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The Battle of Cherry Valley (Massacre)

November 10, 1778 at Cherry Valley, New York


"Incident in Cherry Valley - fate of Jane Wells" from the original picture by Alonzo Chappel, engraved by Thomas Phillibrown.
American Forces Commanded by
Col. Ichabod Alden
Strength Killed Wounded Missing / Captured
250 70 ? 33
British Forces Commanded by
Walter Butler & Chief Joseph Brant
Strength Killed Wounded Missing / Captured
700 ? ? ?
Conclusion: British Victory

Order of Battle:

  • British: 321 Brant's Volunteers and other Iroquois,
    150 Butler's Rangers,
    50 8th Regiment of Foot
  • Americans: 7th Massachusetts Regiment,
    250 settlers and milita

The Cherry Valley Massacre was all about revenge; revenge on the part of Tories and Iroquois for the destruction of Oquaga, Unadilla, Tioga, and other settlements, and revenge of another kind by an irascible Tory named Walter N. Butler.

In the summer of 1777, Butler was captured red-handed behind American lines near Fort Dayton. At the home of Hector Shoemaker, who had been in the King's commission of peace, Butler, 10 soldiers and 3 Mohawk warriors were caught in the treasonous act of persuading colonists to fight the rebels and remain loyal to British rule. Butler was livid at being captured, and during his court marshal as a spy Butler was seriously disruptive and uncooperative. His irascible nature likely hastened the death sentence quickly given by the Court. Soon after, because of family connections, Gen. Benedict Arnold granted Butler a reprieve from death, but he was thrown into the notorious Albany jail.

Conditions in the jail were worse than bad. Food, what there was of it, was spoiled and wormy, and treatment by jailers cruel and vindictive. Those supporting the rebel cause had little respect for Tories supporting King George. Also, there was hardly a family in the Albany-Mohawk Valley area that had been spared the death of relatives at the hands of Six Nations Indians, Tories or British troops. Jailed Tories did not have an easy time.

Walter got lucky. Years earlier, he had spent months in Albany, reading for the law. He also had many relatives and friends there, and his family was prominent in the area. After spending the fall and winter of 1777 in rough conditions in jail, Walter got a break. He feigned an illness, and at the request of Butler's family, Gen. ?? Lafayette had Butler's quarters changed to a private house. Only one provincial soldier was assigned to guard the prisoner.

The owners of the house were Tory sympathizers, and they resented the rebels who commandeered their home to make it a private jail. One moonless night, with help from the Butler family and a voluptuous young lady, the guard was plied with strong drink and passed out - drunk. A horse and supplies were waiting for Walter, and he made his cautious west to join his father at Niagara.

Butler had to travel at night to avoid rebel sympathizers and scrounge food and shelter from known Tories along the route. By the time he joined his father, he had made a solemn pledge to extract serious revenge for the harsh treatment he had received during his long months in the Albany Jail.

Butler immediately started laying his plans for revenge. He wrangled command of a detachment of his father's Butler's Rangers plus obtained permission to recruit any Indian he encountered, including any force led by the Mohawk leader, Chief Joseph Brant, if he could be intercepted. While on his way from Niagara to a rendezvous with the Rangers at Tioga, Butler located Brant who was returning to winter-quarters at Niagara. Brant did not like the young Butler. He had little use for the arrogant, evil-tempered Englishman, and was miffed for being given a subordinate position under him. However, they apparently settled their differences and Brant joined his 500 men with Butler's 200 Tories and Indians.

Brant was furious with the colonials for destroying his home and the buildings, crops and food stores at Oquaga. It forced many of his people northward toward Canada. He had planned to winter over at his home and plan raids for the following spring. As it was, he headed toward Fort Niagara with very little food, and many of his men scattered to different villages to join displaced families.

At the Tioga rendezvous, Butler and Brant selected Cherry Valley for their attack. The Seneca name for Cherry Valley was Karightongegh, meaning "Oak Woods". It was a settlement remarkable for it's pious inhabitants and spectacular beauty. Unlike many border settlements, the people of Cherry Valley were intelligent and of good moral character. For example, they wouldn't attend meetings of the Tryon County Committee of Safety on Sundays unless, as they wrote, "circumstances would super-exceed the duties to be performed in attending the public worship of God."

However beautiful, Cherry Valley was in an exposed position. The Marquis de Montcalm ordered a fort built there earlier in that spring of 1778. Command of the fort was given to Colonel Ichabod Alden, an arrogant English officer who led a back-east regiment. He was inexperienced in Indian warfare and most impressed by his own opinion of his abilities. The choice of Ichabod Alden to command "Fort Alden" would prove to be a tragic mistake.

As October wound down, Alden became convinced there would be no concentrated attack on Cherry Valley until possibly the following spring.

On November 8, Alden received a hastily written message from Fort Schuyler, warning that Tories and Indians would attack his post. The message, carried by Capts. James Parr and Michael Burd, was brief.

Sir,
We were just now informed by an Oneida Indian (Thomas Spencer) that yesterday an Onondaga Indian arrived at their castle from one of the branches of the Susquehanna, called the Tioga. That he was present at a great meeting of Indians and Tories at that place and their result was to attack Cherry Valley, and that young Butler was to head the Tories. I send you this information that you may be on your guard.

I am Sir, yours, &etc.

Robert Cochrane Major, Commanding

Colonel Ichabod Alden

Fort Alden - Cherry Valley

As it was late in the season, settlers who brought their belongings to the fort for protection that summer had already taken them back to their homes. Now, with the warning, when they asked Alden for permission to bring their valuables back to the fort, Alden scoffed at the warning, calling it an "idle Indian rumor" and turned them down. He assured the settlers he would ;"...post vigilant scouts and be at all times prepared to warn them of any approaching danger."

On November 9, Alden sent scouts in various directions. Those who traveled down the Susquehanna unknowingly walked directly into the face of the enemy. On their third night out, one group of 10 men made a serious mistake. Sgt. Adam Hunter also didn't believe there would be an attack this late in the season, and was tired of cold, fireless nights. He told his men to build a large fire and they all slept beside it for warmth. They woke up the next morning as prisoners.

Adam Hunter woke up looking into a ring of Tories and Indian faces. Walter Butler recognized the sergeant. Hunter realized in fear that he was looking into the face of the man he once guarded in an Albany home who had escaped and very nearly caused his demotion.

After grilling Hunter and the prisoners for about an hour they got all the information about the settlement they needed, Butler and Brant moved toward the valley. They camped on top of a thickly evergreened hill about a mile southwest of the village. Snow fell that night, turning to rain by morning. The valley was covered with thick mist and fog. The attackers moved quickly and silently toward the village.

Officers of the garrison were lodged with families near the fort. And, with continued assurances by Colonel Alden that it was too late in the season for an attack, everyone relaxed. Alden and his Lt. Col. ?? Stacy stayed with Robert Wells, a respected judge of the county, who was a close friend of Col. John Butler, (Walter's father). About 20 regular soldiers also stayed at the Wells farm. Knowing where all the officers were staying, the attackers started to infiltrate the village, intending to creep up on the officer's billets. However, on the outskirts of town, an Indian fired at two men, killing one and wounding the other. Although seriously wounded, the survivor rode to the Wells house warning Colonel Alden and sounded the alarm in the village.

Continuing to evidence his arrogance and ignorance, Alden still did not believe it was an attack of force. He insisted it was likely the work of a lone straggler. Before he could call in his scouts or organize a defense, the Indians were upon them.

Unfortunately for the settlers, before entering the village, Butler halted his rangers so they could check their firearms. Their powder was wet. Some reports claim the pause was intentional, allowing the Senecas, the most ferocious of the Six Nations, into the vanguard of the attack. The rangers might have been able to curb some of the Seneca thirst for blood. The evening before Butler had cautioned his men against unwarranted cruelty. Instead, the Senecas immediately surrounded the Wells house, and, with several Tories, slaughtered the entire family. They killed Robert Wells, his wife, his brother and sister, John and Jane, 3 of his sons, Samuel, Robert, and William and his daughter Eleanor. The only survivor of the family was a son John who was at school in Schenectady. Ironically, Robert Wells had taken his entire family to safety in Schenectady some months before, but returned home when the danger of attack appeared over.

Alden attempted to escape from the Wells house He was chased down a road for some distance by an Indian. Brant repeatedly shouted for his surrender. Alden refused, making a fatal mistake by stopping, turning and firing his pistol repeatedly at Brant. His powder was wet, and the pistol misfired each time. Finally, the Mohawk chief hurled his tomahawk hitting Alden in the head, killing him instantly. Brant tore his scalp from him before he hit the ground.

The massacre of the Wells family was particularly barbaric. One story claims one of the Tories boasting he killed the unarmed Mr. Wells as he prayed. A better source states that Butler killed Wells, which is more likely.

As the Indians broke into the house, Wells's sister, Eleanor, tried to hide in a woodpile . She was intercepted by Little Beard who grabbed her, took his tomahawk from his belt, and aimed his tomahawk at her head. A Tory, ranger Peter Smith, once a servant in the Wells house, jumped in front of the Indian to stop him, claiming she was his sister. Eleanor knew some words of the Mohawk language and begged the Indian for mercy. With one hand, the Iroquois pushed the Tory away from the girl and with the other, buried his weapon in her temple.

The garrison was under daylong assault by Tories and Butler's rangers. The Indians avoided the fort, always fearful of cannon shot, especially grapeshot. They preferred killing, plundering and laying waste to the village and outskirts. They had no opposition, since they outnumbered the garrison force more than two to one. Those inside the fort saw the futility in venturing out to try and stop them.

Other Cherry Valley families who suffered the Indians, and equally vicious Tories, included the Rev. Samuel Dunlop and a Mr. Mitchell. Mrs. Dunlop was killed outright, sharing the fate of her sister, Mrs. Wells. Mr. Dunlop and another daughter would have been murdered but for Little Aaron, a chief of the Oghkwaga branch of Mohawks. Little Aaron led the aged, infirm old man to a doorway, where he stood beside him for protection. Indians tried to take his clothes, but the sachem stopped them. Rev. Dunlop never recovered from the event. His nerves were shattered, and he died within a year of the massacre.

Mr. Mitchell's situation was even more tragic. In the field working when he spotted the Indians, he realized he was cut off from the house. He headed into the woods, hiding until the attackers moved on. When he returned, his house was on fire, and he found his wife and 3 of their children inside, murdered. His fourth, a girl of 10 years old, although mangled and left for dead, was still alive. After putting out the small house fire, he carried his girl to the doorway, tending her wounds. He noticed a straggling party of attackers approaching. He just had time to hide, when a Tory sergeant named Newberry ran up to the door, and with a shout, drove his hatchet into the head of the little girl.

Newberry's savagery typified actions of many Tories during this period. Manywho supported english rule were especially fearful of losing lands they had cultivated and improved over the years. In many cases their savagery far outstripped that of the Indians. The following summer, by order of General James Clinton, Newberry was executed for his atrocities on the gallows at Canajoharie.

Several other families were cut off by the Indians, and in all, 32 settlers of Cherry Valley -- mostly women and children -- were killed. In addition, 16 soldiers died. Some of the inhabitants escaped, but many were wounded and/or taken prisoner.

Mrs. Clyde, the wife of Colonel Clyde, who was not in the area at the time, reached the deep woods with all her children except her oldest son, Abigail, who wasn't to be found. Although the Indians prowled the woods around her, she and the children remained hidden until the next day. Abigail had escaped also, but as she was trying to rejoin her mother the next day, she was intercepted and did not survive. Col. Colin Campbell was away from the village when the attack started, but hurried home when he heard the alarm gun from the Fort. He arrived to find his property destroyed, a member of his household killed and his wife and four children carried away as prisoners.

The following listing is from a letter in the Draper Manuscripts written Nov.24, 1778 by M. Richey, who arrived a day after the massacre at Cherry Valley. An excerpt from his letter illustrates the of the massacre

"I was never before a 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 Rev. Mr. Dunlop, likewise scalped, stripped quite naked, and much of her flesh devoured by the Indian dogs. But it would be tedious to mention all the shocking spectacles that were to be seen. I shall only give you the general account as I took it down:"

This is Richey's tabulation of those killed, captured, returned and not returned.

From the House of No. Killed
Prisoners
Prisoners
Not returned
Prisoners
Returned
Mr. Wells 13 0 2
Mr. Dunlop 3 4 1
Mr. Moon 0 0 4
Mr. Dickson 1 1 0
Mr. Johnston 1 0 0
Mr. McLeland 0 0 3
Mr. Runsey 0 1 4
Mr. Scot 2 5 3
Mr. Mitchel 5 0 2
Mr. Wilson 0 0 1
Mr. Richey 0 0 2
Mr. Lighman 0 3 1
Mr. Maghlan 0 3 0
Mr. More 0 4 0
Mr. Henderson 0 0 1
Mr. Cannon 2 0 1
Col.
Colin Campbell
1 0 4
Mr. Campbel 0 5 1
Mr. Bacon 0 8 0
Mr. Shankland 0 2 0
Mr.Hurlbut 4 0 0
Mr. Bagnel 0 5 0
Total 32 40 30

After the attack was over, 182 inhabitants of Cherry Valley were homeless, and all foodstuffs had been destroyed or carried away. It was early in November, and winter was already settling in with freezing weather.

The prisoners were marched double-time two miles south of the Fort the evening of the massacre. Large fires were kindled in a circle and the prisoners were herded into the center for the night. Many were half-clothed and they all huddled together shivering on the wet, cold ground. During the night the Indians divided the spoils, and the march was continued in the morning. A party of Indians returned to the village to search the ruins, bUT were driven off by the arrival of militia reinforcements.

The Indians and prisoners hadn't traveled far that second day when Walter Butler stopped the march. All the prisoners were brought together in a group. Butler told them they would all be released to return to Cherry Valley. There were two exceptions: Mrs. Campbell and her four children and Mrs. Moore and her children. Butler decided to keep them prisoners to punish their husbands for their activities against the King during the border wars.

When Walter Butler and his father fled to Canada, his mother and her younger children had been left behind. The Committee of Safety held them, and permission to follow the husband and son to Canada had been repeatedly denied. The returned prisoners were given a letter Butler wrote to Gen. Philip Schuyler, dated November 12, 1778.

"Sir,
I am induced by humanity to permit the persons whose names I send herewith, to return, lest the inclemency of the season, and their naked and helpless situation, might prove fatal to them, and expect that you will release an equal number of our people in your hands, amongst whom I expect you will permit Mrs. Butler and family to come to Canada; but if you insist upon it, I do engage to send you, moreover, an equal number of prisoners of yours, taken either by Rangers or Indians, and leave it to you to name the persons. I have done everything in my power to restrain the fury of the Indians from hurting women and children, or killing the prisoners who fell into our hands, and would have more effectively prevented them, but they were much incensed by the late destruction of their village of Anguaga (Unadilla) by your people. I shall always continue to act in that manner. I look upon it beneath the character of a soldier to wage war with women and children. I am sure you are conscious that Colonel Butler or myself have no desire that your women or children should be hurt. 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."

I am your humble servant,

Walter N. Butler

Capt. of the Rangers"

(Butler neglects to mention the fact that women and children made up the majority of those killed at Cherry Valley.)

With most of their prisoners released, Butler, Brant and the Indians continued on down the Susquehanna to its confluence with the Tioga, then headed up that river to Seneca country and on to Niagara. Mrs. Cannon, an aged lady, and mother of Mrs. Campbell, was too old to keep up. On the second day, exhausted, an Indian tomahawked her as she stood beside her daughter. On their return to Niagara, the Indians killed an English family named Braxton, who lived on Butternut Creek, reducing their buildings to ashes.

For generations, Joseph Brant has been accused of ordering the atrocities at Cherry Valley. On the contrary, early documents show he was not in command of the raid, and in fact did his best to save inhabitants from the axe. However, even if he had been in command, it is doubtful he could have produced a more humane result. Walter Butler was in command and made that fact clear to everyone. When Walter's father heard about the murder of the Wells family, he was shocked at his son's conduct. "I would have gone miles on my hands and knees to save that family, and why my son did not do it, God only knows." The senior Butler then accused Brant of secretly ordering the Indians to the bloody massacre to bring shame on his son's name and in retribution for not being given command.

For generations Brant has been accused of being the vicious, bloodthirsty ringleader of the Massacre of Cherry Valley. However, there are too many indications that Walter Butler was carrying out his pledge of vengeance for his treatment in the Albany jail. For example, Butler has been charged that on the night before the battle, some of his rangers wanted to secretly warn their friends in the village of the pending attack, but Butler refused to allow it. He didn't want anyone to escape the attack. Butler also stopped his rangers short of the village, ordering them to replace the powder in their weapons. Butler knew full well the Senecas would take that opportunity to start the massacre. He made no effort to stop them.

Walter N. Butler was shot, wounded and then tomahawked by an Oneida Indian on October 24, 1781, in the last important engagement of the Revolutionary War. After the Battle of Johnstown, Indians pursued Butler as he fled the field. He was shot and killed a few miles above Herkimer as he crossed West Canada Creek.

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