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
Early in 1775, Mr. Foster began to make preparations for going to war. The idea that war might possibly be averted seemed never to have been entertained by him. The words of Patrick Henry had so enthused the people throughout the land, that the men would swing their hats and exclaim, "Give me liberty or give me death." On the first day of February Mr. Foster gathered his family about him, and gave each an affectionate farewell, and blessing; for he was a pious man. He then shouldered his musket and started on foot for Boston. The family then consisted of Mrs. Foster and six vigorous, growing children. Elisha, the oldes, was eleven years old; Nathaniel, our hero, was nine, Zilpha, a girl of seven summers; destined in after years to play the most conspicuous part in an exciting adventure. The next youngest child was a daughter Ann, aged five. The next a boy of three, bearing the ponderous name of Solomon; the youngest child was a cooing babe named Sylby, scarcely a year old. Mrs. Foster and these six children did not see Mr. Foster again until the close of the war, over seven years and ten months after he took his departure on that frosty February morning.
All their earthly possessions at this time consisted of some ten acres of cleared land, one cow, a few sheep, two pigs, and a few fowls. And their struggle with poverty and actual want during the absence of the husband and father, was truly a gallant one. But let us leave them for a little, and follow the fortunes and experiences of the head of the family. The elder Foster's career in the war has such an important and indisputable bearing and relation to the subsequent career of his family, particularly that of his son Nat, that we will devote this and the next two chapters to an account of some of his adventures and experiences in the war. Journeying on foot he reached Concord the last of the month. As he plainly saw, the war was soon to break out; so he remained in the vicinity, exhorting and encouraging the minute men in their preparations for taking the field. In a couple of months after his arrival in Concord, he had the satisfaction of participating in the battle of Lexington, and firing his first shot at the Crown, as represented in the British troops that invaded Concord. He was in the thickest of the fight, and with other patriots, poured his deadly fire from behind stone fences and trees, into the ranks of the royal troops as they retreated towards Boston. He received two bullet holes in his clothes, and exultantly exclaimed as he discovered them,"I'll be able to fight a good many years if the redcoats only shoot cloth."
He immediately repaired to Boston, and presenting himself to Col. Prescott, was assigned by that officer to a prominent place among the patriot troops then throwing up entrenchment's on Bunker Hill. His bravery, skill and enthusiasm at this battle, made him ever afterwards a favorite with the officers and men ;of the American Army who knew or heard of his conduct on the heights of Boston. He did much by his own coolness and presence of mind to further the efforts of Col. Prescott, who, it will be remembered, preserved order, and kept up the courage of the raw American soldiers by his own calmness and courage. When the ammunition gave out, and the British commenced to pour over the breast works, Foster was the first to club his gun, and shouting "Give it to them, boys," commenced to club the red coated solders right and left. As we know, all the soldiers "clubbed" their muskets, and endeavored to resist effectually the on coming British; but is was a hopeless task. Foster and the few remaining with him fled down a desperately steep lace on the hill, and thus escaped through the dust and smoke of the battle. Foster was promptly offered a captain's commission in the Continental Army, as a reward for his conspicuously gallant conduct at this battle; but he declined the honor and responsibility.
Washington having been appointed in charge of the army of the East, commenced to fortify the heights around Boston, and Gen. Howe moved the Royal troops in the vicinity to a greater distance from the toiling Yankees. His treatment at their hands at Bunker Hill seemed to have taught him a lesson, so that he now appeared to have some little respect for the despised American pioneers. This movement on the part of the enemy was of course a subject of conversation among the American soldiers, and Foster in one of his characteristic expressions said, "Let 'em go: Let 'em go to Halifax," a settlement in Canada. This expression was taken up by the rest of the soldiers. It passed from mouth to mouth. Washington laughed as he heard of the apt way it was expressed. It soon became a byword in the army, and is now common property, "Go to Halifax."
Foster seems to have been in the army under Gen. Putnam. At all events, he accompanied the American army to new York, and, at the head of forty picked men, harassed the Britons from behind the rocks at Harlem Heights, effectually protecting Washington's retreat to White Plains. Several of the enemies' bullets passed through his clothing again; and one grazed his left side, butting the skin so that it bled profusely, and he was obliged to go to a surgeon. That officer put on his spectacles, and gravely examining it, remarked, "My good man, if it had gone a little closer it would have killed you." "Yes, yes," said Foster, in his indifferent manner, "and if it had only gone a little farther off it wouldn't have touched me." During Washington's retreat through new Jersey, Foster was one of his trusted men. For his enthusiasm, endurance and courage, he had no superior. Washington remarked that the enthusiasms and devotion to the cause, of such men as Foster, gave him courage to continue the struggle against such great odds. And on one occasion he was heard to say that with ten thousand such men as Foster he could drive every British soldier from the American shores in short order. Foster was one of the picked men who preceded the army to the Delaware River, and got boats in readiness to pass over. On the 23rd of December, 1776, Washington was seen on his knees asking divine aid and guidance for the then almost hopeless cause of his country. On the same day he called a council of officers to consider the feasibility of attacking the Hessians encamped at Trenton. But few advised it, when Foster came forward, and offered the efficient aid of his "picked forty," and it was decided to undertake it. Foster returned to his companions, and telling them of the acceptance of their services, exclaimed, "Boys we'll have a Christmas dinner off from Trenton, or die in the attempt to get it." History tells us of Col. Rohl's surrender, the capture of a thousand Hessians, and the safe retreat of Washington and his army across the Delaware again. The battle of Trenton and its results roused the colonies from despondency. Foster, for his bravery and efficient services on this occasion was again offered a captain's commission. But he again declined the honor, and this time in words which effectually prevented the office being tendered him again; he said to the orderly who brought the message to him. "No, I came to fight the common enemy of our country, and I can do that better with a gun that with a sword; I'll stick to my gun."
The following spring he was ordered with his "picked forty" up the Hudson to assist Gen. Gates. To him they rendered good service at the battle of Saratoga. Occupying a brow of a hill, they contributed materially to the success of the battle by their rapid and accurate firing. As the royal army retreated they were able from their position to pour a destructive fire into the ranks of the enemy. Every shot counted. Foster's exhortation to his men as they took their position on the hill was, "Now boys, don't waste a shot. Bring down a red coat every time you fire." We all know the results of that battle. Gen. Burgoyne surrendered, and the American marched into his camp to the tune of "Yankee doodle." It was at this battle that Arnold won laurels he ought to have worn; and if he had, his subsequent act of treason might not have occurred.
Before participating in the battle of Saratoga, however, Foster and his forty "dare devils," as they had come to be called, took a journey up the Mohawk Valley. They participated in the battle of Oriskany, having joined Gen. Herkimer's minute men at Fort Dayton. They then started leisurely back to Saratoga, when they met the detachment headed by Arnold sent for the relief of Fort Stanwix. They joined them, and returned back over the ground they had twice gone over, past the bloody field of Oriskany, and on to Fort Stanwix. They they started on down the valley again. It appears that they traveled by themselves rather than with the regular troops. It was during his journeys up and down the Mohawk Valley at this time, that Foster saw so much of the diabolical acts of the Indians in slaying and scalping the defenseless settlers, at the instigation of the British, and which caused him on his return home, to instill into the minds of his sons such a hatred of the race.
While he and his party were returning down the valley from Fort Stanwix, as they came where Canajohaire now stands, then almost a wilderness, their ascent of a slight eminence brought to their view on the north an immense smoke rising from the treetops. Said Foster, "I guess some of the red devils are putting in their hellish work." Sure enough, as they proceeded, they came in sight of a log cabin in flames, and an immense crowd of Indians around it. The little band of forty immediately prepared for a rush upon them. They crept cautiously forward under the cover of trees and bushes, until they could see plainly some two score of savages dancing about the cabin. They knew by their actions that there were people in the dwelling, and they were waiting for them to come out from the blazing building, when they intended to set upon them, and slay and scalp them.
"Attend to your priming, boys," said Foster, "We'll show the red cusses that the Yankees aren't all napping." He gave the word to fire, and instantly twelve Indians lay upon the ground in their death throes, and several were wounded. The Indians, though taken by surprise, rallied for resistance, and made for trees, from behind which they always fired. But before half a dozen of them could reach the shelter of tree trunks, Foster's men fired another volley into them. It was effectual. All signs of a resistance disappeared with the Indians' disappearance in the woods. The brave little band of soldiers now rushed forward to the house, which was burning furiously. The door and windows they found barricaded. It was but the work of a moment to smash in the door with a small log which lay handy, and the inmates were dragged from the doomed cabin none too soon. They were a Mrs. Failing and her three small children. They had all been overcome by the smoke and heat, and were insensible when removed from the burning house, the mother having been quite badly burned. Water brought from a neighboring spring in the hats of some of the men, and dashed in their faces, soon brought them to their senses. When they realized deliverance, their gratitude was beyond expression. The husband and father of the family was away fighting for liberty. Had this little band of patriots been but a few moments later in their arrival on the scene, his family would have been burned alive. The mother and children were taken to the nearest settlement, and placed among friends; Foster and his party remaining there for several days, fearing that the Indians might seek revenge by attacking the settlement. Word finally being brought them that a battle was likely to be fought very soon At Saratoga, they took leave of the settlement and the family they had saved, and pushing on, joined the American army, rendering the efficient service from their position on the hill, as mentioned above.
After Burgoyne's surrender it was feared that an attack would be made by the large number of Indians that the British had assembled, and a force of soldiers most familiar with the Indian mode of warfare, was dispatched in the direction of Lake George, to disperse a horde of the savages reported to be there. Foster and his forty were chosen, together with about thirty regular soldiers. Towards nightfall they surprised and dispersed a camp of about seventy-five Indians, as they were engaged in cooking their supper. The encounter was not all all a serious one, for the Indians at the approach of the detachment, stopped only to let drive a shower of bullets and arrows; and then turned and fled, leaving in the camp a quantity of guns, bows and arrows. As their fires were burning, the soldiers tarried at the camp long enough to cook rations for themselves, and rest a little before returning to the army. Foster and his men quickly made the acquaintance of their new companions who had been detailed to accompany them on the scout; and while seated around a fire eating their food, the gave their new friends some account of the experience of himself and his men up the valley. He related one after another of their adventures until he came to the incident of the burning house, and the rescue of the inmates. As he proceeded with the narration, one of the soldiers seated on a log opposite Foster, spring to his feet, and seizing Foster in his arms commenced to weep like a child. "That was my home, and those were my children," said he, "how can I ever pay you for such a humane act?" "Pay me," said Foster, "I would be worse than a heathen if I would not risk my own life, to save the lives of a man's wife and children from such a fate. But hold," he exclaimed, as Failing, who had regained his composure, was about to resume his seat on the log, "hold," repeated foster, "Swear to me, swear, that you will kill every red devil you get a chance to." And with bared head and uplifted hand, Failing swore to prosecute a war of extermination against the red man.
Foster now became very excited, and vehemently declared his hatred of the race. Addressing the group of men before him he exclaimed, "Boys, I've seen enough of their fiendishness in our excursions up the valley, to make me and my children forever their enemies." He then related how he had seen the soldiers scalped at Oriskany. How in one place they had come to a devastated home, with the women and children strew about scalped and bearing witness to the use of the tomahawk. The worst and most repulsive sight of all was the body of a pregnant woman ripped open, and the infant mutilated. "That is what I've seen," said he, "during the last few weeks, and can a man with a Christian heart allow such hounds of hell to go unpunished? No! The sight of a red skin kindles a fire in me I can't control, and which I don't want to either." In such a strain he continued talking for some time. His expressions of hatred of the British for exciting the Indians to hostility, was nearly as pronounced. Said he, "They are more to be despised than the Indians themselves. We'll lick the British, and then we can fight the Injuns, and when we are dead, our children will do the fighting for us." He declared he would teach his children to fear God, but not the face of clay. "Especially," he said, "the copper face of an Injun." Again can we see the reason his son Nat placed a low value on the life of any member of this unfortunate race with whom he came in contact, while threading his way among the forests of the Adirondacks.
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