Ephraim Webster: Part 1

 Table of Contents

  1. Childhood
    The Revolutionary War
    Post Revolutionary War
  2. The Birth of a Community
    Webster’s Wives
    The War of 1812
  3. Webster’s Square Mile / Webster’s Half Mile
    Ephraim’s Death
    Rand Tract and Webster’s Pond
    Historical Legacy
    Works Cited

Childhood

Ephraim Webster, Jr. was born in, what is now known as, the Town of Hampstead, in the county of Rockingham, in the state of New Hampshire, on June 30, 1762.1  He was one of ten children born into the family of Ephraim Webster, Sr. and Phebe Tucker.2

His physical attributes are difficult to express with any certainty, as there is no known portrait of him.  Cameras were not invented until the late 1830s and Ephraim is not known to have sat for any artist’s rendering, although there are scant descriptions of him throughout various sources.  He has been described as 5’4″ with light complexion, tall and muscular, dark skinned with average height and slender and muscular.  Patrick Glynn indicates that, “Although Ephraim could pass for an Indian in most ways, his hair was light brown, and so he wore a cap large enough to cover it.”3  The truth is, I’m not sure anyone could accurately describe him with certainty.

The family was of modest means and as a youth he was exposed to Native Americans early on at his home in Newbury where Indians were often at his house engaged in trading.  A shoemaker by trade, he longed to be on the hunt with the visiting Indians, a request denied repeatedly by his father.4

The Revolutionary War

His childhood was cut short when he lost his mother and baby brother at the age of 135 and by the age of 14, Ephraim Webster had enlisted in New York’s Cumberland County Militia.  Although this company is not known to have seen physical combat, Ephraim learned the skills of scouting and information gathering that would later become invaluable.6

A year later, in September of 1777, at the age of 15, Ephraim re-enlisted for an 18 month term.7  It was during this enlistment that he would seal his fate as an American hero.  In one of the most recounted tales of the Revolutionary War, Ephraim and Richard Wallace swam through British troops in frigid Lake Champlain waters for three miles to deliver messages to General Lincoln.8 The details of this mission are very dramatic.  Both men stepped forward as volunteers, Ephraim because of his confidence in his swimming skills, and both nearly drowned.  Ephraim survived only due to rescue by Wallace.  Once on land, the pair also had to maneuver through British land forces.  An artist’s depiction of the two swimming in Lake Champlain can be found in the September 18th edition of 1939’s Life magazine.

At the conclusion of his second term and a short stint at home, he re-enlisted for a third term in the Continental Army on July 10, 1779.9  It was during this nine month term that Ephraim befriended a Mohawk Indian by the name of Peter Yain while stationed at Greenbush.10, 11

A Pioneer Incident (Syracuse Herald, 1916)
A Pioneer Incident (Syracuse Herald, 1916)

Post Revolutionary War

In 1783, at the age of 21, Ephraim tried to return to his shoe maker trade, with brief stays in Boston, Philadelphia and New York City.12  However, Peter Yain eventually convinced Ephraim to return with him to his tribal home on West Canada Creek, near Little Falls, New York.13  As the tribe spoke no English, it’s inferred that this is where Webster honed his language skills. “This knowledge bore fruit for himself in 1784 when he setup a trading post in Oriskany; and for the Nation, when in that same year he assisted Reverend Samuel Kirkland as interpreter between the Indians and ‘The Thirteen Fires’ at the Peace of Fort Stanwix.”14

In 1786, Ephraim’s Oriskany trading post was transferred to Abraham VanEpps when he decided to relocate to Onondaga Hollow and begin trading with the Onondagas.15  He setup a camp on “The spot, on the site where the [Onondaga Creek] flowed into the lake north of the present Hiawatha Boulevard … [this] came to be known as Webster Camp to the natives and Webster’s Landing to whites.”16

He wandered about from place to place till at length he fell in with what is called the six Nations at a place about one hundred and fifty miles west of Albany called Onondaga. It was in the wilderness, It was in the wilderness and inhabited only by Indians. Here he spent four years as the only white man, and at length found means of trading rum and ammunition with the Indians.17

The story, which I’ve found to be varied in many different tellings, surrounds an incident where Ephraim displeased the Indians for some reason and a council agreed to put him to death.  Glynn Patrick & Associates indicate that the cause was thought to be over accusations that Ephraim destroyed some wigwams.18  Timothy Cheney tells the story like this:

With [Benjamin] Newkirk came a boy by the name of Webster. By reason of some act on their part displeasing to the natives, a council was held, at which it was agreed to kill them.  Newkirk they immediately dispatched with a tomahawk.  Webster’s time had to all appearance come; he was escorted by two Indians to the place of execution.  Arrived at the spot he told his conductors that he wanted to drink once more before he died.  The request was granted; whereupon he took his cup and drank the health of the Chiefs in a flattering speech.  The speech captivated an old man so greatly that he exclaimed, “no kill me.”  After some parley he was released and adopted into the tribe.19

Similar versions of the story, like the one in the Syracuse Evening Herald20, recount the same storyline without mention of Newark, different number of captures, etc.  However, in an article by A.M. William in 1881, he points out that Webster’s daughter, Mrs. Beebee, relayed first hand to a Mrs. Conklin that “she knows positively that this story is false.”21

Other accounts indicate that Benjamin Newkirk did arrive with Ephraim Webster in 1786 but that he died alone in his cabin from “delirium tremens.”22  We can conclude with some certainty that Newkirk did die around 1787, based on many individual accounts and his marker inscription.  We can also conclude that Ephraim Webster had befriended the Indians around Onondaga Creek and was given the name So-go-kon-is.23

Webster didn’t stay put in just one place for any length of duration.  In 1787 he returned with two other traders named Campbell and Malbee24 and between 1788 and 1798, he lived in Whitestown, Mexico, Marcellus and Onondaga.25  Once again, his country called on Ephraim’s services.  He spent six months marching to Ohio to deal with accusations that “British agents [were trying] to induce the Western tribes of Indians to invade the white settlements of this state.”26  Spaulding goes on to quote Ephraim about his time after the Ohio visit as saying:

I continued still to reside at my old station and for several years carried on a successful trade in furs, ginseng and other Indian commodities, till I was called into the service of the State by assisting in surveying the military tracts, in which are now the counties of Cayuga, Seneca and some other places.  After this I returned once more to Onondaga and settled on the mile square of land.27

Endnotes

1 George Burling Spalding, Ephraim Webster (Syracuse, NY: Onondaga Historical Association, 1900), 4.

2 Henry Webster, “Ephraim Webster (1730-1803),” ed. Dorothy Fraser and Alistair Fraser, frasier.cc, accessed April 4, 2013, http://fraser.cc/Webster/sources/HenrysDocument.html.

3 Jody Glynn Patrick, “Ephraim Webster, Jr.: He Preferred an Indian Lifestyle,” GlynnPatrick.com, last modified 2006, accessed April 5, 2013, http://www.glynnpatrick.com/ephraim_webster_jr.html.

4 Webster, “Ephraim Webster (1730-1803),” frasier.cc.

5 H. Wightman, “Onondaga Notes,” Syracuse Daily Journal (Syracuse, NY), October 7, 1864

6 Spalding, Ephraim Webster, 5.

7 Ibid., 6-9.

8 M. Josephine Hasbrouck, The Big Three: Ephraim Webster, Comfort Tyler, Asa Danforth (n.p.: n.p., 1941), 19.

9 Spalding, Ephraim Webster, 9.

10 Syracuse Herald, “The Wife of Ephraim Webster,” Syracuse Herald(Syracuse, NY), March 7, 1915, 1.

11 Hasbrouck, The Big Three: Ephraim, 20.

12 Webster, “Ephraim Webster (1730-1803),” frasier.cc.

13 Spalding, Ephraim Webster, 10.

14 Hasbrouck, The Big Three: Ephraim, 20.

15 “History of the Village of Oriskany,” Village of Oriskany, accessed April 5, 2013, http://villageoforiskany.org/content/History.

16 Syracuse Herald-American, “First White Settler Here a Legend,” Syracuse Herald-American (Syracuse, NY), June 27, 1976.

17 Webster, “Ephraim Webster (1730-1803),” frasier.cc.

18 Patrick, “Ephraim Webster, Jr.: He Preferred,” GlynnPatrick.com.

19 Timothy Collingwood Cheney and Parish Barkydt Johnson,Reminiscences of Syracuse (Syracuse, NY: Summers and Brother, 1857), 3.

20 Syracuse Herald, “Old Records: Ephraim Webster’s Narrow Escape from Death,” Syracuse Herald (Syracuse, NY), June 6, 1894, Evening edition.

21 A. M. William, “Our County History Reviewed and Some Errors Pointed Out,” Syracuse Journal (Syracuse, NY), September 8, 1881.

22 Wightman, “Onondaga Notes,”.

23 Dick Case, “Charter Citizen Webster … Fact or Fiction,” Syracuse Herald-American (Syracuse, NY), May 13, 1962, 12.

24 Syracuse Standard, “Hereabouts in 1789,” Syracuse Standard (Syracuse, NY), May 1, 1889, 11.

25 Spalding, Ephraim Webster, 13-14.

26 Ibid., 11-12.

27 Ibid., 13.

One thought on “Ephraim Webster: Part 1

  1. I love reading this! Ephriam Webster was my Great Grandfather ( several generations back)by way of Hannah Danks.

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