For there was Walter Butler, the loyalist, who spread fire and horror through the Mohawk Valley in the times of the Revolution.
Stpehen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster
In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named. This is the third in a series giving brief biographies of these men. Go here to read the biography of Simon Girty and here to read the “biography” of the Reverend John Smeet. In this post we will examine the life of Major Walter Butler.
Walter Butler was a young man of 23 at the start of the Revolution, the son of John Butler, a wealthy Indian agent and a judge in frontier Tryon Country, soon to be the scene of many desperate frontier battles between Patriots and Loyalists, and their Indian auxiliaries. John Butler was a firm loyalist as was his son. Walter Butler served as an Ensign at the battle of Oriskany in 1777 during the Saratoga campaign. Shortly after Oriskany he was captured behind enemy lines. Sentenced to death he succeeded in escaping. When his father formed the Loyalist Butler’s Rangers, Walter served in it as a Captain.
On November 11, 1778 at Cherry Valley, New York, Butler, leading a mixed force of Loyalists and Mohawks and Seneca under Joseph Brant, easily overcame the heavily outnumbered 7th Massachusetts Continentals. In the aftermath of the battle, 30 settlers were murdered, including women and children. In his report Butler blamed Brant and his Indians and steadfastly insisted that he spared no effort to rescue settlers from them. However, Patriots claimed that Brant attempted to save settlers and that it was Butler who instigated the massacre. My estimate is that neither Brant nor Butler were directly responsible and that it was independent action by the Seneca and the Mowhawk, who had many scores to repay, that resulted in the murders. Like many historical questions the evidence now is too fragmentary and conflicting for complete certainty.
Butler was killed in a skirmish on October 30, 1781 and scalped by Oneidas fighting for the Patriots. Here is a contemporary account of his death by Philip Graff, a member of the Patriot militia in Mowhawk Valley New York: