During the American Revolution, some of the hardest-fought and most bitter battles occurred in the land of the Six Nations, the Iroquois lands stretching from the Hudson River on the east to Lake Erie in the west of what is now upstate, central and western New York State. Both the Americans and British were campaigning to have the various Indian tribes on their side, or at least not against them. Unfortunately, but inevitably, sides were taken, adding the Iroquois Indian Confederation to the already bitter mixture of Loyalists and Rebels and ultimately causing the several tribes to make war against each other because of alliances to the American or British forces.
One villain to emerge from this quagmire, and there were a few, was a Loyalist named Walter Butler. Butler’s story is a good example to illustrate how hatreds developed in what was essentially a civil war.
Walter Butler was born in 1752 near Johnstown, New York, to Col. John Butler and Catharine Bradt. John Butler worked for Sir William Johnson, the famous British Indian agent, and thus was well-immersed in the dynamics of Indian relations. Johnson had commanded Indian and militia troops in the French and Indian War, and became wealthy through the age-old process of combining government and personal affairs. Even when Johnson died in 1774, John Butler remained close to Johnson’s son and sons-in-law who remained in the “family business,” with John Butler even taking the reins, for a short time, as acting Superintendent of Indian affairs.
Following Johnson’s death much of his lands were seized by the rebels and his mansion, Johnson Manor, was destroyed due to his loyalist stance. The Butlers were wise to have kept close Johnson ally Chief Joseph Brant, Dartmouth-educated leader of the Mohawks whose sister, Molly, was married to Sir William.
Walter Butler’s father did not face seizure of his lands, but instead seizure of something more near and dear. His wife and three of his young children (William, Andrew, and Deborah) were seized in early 1776 by the rebels, imprisoned in Albany and not released until June 1781 as part of a prisoner exchange. Walter and one other son avoided imprisonment, but the plight of his family was (understandably) one of the first building blocks of Walter’s rage against the Rebels, which would brim over later in the war.
In the meantime, Walter Butler had obtained a law degree, and was hard at work at his profession during the pre-war period. He left his Albany law office in 1775 for six years campaigning as arduous and extensive as any ever recorded.
With his father, Butler formed an 800-strong militia force called Butler’s Rangers. In August 1777, British forces under Lt. Col. Barry St. Leger, along with Butler’s Rangers and warriors from the Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca, a combined force of 1,500 regulars and Native Americans, laid siege to the Rebel Fort Stanwix, commanded by Col. Peter Gansevoort, in what is now Rome, New York. On August 13, flush with their recent victory at Oriskany, they peeled off a small force of eighteen men to march to German Flats, New York under Butler’s direction, to both terrorize the local inhabitants on the rebel side and recruit additional loyalist forces. They set off for German Flats under a flag of truce that was dubious by the manner in which it was presented, arriving at the German Flats tavern run by Rudolph Shoemaker early on August 15. Shoemaker had been a British justice of the peace who continued to harbor Loyalist sympathies, thus the tavern seemed like a fairly safe landing spot. Butler was either unaware of or failed to recall that the Rebel Fort Dayton was located a scant two miles away, so that when word of his force’s arrival spread, Shoemaker was paid a visit by men from the fort.
A Lieutenant-Colonel Brooks arrived from Fort Dayton with his detachment, possibly in anticipation of escorting the flag to the commander at the fort. It is not clear what was said, but they received an explanation, examined the flag, and Brooks returned to the fort where he was promptly ordered to go back to Shoemaker’s and arrest Butler’s party. In the meantime, Butler took the opportunity to issue a rather threatening proclamation to the people of Tryon County from his higher-ups, using the threat of violence from the Indians:
Being at the head of victorious troops, we most ardently wish to have peace restored to this once happy country . . . and hope that you are or will be convinced in the end, that we were your friends and good advisors, and not such wicked designing men as those who led you into error, and almost total ruin. You have, no doubt, great reason to dread the resentment of the Indians, . . . for which reason the Indians declare, that if they do not surrender the garrison without further opposition, they will put every soul to death, not only the garrison, but the whole country, without any regard to age, sex, or friends.
Brooks returned to see this and, with about a hundred of his friends with bayonets fixed, put the Butler party under arrest. It had been a colossal misjudgment on the part of Butler or the command that sent him. Apparently, Butler was already a person of intense interest, because the general commanding in the region, Philip Schuyler, saw fit to report Butler’s capture to General Washington in an August 17, 1777, letter, explaining that as “he did not enquire for any Officer either civil or military, I could not consider him as a Flag and have therefore ordered General [Benedict] Arnold to send him and the party with him prisoners to Albany”
From there things went from bad to worse for Butler. A court martial ensued. Arnold, in the area from breaking up the siege at Fort Stanwix, appointed Col. Marinus Willett, one of the besieged at Fort Stanwix, as judge advocate to hear Butler’s case.
Though the outcome was probably a foregone conclusion, Willett heard testimony. The issue of the trial was essentially this: If Butler was carrying a flag of truce, it was his duty to go to a commanding officer in the American Army and state his business. The prosecutor alleged that he had no business other than to “sudduse the inhabitants” and that hence the flag was without validity. Shoemaker testified that since Butler had a flag he did not think it was a problem if people came to the tavern listen to him. Butler, as a lawyer, not to mention a militia officer, should have had some awareness of the rules involving flags. But he dismissed the rebel laws and “rules of war,” saying he “was ignorant of these laws” and regardless he “despised there [sic – their, that is, the Rebels] constitution” and “did not inquire for any officer either civil or military.” Butler was livid at his capture and was generally ornery and disruptive throughout the proceedings.
There were a few other inquiries made, but Willet’s verdict was swift and decisive: guilty of spying for the enemy with a penalty of hanging. Arnold initially approved this verdict, but apparently through the intervention of several Continental officers Butler had known in the early 1770s when he studied law in Albany, Arnold was convinced to spare Butler. He was instead sent to a prison in Albany, a prison that even for the day was known to have miserable conditions.
Butler repeatedly petitioned American commanders in the area, first Phillip Schuyler and then Horatio Gates, to be paroled. His frequent entreaties led to his transfer to a private home, under significantly less secure conditions. He nonetheless decided to take matters into his own hands. One evening he enlisted someone’s help in getting the sentinel drunk. Butler stepped out of the house, passed the drunken sentinel and escaped, melting into the Albany evening.
Though he was free, he knew he was a wanted man, and decided to lay low for a while, going to Canada, but all the while plotting his next move. While in prison he had been promoted from ensign to captain, near the end of 1777. On his return from Quebec in 1778, he took command of the Rangers because his father was ill. From then his death in 1781, he exhibited more instances of enterprise, did more injury, and committed more murders, than any other man on the frontiers.
Where Butler achieved his greatest infamy was in a joint attack by the Indians and Butler’s Rangers on Cherry Valley, New York in the waning months of 1778. Butler led a contingent of 50 Regulars of the 8th (King’s) Regiment, about 150 Rangers, and four British officers. His Native force numbered 321, of which 50 may have been attached to Joseph Brant. A lengthy council was held, and Cherry Valley was chosen as the target.
Rumors of an attack on the settlement had been swirling since early in the year. Earlier in the season a force of about 1,600 Iroquois and Loyalists had invaded the Wyoming Valley area of Northeastern Pennsylvania (in the area surrounding Scranton and Wilkes-Barre today) and “put to death all the inhabitants of both sexes and every age, some thousands in number, enclosing some in buildings which they set on fire, and roasting others alive. They then maimed all the cattle and left them to expire in agonies.” This was enough to cause several of the townspeople to appeal to the Marquis de Lafayette for aid, and he subsequently commissioned the construction of a fort there. Named for the local commander, Col. Ichabod Alden, it was manned by about two hundred and fifty of the Massachusetts line. Walter Butler, still biding his time in Quebec, was not present for the Wyoming Valley massacre, though his father John was. The reverse would be true for Cherry Valley, where Walter was in command.
Although Cherry Valley had been warned of potential attack, they had been warned too often. Too many false alarms. The latest was from Col. Peter Gansevoort at Fort Stanwix. Alden replied to this warning on November 8, 1778, but did not appear overly alarmed. The people of the town begged to be allowed to store their valuables in the fort but were rebuffed. Alden himself was not even staying in the fort, preferring the more comfortable accommodations of the Wells home, roughly 400 yards from the fort’s confines. He was joined there by the rest of his officers and about forty privates. With the repeated false alarms and the weather starting to turn bad late in the season, an invasion seemed unlikely.
The staff were enjoying a pleasant breakfast at the Wells house when it all broke loose. Colonel Alden was initially not greatly excited, thinking the Natives were nothing but a handful of stragglers. Before Alden’s guard could assemble, the Native party struck the house. The Wells family, though friends of Brant, were strangers to the loyalist-allied Senecas; the fact that Continental officers were being billeted by them would have been enough to make them guilty of complicity with the rebellion, and they were struck down without mercy. Robert Wells, his mother, his wife, three sons, and three servants were quickly dispatched. A daughter who ran to hide behind a woodpile was found and tomahawked.
Had Brant been present, the Wells family may have been spared. Brant entered another house and found a woman calmly engaged in her chores. Surprised, he asked her why she had not taken flight when all of her neighbors were being killed around her. She replied, “We are king’s people.” He said, “That plea will not avail you today.” Coolly, she returned, “There is one Joseph Brant; if he is with the Indians, he will save us.” He explained that he was Brant, but he did not have the command; however, he would do what was in his power to save her.
Back at the Wells home, Alden broke free and tried to reach the fort. He was hotly pursued by a warrior who called on him to surrender. Alden reportedly turned and snapped a pistol at him, but it misfired. The warrior threw his tomahawk. His aim was true, and Alden was struck in the head. The warrior ran up and lifted the scalp. Alden was gone.
The details of the day are of confused horror. There were evidently forty homes in Cherry Valley, and the final tally was seventy killed and thirty-three missing or captured. The attack on the fort was broken off in the late afternoon with the town in flames. When it was all over, an individual identified only as M.R. arrived in Cherry Valley to help collect and bury the dead, and assist the survivors to get organized to leave. He wrote:
I was never before spectator of such a scene of distress and horror. The first object that presented, was a woman lying with her four children, two on each side of her, all scalped; the next was the wife of the Reverend Mister Dunlap [Dunlop], likewise scalped, stripped quite naked, and much of her flesh devoured by the Indian dogs . . . in all this massacre, there were but three men of the place killed, all the rest being helpless women and children. A great part of the sufferers, both killed and prisoners, were people much suspected of tory principles, and greatly depended on protection from Brant and Butler.
Back at the Wells house, the raiders released all the women and children, except the families of rebel Col. Samuel Campbell (his wife Jane, four young children, and Jane’s parents) and state congressman John Moore (his wife and three daughters), whom Captain Butler retained in hopes of exchanging for his mother and brothers. In a letter dated November 12, 1778, he advised General Schuyler of this intention.
I am induced by humanity to permit the persons whose names sent you herewith to remain lest the inclemency of the season and their naked and helpless situation should prove fatal to them; and expect that you will realease an equal number of our people in your hands, amongst whom I expect you will permit Mrs. Butler and family to go to Canada, but if you insist upon it I do agree to send you an equal number of prisoners of yours taken either by the Rangers or Indians, and will leave it to you to name the persons.
He added ominously “I have done every thing in my power to restrain the fury of the Indians from hurting women and children, or killing the prisoners who fell into our handsm. . . I shall always continue to act in that manner . . . But, be assured, that if you persevere in detaining my father’s family with you, that we shall no longer take the same pains to restrain the Indians from prisoners, women and children, that we have heretofore done.” That they had previously been restrained must have been a surprise to Schuyler.
As to the events of Cherry Valley, Butler disowned all responsibility, saying in a letter to an American officer that “since you have charged (on report, I must suppose) the British officers in general with inhumanity, and Colonel Butler [Walter’s father] and myself in particular, I am under the disagreeable necessity to declare the charge unjust and void of truth . . . If any are guilty (as accessories), it’s yourselves, at least the conduct of some of your officers.” As a last little dig, he added “I must, however, beg leave, by the by, to observe that I experienced no humanity or even common justice during my imprisonment with you.”
Writing to his father John, Butler’s story was slightly different: “I have much to lament that notwithstanding my utmost precaution and endeavours to save the women and children, I could not prevent some of them falling unhappy victims to the fury of the savages. They have carried off many of the inhabitants as prisoners and killed more.”
In the end, Butler got what he wanted. After rounding up all the Campbell children, who had been living with the Mohawks, Jane Campbell made the 420-mile trek to Montreal, where the Butler family was also brought and the exchange consummated. For Walter Butler, it would be a short reunion.
Butler’s luck ran out in 1781, once Marinus Willett, who adjudicated Butler’s spying conviction in 1777, became involved. Butler was on a mission with British Maj. John Ross, and in flight from an American force led by Willett. “The 29th [of October],” Willett wrote, “we marched north upwards of twenty miles in a snowstorm and at eight o ‘clock A.M. of the thirtieth we fell in with the enemy.” Ross was racing to Canada Creek, in what is now Hinckley Reservoir and about twenty-five miles northeast of Fort Stanwix, which if he could cross might be enough of a barrier to slow Willett’s pursuit. As Butler covered the ford, Willett’s advance guard pulled up. Shots were fired, although not by Willett, and several men went down. When Willett and his guard reached one of them, Willett removed the man’s hat and recognized Butler, dying but not dead. An Oneida with Willett promptly scalped him. Walter Butler was dead. It was October 30, 1781.
Or so goes the official story. As with events like this, things get distorted and glorified over time. One story has Willett removing Butler’s captain’s commission from his pocket as a souvenir. Others say the wounded Butler begged for quarter and the Oneida screamed “Cherry Creek quarter” before tomahawking him. There were even rumors of an ever-defiant Butler pointing at his behind from across the creek and daring Willett’s men to shoot him.
Coincidentally, Butler’s death occurred just as the news of the American victory at Yorktown was reaching this part of the country. It is said that many people in this area of upstate New York were as happy to hear that Butler was gone as they were for the triumph in Virginia, a win that effectively ended the war. While this may be an historical exaggeration, it is indicative of the depth of the hatreds that developed in the Mohawk Valley and all along the Susquehanna.
Was Butler evil incarnate, as some would have it, or just the product of wartime mythmaking? Did the confinement of his family justify his actions? Hard to say. It is easy to fall into the trap that all Rebels were good men and all Loyalists evil. In truth, there were atrocities committed by both sides. Butler was not even there for many of the acts for which he is blamed. A victim of war mythmaking in histories written by the winners perhaps, but nonetheless a man who did his share of damage in his twenty-nine years.
Philip Schuyler to George Washington, August 17, 1777, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-10-02-0635.
This scenario for the shooting is explained in more or less the same way on the pension applications of a number of soldiers, including Nicholas Smith, Rozel Holmes, Henry Shaver, and Richard Casler. Pension applications accessed via Ancestry.com.
Greg Ketcham, “Walter Butler – Loyalist Leader,” www.nyhistory.net/drums/wbutler.htm.