Ephraim Webster: Part 2

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

The Birth of a Community

“In the spring of 1788 Webster used his influence with the Indians to get their consent to bring Asa Danforth”.1  Danforth was accompanied by Comfort Taylor and a community soon began to develop.  In those early years, Ephraim was instrumental in keeping peace between the Indians and the settlers.  A great example of this can be seen in an incident Cheney writes about in 1793.

Apparently, an early settler by the name of Lamb, found his 14 year old daughter with an Indian who had been “kissing his daughter and taking other improper liberties with her”.2  Lamb killed the Indian and his tribe wanted justice for the murder. Webster was called in to negotiate an agreement between the settlers and chiefs without bloodshed.

In light of his contribution to community, he became the first town supervisor and Lieutenant of Militia in 1798, an appointment made at the first town meeting, held in the house of Asa Danforth.3,4  A few years later, on April 8, 1803, Governor Jay would appoint him “Inspector of Beef and Pork.”5

Living a naturalist’s lifestyle, Ephraim Webster became very knowledgeable in the woods.  Combined with his aptitude for Native American dialects, his skills caught the eye of renowned German botanist Frederick Pursh.  In the summer of 1807, Pursh sought out Webster to learn more about the Onondaga Native American names and uses for plants.6  More detailed interactions between Webster and Pursh can be found in Pursh’s Journal of a Botanical Excursion in the Northeastern Parts of the State of Pennsylvania and New York.7

The Wife of Ephraim Webster (Syracuse Herald, 1915)
The Wife of Ephraim Webster (Syracuse Herald, 1915)

Webster’s Wives

As with many other aspects of Ephraim’s life, there are different tales related to his marriages.  From my best efforts, I can reconstruct three marriages.

According to Cheney 8 and Thomas Webster, Ephraim’s grandson by way of Harry Webster, “The first marriage in that town [now known as Syracuse] was that of Mr. Webster, and an Indian woman in 1789.  The wife soon after died and Webster took another Indian wife …”9  However, his first wife is never identified by name.  The Syracuse Evening Herald indicated that “by right of the female side, descended [Webster] ascended to the A-to-tar-ho, or principle civil officers of the confederacy.”10

Ephraim’s second wife, often referred to as “one-eyed Nance” as she lost part of her vision to smallpox,11 is mentioned in several different sources.  She was married to Ephraim, by chief Kahiktoton.12  Although this marriage lasted several years, white women began settling in the area toward the end of their union and Webster was interested in remarrying.  According to the Syracuse Herald,

He told his wife that he felt it would be better for him to marry a white girl so he would give her enough land to make her comfortable and would put her away.  To this, however, the Indian wife and kinsmen objected.  Webster yielded to them.  He said that he would keep his wife so long as she kept away from “fire water”, to which, like many Indian women, she was addicted.13

I found the remainder of this story to be controversial.  Timothy Cheney notes the following in his book:

He lived with her near twenty years, although he contrived many plots to get her intoxicated, that he might get rid of her and marry a white woman, as the whites became numerous. At the end of this period, with the aid of milk punch, he succeeded in his cruel attempts. The morning following her disgrace she arose and without speaking a word, proceeded to gather together her personal effects, and left for her friends, no more the wife of Webster. Of a sensitive mind, and possessing a large share of self respect, grief so preyed upon her that she died in a short time after the separation.14

Although several variations of this story had been published throughout the years, I came across a letter to the editor in 1940 that denied all truth to this story.  The article indicates that Mrs. Harley W. Billington was a close personal friend of the family and goes on to say that, “What I read today concerning [Webster] is a 100 percent malicious calumny that the scum of white trash in those days originated in order to try to find out the secrets they knew the father of the child having his name to did know and also the only way an unscrupulous lawyer could get some cash.” 15

Glynn Patrick’s account, in which he cites Ephraim’s son Henry as a primary source, says “According to Indian custom, he ‘pledged’ to be her husband for so many moons, and when that time came, the marriage contract was dissolved and each was at liberty to marry the same or someone else.” 16

What most sources agree on is that Webster’s second marriage was ended and that from this relationship came two sons, Harry and Thomas.17  Harry went on to become a chief and Thomas, the Keeper of the Wampum.

On November 19, 1796, Ephraim took his third and final wife, Hannah Danks.18  Together they would raise five children: Amande, Alonzo, Lucius, Iantha and Caroline.

The War of 1812

With the British winning over the influence of Indian tribes, Webster was called to serve his country once again.  This time, he asked to pose as spy and gather intelligence data against the British Empire.  “He used to make journeys into Canada, and pretending to be intoxicated, lie around the fort at Kingston, for the purpose of obtaining information to communicate to the General at Sacket’s Harbor.”19  Many trips were taken back and forth to Canada with Webster communicating directly with General Brown regarding what he’d learned.  This service was not without cost.

Webster is quoted as saying, “When the agents of the British government learned by what means their dishonorable conduct and trickery had been discovered and communicated to our people, they were, as may well be supposed, highly indignant towards me, and offered a reward of fifteen hundred dollars for my person or my scalp.”20

Exactly what words or deeds had transpired during his service is unknown.  Some accounts indicated that Webster told only his son, which he was to have kept secret until his death and that even his wife was unaware of his service.  Mrs. Billington indicates,” … she never knew her husband was in the secret service, nor did she know his fur trading was not a business of his own, without which he never could have been a secret service man.” 21

According to McAndrew, “Webster wrote to President James Madison on behalf of the Onondaga chiefs. The chiefs wanted to know if Madison wanted Onondaga warriors to fight for America.  Webster and several hundred Onondagas, including his son, Harry, fought in two battles for the United States against British troops and their Indian allies, which included Onondagas who were living in Canada.” 22

Endnotes

1 Syracuse Herald, “Old Records: Ephraim Webster’s Narrow Escape from Death,” Syracuse Herald (Syracuse, NY), June 6, 1894, Evening edition, 9-12.

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

3 M. Josephine Hasbrouck, The Big Three: Ephraim Webster, Comfort Tyler, Asa Danforth (n.p.: n.p., 1941), 24.

4 Syracuse Herald, “Old Records: Ephraim Webster’s,” 9-12.

5 George Burling Spalding, Ephraim Webster (Syracuse, NY: Onondaga Historical Association, 1900), 14.

6 Joseph M. McMullen, “The Rare Hart’s-tongue Fern First Discovered in North America 200 Years Ago in Onondaga County, New York,” New York Flora Association Newsletter 19, no. 2 (2008): 6-7.

7 Frederick Pursh, Journal of a Botanical Excursion in the Northeastern Parts of the States of Pennsylvania and New York During the Year 1807(Philadelphia, PA: Brinckloe and Marot, 1869), 54-61.

8 Cheney and Johnson, Reminiscences of Syracuse, 3.

9 Phoenix Register, “Among the Indians,” Phoenix Register, November 24, 1873

10 Syracuse Herald, “Old Records: Ephraim Webster’s,” 9-12.

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

12 Mike McAndrew, “First a Friend, Then a Foe,” Syracuse Post-Standard(Syracuse, NY), August 11, 2000.

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

14 Cheney and Johnson, Reminiscences of Syracuse, 3-4.

15 Mrs. Harley W. Billington, “Ephraim Webster, Great, Good Man, Kin Makes Clear,” Syracuse Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY), November 24, 1940.

16 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.

17 M. Josephine Hasbrouck, The Big Three: Ephraim Webster, Comfort Tyler, Asa Danforth (n.p.: n.p., 1941), 22.

18 Spalding, Ephraim Webster, 14.

19 Cheney and Johnson, Reminiscences of Syracuse.

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

21 Billington, “Ephraim Webster, Great, Good,” 21.

22 McAndrew, “First a Friend, Then,”.

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