Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Story of Two Graves: Nat Foster and Peter Waters

peter waters by bridge DSCF0717In January 2010, the Weekly Adirondack reported that the St. Regis Mohawk nation agreed to be a “consulting party” for the East Side Pumping Station project, a station to be built along the Moose River behind the American Legion building in Old Forge. The tribe was contacted because a member was buried in the proximity, on the opposite side of the river, about one hundred eighty years earlier. That person, Peter Waters (a.k.a. Drid), was shot fatally by Nathaniel Foster, Jr. on September 17, 1833 at a location known alternately as Murderer’s Point or Indian Point, where the channel from Old Forge meets First Lake.

Less than twenty years (1850) afterwards, the events preceding the shooting and its aftermath were described in great detail, including trial testimony, by Jeptha Simms in Trappers of New York, which remains the primary source for that part of John Brown’s Tract history today. While the events surrounding the shooting have become a part of history and folklore, influenced by changing attitudes about Foster and toward Native Americans, another parallel story can be told about the graves of these two men. The remains of the two men who were opposing forces when alive, shared unsettled treatment after their burial.

After trapping the Fulton Chain region for years from his home in Salisbury, NY, Nathaniel Foster Jr. purchased in February 1832 an assignment of the lease of the Herreshoff Manor lands which had scant settlement since the suicide of its namesake in 1819. Two years earlier, John Brown’s heirs had leased the lands to Caleb Lyon, also a land agent for the owners, who in turn leased this section to David and Solomon Maybee. David subsequently sold an assignment of this lease to Foster who with his wife and son David occupied the Herreshoff Manor.

On the tract, three hermits lived in another house originally built by Herreshoff. Not far from the Manor on Foster’s tract, Peter Waters, a St. Regis Mohawk in his twenties, lived with his wife and two children. Foster, in his sixties, would sell staples and provide free milk during hard times to Waters’ family. Waters may not have been a proficient hunter or trapper. Simms’ narrative also describes several incidents concerning Foster and Waters where death threats and strong words crossed between the two or were told to them by third parties. Foster tried to file a complaint about Waters to a Judge who refused from fear, urging him to move from the Tract. This probably encouraged Waters, and perhaps from this experience Foster also, to remark on occasion there was no law on the Tract.

The Tract’s inhabitants often guided sportsmen from the foothills towns through the Fulton Chain lakes for hunting and fishing. On the evening of September 16, 1833, Foster arranged with two of the hermit neighbors to go hunting to Fourth Lake. Four other sportsmen also arrived that evening to join the party in another boat. The next morning, the 17th, Foster went to the hermits’ cottage to collect them for the outing. Waters was there also and determined to accompany them and continue on to Raquette Lake where he had left his traps. Waters and Foster renewed threats, then Waters tackled Foster and knifed him, attempting worse. The two were separated and with words later misquoted or modified with time, Waters said “you no live till Christmas” and Foster replied “you’ll do damned well if you see another moon”.

After leaving the scene and dressing his wound, Foster determined not to join the party which had now grown larger with two more boats, Waters and the new group. Four sportsmen in one boat, two hermits in another and Waters in his canoe, the convoy reached the end of the channel to First Lake. All but one in the parties noticed Foster at the point. Seeing Foster, Waters drew his canoe along side the two hermits’ craft to screen him, stood and raised his arms. Foster shot Waters, aiming between the hermits, and Waters fell backwards, head and shoulders in the water, feet and legs in the canoe. The parties, not wanting to touch the body, returned to the Manor and found Foster relaxing in bed. They asked him for help with the body which he provided.

Examining Waters’ body in the canoe, David Chase (one of the two hermits) found two entry wounds under the victim’s left arm with entry wounds under the right arm. Foster used a “double shooter”, a rifle type made for him by gunsmith Willis Avery of Salisbury. The rifle would shoot two balls at once, presumably helpful in hitting a moving target. It was reported in 1886 that Foster’s rifle was possessed by Anson E. Jones of the Dodge House in Prospect, NY.  Jones, admiring the weapon, stated he would hold on to the weapon “as long as he lived”.  He died of an undisclosed illness six months later at age 43.

Presumably, this is the same rifle obtained by the Oneida Historical Society in November 1897 and displayed with a reported second Foster rifle in 1950.  However, when recently queried about the display of the rifles, the Society informed me that the rifles have not been in their collection since the Society moved from the Munson-Williams building in the late 1950s to their present Utica location. Apparently, the rifles were on loan. At the time of the Society’s move, the Foster rifle (and there may only have been one) was purchased by the Adirondack Museum.

Circumstances about the killing reached Providence, RI by stage and Albany within weeks. The press referred to Waters as a renegade from his tribe and that Foster was “above dictation” from the Indian.  Foster was indicted in February 1834, jailed, and later that year was tried for murder in a trial that started on September 15 and lasted two days. In addition to witnesses to the event, other witnesses from as far as Lake Pleasant and Greig testified about Waters activities in that location.

These could have been some of the six witnesses from Lake Pleasant that Alvah Dunning spoke of to his nephew Albert 1901 that he had transported via lumber wagon to the trial on behalf of Foster. Dunning called Waters “the meanest Indian in the woods” who had left Dunning’s neighborhood after threats from white hunters.

Foster expected to be found guilty of murder but the trial took a precedent-making turn. Testimony proceeded with the circumstantial evidence linking Foster to the shooting since no witness would claim seeing Foster actually shoot. Though initially prohibited by the chief judge, testimony was permitted by the judicial panel by a 3-2 vote about not only Waters’ prior threats to Foster’s life and family, but also Waters’ behavior towards Foster that did not involve threats. Also permitted was testimony of Waters’ activities at Lake Pleasant which resulted in his expulsion from there. Apparently, no testimony about Foster’s prior actions against Indians was requested or given. The jury acquitted Foster to his great joy and surprise.

1840_nat_foster_jr_gravestoneAfter the trial, Foster returned to the Tract once to gather his family to leave in fear of retaliation from Waters’ tribe. Foster moved briefly to Boonville, then to Wilkes-Barre, PA to live with relations. Simms quoted a Foster friend that “his mind seemed never at rest after killing the Indian”. Foster and his wife Jemima returned in 1840 to live with their daughter’s family in Ava, NY.  After a period of rapidly declining health, Nat Foster died on March 16, 1840.

Thelma Edgerton, a descendant of Nat Foster, provided additional information by letter in 1953 to the Utica Daily Press. She claimed that Foster returned to New York after a hunt in Pennsylvania after collapsing with a chest pain while carrying a shot deer. Nat never recovered fully and decided to live with his daughter Jemima and son-in-law Daniel Edgerton. Their home was a stone house at Ava Corners, NY. On the day of Foster’s burial, Ava suffered one of its worst snowstorms in its history, making it impossible to cart the remains to the cemetery. The procession began with Foster in a hand sled but the high drifts prevented passage. Thelma’s grandfather Jedediah (Daniel’s brother), friends and grandsons carried the body on their shoulders to the Quaker Cemetery at Ava.

The body was interred in the Quaker style marked with only a short fieldstone marker. Many other graves at that cemetery were and remained unmarked. After Foster’s burial, Thelma claims that a “half-breed” named Joseph Torrance, “not knowing where Foster was buried, smashed all of the gravestones” thinking he must have gotten Foster. It’s known that the Quaker Cemetery suffered damage years later when a hired man unknowingly plowed into some graves before discovering he had run through a few. Unfortunately, a right of way was in close proximity made the cemetery susceptible to inadvertent invasion.  According to a Goodsell Museum research document, “a few years later (after 1840) a group of people with a grudge against the Foster family hacked away the headstones that identified the bodies there. This may be the same event recalled in Thelma’s letter.

On September 12, 1915, the “Old Stone Home”, no longer owned by the Edgertons, burned quickly from a fire that started in the woodwork behind the kitchen stovepipe. The report of the fire remarked that the building was considered the first dwelling erected (1825) in the Town of Ava.

After almost a century of Foster’s grave being known only to relatives and a few locals, a subscription was started in November 1936 by Foster’s great-great grandson, Jedediah Edgerton, joined by Mrs. E. M. Ringrose and Mrs. Mary Miller, for a suitable marker that still followed the Quaker discipline. The fund drive was successful and, at Ava’s “Old Home Day” celebration on July 3, 1937, a granite marker was dedicated and surrounded by a fence. The original fieldstone marker remained. The new marker’s inscription (commas added) is “Nat Foster 1766-1840, Pioneer Hunter and Trapper of the Adirondacks, Son of Nat Foster, a Rev. Soldier, Erected by descendants & friends.”

As I noted earlier, after having been shot Peter Waters lay motionless on his back in his canoe with his head and shoulders in the water. The witnesses did find holes in Waters’ shirt. The parties accompanying him did not want to touch the body and returned to their starting point at Old Forge pond. When they found Foster at the Manor, at their request Foster returned with them to where Waters lay. Foster moved the body back into the boat and covered it. On the following morning, they covered it more thoroughly.

A surviving witness to the shooting, Nelson Stimson, aged 90+, informed Byron-Curtiss that Foster covered Waters with a blanket and all left the Tract except Foster’s son David and Willard Johnson, one of the three hermits. A coroner came to the tract and supervised Waters’ burial by David and Willard on shore near the Old Forge dam. Waters’ wife witnessed the burial and cut from the blanket or shirt worn by Waters a piece with a bullet hole.

When the news of Waters’ death reached the St. Regis along the St. Lawrence, his brother-in-law, came to the Tract to remove Waters’ wife who was also his sister. He took up Waters’ remains and reburied him “in Indian Style”. Before covering the new grave, he also cut from the garment pieces with the remaining bullet holes and carried these relics home to St. Regis.  A rough-hewn cross was placed to mark the mound.  Byron-Curtiss wrote that the cross contained only the word “Pete”. It is possible more was added later by locals.

In a 1902 interview, Edwin Arnold spoke of his family moving to Herreshoff Manor three years after the Foster family left in 1834. Edwin recalled that Indian people rarely appeared on the Tract. He did remember “occasionally one coming down from the north from the St. Regis reservation.” Nothing was mentioned about Waters or his grave; but Edwin did recognize that the deceased was from that tribe.

For years, the grave remained a local curiosity invoking various emotions. Joel Headley remarked “A simple wooden cross stands over the grave, awakening sad emotions in the breast of the wanderer. If it were on an open bank it would not seem so solitary, but surrounded as it is by an interminable forest, it looks fearfully forlorn.”  In 1848, W. S. Benchley tried to find the grave but “it was so overgrown with grass and bushes” he could not locate it.  An 1859 report indicated it was buried near the “old forge” trip hammer and anvil. The “object of interest” was marked by a cross. In 1864, in addition to the trip hammer and anvil, “near the old dam is a rude cross which marks the grave of an Indian… Near by is a pile of stones where once stood a shanty occupied by a Canadian Indian (Waters).” In 1878, Herreshoff’s “old forge” remained the landmark for Waters’ grave.

Lyman R. Lyon had acquired the Foster tract, later called Forge Tract, in 1850. After his death in 1869, his estate sold the Tract in April 1871 to two men building a hotel on the promontory above Waters’ grave: Dr. George Desbrough and John Milton Buell. In January 1876, the tract was sold to Alexander Byron Lamberton.

“Wanderer” in 1875 noted “the bones of Old Pete, the St. Regis Indian, shot by Foster, lies near the mill, covered by wild ferns, and marked by a few rough stones.” He also spoke about the planned new state dam to replace the 1799 dam still powering a mill by the new Forge House. In 1880, the State appropriated ten acres of land from Lamberton who later received $4800 for the land and other damages. The dam tract included not only the dam but also Waters’ grave.

With a tradition of Forge House proprietors being appointed “dam-tenders” of the new Old Forge Dam, new Forge Tract owners Alexander Crosby and Samuel Garmon built a saw mill in the same location as Herreshoff’s forge. The mill was used to provide lumber for the owners’ major renovations to the Forge House. After this work was completed, George Deis with his son Charles leased, and later owned the mill. Grady wrote that “a large sales and storage yard gradually spread out along the shore adjacent to the mill”. Now begins a mystery concerning a second grave location that perhaps would not be resolved for about fifty years.

Joseph F. Grady notes a reburial. After the mill was built (1888 or later), “Many years later the grave was opened again and Drid, seemingly restless in death as in life was reburied in another grave about one hundred and fifty feet from the dam to avoid the desecration that would result from the construction and operation of a mill near his original place of repose.”  The cross ceases to be mentioned during the 1890s. In 1895, the grave suffered from “neglect” and it was “covered with a pile of lumber, the product of the sawmill still maintained there.” Byron-Curtiss wrote “If restored and marked it would be an interesting feature of the place.”

The next change in the treatment of Waters’ grave began in 1900. V. E. Kellogg, attorney for the state’s Forest, Fish and Game Commission, began in August 1900 a process that would require all squatting businesses on the Dam Tract to remove promptly. The dam was now the responsibility of a state official, John C. Woodruff. This resulted in George Deis & Son moving to Thendara, as well as Riley Parsons’ boat shop and others vacating the Dam Tract, or State Reservation. It would take another year for everyone to move their operations. It was hoped that the state would “clear up the rubbish and lay out a beautiful park.”  A 1913 Conservation Commission map of the State Reservation noted an “Indian Grave”.

Byron-Curtiss and Donaldson didn’t mention a reburial, but Donaldson mentions that a boulder surrounded by a rough fence marked the grave near the state dam, matching Grady’s description.  “Pete” was considered “restless” in 1921 when Forge House “guests who are traveling late at night have claimed they have heard strange rumblings from the vicinity of Pete’s grave.” An old guide claimed then that Waters was turning over in his grave at the site of sheer stockings and short skirts passing the grave to the Old Forge pond.

On Armistice Day in 1924, Bernard Hemmer considered Peter Waters, not killed in battle, “a man of historical importance to this section”. A photo shows Hemmer placing a small silk flag at the grave, marked by a boulder surrounded by a short wooden fence. The article notes “there has never been any formal recognition over this grave.”  This description also matches Grady’s description in 1933 around the time that the local community placed a monument at that location.

Adding speculation to whether Waters’ remains were ever relocated with the building of the sawmill, an effort by the Town of Webb in 1941 to certify the location of the grave requested the assistance of senior guides of the area living in Old Forge as early as 1872. Asked independently, Emmett Marks, Phil Cristy, William Weedmark, Ira Parsons, Dennis Fraula, Peter and Jack Rivet all agreed on the original, earlier location as the authentic 1833 grave. “All of them recall the grave as it existed on their arrival here. It was…a respectable mound, shrubbed and marked with two small boulders (not mentioned by Simms) and a wooden cross which bore the name of “Peter Waters” and the date of his death (also not mentioned by Simms). Throughout the years the action of the elements and other agencies caused the stones to be covered with shifting sand (sawdust?) while the cross slowly rotted away.”

Drid Peter Waters marker DSCF0716The guides remarked that when the community a decade earlier placed a marker on a nearby spot as the grave’s location, these guides “knowing better, said nothing” until this Town Board wanted an accurate determination. Each guide had shoveled sand and dirt to reveal the boulders “which had stood above ground before the turn of the century”.  Algonquin Maurice Dennis had for years performed rituals, placing cedar and birch boughs on the grave of his “racial brother”. Dennis may also have known this. It may have been one reason, besides employment, that he accepted the position of “Beach Watchmen” of the Old Forge Beach in 1936, a position he still held in 1941.

Town Supervisor P. W. Burdick and the Town Board wanted an accurate determination in order to mark it properly. Burdick “said that a large boulder will be placed at the head of the grave and a suitable inscription engraved on the stone to tell the story of Drid’s turbulent life and tragic death.”  Seven years later, David Beetle noted, in an interesting way, “Drid was buried a few yards below the dam. And-according to guides-is yet. There’s a big unmarked stone there” which the Town still hoped to engrave some day.

After beginning research in 1996 of Peter Waters’ grave site, Mike Caltagirone of Old Forge approached the Town Board about marking the site. His efforts were rewarded when a road project included plans to move the Covered Bridge at the dam. Mr. Caltagirone and the Town recognized the possibility of disturbing Peter Waters’ remains and contacted Marty Pickands, principal investigator, Cultural Resource Survey Program for the New York State Museum. Excavations by Pickands, Caltagirone, assisted by road crews and advised by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council began in July 2000.

The first location examined contained materials and artifacts determined to be from a possible forge location, not a grave. The second location produced possible remnants of a wooden cross, a copper loop (brace for the cross or a bracelet) and two “marker stones”. In addition, ashes, pieces of wood and partially preserved cedar leaves were found around the head stone. The grave, being located, was not excavated further. On October 1, 2001, a marker consisting of a large boulder and plaque was dedicated at Peter Walters’ grave attended by Caltagirone, Pickands, highway and tribal officials.  The inscription (commas added) on the plaque is “Peter Waters, Mohawk, Buried on this Site, Born 1809 Died September 17, 1833, Rateristaiens (“Law-They-Lee-Staienes). He was a hunter, trapper, guide on the “early days of the Fulton Chain”, a Mohawk from the Akwesasne Reservation. He was killed while hunting on his ancestral land, and this is his final resting place.”

Finally, my research on Waters’ grave resulted in some interesting questions. There was no mention by these early residents, the grave authenticators of 1941, that Waters’ remains were ever moved. This incorrect location must have been that marked by the Town in 1933, viewed by Byron-Curtiss (1895) and Grady (1931), noted by Donaldson in 1921 and commemorated by Bernard Hemmer with a flag in 1924.


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Since the early 1980s when Charles Herr purchased a camp in Inlet he has been interested in the history of the Fulton Chain region of the Adirondacks. He has been contributing history articles about the times and people of the Fulton Chain, covering transportation, steamboats, hotels and most importantly, the people to the Weekly Adirondack of Old Forge since November 2006. His ambition is to uncover local and regional Fulton Chain history about people and events prior to 1930 and little covered in the histories of the region. He is the president of the Inlet Historical Society and presents summer programs on Inlet history at the Town Hall in Arrowhead Park in Inlet, NY. His book, The Fulton Chain-Early Settlement, Roads, Steamboats, Railroads and Hotels, was published in May 2017. More information is available at . During 2023, Herr was appointed Inlet Town Historian.

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  1. […] Story of Two Graves: Nat Foster and Peter Waters […]

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