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


Precaution in its use-Bait for beaver-Season for hunting- Accident to Capt. Jackson-Dunn in Jackson's place-Hunters' lodges how constructed-Their larder how supplied- Johnstown Hunters meet Indian trappers-Fierce quarrel at Trout lake-An Indian falls upon the shore-Dunn transfixed to a canoe-Stoner in the enemy's camp-Trophies he there obtained-Hunter's return home-Stoner and Mason hunt together-Mason discovers bear's tracks-Stoner seeks an interview with Bruin-Discovers him on a log, over the Sacondaga-A rifle is heard and the bear falls into the river.

"Dark green was the spot, mid the brown mountain heather,
Where the pilgrim of nature lay stretched in decay,
Like the corpse of an outcast abandoned to weather,
Till the mountain-winds wasted the tenantless clay."
Walter Scott.

We are now to consider a peculiarly exciting portion of our hero's life, and may fail to give the reader but a faint idea of the countless novel incidents following the footsteps of a master hunter, although in fancy full

"Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn,
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away,
To meet the sun upon the upland lawn,"

and thus followed him on to the wood-entangled glen; where the growl of an animal caused a startle and placed the thumb on the fire-lock; the rustle of a leaf fevered the blood, and the snap of a forest-twig sent it tingling to his brain.

In trapping, Major Stoner used heavy steel-traps with two springs for beaver and otter, and occasionally single spring traps for muskrat, when their fur would pay. He had one trap four feet long made like the former, and designed expressly for bears. The jaws of this ugly looking customer, are crossed on the under side by spikes, which, when an animal is entrapped, are driven through the leg and render its escape impossible, unless it gnaw its own limb off above the fastening, and thus gain its liberty. To this trap is attached a chain five feet long, with two grappling hooks at the end, so shaped as to fasten either to a tree or the ground, and bring up the game. The trap and chain weigh nearly forty pounds. It required two handspikes with this trap beside a log, or in some other favorable position, to set it; on which account the wary hunter, when the jaws parted, used the precaution to place a billet of wood between them while adjusting the pan, lest through accident he -might find the spikes boring his own limbs. Nearly thirty bears have been taken in this trap, one-third of them by its owner. On one occasion a bear left its toes in the trap and escaped. For a view of this trap, doing execution, see cover of the book.

If hunting with a partner, each carried three beaver traps, and when traces of game were observed the traps were set in the water, and to them the animals were lured by a peculiar kind of bait called castoreum, or beaver-castor, remarkably odorous and attractive even in the water. That taken from one beaver was often the agent for exterminating several of its fellows. The usual time of hunting began with cool weather in the latter part of September, and lasted about two months, or until the streams and lakes became frost-bound and the hunter's paths obstructed by snow. The avocation was often renewed for several weeks with the breaking up of winter, the hunters at times starting upon snowshoes.

One of the individuals with whom Major Stoner sometimes hunted, was Capt. William Jackson, a man of courage and great muscular strength. On one occasion they set out for a hunt towards spring, traveling on snowshoes. Arriving at a place where they had to cross a field of ice, Jackson took off his snowshoes. With other indispensables he was carrying a sharp axe, and by some misstep he slipped and fell upon it, cutting himself under his chin in a shocking manner. His companion was two days in getting him back to the nearest settlement; which was in Chase's patent, now Bleeker, and about eighteen miles from where the accident happened. Leaving his wounded friend well cared for, Stoner retraced his steps to the wilderness; and Jackson sent James Dunn a few days after, to supply his place.

Finding an inviting prospect for their business on the Sacondaga, they began to set their traps. Hunters erected lodges for their accommodation at suitable distance from each other. They were small huts made of bark, peeled for the purpose, hence the necessity for an axe; besides, it was needed in preparing fuel, and also in making canoes; which they constructed by digging out a suitable log. Stoner and Dunn, after building huts, preparing for each a tree-canoe, and securing the pelts of some six or eight beavers, left their traps set and came out to the settlement on Chase's patent for provisions. They left their canoes in their absence, in a stream running from Trout lake into the Sacondaga. Their journey to obtain food, principally bread, as hunters could generally supply their larder with fish and wildgame, occupied only a few days; yet on their return they soon discovered that all was not right. The first trap they looked for was one that had been set by Dunn, on the outlet a little distance from the lake; it was gone.

Leaving their canoe in an eddy made by a deposit of driftwood, they landed and proceeded with caution up the creek. Arriving near the lake they heard a loud halloo! to which Stoner responded, although his companion thought it a loon. They now halted and awaited in silence, to learn what human voices besides their own, broke the general solitude of the forest. Soon the light dash of a paddle was heard, and immediately after an Indian in a bark canoe rounded a point of land, and a few strokes from his brawny arm sent his fairy craft into the outlet of the lake, beside, and very near the white hunters. Scarcely had the shoal navigator gained the point named, when another Indian, on foot, rounded the point also, and stood within a few paces of the palefaced strangers. At the feet of the Indian in the canoe lay a rifle and one of Stoner's traps. The hunter on shore was armed with a tomahawk, carrying in one hand the shell of an immense turtle, which the water had drifted upon the beach. Both parties evinced surprise at the meeting; but the Canadian trappers, who proved to be St. Regis Indians, appeared least at case.

Hunters, as a class, are very tenacious of their rights, and priority of occupancy usually establishes a claim to hunting grounds. Some of their traps had been left along the shore of the lake, in the direction from whence the Indians made their appearance; and after a most formal meeting the Johnstown hunters charged the strangers not only with appropriating their fur to their own use, but also their traps in which it had been taken. This was denied on the part of the accused, notwithstanding one of the traps was in their possession, and a fierce quarrel of words followed, graced by an exchange of harsh epithets until

"Revenge impatient rose."

The Indian on shore, who was nearest to Stoner, and on whom the latter vented not a few wicked sayings, declared that he had seen the traps alluded to at some distance above, and that they had not been molested. The white hunters insisted upon having the accused go back with them to see if the traps were as they had been left; this the other party attempted with sundry excuses to evade doing. The one on land then endeavored to gain a little distance under some pretext, and the other, saying he would go back as desired after gathering some bark, was observed to grasp his rifle, abandon his canoe and leap from it to the shore opposite Dunn.

At this instant the sharp cracks of a rifle was heard, and in the echo sent back by the hills came a yell from the quivering lips of the Indian on the lake shore, not unlike that of a savage in his last moments-the tortoiseshell falling unreclaimed from his hand. Indeed, human bones might have been seen on this spot long after the incident here related had transpired. Dunn was a man of small stature, but made up in nerve and agility what he lacked in physical strength; and seeing the Indian leap from his canoe, he sprang into it in his pursuit, thinking thus to cross the creek dry-shod and detain him. But the frail barque would not withstand his weight, augmented with his descent from the shore, and he went through it plump up to his waist in the water. Observing that his antagonist was fleeing, without waiting to extricate himself from his unpleasant dilemma, he raised his gun and snapped it, but as the priming had been wet by his fall, (percussion locks are an invention of a later date,) the trapper escaped. Had he looked back and observed the plight of his pursuer, he would no doubt have halted long enough to have sent a bullet through his head. Whether these two Canadians were alone on this hunt is not known, but their loud halloo would seem to indicate that they were not.

It was conjectured that the hunter who had just escaped from Dunn had fled directly to the Indians' camp; and with his trusty piece well loaded, Stoner left his companion at their own canoe to get dry as best he could, and being set on the opposite shore, proceeded in search of said camp. To seek this wilderness lodge alone, without knowing its whereabouts or how it might be guarded, was, after what had transpired, one of the most presumptuous and daring feats any individual could perform, as a concealed foe might have detected an approaching footstep and speedily revenged the fall of a friend; but the mission was just suited to the spirit of the trapper who had undertaken it, and onward he went, regardless of peril. In a secluded spot some half mile or more from its outlet and not far distant from the lake shore, he arrived at the object of search. It was a well built cabin for comfort, constructed principally of bark and set against a bold rock, so as to make that subserve the purpose of one wall. It had evidently been abandoned with precipitation, for it was not only cheered by a blazing fire, but in it had been left a beautiful bark canoe, finished and decorated in the most tasteful Indian style, a trap with one spring, a spear and a scalping knife. The latter instrument had no doubt been forgotten in the hot haste, attendant on removing fur, eatables, etc., as to indispensable an article to an Indian's full equipment for the chase would not have been left intentionally, unless it were a duplicate. The articles found in this camp became a lawful prize, according to the custom prevailing at that period among trappers, predicated on the rule of might and right. The Indians' canoe at the outlet of the lake was constructed of spruce bark, and made near there, but the one at their wigwam was of birch or some very light bark, and had doubtless been transported from Canada. Launching his trophied craft on the bosom of the sheen lake, this white forest son returned in it to his anxious companion.

The Johnstown hunters, reclaiming all their own traps but one, after continuing their avocation a while longer with some success undisturbed, indeed

Sole monarchs of those crystal streams,

set their faces towards home, to relieve the solicitude of their families and engage in cultivating the soil.

After another seed-time and harvest had gone by, Maj. Stoner, accompanied by William Mason, his brother-in-law, returned to the same hunting grounds that himself and Dunn had visited the preceding spring. Expecting again to renew the exciting avocation of a trapper, Stoner concealed his traps in the spring in some safe place near Trout lake, after greasing them thoroughly to prevent injury by rust. Loaded with provisions and Mason's traps, having said the necessary good-bye, the trappers buried themselves in the dark forest, the one familiar with the destination acting as pilot,

"Their clock the sun In his unbounded tower."

The Johnstown trappers struck the Sacondaga, where, discovering signs of a beaver, they set one of Mason's traps, and with a vigilant lookout for other evidences of the desired game, they proceeded on in the direction of Stoner's traps. Next day Stoner sent Mason down several miles, to see if the first trap set did not contain a beaver. He returned with an assurance that the trap was not sprung, and whether it had been or not he could not determine; but that on a log which crossed the river near it, he had noticed the tracks of a bear. Stoner thought it strange that a beaver had not sprung that trap, and still more wonderful that a bear should prowl around it; and the morning after Mason's return they visited it together. The instant the practiced eye of the senior hunter caught a glimpse of the footprint pointed out by his partner, provoked at his stupidity in not determining more readily what animal had made it, he demanded with a look of surprise, in rather ill humor and possibly at the end of an oath, if bears wore moccasins? Mason, who now rightly divined how the tracks came there, was almost as much surprised at his dullness of perception as his companion had been. On examining the trap, the discriminating eye of the master hunter also discovered that it was not in the position in which it had been left two days before, and it was conjectured that a beaver had been taken from it and the trap again set.

Stoner now proposed to Mason that he should remain concealed and await Bruin's return to obtain an interview; but e latter who was a very strong man, though timid, refused to remain alone. 'Well," said the former, "then I will lay near the trap and see what kind of a bear comes to it." He secreted himself, with the young trapper in his rear, and had been there about half an hour, when he heard on the opposite of the stream the muffled and cautious tread of the anticipated bear. At this most exciting moment might have been heard a noise in the morning stillness, resembling that of one iron slipping suddenly against another. The delicate ear of the visitant caught the sound, and listening, with head bent forward, surveyed with scrutiny every surrounding object. All was again silent as death, save the murmur of the rippling rivulet; and reassured that he was alone, and that the click which fell upon his acute organs was made by the leap of a squirrel, or some small animal that had suddenly broken a dry twig, Mason's bear, with an eye oft scanning the direction of the trap under consideration, stealthily approached the fallen tree, which served as a bridge to cross the limpid river.

The bear, which, as we have already seen, wore moccasins, was tall, very erect, with long, black straight hair, and was clad in a smutty blanket, strongly girdled at the waist. In one of its huge paws it carried a dangerous weapon sometimes called a tomahawk, and beneath the bosom of the blanket above the girdle, peered out the hairless tail and possibly hind legs of a muskrat. A rifle that seldom required a second poise at the same object, was steadily aimed at this old bear from the time of his appearance until he reached the centre of the log over the stream, when it suddenly exploded, and unable longer to retain an upright position, Bruin reeled and fell off with a death-groan, his life blood crimsoning the pure waters of the Sacondaga.

The traps of the Johnstown hunters were not again disturbed this fall, and at the close of the trapping season they returned home bearing a valuable lot of fur, among which there was at least one muskrat's pelt. The junior trapper, notwithstanding his bear had met with a fate "which," to use the words of his partner, "would let the succotash out of his stomach and the eels in," could not be induced to visit his traps alone in this excursion after the second day.

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