Webster was a translator and acted as agent for the Onondagas on several land treaties with the State of New York and was instrumental in the eventual settlement by white pioneers of Syracuse, New York, although the Onondagas later felt betrayed by him.
Ephraim Webster was born on June 30, 1762 in Hampstead, New Hampshire, United States and was raised in Newbury, Vermont. He was the son of Ephraim Webster Sr. and Phebe Tucker. He had nine siblings. His mother died when he was a teenager and his father, son of Samuel Webster and Mary Kimball, remarried on January 8, 1778 in Chester, New Hampshire to Sarah Colby Wells, a widow. Ephraim Webster Sr. was very well-written and left an extensive family diary.
In 1777, at age 15, he served as a private in George Washington's Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. During his time in service, he was called on by the commanders of Fort Ticonderoga in New York to volunteer with another soldier to swim Lake Champlain and carry dispatches to General Lincoln near Mount Independence, Vermont. The trip was a distance of 2 miles (3.2 km) and took place in the late autumn when the water was already quite cold. The two soldiers departed one evening and feared they would not make it alive. Webster completed the duty, however, nearly lost his life and had to be rescued by his companion, Wallace of Thetford.
At age 21, in 1783, he tried his hand at shoemaking, a skill his father, a tailor, insisted he learn, however, he tired of it after a year. According to his father, "He seemingly inherited my dissatisfaction with leaving a destiny to a father's whim, and he left to seek his fortune. He tried his luck in the towns of Boston, Philadelphia and New York City, but his fortune was not to be found in a city."
Although he could make a decent wage working in the cities, Webster was a frontiersman and complained "he couldn't catch bears, kill deer, or sleep in the open air with the leaves of the forest for a bed, and the heavens for a covering. He went to Albany, New York, but soon left even more embittered, embarking for the wilderness."
He traveled west from Albany over the old Indian trail and met up with an "Indian hunting party" and thrived in their company. "After the hunt, alone again, he slept contently in the woods on the cold ground, rolled in his blanket, with his gun in his arms."
In his father's words;
"My son wandered about in this fashion until he fell in with the Six Nations about 150 miles (240 km) west of Albany at Onondaga. For the next four years, to his belief, he was the only white man in the area. He adapted well.
Ephraim also became adept with the Indian language, another instinct which saved his life. One night after drinking with a few Indians, he understood them to say they were going to kill him, because they believed he was a man who had, in the past, destroyed their wigwams. Soon two of them came and sat down, Ephraim said, one on each side of him. I can't even imagine his fear when one Indian held his arms and the other took the hatchet and told him that he was going to sing his 'death song' and kill him. However, on reflection, it is true that each of my children had extraordinary strengths and weaknesses, and in Ephraim's life, they were one and the same -- no fear.
Ephraim understood their culture as well as their language, and he motioned as if requesting a taste of their rum for a final drink. He took the cup and drank a toast to their chiefs, naming them in turn, beginning with Brant Buller. This caused great emotion, and the Indian with the hatchet threw it down, by this sign “burying it” forever with Ephraim. “You no enemy, my brother,” he reportedly said, and the man threw his arms around my son’s neck and, Ephraim said, the man then "wept like a child." From that day, they were as brothers. My son often claimed that his Indian brothers would 'go through fire and water for him and would not do any business without his orders'."
In 1786, at age 24, he arrived in Onondaga Hollow to trade with the Onondagas. Webster was the first white person to permanently settle in what later became Onondaga County. "He spoke the Onondaga language, married an Onondaga woman, fathered an Onondaga leader, dressed like an Indian, and made a living trading goods with them."
He built a trading post on the east bank of Onondaga Creek, close to where it empties into Onondaga Lake. According to an old family story told by his father, "He built a shanty and found means of trading rum and ammunition." He also became adept with the Indian language."
A chief named Kahiktoton married Webster to an Onondaga woman named "One-Eyed Nancy" on the banks of the creek in the late 1780s. She had been "robbed of her eyesight" by smallpox. 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." Together, they had a son.
Although he had the trading post on the south shore of Onondaga Lake, Webster was afraid of getting swamp fever, so moved inland to Onondaga Hollow in 1788 and established Onondaga County's first permanent settlement.
In the spring of 1788, Webster used his influence with the Onondagas to get their consent to bring Major Asa Danforth from Montgomery County to Onondaga. Danforth was the second white man to settle in the area. While on a hunting trip in Montgomery County, Webster slept in the barn of Danforth in Johnstown, New York. Webster's praise of the Onondaga country was so convincing that Danforth, his wife, his son Asa Danforth Jr., and Comfort Tyler emigrated, and on May 22, 1788, erected the "first Christian home" in the county.
Webster conceived the idea of locating to Upstate New York during the last period of the American Revolutionary War when he was stationed at Greenbush, New York and became acquainted with a Mohawk Indian named Peter Gain. He went with Gain to his home on West Canada Creek and spent three months there without speaking a word of English during the entire time. By the time he left there he was fluent in the Indian language.
Webster learned to speak or write a total of six Indian languages. Often he served as their interpreter for two dollars a day. One time, he was hired at his standard rate to take a journey 900 miles (1,400 km) through the wilderness to help with a treaty between two tribes. "He was sent by Indians on one side of the treaty to go in disguise; he was so adept with language and manner that he was to pass for Indian with all who met him. He selected 45 men to accompany him and then he set off with ceremonial face paint. He wore ear jewels such as only chieftains wore, and donned a belt of rich wampum."
Although the Indians didn't seem to notice he was a white man, "ironically, it was a white man who mistrusted him to be English. A soldier overseeing the treaty negotiations came to him one day and lifted his cap, but made no comment. Soon after, another soldier invited him to dinner where he was made to confess whether he was English or Indian after the soldier 'took a sword' to his throat."
According to documents at the Onondaga Historical Association from reports by other pioneers such as Calvin Jackson, interviewed in 1837, who relayed that in 1793 he saw Webster "dressed in an Indian costume and painted (with) a jewel in his nose and ears. Had a squaw with him with one eye and a little boy with them. (They) called the boy William, but (he) has since gone by the name of Harry."
Webster was a language interpreter for the Haudenosaunee, Onondaga Indian Iroquoian language. In 1793, he acted as translator at three treaties in which the Onondagas sold New York State an area of land approximately 70,000 acres (280,000,000 m2). This amounted to 75 percent of their original, 100-square-mile (260 km2) reserve which they traded for a $410 down payment.
By 1796, Webster was so well liked by the Onondagas, they were able to convince the governor of New York to give them a square mile of land from territory they sold to the state so Webster could build a home. It was the site of the fort built by William Johnson, British settler, thirty years previously. The state deeded the acreage to Webster as "a free and voluntary gift", a reward for acting as a translator for the Onondagas. The property was located in an area later called the hamlet of Onondaga Hollow, which was located on the future site of the Seneca Turnpike, south of the present center of Syracuse.
Webster's first Indian wife died shortly after their marriage in 1789 and he married a second time to another Indian woman.
For the Onondagas, the gift of land to Webster carried an obligation and meant that the Onondagas believed he would become a permanent member of their community.
Webster did not remain married to his second Onondaga wife. According to tradition, Webster promised her that he would stay with her as long as she kept sober. After many years in the wilderness, Webster, reacting to the influences of the already large white settlement, began to desire a caucasian wife and "set out" to make his Indian spouse drunk. For a long time she resisted his attempts but finally succumbed to the "camouflage of milk punch." The next morning she left without saying a word and soon thereafter died of grief.
Historians have conflicting accounts of what became of his Onondaga wife that include "getting her drunk" so he could divorce her, or the possibility that she died. According to Joel Cornish, who served on a trial in a property dispute filed by Harry Webster in 1837, the woman balked at a divorce, but was finally forced to leave. Several historical accounts maintain Onondaga chiefs accepted divorce in instances where wives were accused of drunken behavior. His Onondaga wife, called "Nance" by white settlers, returned to live among the Onondagas with their son Harry and died not long after.
He married a young white woman named Hannah Danks on November 19, 1795, just months after he received his square mile of land. She was the daughter of Captain Isaac Danks and Lucy Danks. With his caucasian wife, he built a home in the square mile on what are now the banks of Webster's Pond in Syracuse. Together, they had five children.
In a 1962 article for the Onondaga Historical Association, historian Richard Wright said Webster gave up the Indian lifestyle on the urging of his newly arrived brother, Asahel Webster.
Webster eventually sold most of the square mile in small parcels for $9,000 each. The last parcel was purchased by Joseph Forman, a merchant from Troy, New York who had settled in Onondaga Hollow a few years earlier, for $6,250 on October 18, 1805. Forman was the father of a young lawyer named, Joshua Forman, who later founded the village of Syracuse.
The original family home Webster built stood for many years at Valley Drive in Syracuse until it was destroyed by fire in the late 1890s.
In 1798, Webster was elected the first supervisor of the town of Onondaga and in 1895, he was justice of the peace. He served as a lieutenant and captain in the New York militia and was later appointed inspector of beef and pork.
Even after he rejoined white society, he "enjoyed a good relationship" with the Onondagas. Governor Daniel Tompkins directed the Assembly in 1811 to appoint an agent to live with the tribe. The legislature appointed Webster to the position.
When the War of 1812 began, Webster wrote to President James Madison on behalf of the Onondaga chiefs who wanted to know if Madison wanted the Onondaga warriors to fight for America.
Webster and several hundred Onondagas, including his son, Harry Webster, fought in two battles for the United States against British troops and their Indian allies.
The trust the Onondagas held for Ephraim Webster was broken in 1817 after he acted as the state's agent and translator for them. In the treaty dated July 28, 1795, Onondagas sold 4,000 acres (16,000,000 m2) on the east side of their reservation to State of New York for $1,000 and annual payments of $430 and 50 bushels of salt.
The treaty had a clause that required the Onondagas to give Webster 300 acres (1,200,000 m2) of their diminishing territory, which was not viewed favorably by the tribal leaders. Disagreements over the acreage prompted the Onondagas to accuse their friend of betraying them. "We are determined not to have any further dealings with him," Onondaga chiefs wrote New York Governor DeWitt Clinton in March, 1819, "How can we trust a man as agent when we believe he has very often deceived us?"
Webster had been leasing the 300 acres (1,200,000 m2) from the Onondagas for ten years prior to the treaty. The dispute was settled when Webster surrendered the ownership of a saw mill on the Onondagas' land. In return, the Onondagas agreed not to pursue any land claims against him.
The Onondagas wanted Governor Clinton to appoint a new agent, however that never occurred. In 1822, Webster interpreted at the last treaty with New York State in which the Onondagas sold 800 acres (3,200,000 m2) from the southern end of their reservation for a one-time payment of $1,700.
Chief Leon Shenandoah, who served as tadadaho, the highest position in the Iroquois Confederacy in 1991, said that as a boy, listening to his elders in the longhouse, he heard the old chiefs talk of how Webster would invite Onondaga leaders to his house in an attempt to get them drunk whenever he needed a new piece of land.
The Onondagas refused to part with any more land and were left with 7,300 acres (30,000,000 m2), which they still have possession of today.
Webster died on October 16, 1824, at age 62 of Typhoid fever at the Seneca Indian Reservation at Tonawanda, New York. Still involved in Indian trade, he died suddenly 200 miles (320 km) from his home, while on expedition to buy ginseng.
His will left all his possessions, including $2,000 worth of personal property, a large fortune for that time, to his second wife, Hannah and to their children despite the Onondagas belief that the land should naturally return to them. Some members of the family lived on the 300 acres (1,200,000 m2), later called the "Half-Mile" until "at least" the late 19th century. He left nothing in his will to his son Harry Webster.
After Webster's wife died, son Harry Webster filed suit in April, 1837 against Webster's family for a share of the land inherited by his white half-siblings, however, he did not win.
Harry Webster went on to become the spiritual leader of the Iroquois Confederacy before he died on January 28, 1864, at the age of 75 at Onondaga Castle.
Harry's connection to Ephraim Webster was debated for several years. In a letter to the Syracuse Herald in 1899, Orris D. Webster, a white descendant, insisted Ephraim Webster did not father any Onondaga children and claimed that Harry Webster had filed a "bogus lawsuit financed by his supporters."
A lawsuit was filed and the trial began during which time, Orris Webster and family searched in vain for three years "for anyone to swear to their side." Orris Webster did not win the lawsuit and later wrote "they were beaten, lost their money and their case."
Stories associated with Webster's life are part of the folklore of the Central New York region. It is believed that James Fenimore Cooper's character Natty Bumppo owes much to the historical figure of Ephraim Webster.
Webster's Pond in Syracuse, New York was named after him.