Captain Walter Butler is probably better known through the exploits of his
fictional persona; the real Butler to this day remains something of an enigma.
No known portrait exists, and the correspondence that survives reveals very
little of the man writing it.
The primary source for this sketch is Howard Swiggett's "War out of Niagara". Swiggett was apparently the first historian to trace Butler through contemporary writings; the mythical Walter comes largely from Jeptha Simms' and Benton J. Lossing's rather distorted folk tales. Although Simms and Lossing had access to eyewitnesses of Mohawk Valley events, they apparently took the tales at face value and didn't' indulge in the dull details of fact checking. Several historians have noted that Swiggett's work contains numerous errors, and seems to be slanted in favor of the Butlers. E.A. Cruikshank's work on the Rangers, while not footnoted, does not seem to suffer from this problem.
The early years
Walter was born to John Butler in the year 1752 in or near Johnstown, NY. John had worked for many years in the Johnstown area as Johnson's Indian agent, and appears to have done quite well by the job. John Butler may have been the second wealthiest man (after Sir William) in the valley. He built a home overlooking the Mohawk river, not far from Johnstown, called Butlersbury. The Butler family would live here until the eve of the Revolution, when they and many other Loyalists were forced to flee their homes for Canada.
Walter Butler apparently held great promise; he studied law, and entered into a law practice in Albany. Many of his clients would end up on the other side of his gunsights during the Revolution. Of his private life, Swiggett could find nearly nothing. Did he have a sweetheart? History is silent; rumour and legend say his spouse was Catherine Montour aka "French Catherine", but Swiggett puts this in the propaganda category.
The War Years
Butler followed family tendencies, and took up arms for the King. He was commissioned as an Ensign in the King's 8th regiment. He was present at the battle of Oriskany with other soldiers of the 8th. After his father formally raised Butler's Rangers, Walter apparently resigned or transferred to the Loyalist unit. At some point he was commissioned as a Captain in the Rangers. Records show he networked long and hard for further promotion, but presumably he rose no higher in rank.
Whatever his rank, there is no doubt of his courage. Shortly after Oriskany, Butler volunteered to lead a recruiting expedition behind enemy lines. He was caught by Continental troops at Shoemaker's Tavern, and thrown in jail. A military court martial led by Lt. Col. Marinus Willett found Butler guilty of spying, and sentenced him to death. Butler was transferred to a jail in Albany; after several months' captivity, he managed to escape to Canada.
Walter Butler is forever connected with the Cherry Valley massacre. Butler, along with Joseph Brant, led a Loyalist and Indian raiding party that completely surprised this outpost. This is all the more surprising when you learn that the Continental commander Ichabod Alden had advance warning of the raid, but chose to ignore the signs. Alden was surprised at breakfast the morning of the raid, and was killed before he could reach the safety of the fort. Something happened that supposedly caused the Indians to rampage through the village, killing civilian men, women, and children. Just who was supposed to be controlling the Indians, Butler or Brant, will probably never be known. For some reason (likely due to personal prejudices held by former neighbors), Joseph Brant usually comes off better in the history books than the Butlers or the Johnsons. So, Walter became the scapegoat identified with the massacre, in the same way father John is tied to the Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania incident.
Walter was in the middle of the action during the Sullivan-Clinton campaign of 1779. Afterwards, the Iroquois and Loyalists stepped up their attacks on the Mohawk Valley, probably acting out revenge. One such raid, led by Major Ross, was in 1781. The force engaged in the usual destruction and burning; the alarm went out, and they were pursued by old foe Willett, Continentals, and militia. A running fight ensued, with a prolonged chase. According to Willett's journal, Walter Butler was shot in the head at a ford of West Canada Creek, NY, on Oct. 30,1781. Legend says the wounded Butler cried for quarter, and that an Oneida Indian cried he would give "Sherry Valley quarters" and promptly tomahawked and scalped the Terror of the Mohawk Valley. Willett's journal is also distorted on this event: he says he recognized the mutilated Butler by the commission in his pocket, the same commission Butler presented upon capture back in 1778. Why would Capt. Walter Butler of the Rangers still carry an Ensign's commission for the King's 8th? Nostalgia, maybe? It should be noted that Willett didn't commit his wartime memories to paper until nearly forty years after war's end, when he was in his eighties.
The announcement of Walter Butler's death coincided with news of Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown. As far as Valley dwellers were concerned, the death of Butler was the true signal that they could now breathe easy.
Cruikshank, E.A. "The Story of Butler's Rangers and the Settlement of Niagara". Lundy's Lane Historical Society, Owen Sound, ON, CA 1975.
Swiggett, Howard. "War Out of Niagara; Walter Butler and the Tory Rangers". Port Washington NY 1963.
Chambers, Robert W. "Cardigan", 1901; "The Maid At Arms", 1902; ""The Hidden Children", "The Little Red Foot", 1921; these feature the villainous and fictional Walter N. Butler.
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