Cherry Valley Massacre, New York

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Cherry Valley Massacre, New York

CHERRY VALLEY MASSACRE, NEW YORK. 11 November 1778. In the spring of 1778 Major John Butler, who directed Loyalist activities from Niagara, planned to disrupt the northern frontier as a strategic diversion from General Sir Henry Clinton's plans to move up the Hudson River valley. Toward this end, Butler led an expedition that ended in the Wyoming Valley Massacre in Pennsylvania on 3-4 July. His son, Walter Butler, was given command of another Loyalist force that joined Joseph Brant's Indians for an attack in Cherry Valley.

In addition to distracting the Patriots, this campaign sought to secure British bases in the west. The Mohawk Valley settlements formed a salient that stretched toward Loyalist-held Fort Oswego and along the northern boundary of Iroquois territory. (See map "Mohawk Valley,") From his base at Unadilla, Joseph Brant raided settlements including German Flats on 13 September 1778. Patriots retaliated by destroying Unadilla on 8 October. A successful counterstroke now against Cherry Valley would relieve the pressure on Unadilla while setting the stage for operations against the Schoharie Valley and Canajoharie. The Loyalists might then move against Fort Stanwix (later Fort Schuyler) and regain the homes from which they had been forced to flee.

By the time Walter Butler and his Rangers reached the theater of operations, however, Patriot forces had returned to ravaged Wyoming and moved up the Susquehanna. In October, therefore, young Butler waited in his camp at Chemung, near Tioga, for this threat to subside, with plans to join forces with Brant at Oquago (later Windsor). While it is not clear why Butler delayed his attack so long, knowing that the Patriots would have more time to prepare their defenses, one reason might be that he had to make sure of his line of retreat through Tioga. It was also the case that it took time to persuade his Indian allies that it was in their interest to join the campaign.


In the summer of 1740 a John Lindsay left New York City and established the first farm in the isolated valley to which he subsequently gave the name Cherry Valley. During the next ten years not more than four families joined Lindsay, but cordial relations were established with the Mohawks and, since this nation remained generally loyal to the British, the settlement survived the Seven Years' War unscathed. Early in 1775 they associated themselves with the Patriot faction and the next summer raised a company of rangers under the command of Captain Robert M'Kean. When this unit was ordered away, the Cherry Valley settlers started petitioning for troops. The New York Provincial Congress responded to their appeal of 1 July 1776 by sending a company of rangers under Captain Richard Winn. The house of Colonel Samuel Campbell was fortified and enclosed to form a place where the inhabitants could gather for safety. Since Joseph Brant assembled a considerable number of warriors around Oquago (sixty miles southwest) and appeared in Unadilla during the summer of 1777, military law was established in the Cherry Valley and most of the inhabitants gathered around Campbell's house. They responded to General Nicholas Herkimer's call to meet St. Leger's expedition but arrived too late for the Battle of Oriskany. In the spring of 1778 Colonel Campbell joined Lafayette at Johnstown, explained the exposed position of the valley, and convinced him of the need for a fort there.

Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Cherry Valley returned to their stockade at Campbell's while waiting for the new fort to be built. Refugees came in from Unadilla and other settlements. Brant's forces remained active in the vicinity, snapping up a few prisoners and forcing the inhabitants to form armed parties to work their farms. Colonel Ichabod Alden arrived in July with his Seventh Massachusetts, numbering about 250 men, to take command. Alden has been much criticized as a poor officer, and his men had no experience of frontier warfare. Ironically, Colonel Peter Gansevoort had sought the assignment of garrisoning Cherry Valley with his regiment, the defenders of Fort Stanwix, but Alden was given the post.

James Deane, Schuyler's chief spy, had been sending in accurate intelligence of Loyalist-Indian activities and intentions. It was hoped that a Seneca chief called Great Tree, who returned to his people after spending some time in Washington's headquarters, would prevail on the Iroquois to cancel their plans for war against the frontier, but Deane reported in October that Great Tree had changed heart after hearing rumors of a planned invasion of Iroquois territory by Patriot forces. On 6 November a warning was sent to Alden from Stanwix: information had been received from friendly Indians of a "great meeting of Indians and Tories" on the Chemung (Tioga) River, at which Walter Butler was present and where the decision had been made to attack Cherry Valley. Alden sent his thanks, but made no further defensive arrangements.


The settlers got wind of this recent advisory from Fort Stanwix and asked to move into the new fort, or at least to store their valuables there. But Alden refused, assuring them that the intelligence was probably wrong and that the presence of their property in Fort Alden would tempt his soldiers to pilfer it. He did, however, send out reconnaissance parties. The members of the one that scouted down the Susquehanna were captured the morning of 10 November as they slept around their fire. Based on information from the prisoners that the rebel officers were billeted outside the fort, Butler and Brant planned their attack. On the night of 10-11 November, several inches of snow fell, and the next morning a thick haze and rain concealed the raiders' approach on the sleeping settlement.

The plan was first to hit the houses in which the officers were known to be billeted and then to attack the fort. At 11 a.m. the Loyalists and Indians were approaching their objective when a farmer rode by on his way to the fort. The Indians fired and wounded him but he escaped to spread the alarm. While the Rangers stopped to check their firearms, an advance party of Senecas raced ahead to attack the Wells house, four hundred yards from the fort, where Alden was billeted with Lieutenant Colonel William Stacey and a headquarters company of 20 or 40 men. Alden ran for the fort but was killed well short of reaching it. Stacey was captured and several other officers and men were killed. The fort closed its gates and held out for the next several hours, Brant and Butler withdrawing at 3:30 p.m.

Turning from the fort to the homes scattered nearby, the raiders found six of the forty homes occupied. The Patriot prisoners held Butler responsible for the murder of some two dozen civilians while crediting Brant with preventing the killing of women and children.

Captain John McDonnell led a sortie from the fort that saved many settlers who had taken refuge in the woods. The raiders withdrew with seventy-one prisoners, most of whom were released the next day. On the morning of the 12th, having camped near Cherry Valley, Butler started his long retreat to Niagara. Since his mother and wife, as well as the wives of several Loyalist officers, were prisoners in Albany, Butler kept two women and their seven children as hostages. (Colonel Campbell's wife and four children as well as Mrs. James Moore and three daughters.) He also took with him just over twenty slaves, who certainly welcomed their liberation.


From a military viewpoint the Cherry Valley raid was a brilliant coup executed in the face of great difficulties. Its success was due largely to incompetent rebel leadership, which largely explains why American accounts prefer to dwell on the horrific aspects of the battle.

The Cherry Valley Massacre became another symbol of Loyalist-Indian barbarity, further feeding the cycle of violence against noncombatants. Just as the Mohawks were responding to the attack on Unadilla in moving against Cherry Valley, so the Patriots now retaliated by launching Sullivan's expedition against the Iroquois from May to November 1779. It was supported by Brodhead's expedition and Clark's western operations.

SEE ALSO Brant, Joseph; Butler, John; Butler, Walter; Clinton, Henry; German Flats, New York; Herkimer, Nicholas; Oriskany, New York; St. Leger's Expedition; Tryon County, New York; Unadilla, New York; Wyoming Valley Massacre, Pennsylvania.


Kelsaym Isabel T. Joseph Brant, 1743–1807: Man of Two Worlds. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1984.

Swiggett, Howard. War out of Niagara: Walter Butler and the Tory Rangers. New York: Columbia University Press, 1933.

                              revised by Micheal Bellesiles

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Cherry Valley Massacre, New York

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