Photograph by Nancie Battaglia
Legend versus real life in the southern Adirondacks
Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In 2016, historian Philip Terrie shed new light on a legendary southern-Adirondack figure.
If you’ve ever driven into the Adirondacks on Route 10, you’ve passed, a few miles inside the Blue Line, the Nick Stoner Municipal Golf Course, with its dramatic statue celebrating Stoner as a heroic frontiersman. Up the road, past the Caroga Town Hall, is the Nick Stoner Inn, a popular tavern. A few miles farther north, the highway threads between the Stoner Lakes.
Who, you might have asked yourself, was Nick Stoner?
The answer to that question has lingered in regional memory for more than two centuries and involves an interesting and perhaps controversial figure, a man whose story unites Adirondack history with that of the American Revolution while it meanders ambiguously between the realm of what can be established as verifiable fact and the murky waters of ethnocentric folklore. It’s also a story that shows that the interpretation and retelling of historic events is always subject to the cultural values, or, to put it less generously, the prejudices, of whoever is doing the telling.
Stoner’s first biographer and the author on whom all later researchers have largely depended was a 19th-century polymath from Montgomery County named Jeptha R. Simms. (Since Simms’s day, bits of the Stoner story have appeared in the collections of New York folklorists and have been elaborated on imaginatively by Adirondack writer Don Williams.)
Simms was fascinated by the tales of hunters, trappers and other backwoodsmen who settled the Mohawk Valley. Among these was Nick Stoner, whose expeditions led him into the southern Adirondacks. Simms’s Trappers of New York, first published in 1850, sketches out the tales of frontiersmen in the days when much of central and northern New York remained unexplored wilderness and was the contact zone between two apparently incompatible cultures: the Native Americans who had lived there for centuries and the Euro-Americans pushing relentlessly westward from eastern farms and towns. Violence frequently erupted, and the critical episodes in the Nick Stoner narrative involve precisely the sort of racially accented acts of aggression that characterized so much of early American history.
Nick Stoner was born in 1762 or ’63, perhaps in Maryland, or maybe New Jersey. The family passed through Manhattan while Nick was still young, and there he learned to read and write. At some point before the onset of the American Revolution, Nick’s father moved his family to the Mohawk Valley, to a log cabin that he built near Johnstown and the baronial estate of Sir William Johnson. That part of central New York was in the process of early Euro-American settlement: hardscrabble farms and tiny villages—some with mills, blacksmiths and taverns—punctuated a landscape that had been inhabited, and occasionally transformed, for centuries by a succession of Native cultures. The Indians were not all gone, but warfare, disease and fraudulent treaties had introduced their inexorable decline.
Thus began Nick’s life on the frontier, interrupted, significantly, by service in the Colonial Army during the American Revolution. He began this as a fifer, only 14 or 15 years old, in a New York company. Enlisted in the same regiment with his father and brother, Nick was wounded at the second battle of Saratoga, in 1777. After Yorktown but before the treaty that ended hostilities, Nick’s father, Henry Stoner, mustered out and returned to the Mohawk Valley, while Nick remained in uniform, stationed at Kings Ferry, a strategic crossing on the Hudson, between Verplanck and Stony Point.
Here the story gets sticky, encumbered with the bias inevitable when two cultures clash. It’s limited by the fact that the only written account of key events is by Simms, who interviewed Stoner himself and bought without reservation, and may have added to, any inclination Stoner harbored to cast his behavior in the best possible light.
One spring day, wrote Simms, Henry Stoner was working on his farm when “a party of seven Indians” from Canada attacked him. His “cry for mercy was unheeded, and the assassin’s keen edged tomahawk descended with a crash, through an old fashioned beaver hat and what resistance the skull offered, and penetrated the brain.” Scalped and left barely alive in the field, Henry died in the arms of a neighbor. According to Simms, it’s a tale of “hellish cruelty inflicted by [English] hirelings.”
By the time Nick returned home, his father’s killers were long gone, and he settled down, remorsefully no doubt, as a farmer and citizen. He married, served as a deputy sheriff, and roamed the southern Adirondacks (not yet thus named) as a trapper and hunter, penetrating as far north as Lake Pleasant, exploring the unmapped and virtually unknown recesses of what would eventually become Hamilton County.
One day in 1785 he was drinking in a Johnstown tavern and encountered a group of Canadian Indians. Unprovoked, he insulted one of them with a racist slur. A fight ensued, from which Stoner emerged the winner. He then came upon another Indian, who, according to Simms, was passed out drunk. Stoner, probably drunk himself and excited by the fight, ripped an earring from this fellow on his way back to the bar. There stood yet another In-dian who, on hearing Stoner’s name, boasted that he was the very man who had scalped his father and left him to suffer and die in a cornfield. “Stung to madness by the thought of being in the presence of his father’s murderer, he sprang to the fire-place, seized an old-fashioned wrought andiron, and with the exclamation, ‘You never will scalp another one!’ he hurled it, red-hot as it was, at the head of the warrior.… Striking the object of its aim in the hardest part across the neck with an indelible brand,” the andiron “laid him out at full length upon the floor.” He wasn’t killed, but it was a painful, threatening wound.
Before even more damage was done, a couple of Stoner’s friends hustled him out of the tavern, while the Indians, including the one assaulted by Stoner, made their escape and hit the trail heading north. Meanwhile, someone filed a complaint against Stoner, and he was arrested, whereupon a mob of his friends quickly stormed the jail and freed him. Throughout Simms’s account of these events, the implied assumption is that no reader could ever question the violence or the certainty that Stoner’s Indian antagonists deserved whatever they received at his hands. The injured Indian disappears from the record. Perhaps he died from his wounds, perhaps he made it back to Canada.
Another nasty encounter occurred in 1822, this one, too, involving alcohol. If we can trust Simms, Stoner found an Indian in a Lake Pleasant tavern who had stolen one or more of his traps. The inevitable confrontation led to a fight, in which Stoner smashed a liquor bottle over the Indian’s head. Again, onlookers intervened and prevented worse.
The clichéd Indians with whom Stoner had contentious and violent relationships all disappeared into nameless obscurity, while Stoner himself achieved status as a local hero. More than two centuries after these events, his name is on the map, and he’s honored with a memorial statue recalling his skills as a trapper and woodsman. In his day, he was a respected and prominent citizen of his community and Jeptha Simms rehearses his adventures as examples of typical frontier heroism. What are we to make of this?
In a classic work of scholarship in American studies, The White Man’s In-dian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present, Robert Berkhofer observes, correctly I think, that when white people write about Indians, they tell us a lot more about themselves than they do about the Indians. Throughout our literature, Berkhofer sees two nearly inevitable caricatures of Indians: one is of the ruthless, bloodthirsty savage, the other the noble primitive, a childlike figure at peace with nature and innocent of modern corruptions. These stereotypes, projections of white anx-iety or fantasy far more than they are depictions of reality, are endlessly replicated in the popular novels of New Yorker James Fenimore Cooper, writing roughly a generation before Simms. Both of them, of course, are cartoonish and reductive, erasing the complexities, ambiguities and paradoxes certain to be found in any human society.
In Simms’s account of Stoner and his violent encounters with New York Indians, he is always the injured party, seeking a justifiably violent revenge, while the Indians are guilty of murder or theft or some other offense. It’s a neat, easily digestible frontier drama: Stoner is the hero, while the Indians (who are never allowed to speak other than by grunts or dime-novel dialect) are nothing more than convenient caricatures. What really happened in those barroom brawls? We’ll never know, but whenever we see a statue of some heroic white guy known throughout the vicinity for having prevailed in matters of frontier violence, perhaps we should ask, is there another side to this story?
Philip Terrie, author of Contested Terrain: A New History of Nature and People in the Adirondacks (Syracuse University Press; second edition, 2008), has been an Adirondack Life contributor since 1973.