BUTLER, WALTER, army officer; b. 1752 at Butlersbury (near Johnstown, N.Y.), eldest son of John Butler (1728–96) and Catalyntje Bradt (Catharine Bratt); d. unmarried, 30 Oct. 1781, at West Canada Creek, N.Y.
Having taken an early interest in military affairs, Walter Butler was recommended in 1768 to be an ensign in the militia. He studied law in Albany and was admitted to the bar in 1775. Father and son fled to Montreal in August that year, following the outbreak of the Revolutionary War; the rest of the family was interned at Albany. On 25 Sept. 1775 Walter helped capture Ethan Allen during the skirmish at Longue-Pointe (Montreal), and the following May he fought at Les Cèdres (Que.) as an ensign in the 8th Foot. The Butlers accompanied the Indians under Christian Daniel Claus on Barrimore Matthew St Leger’s expedition against Fort Stanwix (Rome, N.Y.) and on 6 Aug. 1777 participated in the battle of Oriskany nearby.
After Oriskany, Walter led a party of soldiers and Indians down the Mohawk valley, under a flag of truce but recruiting for the crown as they went. Captured on 12 or 13 August, he was tried by court martial and sentenced by Major-General Benedict Arnold* to be hanged as a spy. Several American officers who had known him as a law student interceded, and he was merely interned in Albany. There he was eventually transferred to the home of Richard Cartwright, a loyalist sympathizer. On 21 April 1778 Walter got his sentry drunk and escaped to join his father at Fort Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.).
Conventional campaigns against the colonies by way of Canada ended with Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga (Schuylerville, N.Y.) in 1777, and a vicious guerrilla war of a type only too familiar to the North American frontier began. When Walter rejoined him, John Butler was recruiting a ranger battalion to serve with the Indians in raids against American settlements. Composed entirely of volunteers – highly mobile expert marksmen, familiar with the tactics of forest warfare – Butler’s Rangers were considered by a contemporary writer to be among the “smartest, liveliest, and most useful troops in the British service . . . rarely known to be worsted in any skirmish or action.”
In June 1778 John Butler sent Walter to Quebec where Governor Haldimand approved their plan “to break up the back settlements of New York, Pennsylvania, and [New] Jersey,” largely to stem the flow of farm produce to the Continental Army. Walter was still in Quebec when John Butler led an expedition against the Wyoming valley of Pennsylvania, the first of several operations which earned Butler’s Rangers a bloody reputation. Walter took command in September when his father was ill and on 11 Nov. 1778 led a force of 520 rangers, regulars, and Indians in a disastrous attack on Cherry Valley, N.Y. Lacking heavy cannon, the rangers and regulars were unable to capture the fort, and during the siege the Indians sacked the town. Despite the efforts of Butler and Joseph Brant [Thayendanegea*] to restrain them, they killed over 30 inhabitants.
Walter Butler’s role in the incident has been distorted by myth and legend. James Clinton, the American commander in northern New York, never accused him of having ordered or conducted the massacre, and it seems unlikely that Walter would have taken such actions when members of his own family were vulnerable to reprisals. The evidence seems to point to Sequidonquee (Little Beard), a Seneca warrior. But local histories and novels of the 19th century, written largely on the basis of legend and hearsay, describe Walter as cruel and vindictive. The writers, according to Howard Swiggett, “fixed upon young Butler as the Devil, and made him part of every midnight murder of the long years.” There is, however, no evidence to show that he instigated or took part in the Cherry Valley atrocities.
On the other hand, the incident may be attributed in part to Walter’s poor relations with the Indians. He did not get along with Brant, who was senior in rank and may have resented serving under him. Butler later stated that he was unable to control the Indians; their actions at Cherry Valley appear to have shocked him, and he resolved never to conduct another operation where Indians were in the majority.
Though his family was released in 1780, Butler never achieved his other aims: promotion to major in the rangers and the purchase of a company in an established regiment. He was killed during Major John Ross’s raid on the Mohawk valley in 1781. “So feared was the Butler name,” George Francis Gilman Stanley has said, “that the rebels of the Mohawk valley rejoiced more over the news of his death than they did at the surrender of [Charles] Cornwallis at Yorktown.”
In March 1779 Walter Butler travelled the north shore of Lake Ontario from Niagara to Cataraqui (Kingston, Ont.). In his journal of the eight-day voyage – published as “Walter Butler’s journal of an expedition along the north shore of Lake Ontario, 1779,” ed. J. F. Kenney, CHR, I (1920), 381–91 – he carefully recorded time and distance and described sites for farming, naval stores, and hunting. BL, Add. mss 21756/1, 21756/2, 21764, 21765. NYCD (O’Callaghan and Fernow), VIII, 499, 721. PAC Report, 1886, 640. DAB. G.B., WO, Army list, 1777. Sabine, Biographical sketches of loyalists, I, 280.
North Callahan, Royal raiders, the Tories of the American revolution (New York, 1963), 171. E. [A.] Cruikshank, The story of Butler’s Rangers and the settlement of Niagara (Welland, Ont., 1893), 12, 25, 26, 33, 37, 54–56. Graymont, Iroquois, 79, 81, 118, 120, 143, 156, 164–65, 187–89, 191. P. M. Hamlin, Legal education in colonial New York (New York, 1939; repr. 1970), 152–53, 155. William Kirby, Annals of Niagara (Niagara Falls, Ont., 1896), 57. Lanctot, Canada and American revolution, 77, 141. H. C. Mathews, The mark of honour (Toronto, 1965), 27, 36, 45, 48–49, 57–59, 60–62. J. C. Miller, Triumph of freedom (Boston, 1948), 397, 399. Stanley, Canada’s soldiers (1960), 125. W. L. Stone, The campaign of Lieut. Gen. John Burgoyne and the expedition of Lieut. Col. Barry St. Leger (Albany, N.Y., 1877; repr. New York, 1970), 208–9. Howard Swiggett, War out of Niagara: Walter Butler and the Tory rangers (New York, 1933; repr. Port Washington, N.Y., 1963). E. A. Cruikshank, “The King’s Royal Regiment of New York,” OH, XXVII (1931), 193–323. H. U. Swinnerton, “The story of Cherry Valley,” N.Y. State Hist. Assoc., Proc. (n.p.), VII (1907), 74–93.