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:
In October, 1781, I was inlisted in the state troops for four months and was then stationed at Fort Herkimer in a company of Capt. Peter Van Ranselaer [Rensselaer] and Lieut. John Spencer. Some time in November after Col. Willett had a battle with Major Ross at Johnstown he arrived at Fort Herkimer. Our company then was ordered to join with Col. Willett’s men and with them we crossed the river from the south to the north side the next morning; we were marched to the north through the Royal Grants and encamped in the woods, made fire; some snow had fell that day. The next morning by daybreak we marched on to the enemy about one and came with the rear of the enemy, took some prisoners and Lieut. John Rykeman, several of their horses with blankets and provisions and packs on — we then pursued the enemy on to Jersey Field and in coming down a hill to the creek, we received a very strong fire from the enemy who had [crossed] the West Canada Creek, which was returned from Willett’s men with spirit. The enemy on the west side of the creek and Willett’s men on the east side. One of the Oneida Indians having got near the creek saw Major Butler look from behind a tree to Willett’s men at the east, took aim at him and shot him through his hat and upper part of his head. Butler fell, the enemy run, the Indian run through the rest of the Indians and [an] advance immediately followed when Indian who shot Butler arrived first having noticed particular where Butler fell; he was tottering up and down in great agony, partly setting, looking the Indian in the face when the Indian shot him about through the eyebrow and eye and immediately took his scalp off. The Oneida Indians then mostly got up and give tremendous yell and war hoop, immediately striped Butler of all his close, left him naked laying on his face. The Indian walked forward (the rest followed) with the scalp in his hand; came to the guard called out, ‘I have Butler’s scalp,’ struck it against a tree, ‘take the blood’ [evidently addressing] Lieut. Rykeman who was in the guard, [and] struck it at his face [saying] ‘Butler’s scalp, you Bogen.’ Rykeman drew his head back and avoided the stroke. I saw two [of] his sergeants and little farther saw another of the enemy shot through the body. Butler was killed about 11 o’clock. We pursued the enemy until evening and returned the morning, past Butler again in the position we left him the day before. I believe he never was buried.
Butler died just as the cause he fought for also died. His death was announced at the same time as the news reached frontier New York of the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.
I think the historical Butler would have been pleased by his portrayal by Benet in The Devil and Daniel Webster:
Walter Butler rose in his place and his face had a dark, gay pride on it. “The jury has considered its verdict,” he said, and looked the stranger full in the eye. “We find for the defendant, Jabez Stone.”
With that, the smile left the stranger’s face, but Walter Butler did not flinch.
“Perhaps ’tis not strictly in accordance with the evidence,” he said, “but even the damned may salute the eloquence of Mr. Webster.”
With that, the long crow of a rooster split the gray morning sky, and judge and jury were gone from the room like a puff of smoke and as if they had never been there. The stranger turned to Dan’l Webster, smiling wryly. “Major Butler was always a bold man,” he said. “I had not thought him quite so bold.