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John Butler

John Butler

John Butler (1728-1796), British Indian agent and loyalist leader during the American Revolution, was famous for his military exploits along the New York and Pennsylvania frontiers.

Born in Connecticut, the son of Capt. Walter Butler and Deborah Butler, John moved with his family to the Mohawk Valley of New York in 1742. As a captain in the British military, he served in the French and Indian War (1754-1763) in engagements at Crown Point, Ticonderoga, and Ft. Frontenac. He became a trusted representative of Sir William Johnson, at first commanding Native American auxiliaries and later conducting Indian affairs.

With the coming of the American Revolution, Butler fled with his son and other loyalists (American colonials who felt allegiance to the English crown rather than the urge for independence of the Colonies) to Canada. He continued to take an active role in Indian affairs and in military activities along the frontier of New York. He participated in St. Leger's fruitless British expedition of 1777. Then he began the recruitment of a band of refugee loyalists, called Butler's Rangers. As a major, he commanded these and other loyalists and their Native American allies in an invasion of Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley in the spring of 1778. His march culminated in an encounter with American colonial troops near Forty Fort, with the subsequent surrender of that post on July 4, 1778. The slaughter of some of the captives (the Wyoming Valley "massacre") has been the occasion of later, highly colored criticism of Butler. Actually, he seems to have tried, with some success, to limit the scope of the atrocities. In the following year Butler's Rangers and the Native American allies were defeated at Newton during the only pitched battle of the American general John Sullivan on his expedition into Iroquois country. In 1780 Butler reached his highest rank, that of lieutenant colonel. His military career was an exceptional one for a loyalist leader: he and his fellow exiles, his son and Sir John Johnson, were successful in raising, commanding, and making real use for the British of the loyalists who had fled from the rebel forces among the Americans. The Revolutionaries responded with the Act of Attainder in 1779 and by confiscating all Butler's property in New York. His wife and younger children were held temporarily as hostages but were eventually exchanged for other prisoners. Butler's eldest son also participated in loyalist military activities until he was killed in action in 1781.

After the war the British rewarded Butler's services with a pension and a grant of land near Niagara. Butler was prominent in the development of a Tory settlement there and served as Indian commissioner. Variously described as sturdy or fat, he lived the remainder of his years in exile, respected by the British and by other refugees for his loyalty and detested by his former fellow colonists in the United States. He died in 1796.

Further Reading

The best account of the activities of John and Walter Butler is Howard Swiggett, War out of Niagara: Walter Butler and the Tory Rangers (1933). □

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Butler, John

John Butler, 1728–96, Loyalist commander in the American Revolution, b. New London, Conn. He served in the French and Indian Wars and distinguished himself especially by leading the Native Americans in the successful British attack (1759) under Sir William Johnson against Niagara. Electing the British side after the Revolution broke out, he became a deputy to Guy Johnson at Niagara and worked to keep Native Americans friendly to the British. In the Saratoga campaign (1777) he and indigenous troops accompanied Gen. Barry St. Leger in the unsuccessful expedition down the Mohawk valley. Later he organized a Loyalist troop called Butler's Rangers, and with them he and his son, Walter Butler, attacked the frontier settlements. John Butler in 1778 raided the Wyoming Valley, defeated Zebulon Butler, took Forty Fort, and then was unable to keep his Native American allies from perpetrating the Wyoming Valley massacre. Later that year Walter Butler and Joseph Brant led a similar raid on Cherry Valley, and this also ended in a massacre. The name of Butler was thereafter anathema to the patriots. John Butler was defeated (1779) by the expedition of Gen. John Sullivan at Newtown near the present Elmira, N.Y.; later in the war Butler joined with Sir John Johnson in frontier raids.

See H. Swiggett, War out of Niagara (1933, repr. 1963).

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