The Cherry Valley massacre was an attack by British and Iroquois forces on a fort and the village of Cherry Valley in eastern New York. It has been described as one of the most horrific frontier massacres of the war.
The raiders were under the overall command of Walter Butler, who exercised little authority over the Indians on the expedition. The Seneca were angered by accusations that they had committed atrocities at the Battle of Wyoming, and the colonists’ recent destruction of their forward bases of operation at Unadilla, Onaquaga, and Tioga.
On this day in 1778, Patriot Colonel Ichabod Alden refuses to believe intelligence about an approaching hostile force. As a result, a combined force of Loyalists and Native Americans, attacking in the snow, killed more than 40 Patriots, including Alden, and took at least an additional 70 prisoners, in what is known today as the Cherry Valley Massacre. The attack took place east of Cooperstown, New York, in what is now Otsego County.
Alden was a New Englander from Duxbury, Massachusetts, who began his military career in the Plymouth militia before serving in the 25th Continental regiment during the siege of Boston that followed the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775. Alden was then sent to command the 7th Massachusetts Regiment in Cherry Valley, New York, where he was strategically out of his depth in a state deeply divided between Loyalists and Patriots and with a significant Native American military presence.
Butler’s authority with the Indians was undermined by his poor treatment of Joseph Brant, the leader of the Mohawks. Butler repeatedly maintained, against accusations that he permitted the atrocities to take place, that he was powerless to restrain the Seneca.
Alden ignored warnings that local natives were planning an attack and left the 200 to 300 men stationed to defend Cherry Valley ill-prepared for the eventual arrival of 600 Iroquois under the adept command of Chief Joseph Brant and 200 men, known as Butler’s Rangers, under the command of Loyalist Major Walter Butler. (The Rangers had been trained by Walter’s father, Colonel John Butler.)
Ironically, on November 11, 1775, exactly three years before this so-called massacre executed by aggrieved Iroquois, the Continental Congress had engaged the missionary Samuel Kirkland to spread the “Gospel amongst the Indians,” and confirm “their affections to the United Colonies… thereby preserving their friendship and neutrality.”
During the campaigns of 1778, Brant achieved an undeserved reputation for brutality. He was not present at Wyoming and he actively sought to minimize the atrocities that took place at Cherry Valley. Diaries belonging to British soldiers during the campaign state the regiment as being the butchers and given that Butler was the overall commander of the expedition, there is controversy with whom actually ordered or failed to restrain the killings.
The massacre contributed to calls for reprisals, leading to the 1779 Sullivan Expedition which drove the Iroquois out of western New York.
Barr, Daniel (2006). Unconquered: the Iroquois League at War in Colonial America. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Goodnough, David (1968). The Cherry Valley Massacre, November 11, 1778, The Frontier Massacre that Shocked a Young Nation. New York: Franklin Watts.
Graymont, Barbara (1972). The Iroquois in the American Revolution. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Kelsay, Isabel Thompson (1986). Joseph Brant, 1743–1807, Man of Two Worlds. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Murray, Stuart A. P (2006). Smithsonian Q & A: The American Revolution. New York: HarperCollins.
Sawyer, John; Little, Mrs. William (2007). Abstracts from History of Cherry Valley and The Story of the Massacre at Cherry Valley. Westminster, MD: Heritage Books.
Swinnerton, Henry (1906). The Story of Cherry Valley. Cherry Valley, NY: New York State Historical Association.