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
The American army now went into winter quarters at Valley forge, where the patriots bravely endured untold sufferings. It has been said of this particular winter that "These were the times which tired men's souls." The Patriot army was a mere handful of men compared to the British. The men were ragged and disheartened; many were barefooted. What American of the present generation is there, who has not seen from childhood illustrations of the pathetic scenes of Valley Forge? The members of the army had received no pay, and poor and scanty fare was their portion. The soldiers were inspired by a love for their country indeed.
During this trying winter, Mr. Foster was the life and soul of his section of the camp. He was never idle or despondent. No doubt his being always busy at some kind of employment, was the secret of his cheerfulness. He was always ready for a joke or a word of cheer. The horses of the army were being killed for food. He immediately set about and procured the hides for the purpose of making shoes for the soldiers. He tanned them in a rude manner; and with the assistance of some of his fellow soldiers, he made a passable moccasin, very acceptable to the barefooted men. It was while engaged in this occupation of cutting up hides and making shoes, that Washington, passing through the camp one day, and observing his industry and cheerful manner, uttered the remark referred to before; viz.: "If I had ten thousand such men, I would drive every British soldier from the American shores in short order." One day provisions failed to be issued at all. Some stores had been expected, but were delayed many miles distant, the wagons being stuck fast in the mud. The soldiers were disposed to grumble and swear at the state of affairs.
"Well, well boys," exclaimed the ever cheerful Foster, "we mustn't starve, and we shan't. Hunger will drive a man through a stone well, but we are not as bad off as that yet. I've got some scraps of horse hide left over from making shoes, and I guess it will make a soup for about ten or a dozen." The soup was made, and with a little "johnny cake" left over from the day before, Foster and his mess ate it with a relish.
"There boys, said he, as the meal was finished, "that's pleasanter than marching twenty-five miles over a frozen road, especially if you've got a sore toe, to kick the frozen lumps with."
This memorable winter, full of trials and sufferings, finally passed away; and preparations were begun for an active campaign. After the battle of Monmouth, the army was busy preparing for the capture of Stony Point. Hearing of the massacre at Wyoming Valley, a detachment of four hundred men were sent to the scene. Foster and his "forty," now reduced to less than thirty, were among the first to arrive. The sight they saw of slaughtered men and mutilated women, before they reached the fort, sickened them, but what they saw when they got to the fort, destroyed their feelings of qualmishness, and roused their indignation and wrath. The fort had been the refuge for the inhabitants of the valley; and thus crowded with human beings it had been fired by the savage foe. The fire, though not destroying the stockade, had brought death to women and children. The soldiers of the garrison, aided by the men from among the refugees, had evidently fought both the fire and the enemy to the very last man. Dead men, shot, scalped, and tomahawked, were found everywhere, both outside and inside the fort, but not one was alive to tell of the gallant resistance they must have made.
But the most awful sight of all, was the charred bodies of the women and children, lying in a heap of ashes and smoldering timbers in the center of the fort. They had evidently taken refuge in the soldiers' barracks; and as the men were shot down and killed, were left defenseless to be literally roasted alive. The bodies lay heaped together like so many logs, and were burned beyond recognition. Mr. Foster never forgot this scene. Ever afterwards, even in his old age, if he referred to it, it was with bitter wrathy and denunciatory language.
The winter quarters of 1779-80 were at Morristown, NJ. The soldiers fared better than at Valley forge, as they were better clothed, but provisions were scarce. A pint of corn was often their daily allowance per man; each mess put this together, and pounding it up in a stone mortar, they made a passable johnny cake. Occasionally a little meat would be issued, more often than not the flesh of the horse. Towards spring potatoes were issued, being procured from the interior. These baked in hot ashes were a welcome addition to the bill of fare. It was during one of Mr. Foster's excursions to the northern part of New Jersey in search of supplies at this time, that he captured a horse which afterwards played an important part in connection with the pretended desertion of sergeant John Champ, in an attempt to carry out the plans of Washington and Lee for the capture of Arnold, after his treason. In one of their journeys in search of food, Foster and his men made their way tot eh home of an old Tory named Piser. This man was known to smuggle provisions through the country to the Loyalists in new York City and Philadelphia, where they were sold to the British. Foster had heard of this man, and so this day, pushed on up the State until he arrived at his house. Leaving his companions in the yard, he boldly went to the front door of the spacious mansion, and demanded of the old darky who answered his knock, to see the master.
"Deed sah," said the darky, eyeing the unkempt and ragged patriot before him, "I reckon he don't see such as you."
"He don't eh?" answered Foster. "Well, you tell him to see me or I'll see him, and mighty quick, too."
Piser having heard the parley at the door, now came forward and mildly asked Foster what he wanted.
"To buy some provisions for the Continental army," was Foster's brief answer.
"I haven't any provisions," answered Pizer, "and besides," he continued, falling into the whining tone characteristic of miserly men, "If I had any you couldn't pay me for them."
"Couldn't pay you for 'em," said Foster, "I'll give you Continental money for 'em, and any patriot will take that."
But still Piser asserted that he had no stores about his place.
"Now see here," said Foster, growing impatient, "you've got plenty of provisions on hand and you know it. And if you don't trot 'em out, me and my men'll take 'em away." But still he declared he had none.
"You can look and see, you can look and see, but you will find nothing," said the old Tory.
"Yes, we'll look and see, and we'll find some, too," answered Foster, confidently.
He returned on his waiting companions and then began a search of the barns, smoke house, and other out buildings. But as Piser had told them, they found nothing. But there was an old block house a short distance format he other building, which had not been searched. It stood on a light elevation of ground, and apparently was unused. After giving up the search in the barns, Foster proposed investigating this building. At this Piser, who had followed them about the place, assured them, in the most courteous tones, and voluminous language, that that was wholly unnecessary. The block house, he told them, had been built in the days when attacks from Indians were frequent, but had been unused for a number of years. There was nothing in it, he assured them. It was empty and locked. In fact, he told them, it had been padlocked so many years that the fastenings had become rusted, and only the other day he had tried the key to it but it would not work, and he had let it go.
"Oh, I assure you, sir," said he, addressing Foster, "there is not the slightest necessity of searching the block house."
"On, no I don't suppose there is a bit o' use," said Foster, at the same time slyly winking to this companions. "Howsoever we might just as well, though;" he added, "I'd kinder like to see how the old thing looks inside."
Accordingly he led the way to the old weather beaten building and without troubling the owner for the key to the lock, which did not look so very rusty after all, they broke open the door with the butts of their muskets, when lo and behold, they found it filled with stores. There were eight dressed hogs, evidently ready for shipment; and a large quantity of corn and potatoes already sacked, also ready for shipment. And in one corner, safely stalled, was an elegant black horse as the men had ever seen. The old Tory had prepared to convey the provisions to the river that very night, and with the cargo he was intending to send the black charger to Gen. Clinton of the British army.
Further parley was unnecessary. The men returned to the barns in search of something in which to carry some of the stores away with them. They found two old carts, such as were then in use on many of the old colonial farms, the two wheels made from solid sections of wood sawed from a log, were placed at the center of a spacious box. The axle was hard maple. A rough pole or tongue made of a limb of a tree, extended from the forward end of the box to which the oxen were yoked. Although rude, these carts were very serviceable, and with patient but sure pulling oxen, large loads could be drawn on them. There was but one pair of oxen about the place. These the men yoked and hitched to one cart, and trailing the other behind, returned to the block house where they loaded both with as much of the corn and potatoes as could be piled on. Then placing four pigs on each load, "Just to bind the loads," as Foster explained to Piser, they were prepared to return to camp.
The old Tory was wild with rage as he saw them removing his stuff and preparing to make off with it. He cursed them and the whole Continental army, from Washington down. He cursed the spirit of independence which brought on the war, and he cursed those who were fighting to gain independence.
After Foster had stood it long enough he told the old man to "shut up," or he would make short work of him. And when a half a dozen of his comrades cocked their guns and pointed them at him, the warning was apparently too realistic, and he held his tongue, and remained as quiet as a lamb. When they were ready to start, Foster turned to Piser and asked him if he would take Continental currency for his stuff.
"No," shouted Piser, his rage bursting out again, "I'll take none of your d---d currency; it's no better than you d---d government, which will be out of existence in a short time."
"I reckon you'd think different if the light was a shinin' through your old carcass," said Foster. You're so pizenly mean I orter make it shine through ye right now. It would sarve you right. But seein' you're so mighty patriotic," he continued, assuming a sarcastic air, "I guess I'll let you go and take that black hoss instead." "Jedediah," said he, addressing one of his party, "bring out the hoss." The noble steed was led out, amid the frantic protests of Piser, who swore vengeance upon them for this last act of taking the valuable horse. But no attention was paid to him. Putting their shoulders to the trailing cart and speaking a "gee up" to the oxen they were off.
It was the last they ever saw of the old Tory. He watched them go, driving his sleek oxen and leading his magnificent horse, bearing with them provisions that were to bring a square meal to many a hungry soldier fighting for the cause of Freedom. But no such thoughts filled his mind. Only the loss of his property and the disappointment of not receiving a few pounds of English money for it, was what occupied his small soul. Cursing and shaking his fist at them until they were out of sight, he returned to his house to brood over his ill luck, and growl at the spirit of liberty and freedom God had planted in the hearts of his fellow man, if not in his.
The arrival in camp of Foster and his men with such a bountiful supply of provisions, was failed with delight. Although it was dark, fires were started, or those already burning made to blaze brightly. Potatoes were distributed, and a couple of the hogs cut up at once and passed around. All went to sleep that night with a full stomach, and a taste of fresh pork in their mouths.
The handsome horse Foster brought into camp was at once a center of attraction. He was led up to one of the fires and examined and admired. Foster explained and pointed out his good points. He declared that it was the soundest, fleetest, easiest riding and the most gentle "hoss" ever raised in the Colonies. How had had discovered all this during the short time the horse had been in his possession, would be hard to explain. But it us to be presumed that he felt obliged to impress upon his fellow soldiers the superiority of this particular horse which he had captured from a detestable old Tory.
"Why, boys," said he, addressing a fresh group of admirers, "its jest like riding in a rocking chair, a riding him bareback; what must if be when he has got a saddle on?" When asked what he was going to do with the horse, he said, "Why give him to the major, of course," meaning Major Lee. So, after had had himself partaken of a hearty meal of potatoes and pork, the former baked in hot ashes, and the latter toasted at the end of a ramrod, he made his way to the major's tent. Presenting himself to that officer, he told him in a brief manner of the day's experiences, and ended by telling Maj. Lee that he had brought the horse expressly for him. Without waiting for thanks he turned to go, when the major stopped him and said:
"My good man, don't you want to join the Legion?"--a body of men immediately connected with Major Lee.
"I'll do anything that will serve my country to the best advantage," was Foster's simple reply.
"Then you are just the man I want," answered Major Lee, quickly, struck with the answer Foster gave, "You may come to my tent tomorrow night at eight o'clock and bring the horse with you," and added, "he may be of great service to us at once."
Foster made respectful answer, replying that he would be on hand at the appointed hour, and withdrew. The next night at the hour appointed by Major Lee, Foster repaired to the major's tent, leading his black horse. He had carefully groomed the animal, and had procured an old bridle and saddle for it; for he felt sure that Major Lee was going to assign him a duty which would demand his own use of the horse that night. Such proved to be the case.
Arriving at officers' headquarters, he tied the horse to a sapling, and approached the sentinel. As the guard challenged him, a tall man with his face concealed by a cloak wrapped about his shoulders, spoke to the sentry, and Foster was allowed to pass. The stranger then beckoning to Foster, led the way into the officer's tent, where he threw off his cloak and revealed himself in the garb of a common soldier with sergeant's chevrons on his sleeves. The two men gazed at each other in mutual admiration. Both were types of perfect men, six feet tall and straight as arrows. It was the first meeting of Foster and Sergeant John Champ, though each had heard of the deeds of bravery and daring, and of the valor, of the other. Major Lee, at this moment, entered the apartment, and saluting him, the two stalwart patriots were seated. Major Lee then made known the plans of himself and Washington for the capture of the details of Arnold's treason, who, to satisfy his feelings of revenge for not receiving proper rewards for his brave service at the battle of Saratoga, would have betrayed his country for a few thousand pounds of English money. Verbose and complete accounts of it are found in the various histories of the United States, through, as usual, little justice is done to the fallen one, or for that matter, to any of the unsuccessful intriguers connected with the despicable plot. But is is not my place now to discuss the character or motives of Arnold, but to follow the adventures of the father of Nat Foster, in connection with the plans of Washington and Lee, for the capture of the traitor; and as I have not seen any detailed accounts of them in any of the histories of the Untied States, I will give them as they were told to me by a great-grandson of the elder Foster. The plans were to have a trusted soldier desert to the British, and going to New York City, there lay plans for the capture of Arnold and his return to the American lines. Sergeant John Champ was the man elected for this hazardous task; and it was to arrange for the initial step that the conference was now being held in Major Lee's tent. Champ had been previously made aware of the desperate work assigned to him, but Foster was still ignorant of any of it.
Seating himself, Major Lee addressed both of the men before him thus: "My brave men, you have an important duty to perform. The plans of Washington and myself must be carried out, if possible. Since the treason of Arnold we hardly know whom to trust, either among the officers or the men, but I feel safe in calling you tow men to assist us in bringing the traitor to justice, and if this is accomplished Andre may be saved. Arnold must be captured at his quarters in new York. John Champ is to turn traitor, desert his friends and join the British at their gun boats down by the harbor. The time of his desertion is to be this evening at midnight. He is to have, if possible, an hour and a half the start, before he is pursued by men who will think his desertion is sincere. And you, Foster," he continued, "are to head the Legion and start after him. You must remember that they will all think he is a deserter, that he is following the steps of Arnold, and the utmost caution must be taken by you to keep the men so far behind him that pistol ball will not reach him. Starting from here Champ will ride to where the British ships are anchored, where he will dismount and swim out to them. The chase you will give will be observed by the British, and Champ will be welcomed by them as a hero. He can then lay his plans for the capturing of Arnold."
After the plans had been deliberated and talked over, until each of the gallant men perfectly understood the part he was to play, they prepared to retire. Champ again wrapped himself in the cloak and passing the guard unrecognized, made his way through the darkness to his quarters. Foster also returned to his comrades, leaving the horse with lee's servant to give color to the idea it had been presented and accepted.
As midnight approached, Champ took stealthy leave of his sleeping companions, and made his way to a nearby thicket, where a little sorrel mare was tied, already saddled and bridled. Unfastening her he led her forth, mounted and started. The inside guards were passed in safety. Then starting his teed into a gallop, he rode rapidly towards the outposts. On the corner of a projecting rock stood a sentinel. As the horseman approached, there rang out on the clear night air the challenge: "Halt!--Who comes there?" The approaching horseman made no reply. Again the challenge was repeated, and again no reply. Still again the guard challenged, but on came the deserter, and crack went the guard's rifle as the brave sergeant passed by; a button was torn from his coat, so close did the sentinel fire. But still he dashed on and in another instant, ere the guard had time to reload his flintlock he had disappeared in the darkness.
The faithful picket immediately called for the corporal of the guard, and reported the affair to him, telling him, that from the man's actions and his daring conduct, he believed that it was no less a person than Sergeant Champ, and that he believed he was deserting to the British. The corporal immediately reported to the officer of the day what the picket had told him, and that officer hastened to lee's tenet with pale face and bated breath. Lee had lain down. Answering his servant's summons, he arose and met the captain.
"Major," exclaimed the excited captain, forgetting in his excitement to salute, "a soldier has passed the pickets and gone to the enemy."
Lee first reminded the captain of his breach of etiquette,and then told him that the thing he reported must be a mistake. "There can not be," he said, "another Arnold among my men; impossible, sir."
"Yes it is, sire," answered the captain, "Sergeant Champ, the bravest man among us, has passed the lines on a horse and deserted to the enemy." "I don't believe it," answered Major Lee, "there must be a mistake somewhere. Go back and investigate it, and don't disturb me, for I wish to sleep." But the persistent captain was not to be put off. "I say, Major," he said, getting excited and impatient, "we are sure it was Sergeant Champ. He was on a horse, and going towards Paulus Hook. He paid no attention to the challenges of the picket, but seemed determined to pass." But again Major Lee said there must be some mistake. "I don't believe Champ would desert," said he, "Leave me, for I want to get some rest and sleep after my hard ride of yesterday.' And with this injunction Lee turned to go to his apartments. But the faithful captain would not be put off by even this; and so, after considerable delay, Lee gave orders to call the Legion together, and sent an orderly for Foster. The Legion assembled and Foster, putting in his appearance, Lee summoned him before the troopers. He told him that he, knowing the roads, was to lead the Legion in pursuit and gave him the black horse to ride, saying it was a good horse and Foster having captured and presented it to him, might have the honor of riding him first. When they were all ready to start, Lee shook his hand doubtingly and again declared that he did not believe that it was possible that Champ could have deserted. Detaining the Legion again, he dispatched a messenger to Champ's quarters under pretense of making sure that he had really left the camp. While the messenger was gone Lee called Foster into his tent, and again went over with him the part he was to play in the ruse. Foster was to detain the troopers on the road as much as possible without causing suspicion. "Champ must not be overtaken," said Lee, "ride as near to him as is expedient, but for God's sake, and for the cause of our country, don't overtake him" Foster assured Lee that he would do his utmost to make the affair appear as it was intended that it should; while at the same time he would protect the life of Champ. They returned to the waiting men, who were in their saddles, anxious to be off. The orderly had returned, and now reported to Major Lee that Champ was missing from his place, and had undoubtedly deserted. Lee seemed satisfied at this report and convinced that Champ had deserted, he now seemed anxious that he be captured. He appeared so anxious that he detained the Legion another twenty minutes, giving further directions and suggestions as to the probable route taken by the deserter, and the course the Legion was to follow in pursuit of him.
At last all was ready, and at a few minutes past one o'clock, as long as he could well detain them, Lee saw the dragoons gallop off in hot haste after the supposed traitor. He returned to his couch and laid down, but not to sleep. His bravery and coolness on the battlefield could not be equaled, but the suspense he was now in was of a different nature. One of his bravest men was being pursued by his own comrades. They in their ignorance believing him to be a traitor, when in reality, no truer heart ever beat for the cause of American liberty.
Copyright © 1998, -- 2003. Berry Enterprises. All rights reserved. All items on the site are copyrighted. While we welcome you to use the information provided on this web site by copying it, or downloading it; this information is copyrighted and not to be reproduced for distribution, sale, or profit.