Driving on the Thruway along the Mohawk River on a drizzly November night, one can imagine how isolated and vulnerable early settlers in the area must have felt.
Their fear was warranted. On November 11, 1778, British soldiers, loyalists, Senecas and Mohawks, under the command of Walter Butler, attacked the fort and village of Cherry Valley.
Butler was born near Johnstown, studied law and became a lawyer in Albany. When the Revolutionary War broke out, Butler sided with the loyalists, and in late 1777, was captured while trying to recruit others to the Tory cause in German Flatts. He was sentenced to death for spying by up-and-coming Lieutenant Colonel Marinus Willett and imprisoned in Albany; but escaped and fled to Canada.
The next year, he returned to the Mohawk Valley, and with Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant, began the series of raids that led to the Cherry Valley Massacre, and the deaths of dozens of women and children. Several years later, he would again meet Marinus Willett. But this time, only one would walk away.
Marinus Willett was born in Jamaica (Queens) in 1740. He served in the French and Indian War, fighting the French at Fort Ticonderoga under General James Abercrombie in 1758.
At the start of the Revolutionary War, he was living in New York City and became involved with the Sons of Liberty. In April 1775, when the group heard about the battles at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, they broke into the New York City arsenal and commandeered the weapons. In June, he joined the Continental Army as a captain in the 1st New York Regiment.
After several postings around New York, in August 1777, Willett fought at Oriskany, and after the American defeat, he and another officer slipped through British lines down the Mohawk to Fort Dayton (Herkimer) for help. They only took spontoons as weapons and whiskey, cheese, and crackers for food.
At Fort Dayton he learned that Major General Schuyler had already dispatched a second relief force under the command of Benedict Arnold. Willett proceeded to Albany where he met with Arnold and then returned to Fort Dayton with Arnold’s army.
The Mohawk Valley remained a battleground throughout the course of the war. According to Richard Berleth, author of Bloody Mohawk, “When the fighting was over, the valley lay in ruins and as much as two-thirds of its population lay dead or had been displaced.”
In fact, the war was already effectively over when Marinus Willett once more met up with Walter Butler. British General Cornwallis surrendered his troops at Yorktown, Virginia, on October 18, 1781, but as British soldiers and loyalist supporters beat the retreat to Canada, Willett and the Tryon County Militia and 2nd Albany County Militia Regiment continued to engage in skirmishes.
On October 25, 1781, a raiding party made up of British soldiers led by Major John Ross, loyalist militiamen led by Walter Butler, and Mohawk warriors traveled through the Mohawk Valley. Colonel Willett and his militiamen forced the Tories to hasten their march toward Oneida Lake. They caught up with the British forces near West Canada Creek, and Walter Butler was killed. That portion of the river was later named Butler’s Ford.
Willett went on to live a long and prosperous life, serving in the New York State Assembly, as Sherriff of New York County and Mayor of New York City, and when he died in 1830, his funeral was attended by 10,000 mourners. Willett Street in Albany is named for him, and a large boulder in Washington Park at State and Willett Streets bears a plaque in his honor.
You can still find Butler’s Ford, and even the Butler’s ancestral home – known as Butlersbury – on a map of Fonda. But Walter Butler is still, for some, the bogeyman of the Mohawk Valley.
Locals at an event at the Fort Plain Museum, which recently hosted a talk that inspired this post, told the story of a family that purchased Butlersbury in recent years, and went to buy some building materials to make repairs. When they told the clerk about the house they were restoring, they were sent packing.
More than two centuries later, the stain of the Cherry Valley Massacre is still attached to the name and memory of Walter Butler.
Author’s note: Thanks to the Fort Plain Museum for presenting “Marinus Willett, the Battle of Johnstown and the Death of Walter Butler” on November 21, and to Terry McMaster, an independent researcher studying the settlement patterns, family connections and border warfare along colonial New York’s frontier in the 18th century.
Colleen M. Ryan has always been a storyteller. An innovative communications professional with experience in government, nonprofit and business sectors, she recently launched CMR Communications.