A Brief History of Butler’s Rangers
John Butler was born in 1725 at New Haven, Connecticut, to his Irish father Walter and his mother Deborah (neé Dennis). Walter joined the British army at a young age. He and roughly thirty Sergeants were sent to America during Queen Anne’s War, the second of four wars fought between the British and French for control of the continent. Their goal was to provide leadership and training to the colonial militia units taking part in Nicholson’s expedition in 1711 to capture Canada. By 1712, Britain had won from France most of what are the present-day maritime provinces of Canada and Hudson’s Bay. He settled in New Haven and married Deborah, whose family had been in the area for several generations. In 1728, he was posted to an Independent Company at Albany and detached to Ft. Hunter, present-day Fonda NY, and he began purchasing land in the area. He soon moved his family there and left New Haven. He developed a friendship and professional relationship with Sir William Johnson, another man of Irish descent, and arguably the most influential colonial in upper New York province. Johnson held great influence with British officials, Colonials and Indians alike. He helped Walter elevate his stature in the area and assisted him in acquiring lands; one purchase alone amounted to more than 60,000 acres. Walter Butler died in 1760, just short of 80 years, having served more than 60 years in the British army and retiring as a Lieutenant.
John Butler lived in the Mohawk valley since he was fourteen, and as such, was familiar with Indian customs and languages. He spoke several of the Iroqoian languages. Naturally, he entered into service for His Majesty, George II in the British Indian Department, working under the guidance of William Johnson. In 1752, Butler married Catherine Bradt, and in total they raised five children. John was very active in battle during the Seven Years’ War, aka the French and Indian War. In 1755 he was part of the expedition to Crown Point which ended in the death of his elder brother Walter and a defeat for the British. His own contributions at this battle, however, were greatly appreciated, and he escaped all injury. He also fought at Ticonderoga and Ft. Frontenac. He was with Johnson when the British captured Ft. Niagara from the French in 1759, and was placed in charge of the Indians after the death of General Prideaux. During Pontiac’s Rebellion, he was instrumental in restraining the Six Nations Confederacy from joining the fight against the British. William Johnson died in 1774, which was unfortunate for Butler because he and William Johnson had always enjoyed friendly relations with each other, so much so that Butler was translating for Johnson to the Indians right up to when he was near death. After Johnson’s passing, Butler’s reputation came into question with the junior Johnson, Sir John Johnson and with his associate Col. Christian Daniel Claus. They made life difficult for Butler throughout the rest of his life, for reasons that are still unknown to us today. Butler himself had numerous properties, but his home was always Fonda. He was a judge in the county court and a Colonel in the militia.
The province of New York was one of the last to join in the rebellion against the constitutional government of the colonies, and as such, battles began later there. When fighting started in Massachusetts, New York watched with unease. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, people were already in their respective factions, but the province enjoyed a nervous peace a little while longer. No Rebel organization or committee appeared in the Mohawk Valley until 1775, compared to the rest of the colonies which were ripe with rebellion by then. Near the end of his life, Sir William Johnson had helped several Scot and Irish immigrants settle in the area. Local Whig supporters were upset with any immigration from Catholics, and their distrust of the prominent families grew. After William died in 1774 and John Johnson took over, he fortified Johnson House and Whigs interpreted this decision as Johnson surrounding himself with ‘popish’ soldiers. With neither side trusting the other, people’s allegiances quickly solidified.
In 1774, Butler was instrumental in confirming that there were secret French efforts at work in the colonies to stir up the Indians. At this time the Shawanese were carrying out skirmishes against settlers whom they felt were violating the terms of the Royal Proclamation Line, 1763. Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, mobilized troops and subdued the Shawanese. Butler’s effort was spent in restraining the Six Nations, who were very motivated to help the Shawanese. The suspicions of French agents working in the colonies came from Britain, but Butler was instrumental in providing proof. He discovered the Senecas with an “axe belt” given to them by a mysterious French agent called ‘Sang-blanc.’ The Seneca claimed that this man also brought the message that “their French father is not dead, but sleeping.” Furthermore, the Seneca admitted that several ‘bad belts’ were to be found among the Shawanese also. The confirmation of these rumours with real evidence from the field was invaluable to British intelligence, thanks in no small measure to Butler.
During 1775, Butler’s son Walter and many of his yet-unincorporated Rangers assisted in defending Montreal against the Rebel assault. Although the city did fall, Walter Butler’s men defeated Ethan Allen’s forces and Allen was captured, sent to prison in Great Britain, and later parolled. John Butler’s greatest contribution during this year however, was in keeping the various Native groups neutral or even sympathetic to the British cause. With specific orders from Sir Guy Carleton, he did exactly that, showing a generous hand in gifts to the various nations. In March 1776, he received orders to retake Montreal. Johnson and Claus were in London at the time, so the planning fell to Butler. It was executed with great success and Guy Carleton reported many good things about Butler because of it. Due to this, serious plans were made to try and kidnap Butler, and a ransom was made for his scalp totalling, in 1776, $1000.
By June 1777, Butler was asked to lead an expedition of men from the Indian Department to join with Col. St. Leger coming from Montreal, in an attack against Rebel forces at Ft. Stanwix. Up to this point, no significant fighting or battles had taken place in the Province of New York. On August 6th, this changed. Gen. Nicholas Herkimer was advancing with 800-1000 members of Tryon County militia to relieve the garrison at Stanwix. Crown forces, with assistance from Indians, ‘rangering’ type soldiers from the Indian dept., and Johnson’s newly-minted King’s Royal Regiment of New York, amounted to around 500. They took positions around ‘Orisca field,’ or Oriskany, and waited as Herkimer advanced. Butler hoped to avert bloodshed, knowing that within Herkimer’s own family there was sympathy for the British position.
There is no need to recount the Battle of Oriskany in great detail here; suffice to say that it was precisely planned, and the Rebel militia walked straight into the trap that was prepared for them, despite having 60 Oneida with them as guides. Had it not been for some over-zealous Indians, not even the rear guard would have escaped. The Indians began the engagement with a strong volley and then ran in to do further damage with their tomahawks. Much has been said about the bravery of Gen. Herkimer who, despite being severely wounded in the leg, was able to prop himself up and command his men. While this may be true, the important fact is that the Crown forces won this battle, despite being outnumbered, showing that Loyalists could plan and execute a battle well. It also proved that loyal American colonists were just as serious for their cause as were the Rebels. They then moved on and attempted to take Ft. Stanwix, however the garrison there was secured in fairly tight and refused to give in. Soon, word came that Benedict Arnold was advancing with fresh troops to relieve the fort and engage the loyal fighters. A retreat was ordered.
Butler followed the return march to Montreal to settle some personal affairs there, and presented some of the main Indian chiefs to Sir Guy Carleton. At this time also, he brought up an idea he had proposed before; to raise a company of Rangers who were to serve with the Indians. Having seen Butler’s successes in Montreal and Oriskany, Carleton readily agreed. On September 15, 1777, Butler received his official beating orders. Instructed to form eight companies of such men, it eventually grew to ten. Each were to be comprised of one Captain, one Lieutenant, three Sergeants, three Corporals, and 50 Privates. Two of these companies were ordered to be filled with men who spoke some form of Indian language, and were familiar with their social customs and methods of fighting. They were to know the woods well. General Haldimand later added that they were to “shoot well, to march well, and to endure privation and fatigue.” They were to clothe and equip themselves at their own expense, however the pay given them was noticeably higher than that of other provincial corps. They wore green coats faced white. On his return from Montreal to his base of operations for this war, Ft. Niagara, Butler learned that his eldest son Walter had been captured and imprisoned in Albany by Rebels. Complicating matters, the Indians’ fidelity was wavering. Despite these worrisome matters, Butler had the first two companies of Rangers filled by December that same year.
The Battle of Wyoming Valley occured in July 1778 and it has often been called a massacre. It is true that the Rangers defeated a well-drilled detachment of the Continental Army, and it is true that there was some killing of prisoners afterwards. As is the case with Cherry Valley, Indians were seeking revenge against the Whig inhabitants for perceived attacks and injustices against their communities. Butler did his best to contain their rage. Regardless, this was a convincing victory for the corps, who needed some positive reinforcement after the impasse at Stanwix the previous year. They tasted more of this victory later at the Battle of Cherry Valley where once again, Rangers and Iroquois warriors defeated Rebels and their supporters. As is the case in any war and with both sides, innocent non-combattants were killed here as it was virtually impossible for Walter Butler, who had escaped from capture, to restrain the Indians in their goal of seeking revenge. Despite all this, he was able to set free, immediately, seventeen adults and thirty two children. Others that remained prisoners of Indians were later bought by John Butler and other officers and were liberated from the Indians. In the cruel, harsh times of war, Ranger officers went out of the way to show extraordinary military courtesies to the inhabitants they overpowered despite having their own families denied the same liberty.
Wyoming and Cherry Valley prompted the need for an immediate response from Congress. General Washington ordered John Sullivan to carry the war into the homes of his enemies on the frontier. Specifically targetting the Indians, he ordered Sullivan’s campaign to destroy their homes and “to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.” He further instructed Sullivan that, after breaking the savages, if they were willing to end their war against Congress, that they should show evidence of their new fidelity by offering up as prisoners some prominent Tories from the area, John Butler being at the top of this list. The Battle of Newtown marked the only defeat in Ranger history, but after being nearly surrounded, they escaped with very little loss to their numbers while killing several of the enemy during the retreat. Sullivan was not able to finish his greater objective, which many believe included an attack on Ft. Niagara, due to his supply lines running out.
Congress’ goal of dispiriting the inhabitants backfired. The next year, Rangers and Indians came back with a vengeance and fought as hard as they had previously, despite having to endure many depravities over the winter. To counteract this, the government responded by clearing land and allowing more permanent housing to be erected on the west side of the Niagara, in present-day Niagara-on-the-Lake Ontario. On this land, extensive farming was carried out in order to ensure a steady supply of food. Although people were allowed to build residences, the army only leased the land to people. Soon after the war, these residents successfully petitioned the government to have these same lands be their legal property.
The winter of 1780/81 did not have much activity to it. However, Rangers were often back in their own communities or that of their relatives. Many of them were actively recruiting for the Crown and keeping the spirits high for Loyalists. The fact that they were so easily able to hide in all these communities without being discovered says a lot about the unbreakable allegiance many colonists had toward their Sovereign. New members were regularly added to Ranger muster rolls. Many skirmishes occured in the spring and over the summer, however the paramount battle in this year was West Canada Creek. Unfortunately for Col. Butler, his son Walter was killed by Rebels with a musket ball to his head, fired randomly from across the river. News of this came to the inhabitants around the same time Cornwallis’ surrender was reported, but the Whig inhabitants seemed more pleased with the news of Butler’s demise.
As the reality of these two grave events sank in, Rangers were forced to confront the reality that their cause was likely lost; spirits and morale sank very low. For the first time, desertions occured. Complicating matters, there were very few expeditions for them to undertake, since Great Britain was negotiating peace and ordered its regiments, generally, not to take up arms any further. There were a few exceptions, especially in the western frontier, and in 1782 there were some small raids, burning of blockhouses etc. The last significant battle for Butler’s Rangers came in August under Capt. Caldwell’s command. After harassing various small forts and communitites in and around northern Kentucky, the local militia began advancing on them, commanded in part by Daniel Boone. Caldwell, with his Rangers and Indians, set a trap for them and waited for their arrival on the opposite side of the creek where they were unseen. Upon seeing the Rebels, hoots from the Indians went up along with heavy musket fire. Surprized, Boone could not mount a meaningful defense. The Battle of Blue Licks was a clear defeat for Boone, who barely escaped with his life, and lost one of his own sons this day. When Caldwell’s company returned, one British commander remarked that the Rangers looked like “walking spectres.”
Rangers began thinking of the future and knew of other Loyalists who had returned to their homes, hoping to reclaim their land. With only a few exceptions, this endeavour was not successful for Loyalists. Those who tried to were either banished, imprisoned, or even murdered. In May of 1783, Col Butler was recorded as saying that:
“none of his people will ever think of going to attend courts of law in the colonies, where they could not expect the shadow of justice, and that to re-purchase their estates is what they are not able to do; that for a much smaller sum the Missassaugas will part with twelve miles more along the lake, and that they would rather go to Japan than go among the Americans, where they could never live in peace.”
Indeed, this was truly America’s first civil war, and neither side was interested in resuming friendly relations with the other. Butler moved immediately to secure lands for his Rangers and their families on the western side of the Nigara river, in the Niagara Region of present-day Ontario. British officials had detailed plans for the settlement of its disbanded regiments in the aftermath of the war, and they deliberately chose the Niagara region for the Rangers. All but one company of Rangers settled here, the one exception choosing to go to St. John’s Island, or as it’s now known, Prince Edward Island. Not every Ranger stayed in the area long term, and some sold their land grant, given to them for their loyalty, and moved on to other business enterprises elsewhere in the colony, but the region remained heavily influenced by Butler’s Rangers. The town ofNiagara-on-the-Lake, opposite Ft. Niagara, was originally called Butlersburg or Butlersberry, before changing to Newark as it was known by the time the War of 1812 broke out.
Butler’s Rangers were officially disbanded in June of 1784. Butler remained an important military figure, however. In 1788, the Nassau militia was formed in the area, and Butler, as Lt. Colonel, was commanding officer over them. In 1793 the county’s name was changed to Lincoln County, and Butler remained in charge of the Lincoln Militia until his death in 1796. All Loyalists from this war were awarded a special honour by the British government, and which was later affirmed the Canadian government. Those who could prove their loyalty to the British effort during the war, and could demonstrate some kind of loss or hardship because of their loyalty, were allowed, and their descendants of either gender forever, a special honour. They could afix the letters “U.E.” to the ends of their names, to identify themselves as United Empire Loyalists, who had stood tall and suffered for the principle of the unity of the Empire before the Treaty of Separation, 1783.
Butler’s Rangers and their descendants moved on to build a thriving community and colony which they were eventually called upon to defend when they once again faced enemy fire from the Americans during the War of 1812. Fidelity to the Crown was still strong in the area, and they defended their homes and drove back the Americans as soldiers in the Lincoln Militia. There was much talk from the Americans of devastating these ‘Tory towns’ and even speculation that the U.S. army would be received as liberators. Thomas Jefferson stated that the conquest of Canada would be ‘a mere matter of marching.’ Obviously, he was extrememly incorrect on that. Lincoln Militiamen were an invaluable military presence for the defense of the new colony. Later, members of the Lincoln Militia were called out for duty to track and subdue insurgents during the 1837 Rebellions, and their descendants fought in the Fenian Raids, the Boer War, WWI, WWII, Korea, and many modern peacekeeping missions. In 1846, Lincoln County divided into Lincoln and Welland counties, and militia regiments, or battalions as they became known, were reformed. This changed many times, with several name alterations, until 1936 when they became known as The Lincoln and Welland Regiment, to which they are still known as today in our modern forces.
Cruikshank, Ernest. Butler’s Rangers: The Revolutionary Period. Niagara Falls: Renown Printing Company Ltd., 1988 (Third Reprint Edition).
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