There is an absorbing mystery about his life and character. The date of his birth is unknown [but almost certainly 1752, Swiggett says]. There is a legend of his marriage to a daughter of Catharine Montour, and another with a daughter of Sir William Johnson…. There is no physical description of him except in fiction. Letters about him in catalogues even of the Schuyler Papers, the Gates Papers,… and many other papers, are mysteriously marked missing…. The histories have contented themselves with denouncing him as a bloody monster, but back of the histories in the primary material of the Revolution there is an amazing figure" (pp. 4-5).
A son of John Butler, he was raised in the Mohawk Valley. On 18 February 1768 he was commissioned an ensign in the militia regiment of which his father was lieutenant colonel. In 1770 Walter, whom Swiggett calls "the most brilliant young man in the Valley," went to study law in the office of Peter Silvester in Albany. When news of Bunker Hill reached the Mohawk Valley, the Butlers, Guy Johnson, and Joseph Brant left for Oswego, where they arrived 17 July 1775. Walter led a force of thirty Indians and rangers in an envelopment that defeated Ethan Allen at Montreal on 25 September 1775, and he took part in the action at the Cedars in May 1776.
As an ensign in the Eighth (King's) Regiment, he accompanied St. Leger's expedition, and after taking part in the Oriskany ambush, he volunteered for "one of the bravest and most audacious enterprises of the war" (Swiggett, p. 90). With about fifteen men he left the British camp around Fort Stanwix on 10 or 11 August and headed for German Flats with St. Leger's proclamation and the appeals of Sir John Johnson and John Butler for the inhabitants of the Mohawk Valley to join the Loyal cause. He was holding a midnight meeting at Shoemaker's House when militia troops of Colonel Weston, informed of his presence, surrounded the place and took him prisoner. On 21 August he was convicted of espionage and sentenced to hang. Marinus Willett signed the minutes as J. A., and Benedict Arnold, who was on his way to relieve Fort Stanwix, approved the sentence. Upon the intercession of various Continental officers, including Schuyler, Butler was reprieved and imprisoned in Albany. On 21 April 1778 he escaped from the house in which he apparently was living on parole. Down Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence, Butler went first to Quebec and then to Niagara. His commission as captain had been signed on 20 December, while he was imprisoned at Albany.
The Cherry Valley massacre, on 11 November 1778, was Captain Butler's most notorious operation. In October 1781 he accompanied Ross's raid to the Mohawk and was killed at Jerseyfield (Canada Creek) on 30 October 1781. Swiggett, commenting on the various myths surrounding Butler's death, says that "there is a legend that Tories brought his body secretly to St. George's Church, Schenectady, and that he is buried there. It seems unlikely: wolves were closing in on the armies" (ibid., p. 243). That Butler begged for quarter and that an Oneida shouted "Sherry Valley quarter" just before killing him with a tomahawk has been shown by Swiggett to be "myth-making at its worst" (ibid., p. 251). Another fabrication, which even the Dictionary of American Biography has perpetuated, was to give Butler a middle initial. He had no middle name, but Swiggett has theorized that "the infamous Walter N. Butler" sounded more villainous than "the infamous Walter Butler."
Was Butler a violent man whose pathological anger found outlet in frontier Revolutionary conflict? Cautiously, historians stress several structural considerations. One was generational. Butler's father, John, a veteran of the Seven Years' War, understood white-Native American politics, and in 1777 he mended his relations with the Mohawk leaders Joseph and Mary Brant. Butler saw Indian warriors as useful in controlling a chaotic situation, but could not grasp the idea of Indian allies fighting along side white Loyalists. For another, the Mohawks paid close attention to the style and authenticity of white Loyalist military leadership. "What young Butler lacked in experience," Graymont has observed, "he made up for in hauteur. The Indians were not impressed" (Iroquois, p. 190). What most magnified Butler's brutality was his refusal to share command of Indian fighters with Brant in the Cherry Valley massacre in 1778; terrorized white Patriot families credited Joseph Brant and thirty of his Mohawk braves with saving their lives.
Graymont, Barbara. The Iroquois in the American Revolution. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1972.
Sosin, Jack M. "The Use of Indians in the War of the American Revolution: A Re-assessment of Responsibility." Canadian Historical Review 46 (1965): 101-121.
Swiggett, Howard. War out of Niagara: Walter Butler and the Tory Rangers. New York, Columbia University Press, 1933.
revised by Robert M. Calhoon
Butler, Walter (Ernest) (1898-1978)
Butler, Walter (Ernest) (1898-1978)
Author of books on magic and other occult subjects. He was born August 23, 1898, in England. In 1924 he married Gladys Irene Newell. After serving in the British Army (1917-29), he worked for many years as an engineer (1929-56). From 1956 to 1963 he was a member of the technical staff in charge of physical chemistry, department workshop, at University of Southampton, England.
He began experimenting with magical studies as a child and studied yoga while stationed in India with the British Army. In England, he became associated for a time with occultist Dion Fortune and her Fraternity of the Inner Light. In 1954 Butler was active in the Southampton Group of the Churches' Fellow-ship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies. His teachings and many books formed the substance of the magical Servants of the Light Association. His The Magician: His Training and Work (1959) is a classic text for basic magical training.
Butler, Walter E. Apprenticed to Magic. 1962. Reprint, Wellingborough, England: Aquarian Press, 1990.
——. How to Read the Aura, Practice Psychometry, Telepathy, and Clairvoyance. New York: Warner Destiny Books, 1978.
——. An Introduction to Telepathy. 1975.
——. Magic: Its Ritual, Power, and Purpose. London: Aquarian Press, 1952.
——. The Magician: His Training and Work. London: The Aquarian Press, 1959. Reprint, North Hollywood, Calif.: Wilshire Book, 1959.