History From America's Most Famous Valleys
of Nat Foster,
Trapper and Hunter of the Adirondacks
by A. L. Byron-Curtiss
Utica, N. Y.
Press of Thomas J. Griffiths,
131 Genesee Street, 1897
I will now devote a couple of chapters to the relating of stories and anecdotes of Foster's life while hunting in the Adirondacks, as they have been preserved in the memory of his own family.
Countless stories of his life and adventures may be had at any time without the asking from the mouths of old guides and residents of the region. Many of them are marvelous; some of them are stupid and very thin on their face. It was always my practice to take them with "a grain of salt and and ounce of consideration." When I set out to write a history of Foster's life, it was my determination, which I have adhered to, to produce only such stories as were authenticated by a member of some branch of his family; but I must confess that even some of these authenticated and thus reliable stories staggered me by their startling, and at first sight, unreasonable statement. So the reader must not be incredulous at the sometimes sudden surprises and unexpected results of Foster's experiences, as perhaps you may already have been. For it was over half a century ago that foster hunted and trapped, when the Adirondacks were fairly teeming with all kinds of game common to that region in its original and natural state. The wilderness was really and truly a "forest primeval." Foster was among the first of the white men who invested it for the pecuniary gain its wealth of animal life afforded. The dusky Indian, it is true, had hunted and trapped there for centuries, but apparently had made no impression on the multitudinous and varied kinds of animal that abounded. They were many, and nearly all were valuable in one way or another to a hunter like Foster, who followed the fortunes of the chase for nearly half of every year, as an hones and agreeable means of contributing to his support.
There were the small animals like the martin and fisher, together with the fox, that were caught with traps and dead falls anywhere in the woods. Then there were the otter, beaver and muskrat, caught with steel traps along streams and around lakes and ponds. There animals were valuable because of their fur. The larger animals were desired either because of the bounty paid by the towns and the state for their destruction, or because of the value of their carcasses for food. It was with the larger game, like the deer, moose, bear, panther and wolf, which were as plentiful as the smaller game, that Foster had his most exciting and interesting experiences. And it was about such adventures as I have stated, that I was the most surprised and doubtful. Yet, upon second thought, we can see it was nothing strange when these animals cut up the most wonderful freaks with him when he trespassed into their lairs in pursuit of them.
In this connection I say nothing about another creature that would not justly come under the head of the quadruped, but which nevertheless often made things lively for our hero as he was threading the forest after game with four legs. I leave the reader to discover its species. It often figures in his most exciting exploits in the Adirondacks, as it already has in one of two of his adventures as a lad and as a young man.
One time as he was hunting in Herkimer county, following up the banks of spruce creek, he came upon two noble bucks browsing upon the tender shoots of bushes that overhung the banks of the creek. He readily shot one of them, but the other bounded off into the brush. Determined to secure it, he dragged the carcass of the one he had, out of the water onto the bank and then followed the trail of the other deer in hopes of starting it again; after going a mile without success, he abandoned the attempt, and returned to secure the one he had shot. Imagine his surprise upon gaining the bank of the creek again to find the deer gone. It took him but a moment, however, to ascertain its whereabouts. It had been dragged into the bushes and carefully covered with dead leaves. His practiced eye told him at once that it was the work of some wild animal, probably a panther. He resolved at once to fool the beast, and secure it s own head in the bargain. Quickly removing the carcass of the deer, he replaced it with pieces of an old rotten log, then having made everything about the heap as nearly as possible as it was before, he concealed himself in a clump of bushes near by and waited to see what the results would be.
In a short time his patience was rewarded by beholding an old she panther with two young ones approaching; coming to within a few rods of the pile of leaves, she halted the young ones and advancing cat like, to within twenty feet of the pile, gave a spring, landing squarely on the pile of leaves and commenced to scatter them in all directions. In a moment she had uncovered, not the toothsome carcass of a sleek deer, but an old rotten and decayed log.
"She was the most disappointed and astonished animal I every saw," said Foster in relating the adventure. "She stood still and looked first about her, and then at the log. She would sniff the air and then the billet of wood she stood on, and the poor kittens a few rods away, were all the time looking on, in wonderment, I suppose, at their mother's strange actions. Suddenly she seemed to discover me, for she screamed as they always do, and crouched down to spring in my direction. I thought now it was about time to begin action, and so gave her a charge between the eyes; she never even moved from the log, but dropped dead where she crouched. I then easily got the kittens and think I did a pretty good afternoon's work, getting a deer and the three panther dead, which brought me a good bounty."
Foster's stories of unexpected good luck, and of "lucky shots," whereby he would secure a large and varied amount of game, are remarkable. One of them relates to the bagging inside of a couple of hours, of two wolves, five panthers and one deer. This wonderful achievement was accomplished when he was tramping through the woods near Panther Lake.
As he was making his solitary way through the forests, his course was arrested by a deer coming through the brush pursued by a wolf, or perhaps by a whole pack. He allowed the deer to cross the trail without firing, but waited with cocked rifle for the appearance of its pursuers. He was obliged to wait but a few moments when a couple of huge wolves, their tongues hanging out, their breasts and shoulders flecked with foam, came crashing into view. The foremost brute no sooner leaped into sight than a bullet from the Nimrod's rifle stopped its course forever,and it was but an instant more ere the other was similarly dealt with.
Here was luck, the scalps of the two wolves were worth sixty dollars. With a "humph" of satisfaction, Foster carefully reloaded his rifle with a patched ball and setting it within easy reach, commenced to skin the wolves. As he was busily engaged in this occupation his quick ear detected the approach of wild animals, and looking up, he saw not five rods from him a female panther and two half-grown ones. They had been attracted to the spot by the smell of fresh meat. It was but he work of an instant to snatch his rifle and send a ball through the old one's head; then he quickly dispatched the two young ones.
He now had more game to skin, and so he set to work to finish the wolves. Being an experienced hunter he did not relax his vigilance in the least, for he knew that when the mother panther was around there was likely to be in the vicinity her mate with a part of the family, so setting his rifle within his reach he busied himself with the work of skinning the animals, until, as he expected, he heard another cracking in the bushes, and looking up, he beheld, what he afterwards declared to be the biggest panther he ever saw in his life. It was followed closely by another half grown one, like the two he had already shot. They were both making towards him on a trot, with their necks stretched out and heads erect, presenting excellent shots. In fact, both opportunities for shooting being so good, he was in doubt as he picked up his rifle again which to shoot first; but as he raised his gun the sight covered the young one, and he let drive at it, dropping it in its very tracks. The old one gave an awful scream and sprang onto the inclined trunk of a half prostrate tree that was but a few feet away. As it ran up the trunk of the tree it presented a fine shot,and Foster, who with his usual rapidity of loading, had quickly dropped into his gun a charge of powder and a ball from between his fingers, now gave him a charge; to his astonishment the beast kept on his course up the tree. At first he thought he had missed him, yet wondered how that could be, as his rifle never made a miss. Before he had time to fire again, the panther had run to the end of the tree and dropped off onto the ground, where it lay motionless, in fact dead. An examination showed the hunter that he had shot it, as he had intended, through the head,and only muscular action could have carried it to the end of the tree.
Foster now surveyed the field of battle and counted up the spoils. He had two dead wolves, and five panther carcasses, as a result of the deer chase. He now bethought himself of the deer, and recollecting that he needed fresh and edible meat at his camp, he resolved to possess himself of the deer. He knew if it had been run far by the wolves, before he rid it of those troublesome enemies, it would be resting somewhere on the shore of the lake. Accordingly he set out on the trail the fleeing deer had made, and as he had expected, the deer was lying in the bushes on the lake shore. It started up on his approach, to flee away. Putting away the thought of pity, which prompted him to spare the timid creature when it crossed his trail, he brought it down with a charge from his rifle.
He dressed the deer, and then returned to the scene of the action and finished taking the hides from the panthers and wolves. By the time he had gotten all of the spoils to his camp that night he was both hungry and tired. He started a fire and soon had some choice cuts from the deer roasting on a spit, and as he ate the savory meat seasoned with a pinch of salt, he had no regrets for the fate of the poor deer that had brought him such good luck that day.
Foster himself said that in all of his trapping and hunting experiences he was frightened but once, and that was one time when he came across two young bear cubs in the woods. They were a lively pair, and when the hunter discovered them, were crawling about on some logs, eating red raspberries from bushes that overhung the logs. Foster decided not to molest them for the time being, but wait for their parent to put in her appearance. So he seated himself on a convenient log under the shade of a friendly tree, for the day was sultry, and before he knew it, dropped off into a doze. While thus drowsing the old bear he was to watch for appeared on the scene, and espying the nodding hunter she ambled towards him, and coming up to the end of the log on which foster was seated, she placed her immense forepaws on it and uttered a fearful growl, at the same time giving the log a shake which nearly precipitated the hunter to the ground. It is said that dreams are instantaneous impression of the mind. Whether it was a dream or not, Foster thought for a moment that the bear was on his back, and in his consternation and fear he leaped, he said, at least a dozen feet before he discovered that the bear was not on his back but many feet away from him. Becoming thoroughly awakened, he ceased his inglorious flight and, turning, sent a ball from his trusty rifle through her heart.
It is believed that this was the only time he was ever caught really "napping" by either man or beast. According to his own statement it is. And certain it is that the wily Indians who ordinarily was so shrewd, was often outwitted by this keen and sharp pale face, and was never caught napping by them.
It is related of him that he was once attacked in the forests by an Indian intent on killing him. They both took refuge behind trees, and from their respective positions kept up a fusillade all the afternoon without either gaining the advantage. As it became dusk, the shrewd old hunter removed his coon skin cap and his coat, and arranging his rifle with them so that it looked like a figure of a man, he cautiously pushed the effigy out from behind the beech tree which sheltered him. The cap and coat had not been in the view of the savage a quarter of a minute before he shot at it, supposing in the dusk of the evening that he had put a ball into the body of his antagonist. To complete the deception, Foster gave a death like groan and caused the cap and coat to sway back and forth a moment and then to fall slowly to the ground. The Indians, now supposing that he had surely brought down his man, gave a whoop of triumph, rushed forward from his tree, knife in hand, to scalp the fallen foe. The was what Foster wanted. The poor Indian had not proceeded a rod from this tree before the crack of the hunter's rifle undeceived him, if undeceived he could be, for a bullet had pierced his brain.
Another time as Foster was traveling through the wilderness in the vicinity of Indian river, his dog Watch, manifested some uneasiness. Like his mother Rose, who was long since dead, Watch could scent either four legged or two legged game at a good distance. On this occasion he scented game, but of which kind his master was not sure. From the dog's actions, and from the fact that he was laden with furs, he suspected it was an Indian intent on killing him and taking his pack.
Coming to a little hill he made a detour around it and came up again on his own trail and found it was as he suspected. From tracks in the light snow he saw that he was being followed by an Indian, for in addition to his own tracks there were those of another with the telltale "turn in" impression made by an Indian foot. He waited for nothing more, Calling his old coon skin cap into use again, he placed it on an old log that crossed his trail, so that the top was just visible to one approaching, thus presenting the appearance that the owner and wearer was concealed behind the log. Then with his dog he crouched behind a hemlock and waited for the Indian's approach opposite.
In a little while he saw the Indian making his way along, studying the trail. He had followed Foster's trail around the hill and now came upon the old trail again. He seemed a little puzzled as he now came to the three tracks in the snow, and stopped and looked cautiously around. His eyes finally rested upon the fur cap appearing just above the top of the log; supposing it to be on the head of the owner he raised his rifle, took deliberate aim and fired. Simultaneously with the discharge of his won rifle, however, another one sent forth its small thunder, and the merciless Indian fell back as if kicked dead by his own gun.
The Sacandaga river was the scene of several of Foster's encounters with the Indians. As we have seen, when he was only twenty-one he had such a serious brush with them on the river that he "frightened" them away. But his victory on that occasion did not prevent many of their fellows from bothering him afterwards.
One time he was operating along the west branch of the river, having traps set in the woods for mink and fisher, and along the banks of the stream for otter and muskrat. He also had a number of traps set around the Trout lakes, where he was having wonderfully good success in taking fisher and otter, tighter with a beaver or two every night from the colonies that were at the outlets of the lakes. Finally his success here ceased, and every morning his traps would be empty, but with every evidence of having done service during the night. So he determined to watch for the intruders and settle with the thieves.
There was a foot bridge across the river about thirty rods below where the outlet of the lakes emptied into the river. It was nothing but the trunk of an old tree, but it had fallen in such a convenient position across the river as to be appropriated as a foot bridge. Foster always crossed upon this in going to attend to his traps at the lakes, and he presumed those who were stealing from his traps there, would also. So, making his way to the river one morning, before the break of day, he concealed himself behind the upturned roots of the prostrate "monarch of the forest," which were on the side of the river towards the lakes. From this position he could wait and watch for the ones who would be coming to inspect his traps along the outlet stream at the lakes.
Before it was fairly light he saw two figures coming stealing along towards the log across the river. Said Foster, in relating the adventure, "I watched 'em as they came towards the bridge and felt sure they were the ones who had been stealing from my traps. They were Injuns anyhow, I was sure of that. They came onto the bridge over the flowing stream and I raised my rifle and covered 'em with the sight, and thought -- how easy it would be to shoot both of 'em at once. But as I was thinking thus they both had got to the middle of the log, where they appeared to get dizzy, for they both fell into the stream below. And," he concluded with a significant shake of his head, "they didn't bother my traps after that."
When trapping in this section of the country after the Upper Mill was built, which was situated about two miles from the place where the above tragedy occurred, Foster would make his headquarters with the operators of the sawmill, as it was far better than camping in the woods. The mill pond also contained otters and muskrats to be trapped and snared.
Foster's reputation as an Indian slayer was well understood by both white men and red men who lived in the woods. The former took it as a matter of course, and from the old trapper's reluctance to talk about these events of his life they seldom mentioned them when in his presence. The Indians, on the contrary, and as we might expect, resented this thinning out of their race by "Ole Nat Foster," as they called him. Many were the Indians who set out on his track to shoot him only to be shot themselves.
One morning as Foster was standing by the mill in question, engaged in conversation with a group of mill hands, a ferocious looking Indian came into the clearing and approached the men. He was clad in the regulation hunting dress of an Indian, which was scarcely a dress at all, for it consisted of only a pair of short buckskin breeches, which did not cover the loins, a pair of leggins and moccasins. A belt encircled his waist, supporting the breeches, and carrying a knife and hatchet. At his side hung a powder horn and bullet pouch. A very dirty blanket was drawn about his bare shoulders. The only attractive thing about the dusky warrior was a bright new rifle he carried.
Coming to the group of men he addressed them in a most haughty manner, as if desirous of impressing them with the fact that he was especially bedecked and armed for the warpath. The first think he said was to inquire if "Ole Nat Foster" was about. The men were a little amused but made no answer, looking to Foster to reply.
Foster gave a significant wink to his companions and told the dusky stranger that he was not, but had already gone to look after his traps.
"Where be his traps," asked the Indian, a gleam of anticipation coming into his eye.
"Wal," said Foster, "his line o' traps begin over thar, by the end of the pond. But say," he added as the Indian turned to go, "that's a fine gun you've got thar, let's have a look at it."
It was indeed a fine looking firearm and an Indian owner would naturally be anxious to show it. But he shook his head, and turning again to go, said, "No, me go and shoot ole Foster first, then I come back and show you gun."
"But can you shoot," asked Foster, "old Foster is a dead shot, and you want to look out."
"Oh, me good shot, me not afraid," answered the Indian, confidently.
"Oh, pashw," said Foster, "I'll bet I can beat you, let's have a try."
"You good shot?" asked the Indian, as he eyed the told trapper curiously.
"Well, just try and see who is the best," answered Foster.
At this the Indian appeared inclined to try; but recollecting himself, he shook his head and repeated that he must first go and shoot old Foster, when he would return and try his hand with the stranger. At last, however, Foster and his companions prevailed upon the Indian to shoot with Foster and exhibit his superior skill and his rifle, of both of which he seemed very vain.
A proper distance was at once paced off and a target set up, and the Indian took his place for the first shot, never suspecting that his rival was the very man he was so desirous of shooting. He made his shot showing fair skill as a marksman.
"Now," said Foster, as he took the rifle from the Indian, "you go and plug up the hole you made, so there wont' be no mistake by my possibly shooting in the same place."
Without the least suspicion the Indian started for the target. It was but the work of in instant for Foster to load the rifle and the next instant, before he ever reached it, the Indian was bored between the shoulders with a ball from his own rifle. When the Hamilton county officials investigated the matter, the affair was reported as "accidental." Foster being unused to the gun had handled it in such a way that it was discharged, and of course the Indian received the charge. This seemed to satisfy the authorities, and Foster was never brought before a court for the deed.
An interesting story is told in Simms' book of the dog Watch, mentioned in this chapter. The animal figured in many of Foster's exploits during the first few years of his master's residence in Salisbury. The dog was dammed by the bitch Rose, which was with him on his trip to Piesco Lake the time he captured little Mary French from the Indians, and s"sent her captors back to Canada," as he expressed it.
Watch was as fond of hunting as was his master, and often went on a hunt for himself. "One day the bay of this sagacious animal" says Simms, "called the owner to a retired spot in the forest, where he discovered Watch holding a moose by the nose, keeping his own body between the forelegs of his adversary to avoid the heavy blows aimed at him with the antlers of the enraged animal, which formidable weapons weighed nearly thirty pounds.
"Upon coming to the spot Foster sent a bullet into the head of the moose,which in its death struggle dashed the dog off with a terrific force, throwing the brave dog against the trunk of a tree. The print of the dog's teeth remained upon the nose of the moose, but he himself appeared to be dead. Foster took off his coat and spreading it on the ground, laid his canine friend upon it. About this time a partner in the hunt arrived upon the scene and they prepared to dress the moose.
"With a heavy heart Foster began to whet his knife, when his comrade noticed a twitching of the muscles about the dog's neck, and he tried to cheer Foster by telling him the dog would recover. The old hunter shook his head doubting and set about the task of getting the moose ready to hand up and skin. As his master was engaged in this occupation, Watch raised his head slowly from the ground; at this Foster at once left off his work and began to caress him. Watch returned his attention gratefully, until his eye rested upon the body of his fallen foe, when springing to his feet he seized the lifeless moose by the throat from which he could only be removed with considerable difficulty. This restoration of his favorite dog to life and vigor caused Foster more real joy than the killing of a dozen moose could possibly have done."
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