supper!" "Yes," replied the latter, "and just wait until I give him a polite reception." Snatching up his rifle he discharged it, almost scorching the animal's head; still it was not hurt or frightened from its purpose; but stood at the bow and prevented them from untying. Wright then fired also without effect. Belden had soon reloaded, and with a piece of chalk carried for the purpose, he whitened the barrel of his rifle, took a more deliberate aim at the glaring target and fired again; when a scream and a few scratches followed, and all was still. Belden then hauled the animal into the boat, cast it off; and away they steered for their camp. The panther proved an exceedingly large and old one; its teeth were mostly gone, and it appeared to have been in the last stage of starvation.

When the hunting of fur in his former haunts would no longer pay, Wright removed to the westward. About the year 1796, he settled in the present town of Norway, N. Y., at which time he was some forty-five or fifty years of age. He then had a family, which consisted of his wife, whom he invariably called Nabby, a son, named Jonathan, and three daughters. He wore, when hunting, a coat, called at that time a French coat, which fastened tightly round the waist, and moccasins, or shoe packs, as then denominated. He was never known to wear boots or shoes in hunting. When he left home on a hunt, he was laden with his traps, about fifty pounds of cornmeal, and his gun; with possibly some few other fixins. Thus provided he would enter the forest, and at times be gone for months, subsisting on his meal and what his gun and traps could provide him; with the addition of now and then a trout. He had, as all men of his craft have, to eat many scanty meals; but on returning to the settlements he made ample amends for all privations in eating and drinking. He became known soon after his arrival in Norway, by the familiar title of Uncle Jock. Most people at that day were fond of liquor, and our hero among the rest.

"Uncle Jock," said a friend one day, ----has stolen your jug!" A man who could scent a beaver in the water, could easily find the course his jug had taken, and soon he overtook the thief; not, however, until he had secreted the stolen treasure. He refused to disclose where it was, and old Nimrod clenched and threw him upon the ground, where he struggled manfully, but to little purpose; as his hands were soon secured, and his conqueror had one to spare. With an uplifted fist shouted the victor, "Now tell me what you have done with the rum, or go to heaven or hell in a moment!" The brief time allotted for repentance, instantly disclosed the whereabouts of the jug, and a promise to pay all demands.

Some four or five years before Uncle Jock pitched his tent in Norway, a singular individual named Nichols began the life of a hunter in the forests contiguous to Norway. He was from some place in New Hampshire, upon the Connecticut river. He was to appearance some forty years of age, of middling stature, mild disposition; and in his deportment was simple, honest and obliging, He lived the most of his time in the wilderness by hunting and trapping. He was something of a musician, and kept a fiddle in his camp, with which to cheer his hermitage. The only living object of his care was a favorite hound, imported by Arthur Noble, from Ireland; "Which," as my correspondent observes, "was one of no vulgar blood; but a real Johnny Bull pup!" His fiddle, hound, rifle and traps, constituted the principal stock in trade of this secluded hunter.

Nichols was at first an unpracticed hunter, took but little fur, and as supposed made a poor living-, for which reason it was thought by the few who now and then saw him; that he must have some resources to lean upon, besides the avails of his avocation; as he was always in funds to pay down for his plain wearing apparel, and things needed in his isolated camp. For a long time he avoided society, and was disinclined to speak of his former residence or pursuits; but before his death it became known that he was a good mathematician, and a millwright of the first order. From him the carpenters in that part of Herkimer county first learned to frame by the square rule, casting aside for ever their scribe rule. He was looked upon as a man of superior abilities, and what could have induced him to adopt a wilderness life was a mystery then, indeed, is to the present day.

When Uncle jock moved into his neighborhood, Nichols, to whom he was previously known, became his partner in the chase, and under his teaching afterwards proved a very successful trapper. It was not known in Norway until Uncle jock settled there, that Nichols had left a good property in land and mills on the Connecticut river, to which he never returned, or even looked after. Although it was never satisfactorily known what induced Nichols to abandon his property and friends, still it was believed to be solely attributable to disappointment in love. But whether some fair daughter of Yankeedom sighed her gentle spirit away with "hope deferred," or whether Nichols plodded his weary way through the wilderness in fruitless attempts to forget some maiden,

With raven locks and lily skin,
And cheeks with dimples deep within,

can not be told, as the secret died with him.

Uncle Jock and Nichols, together in their trapping excursions for beaver and other game, became familiar with nearly every source of the East and West Canada creeks, Black, Racket, and Sacondaga rivers. They were as familiar with the lakes and watercourses on and contiguous to Brown's tract, as is a hen with her own chickens. Nichols, in tracing a small stream that is tributary to the West Canada creek, obtained upon or near it, a fine specimen of lead ore; but its locality has been sought for since, as yet in vain. In the latter part of his life Nichols renewed his avocation of a millwright, and only hunted in the fall and winter. He was drowned while repairing a mill, in 1803.

In one of his rambles after his partner's death, Uncle Jock discovered a lake that is now called Jock's lake to which I have elsewhere alluded. It has for years been a great resort for trout fishing. He said that when he first visited it, it appeared to be alive with fish, and for several years it became known to him alone. From it he would take loads of trout at almost any season of the year to the settlements.

Many individuals, not hunters, but who were anxious to have a hunt, if it were only to be able to say that they had been in the woods and camped out with a master hunter; used to urge their company upon Uncle Jock; indeed, not a few of this sort received the tuition of Stoner and Foster. In a few of his trapping seasons Uncle Jock was accompanied by a stout able-bodied man, named Simmons, who was usually called Crookneck, probably from some peculiar inclination of his head. They were on snowshoes in the month of March, hunting marten; or as called by hunters wan-pur-noc-er. The bait used for those animals, which are a variety of weasel, is fresh meat; and as the hunters had taken no gun along, they had to depend on a dog to run down deer for marten-bait and their own food; which the crusted snow enabled them to do.

Their dog one day got a large buck at bay, and the hunters approached to kill it. Crookneck came up first, and hurried on thinking to seize the animal by its antlers and throw it down. As he approached the worried deer, it made a furious plunge at him. Falling short of its aim, it drove a hoof through one of his snowshoes as Crookneck fell backwards! and not being familiar with the use of such broad "understandings," it turned a somerset and fell upon the top of its antagonist. The newly initiated hunter, by his loud yells for help, gave evidence that his lungs were in good condition; and soon the master hunter was on hand, who drew his hunting knife, cut the deer's hamstrings, and then easily dispatched him. As the liberated hunter regained his feet, Uncle Jock dryly remarked, "Well Simmons, you are older than you might have been! If the buck had not fallen a little short, you would have been in oblivion now!"

At another time during the hunt, the dog started a large moose, and as the crust cut its legs, it stopped and kept the dog at bay until the hunters approached. Uncle Jock wanted his companion to kill it, but nothing could induce him to approach very near it. The senior hunter then initiated Crookneck into a new degree in game killing. He cut a pole, tied his knife to the end of it, and gaining the cover of a tree sufficiently near, he very dexterously wielded his pole and hamstrung the animal, when it was easily destroyed. To give his comrade a third degree in the mysterious art of slaughtering large animals in the forest, without a gun; when the dog called them to another moose, Uncle Jock fastened his knife to a long pole, stole up behind a large tree, and plunged the blade into the heart if his victim.

Uncle Jock was ever a firm believer in a Supreme Being, and also that earnest and sincere prayer, if consistent with our circumstances, would readily be answered by Divine Providence. One day after hearing an overzealous, ignorant preacher pray at great length, a friend inquired how he liked the prayer? "How fortunate it was for him," he replied, "that he was addressing a Being that knew better than he did what he wanted, or he would have been in h--- in a minute! and at all events if he told the truth, he is deserving of a halter or state prison for life! But though a fool, I think he is not quite as wicked as he represents himself."

His own prayers were remarkably brief and delivered with great earnestness. They could hardly be repeated by another, however, without seeming very profane; and yet there was so much apparent sincerity in their utterance by him, as to divest them of the levity they might create when repeated by another. One of them, which tradition has preserved entire, I will insert. He was trapping marten in the month of March, with Crookneck Simmons again for a partner, and was severely attacked by pleurisy. Crookneck soon became alarmed and wanted to go to the nearest settlement, some twenty miles off, for assistance; much of which distance it would be necessary to travel upon snowshoes; but to this proposition Uncle Jock would not consent. It was in vain for him to remonstrate, however. In vain he told Crookneck, that it would take him two days to accomplish the journey, in which time he must perish with cold, if not by diseases, as he could not keep his own fire going; but go he would, and start he did.

Simmons had been gone but a few minutes, when the invalid, conscious that he must soon die, unless relieved immediately, uttered with great earnestness the following prayer. "Great God, Jehovah, Jesus Christ, our Lord! if it is expedient that I should come in and see Nabby and Jonathan, let it be brought to a criss d--- quick!!"

After the utterance of this laconic and eccentric petition, the sick man said he not only felt greatly relieved in mind, but also a consciousness that it would be answered; and in half an hour Crookneck returned. "The more haste the less speed," is an old adage, was verified in his case; for in attempting to proceed as far as possible, he got an improper angle into his neck, and down he went, breaking one of his snowshoes; and not having ingenuity enough to repair it, he returned to their wigwam, where his sick friend was still lying upon a hurdle of hemlock boughs. The latter got him to sharpen his hunting knife, and also to cord his arm; when he took the knife and bled himself. Simmons fainted and fell, and Uncle Jock said "he really thought the d----- fool would die first!"

After a copious flow of blood, the invalid stopped it by thrusting a pin through the orifice, and winding it with a lock of his own hair. In a little while Simmons got about again, and in their camp-kettle made a strong decoction of hemlock boughs, of which Uncle Jock drank freely and laid down, when he experienced, as he said, the greatest relief he ever did in so short a space of time. He fell into a slumber which lasted several hours, and when he awoke he was entirely free from pain. The third day after he reached a settlement, and the fourth his prayer was answered, by again embracing his dear Nabby and little Jonathan.

Uncle Jock, it is believed, never had any serious difficulty with either Indian or white hunters. He often spoke of the hind quarters of a beaver, as affording the most dainty morsel an epicure could obtain; being preferable, as he said, to any other meat or fish, because it possessed the virtues of both. This wilderness-explorer seldom said bitter things of any one; but if insulted, the offender was pretty sure sooner or later, to feel his dry sarcasm. He received a pension from our government for Revolutionary services, under the first pension act; which might with proper economy have kept him and his Nabby from want, without the necessity of his hunting, as his children were grown up and married; but it only tended to make him the more independent of the settlements, and bury himself still deeper among the evergreens of the forest, from which he could not be weaned.

It was his usual custom to look up suitable locations for fall hunting in June, when trees would peel the best; at which time he would build himself comfortable bark huts for fall and winter use. Hunting seemed to have become with him a second nature, and he followed it to the last. When his eye grew dim and his arm unsteady, so that he could no longer use his trusty rifle, he would still venture, unattended even by a dog into the far-off wilderness; and there, armed only with a hatchet, follow his avocation for weeks. He often said, that "the howling of the wolf, growling of the bear, screaming of the panther, and nightly concert of owls, kept him from being lonesome, and was music to his ears." Such is man of the woods! The comforts of social life afford no enjoyment for him.

After a hunt, he came into the settlement with beaver and other furs, took them to market, returned home, sat down at the table to eat, and fell dead upon the floor without a struggle or groan, we believe in the seventy-fifth year of his age. He died about the year 1826.

The following notice appeared in the newspapers, in January, 1850.

Death of a Nimrod.-The St. Lawrence Mercury says that Mr. Thomas Meacham, of the town of Hopkinton, St. Lawrence county, who died a few weeks ago, and who, for several years, was a resident of the North West Bay road, of what they then called township No. 10, in Franklin county, on East brook, near the bounds of Hopkinton, was something of a hunter. He kept an exact account of the game killed by him, which amounts to the following: number of wolves, 214; panthers, 77; bears, 219; deer, 2,550.

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