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


He enters the army--Gen. Arnold's device to raise the siege of Fort Stanwix-Evidences of the Oriskany battle-Gen. Arnold in the battle of Saratoga-Stoner and Conyne how wounded-Three Stoners on duty in Rhode Island-Anecdote of a theft-Stoner a prisoner---Capture of Gen. Prescott-Attempt to capture Stoner and others near Johnson Hall-Signification of Cayadutta-A prisoner from necessity.

Very little is known of Nicholas Stoner's boyhood, but from his propensity in riper years we may suppose, that if he did not play off some wild pranks, it was only for the want of a butt. With perceptions naturally quick, his city life afforded him a fine school for the study of human nature as developed in the actions of men; but the transition at so early an age to sylvan shades, where, instead of artificial objects he might behold nature by the pencil of God adorned, was genial to his untamed spirit, and he was soon fitted to enjoy to the fullest extent the life of a woodman: finding music in the scream of the panther, growl of the bear and bay of the wolf.

When a cry from the Boston Cradle announced that the infant Liberty was about to be strangled by its pretended nurse; the Gray Forest Eagle,

"An emblem of freedom, stern, haughty and high,"

having plumed his broad wing for a heliocentric flight, was up

"And away like a spirit wreathed in light,"

he fluttered over the land of his choice, until he aroused the patriotism not only of the indweller of city and village, but of him, who, though isolated his home, could appreciate untrammeled thought and act.

The first two years of the war of Independence, the pioneer inhabitants of New York enjoyed comparative tranquillity; for the swift-footed Indian had not fully determined to raise the hatchet of death against unoffending innocence, in a quarrel that did not directly concern him, and crimson the altar of domestic happiness for the golden calf royalty had set up: but as the portending storm lowered, and it became known that the red man, having sharpened his scalping knife and participated in the war dance of his nation, was then on his way to the frontiers; exposed settlers who were inclined to look with favor on the acts of those who were raising an arm of rebellion along the seaboard, found it necessary to remove to thickly peopled neighborhoods. Accordingly, the families making up the small and scattered settlement of Fonda's Bush, except that of Helmer and Putman, removed early in the summer of 1777, to Johnstown: soon after which Nicholas Stoner went to reside with the Fisher brothers in the Mohawk valley (2). Living with patriots, although a lad of only 14 or 15 summers, it is not surprising that young Stoner, who had been properly schooled at home as the removal of the family indicates, should have imbibed the spirit which throbbed in older hearts, and been ready to stand or fall with the common cause of his country.

Visiting his friends in Johnstown in the summer of 1777, at which time it had become a military post, Nicholas, for whose ear martial music had peculiar charms, needed but little persuasion to become a soldier, and enlisted as a fifer into a company of New York troops, commanded by Capt. Timothy Hughes, Not long after his brother John, a mere boy, enlisted under Capt. Wright. Captain W., had been a British drum major previous to the Revolution, and being pleased with John, undertook to perfect him in the art of flammadiddles and paddadiddles-in other words, in the ability to make a word of noise in a scientific manner. Henry Stoner, imitating the example of his boys, soon after enlisted under Capt. Robersham for a term of three years. The father and sons were all in the same regiment, so that they not only saw each other almost daily, but the former could to some little extent, still exercise the duties of a parent. The regiment alluded to was commanded by Col. James Livingston, of which Richard Livingston was lieutenant-colonel, and Abraham Livingston captain; the three Livingstons being brothers. In August 1777, the troops under Col. Livingston joined the army of Gen. Arnold, while on its way up the Mohawk valley, to succor Col. Gansevoort at Fort Stanwix. Among the patriotic rangers who left Johnstown at this time was Jacob Shew, who is still living.

Nicholas Stoner saw the spy, Han Yost Schuyler, who was captured at Shoemaker's place (where Spencer now lives, at the upper end of Mohawk village), set out on his mission to excite the fears of the enemy, and thus save his own neck from a halter (3). Boats laden with provisions were taken up the Mohawk, guarded by troops along the shore. As they drew near the theatre of the brave Herkimer's disasters, evidences of the terrible onslaught at Oriskany met them. Near the mouth of the Oriskany creek, a gun was found standing against a tree with a pair of boots hanging on it; while in the creek near, in a state bordering on putrefaction, lay their supposed owner. In the grass a little way from the shore, lay a genteely dressed man without coat or hat, who was supposed had made his way there to obtain drink. A black silk handkerchief encircled his once aching head. John Clark, a sergeant, loosened it, but the hair adhered to it on its removal, and he left the prize. He took from his feet a pair of silver shoe -buckles. His legs were so swollen, that his deerskin breeches were rent from top to bottom. Nine dead bodies lay across the road, disposed in regular order, as was imagined, by the Indians after their death. The stench was so great that the Americans could not discharge the last debt due their heroic countrymen, and their bones were soon bleaching upon the ground. A little farther on an Indian was seen hanging to the limb of a tree by the heels. He was suspended with the traces of a harness from a baggage wagon by the Americans, as believed, after death. Col. St. Ledger having made a flying retreat towards Canada, Gen. Arnold, after giving his troops time to rest, left Fort Stanwix and returned with his command to the army of General Gates near Stillwater.

At some period subsequent to the action of September 19th, in which General Arnold was by many thought the master spirit of the American officers engaged, an altercation took place between him and Gen. Gates, supposed by some on account of envy entertained towards the former, either by Gen. Wilkinson or Gen. Gates, and possibly both, which resulted in his being deprived of his command. Consequently, in the sanguinary battle which took place on Bemis's Heights, October 7th, Gen. Arnold had no authority for the glorious deeds he there performed. Towards evening of that day, that daring chief led a body of troops into the very heart of the Hessian camp; carrying dismay along the whole British line. In this impetuous onset he was shot through the leg (4), and would to God the ball had passed through his heart; and that that fearless and reckless leader, who, up to that hour had been one of Liberty's boldest champions, could have sealed with his lifeblood his former deeds of glory! Yes, would to God that that brave general, who had faced his country's foes on the snow-clad plains of Abraham, and been a companion in peril of the gallant, warm- hearted Montgomery, could now have found a grave on those heights, where his own blood had mingled with that of the foeman! But alas! alas! a somber destiny awaited him.

Among the death daring spirits who followed Arnold to the Hessian camp, was Nicholas Stoner, and near the enemy's works he was wounded in a singular mariner. A cannon shot from the breastwork killed a soldier near Stoner, named Tyrrell. The ball demolished his head, sending its fragments into the face of Stoner, which was literally covered with brains, hair and fragments of the skull. He fell senseless, with the right of his head about the ear severely cut by portions of the skull bone, which injury still affects his hearing in that ear. Shortly after, as the young fifer was missing, one Sweeney, an Irish soldier, was sent to seek out and bear him from the field; but a cannon shot whizzed so near his own head, that he soon returned without the object of his search. Col. Livingston asked Sweeney where the lad Stoner was? "Ja-s! colonel," replied the soldier, "a goose has laid an egg there, and you don't catch me to stay there!" Lieut. William Wallace then proceeded to the spot indicated by the Irishman, and found our hero with his head reclining upon Tyrrell's thigh, and taking him in his arms, bore him to the American camp. When young Stoner was found, a portion of the brim of his hat, say about one-fourth the size of a nine-pound shot, was observed to have been cut off very smoothly, the rest of it was covered with the ruins of the head of Tyrrell, who, to use the words of Stoner, did not know what hurt him.

Peter Graff, from Switzer Hill, and Peter Conyne also from the vicinity of Caughnawaga, were at the American camp as teamsters on the day of this battle, and served as volunteers among the troops led on by Arnold. Conyne having raised a gun to fire on the enemy, received a bullet in his arm and breast. Young Stoner and Conyne were taken from Stillwater to Albany in a boat with other wounded Americans. Col. Frederick Fisher chanced to be in that city when they arrived, and took Stoner home with him, from whence he carried him to Johnstown. He was under the care of Dr. Thomas Reed, a surgeon in Livingston's regiment, and was cured. Conyne also recovered.

In the summer of 1778, the three Stoners were all on duty in Rhode Island. In an engagement with the enemy while there, the father was wounded by a musket ball, which lodged in his head. He was sent to Providence, where he was trepanned, and recovered. A piece of silver placed over the wound, it was believed, the Indians who afterwards killed and scalped him, obtained with their plunder. The relic (an ounce ball), was preserved by the wounded man, but was lost when his dwelling was burnt by the hirelings of Britain.

While the Stoners were serving in Rhode Island, the following incident occurred in the American camp. Two soldiers, Williams a Yankee, and Cumming an Irishman, had a quarrel, in which the former gave the latter a severe flogging. To revenge his chagrin, the worsted combatant took a shirt from his own knapsack, and placed it in that of Williams, to give it the appearance of having been stolen, in the hope of seeing the latter punished. The officers found it necessary to use severe measures for petty theft, as it was of very frequent occurrence. The missing garment of Cumming having been found in Williams's possession, the latter was tied up with his coat off to be whipped. The son of Erin, conscience stricken, then advanced into the ring, and drew off his coat to take the lash. He said he had received one licking from Williams, and although he had used strategem to get him publicly flogged, he would rather receive the scorpion- tailed cat himself, than see a man punished for a crime of which he was not guilty. So manly a confession on the part of Cumming, excited the admiration of the Rev. John Greenough, a Baptist minister, and chaplain of the regiment, who interceded with Col. Livingston, and he readily forgave them both.

The Americans had several skirmishes with the enemy in Rhode Island, in the summer and autumn of 1778, in two of which Nicholas Stoner was engaged. Capt. Hughes was out one night with his command as a piquet guard on Poppasquash point, opposite Bristol. The troops having been observed before dark by a British vessel in the vicinity, a body of marines and grenadiers landed and made them prisoners. The enemy having gained the beach in boats, came round a salt marsh which was separated from a corn field by a stone wall. Capt. Hughes and his men were on the marsh side of the wall, and fired on the marines as they approached. The latter called to them not to fire, saying, "we are your own men." As they drew near, their white belts betrayed them however, and the Americans attempted their retreat. In endeavoring to leap the wall, our hero missed his footing and fell back, at which instant he was seized by the collar by a British grenadier named John McGaffee. At this instant another soldier raised his musket to strike him down, but was prevented by McGaffee, who exclaimed, "Vast, shipmate, it is only a child." Daniel Basin, a Frenchman, who was leaping the wall near Stoner, was bayoneted and killed. Capt. Hughes and all his men were made prisoners, except the one killed, and two who were missing, supposed to have scaled the fence and escaped; and as the American army was near, they were hurried into the boats and taken to Conanicus island. While crossing the marsh to the boats, the young fifer thought it was best to secure the rum in his canteen, and accordingly took a long gurgling swig, which was broken off by McGaffee, who claimed a share, as being his by fortune of war, and he gave the finishing guzzle. As they neared the beach, Stoner threw the empty casket away. An officer hearing it strike the water, raised his sword to punish, as he supposed, an act of treachery, thinking a prisoner had cast a cartridge-box from him, but McGaffee, with his tongue now oiled, again interposed, and observed that the boy had only thrown away an empty and valueless canteen.

At daylight the prisoners were paraded and lodged in the enemy's prison on the island. When aroused by the morning rollcall, young Stoner, who had been woefully drunk, from his attempt to swallow the contents of his own flask the evening before, and whose brain was still broiling from the effects of the potation, started up, supposing at first he was required to play the reveille in the American camp, but he was soon brought to his senses, and to a situation in which he could get sober at his leisure; in other words, he learned that others were to pipe while he danced. John Stoner was at this time a drummer in the American camp, not far distant from where his brother was a prisoner; indeed, the spangled banner was floating in sight.

Gen. Prescott (5), the British commander on that station, was captured the summer before Capt. Hughes was taken. He had gone to pay his devoirs to a buxom widow, at a little distance from his own camp, and a slave of the lady found means to communicate the fact to the Americans. Lieut. Col. Barton, of the Providence militia, an officer of spirit, at once conceived the bold project of his capture. At dead of night, in a barge, well manned by stouthearted volunteers with muffled oars, he landed and approached the house in which the general was so happily quartered. Feeling quite secure, he had accepted the kind lady's hospitality, and resolved to tarry all night. Possibly his arrest was set on foot by his fair hostess, for woman often proved the champion of freedom.

The general was nabbed in a bedchamber; and without allowing the drowsy hero time to collect his scattered thought, or the war-god to chase the dreams of love from his mind, or indeed, what was far more uncharitable, time to put on his breeches, he was hurried off to the rebel barge. Passing through a piece of standing barley, his legs were tickled, as we may suppose, not in the most agreeable manner. So silently had the Americans arrived, and so brief had been their stay, that they were even bending their oars for their own camp before the general's guard could be mustered. Great was the surprise among the British next day, when it became known that their general had been spirited away. On being apprised of the fact, some of the soldiers were heard to say, "The rebels have got the old rascal, and I hope they'll kill him!" He was a man of some sixty years of age, was a severe disciplinarian, and not very popular. He was exchanged for Gen. Lee, for which object he was possibly captured, in April preceding the surprise of Capt. Hughes. After several months imprisonment, Capt. Hughes and his command were exchanged.

In the fall of 1778, the several regiments of New York state troops having become much reduced, a new organization took place, their number being lessened, at which time Nicholas Stoner joined the company of Capt. Samuel T. Pell, attached to Col. Cortlandt's regiment, which marched to Schenectada. The state troops were sent, during the winter months, to different frontier stations, and Capt. Pell proceeded to Johnstown for winter quarters.

Small parties of the enemy kept the inhabitants along the frontier of New York, in a state of almost constant alarm. While stationed at Johnstown Nicholas Stoner often went hunting and fishing with other lads, to provide a dainty morsel for some officer, who thought more of his palate than of his purse; and consequently paid liberally for their success. Young Stoner, in company with three others, one Charlesworth, Charles Darby and John Foliard, all nearly of the same age, went out with guns and fishing tackle, in the vicinity of Johnson Hall. After they had become busily engaged along the Cayadutta (6), all at once Darby, without uttering a word, was seen to start as if terribly frightened, and run off in the direction of the Hall. His comrades soon learned the cause of his alarm, by seeing a small party of Indians emerge from a patch of hemp not far distant from them, and near the Hall barn. One of them fired on Charlesworth, but the boys scattered, fled and all effected their escape. These Indians, or, as probably some of them were, Tories, disguised, had no doubt visited the settlement as spies, and were anxious to take back a prisoner as a proof of having accomplished their mission. They were sure of their reward, if they could return with occular evidence of having visited the place designated by some British or refugee officer in Canada.

Thomas Harter, an inoffensive man, nearly seventy years old, who resided in Scotch Bush, a few miles from Johnson Hall, went to his field, bridle in hand, to catch a horse, and was made prisoner and taken to Canada, by a small party of the enemy (in the fall of 1778, or spring of 1779), they did not wish to harm him, but were anxious to prove they had been to Johnstown. His unaccountable absence from home greatly alarmed his family, but their apprehensions were softened by a Tory neighbor, who assured them he was alive, but had been taken prisoner as a matter of necessity, and would be kindly used. His treatment was not as cruel as that meted to most prisoners, and he lived to return home, to the great joy of his friends.

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