Sunday, May 23, 2021

ARP202 Cherry Valley Massacre

When we last left the Mohawk Valley in Episode 197 Iroquois under Mohawk Captain Joseph Brant and the Tory force known as Butler’s Rangers under New York Colonel John Butler were wreaking havoc in upstate New York.  A series of raids over the course of the spring and summer of 1778 had left the people living in the Mohawk Valley in daily fear for their lives.  The attacks had culminated in the destruction of German Flatts in September 1778.  Thanks to advance warning and good defensive forts, the Americans had avoided a massacre there, but the destruction of a sizable village called for a response.

Unadilla and Onaquaga

In the early spring, most of the raids had come from Quebec.  Raiders would march into New York, attack isolated farms or small villages, and then return before the militia could gather and respond in force.  By the fall of 1778, the raiders were more permanently occupying territory in the Mohawk Valley.  

Incident in Cherry Valley
Joseph Brant, the Mohawk chief who was leading most of the attacks, had formed a base of operations in the village of Unadilla and Onaquaga.  Both of these were villages along the Susquehanna River.  Before the war, both villages had mixed populations of settlers and various Indian tribes.  

Unadilla had originally been an Oneida village, but had become dominated by Mohawks in the years leading up the war.  Onaquaga had been a Seneca village.  But as I said, both villages had a mix of not only various Iroquois tribes, but also some Algonquin speaking tribes as well as settlers of European descent.

By 1778, the Oneida and any patriot settlers had fled the area. The two villages were friendly to Brant’s warriors and Butler’s Rangers.  They provided shelter and supplies for the raiding armies.

Following the destruction of German Flatts in September, 1778, patriot leaders were looking to respond in kind.  New York Governor George Clinton and New York Militia General Abraham Ten Broek targeted Unadilla and Onaquaga. 

Governor Clinton sought permission to use continental soldiers to perform the raid against these villages.  Washington assigned Lieutenant Colonel William Butler.  William Butler was not any relation to the loyalist John Butler.  William had come to America with his family from Ireland years earlier and worked mostly as a fur trapper in what is today western Pennsylvania.  He served as a militia officer before the war, and took a commission with the Fourth Pennsylvania Regiment shortly after the war began.  Butler served in the Quebec Campaign, and later received distinction at the Battle of Monmouth.  Washington ordered Colonel Butler to raid the Indian bases in the Mohawk Valley to disrupt operations, but left the specifics of the campaign to the New York leaders.

Butler marched his regiment for four days from Fort Schoharie to Unadilla in early October his force of 267 men was primarily Continentals, with a few dozen New York militia joining them.  At the time Butler’s force reached Unadilla on October 6, the warriors were away.  Brant was leading a raid on an area near Kingston, NY, nearly 100 miles away. 

The civilians in Unadilla received word of the approaching fled into the woods or to Onaquaga.  Butler found the town virtually abandoned.  They did capture two Tories who said that  most of the population had fled to Onaquaga.  Butler forced the man to act as a guide, reaching Onaquaga two days later on October 8.  Again, the local population had received word of their arrival and abandoned the town.    

The Continentals burned the town of about forty homes.  Butler noted in his report that these were well-built houses with glass windows and stone fireplaces.  The men also killed or ran off any animals, and destroyed grain warehouses and anything else of value.  They completed their work in a few hours, then beginning the march back to Unadilla.  

They reached Unadilla again on October 10, still abandoned.  Again, the men destroyed the town burning all the buildings, including two mills, running off or killing the livestock, and destroying grain.  Between the two villages, the raids destroyed the homes and winter food of about 700 residents.  The only home they spared was the one that belonged to the captured Tory who served as their guide.

Rain and flooding slowed the expedition’s return to Fort Schoharie.  By October 16, the men had returned.  Because the warriors were away, and the civilians fled, there were no casualties.  But the loss of the two villages was devastating to the residents, many of whom were the families of Brant’s warriors.

Christopher Carleton

Back in Quebec, General Frederick Haldimand saw the series of raids conducted by Brant’s Iroquois warriors and Butler’s Rangers a great success in challenging American control of upstate New York.  Late in the year, he approved a raid by British regulars into New York.  To lead the raid, Haldimand selected Major Christopher Carleton.  

Frederick Haldimand

Major Carleton was the nephew of General Guy Carleton.  Major Carleton's parents had died at sea when he was only four years old.  His uncle assisted with his education and upbringing.  At age 12, his family purchased a commission for him in the regular army.  After a few years, he purchased a lieutenancy and married Anne Howard, the sister of Maria Howard, who was the wife of his Uncle Guy Carleton.  

Lieutenant Carleton served in Quebec in the years after the French and Indian War.  He spent several years living with the Mohawk and learning their language.  Later, he would be transferred back to England and receive a promotion to captain.  In 1776, Captain Carleton was part of the relief force sent to Quebec.  He served as an aide on General Carleton’s staff, and also led several detachments of Mohawk warriors during the 1776 campaign that included the battle at Valcour Island.  The following year, he purchased a major’s commission in another regiment, where his other uncle, Thomas Carleton, was a Lieutenant Colonel.

Major Carleton remained with his regiment in Quebec when Burgoyne’s army marched into New York, eventually leading to the army’s surrender at Saratoga.  With Burgoyne’s army now prisoners, the reduced garrison in Quebec feared another American attack.

Carleton’s Raid

After General Carleton returned to England, the new Commander, General Frederick Haldimand continued to take actions to make any such invasion more difficult.  In August, Haldimand deployed a force under loyalist leader John Peters, to destroy a road that the Americans were building in the Onion Valley, in what is today northern Vermont, that might be used as part of an invasion of Canada.  The group also was tasked with the capture of Colonel Moses Hazen, a Continental officer who had lived in Quebec and who was clearing the road in the Onion Valley in hopes of encouraging another US invasion of Quebec.

The group of loyalists and Indians led by Peters failed after the Indians became unhappy with his command and insisted on returning to Canada.  The Peters raid, therefore, petered out after the destruction of only a few homes.

Haldimand then tasked Major Carleton to lead a new raid, knowing that Carleton had a good relationship with the Indians and regulars alike.  Carleton took a group of about 350 regulars and loyalists, along with about 100 Indian warriors.  His men boarded two ships, the Carleton, named after his uncle, and the Maria, named after his aunt, both of which had been part of the fleet during the Valcour Island campaign.  Rounding out the fleet were two smaller gunboats and many bateaux.

The fleet would sail up Lake Champlain, destroying any buildings and food stores that could be of benefit to an invading army.  They would also round up prisoners who were potentially friendly to the patriot cause.  They departed on October 24, and arrived at Crown Point, near the southern end of Lake Champlain on October 31.  Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga were both abandoned ruins by this time.  The Americans made no attempt to occupy them, nor did Carleton’s force attempt to set up a garrison.  Instead the raiders captured men they thought friendly to the American cause, and to destroy any buildings, food, or other supplies which could be of benefit to an American force that wanted to invade Quebec.

The men spent the next couple of weeks raiding farms and villages near the lake.  At Moore’s Mill, near what is today Shoreham, Vermont, the local militia fired on the raiders, leading to one of them being wounded.  But the resistance only lasted a few minutes before the militia withdrew.

The force returned to the northern end of Lake Champlain on November 14.  Major Carleton’s report to General Haldimand boasted that the raiders had destroyed enough supplies to have supported 12,000 men on a four month campaign.  The raiders destroyed a saw mill, a grist mill, 47 houses, and 48 barns.  The men had captured 80 head of cattle, which they drove back to Quebec.  They also took seventy-nine prisoners of suspected patriots.

The Americans had suspected there would be a fall raid, but it came so late that the Americans had already gone home for the winter.  The only reported battle casualty was the one wounded soldier from Moore’s Mill. Another man had been killed by a falling tree, and seventeen were reported missing after an overloaded bateaux sank on Lake Champlain.  The raiders did not report any enemy casualties, just the captured prisoners.

The Carleton raid was relatively uneventful because most American settlers who lived near lake Champlain had long abandoned the area because of the fear of attack.  In upstate New York, however, the fighting only seemed to be growing.

After the Americans destroyed Unadilla and Onaquaga, the raiders under Joseph Brant returned to the area.  They were not happy with the destruction and began considering where to take their revenge.

Col. William Butler

Joining Brant for the raid was another Tory militia officer named Walter Butler.  This is the third Butler that I’ve mentioned recently, so it may be getting confusing.  First, we had Colonel John Butler who was the loyalist from upstate New York who fled to Quebec and founded Butler’s Rangers.  I also introduced Lieutenant Colonel William Butler, who was no relation and who led the Continental raid against Unadilla and Onaquaga.

Butler's Rangers
Leading this raid with Brant was Major Walter Butler.  Walter was the son of the Tory Colonel John Butler.  Walther was serving as an officer in Butler’s Rangers.  He had served with Brant under General Barry St. Leger and fought at the battle of Oriskany.  

After the surrender of Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga, Butler snuck back into New York from Quebec with the hope of recruiting more loyalists for Butler’s Rangers.  In late 1777, the Americans captured him at a tavern in German Flatts, and arrested him.  He was convicted and sentenced to death.  While awaiting execution of sentence, Butler spent most of the winter in an Albany jail.

Butler had lived in Albany for a time before the war, while he was studying law.  So he had many friends and family in the area.  After claiming to get sick, Butler’s friends convinced local authorities to let him move into a nearby home under house arrest.  There, someone could tend to his health.  Authorities did not give him parole as he was not considered an enemy soldier.  Rather, he was a convicted criminal.  They posted an armed guard at the house.

The owners of the home, as well as others, conspired to help him escape.  One night, an attractive woman got the guard drunk until he passed out.  Locals provided Butler with a horse and supplies to make his escape back to Niagara.

Butler then joined up with Brant for much of the raiding over the summer and fall of 1778.  By some accounts, the two men did not really get along well.  Brant found Butler to be arrogant and ill-tempered, while Butler resented having to serve under Brant.

After the American assault on Unadilla and Onaquaga, the two British leaders agreed on a joint attack against Cherry Valley.

Cherry Valley

Cherry Valley was a small village about fifty miles from Unadilla.  The Americans had built a fort there to protect the community.  It was under the command of Colonel Ichabod Alden, with a regiment of 300 Continental soldiers.  

Alden was a Massachusetts officer who had joined the fight shortly after Lexington in 1775.  He was from Plymouth and a direct descendant of John Alden, the Pilgrim.  After the war moved south from Boston, Colonel Alden remained in New England on fairly easy duty.  In July 1778, General John Stark ordered Alden and his regiment to Cherry Valley New York in order to protect against Indian raids.  The Continentals had built a fort there, which was a log stockade surrounding to block houses.  They named it Fort Alden in honor of the commander.

The regiment had been on alert for the summer and fall, but by November, everyone was pretty well convinced that the fighting was over until spring. Alden had moved out of the fort and was staying in a nearby home as his winter quarters.  Other officers had also moved into nearby homes, some with their families.

The Massacre

Brant held a meeting of local tribes and included other Tories in a meeting to discuss the attack on Cherry Valley.  At that meeting was at least one American spy.  The Commander at Fort Schuyler, Major Robert Cochrane, received word that the joint native-Tory force had agreed to target Cherry Valley.  He sent a note by messenger to Alden warning him of the attack.  Alden received the note on November 8.

Joseph Brant
Rumors of an imminent attack spread around Cherry Valley.  Local residents had put their valuables in the fort during the summer in anticipation of an attack, but had moved back to their homes for the winter.  Now, they sought to return to the fort.  Alden dismissed the warning note as an “idle Indian rumor” and did not bother to move anyone or anything back to the fort.  Instead, he sent out several scouting parties on November 9 to look for any evidence of an attacking force.

One of the scouting parties of about ten men under Sergeant Adam Hunter moved south from Cherry Valley.  Not terribly concerned about finding anything, they did not make much effort to hide their presence.  One morning, the camp awoke to find itself surrounded by enemy warriors.  Sergeant Hunter immediately recognized one of the leaders.  A year earlier, he had been on guard duty in Albany, when a young woman got him drunk and allowed his prisoner to escape.  Now Hunter was looking directly at that former prisoner, Major Walter Butler.

Under interrogation Hunter told Butler about the defenses at Cherry Valley, and the fact that the officers were quartered in nearby homes.  The attackers organized a plan to send in squads to take out the officers at their homes before launching the main attack on the fort.

A group of Seneca warriors attack the Wells house where Alden and his Lieutenant Colonel William Stacy were staying.  Many of these warriors had just had their home destroyed at Onaquaga, so they were not in a great mood.  They swarmed the home seeking to kill everyone inside.  Colonel Alden fled the home and, according to some stories, was chased down by Joseph Brant himself.  Alden fired at Brant, but his gun misfired. Brant threw a tomahawk into Alden’s head, killing him.  Brant then scalped the colonel and returned to the Wells home.

The warriors went on a killing spree in nearby homes.  They slaughtered the Wells family where Alden and Stacy were staying, even though Wells was a friend of loyalist Colonel John Butler.  The attackers killed the women and children, something that Brant had struggled to prevent in earlier raids.

The attackers failed to take the main garrison in Fort Alden, but the garrison inside had to watch as the attackers went on a rampage against the surrounding homes.  In total, the attackers killed 14 soldiers and 30 civilians, mostly women and children.  They also captured another 11 soldiers and 60 civilians, again mostly women and children.

The raiders burned most of the town and withdrew with their prisoners.  According to one story, the warriors prepared to dispatch the soldier prisoners that evening, preparing a stake for Lieutenant Colonel Stacy, where he might be tortured or burned alive.  Butler seemed willing to allow this to continue.  Stacy allegedly appealed to Brant as a fellow freemason for mercy.  Brant stepped in and ended the proceedings.  Stacy would be taken back to Niagara as a prisoner.

The attackers also released about half of their prisoners to return to Cherry Valley.  Butler pointedly kept as prisoner a Mrs. Moore and a Mrs. Campbell, along with their children.  Butler knew their husbands.  John Moore was a delegate to the Provincial Congress from Tryon County, and Colonel Samuel Campbell served on the Tryon County Committee of Safety.  Butler’s own mother and some of his siblings were still being held as prisoners by the patriots.  Shortly after the attack, Butler sent a letter to General Phillip Schuyler suggesting an exchange of the captured families for his own.  He also noted that he had gone to great efforts to keep the Indians from killing these prisoners and was not sure how much longer he could do so.  That exchange would not take place for another two years.  

The group made their way back to Niagara, although Mrs. Campbell’s mother, an elderly lady, could not keep up and was tomahawked to death.  At fort Niagara, Butler allegedly had to prevent Brant’s sister, Molly Brant, from turning over Colonel Stacy to an angry group of Indian warriors.  Stacy would also spend years in captivity, not returning home until the war was essentially over in 1782.

News of the Cherry Valley massacre only inflamed tensions further.  George Washington would order a campaign against the native tribes in upstate New York the following year in retaliation for these attacks.  That, of course, will be the topic of a future episode.

Next week we head to the Caribbean where the British and French battle over the islands of Dominica and St. Lucia. 

- - -

Next Episode 203 Dominica & St Lucia 

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Further Reading


William Butler raids Unadilla and Onaquaga

Timeline 1778:

Joseph Brant:

Walter Butler:

Sturtevant, Jessica “Carleton’s Raid on the Champlain Valley” Valley Voice, 2018

The Battle of Cherry Valley (Massacre):

Cherry Valley Massacre:

Fort Alden:

“To George Washington from George Clinton, 24 September 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Lieutenant Colonel William Butler, 27 September 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Lieutenant Colonel William Butler, 2 October 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from George Clinton, 3 October 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from George Clinton, 15 October 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

 “From George Washington to George Clinton, 16 October 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from George Clinton, 17 October 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Colonel Ichabod Alden, 4 November 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Campbell, Douglas Central New York in the revolution: an address delivered August 15th, 1878, at the unveiling of a monument in commemoration of the massacre at Cherry Valley, New York in 1778, New York: F.J. Ficker, Law & Job Printer, 1878. 

Cruikshank, E. A. Story of Butler's Rangers and the Settlement of Niagara, Welland, Ontario: Tribune printing house, 1893. 

Halsey, Francis W. The Old New York Frontier, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902 (online recommendation of the week):

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Graymont, Barbara The Iroquois in the American Revolution, Syracuse University Press, 1972 (book recommendation of the week). 

Kelsay, Isabel Thompson Joseph Brant, 1743-1807, Man of Two Worlds, Syracuse Univ. Press, 1984. 

Mintz, Max M. Seeds of Empire: The American Revolutionary Conquest of the Iroquois, NYU Press, 1999. 

Reynolds, Paul R. Guy Carleton: A Biography, William Morrow,1980. 

Swigget, Howard War out of Niagara, Port Washington, NY: I.J. Friedman. .

Williams, Glenn F. Year of the Hangman: George Washington's Campaign Against the Iroquois, Westholme Publishing, 2005. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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