Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga and France’s entry into the American Revolutionary War forced the British in Quebec and Ontario to adopt a frontier raiding strategy to tie down Continental troops and spoil any potential invasion of Canada that might recover French possessions lost in the French and Indian War. In this endeavor, the British were joined by the bulk of the Iroquois Confederacy, who were promised that if the British won, the Proclamation of 1763 would be enforced which forbade American settlers west of the Appalachian Mountains.
Throughout the summer of 1778, British regulars, loyalist militia and rangers, and Seneca and Mohawk warriors raided American frontier settlements in the Hudson, Mohawk and Delaware River Valleys of New York and the Susquehanna and Allegheny River valleys in Pennsylvania. George Washington could spare few troops for frontier defense and told its inhabitants to make do as best they can with their own militia and a small “stiffening” of Continentals. British raids were met by the time honored American tradition of punitive expeditions. The cycle of raid and expedition continued all summer.
In early July, a mixed force of loyalist John Butler’s Rangers and Seneca warriors under war chief Cornplanter defeated and massacred 300 Patriot militia and a few Continentals in the Wyoming Valley of Northeastern Pennsylvania. The conflicting reports of the Wyoming Valley Massacre saw some civilians taken care of and protected while other reports rendered torture and brutality in excruciating detail. Whatever truly happened in the Wyoming Valley will probably never be known, but what did happen was only sixty Continentals and militia survived, more than a thousand houses were burned to the ground, several forts destroyed and 267 scalps presented to British officials at Fort Niagara, some of women and children. The massacre inflamed the passions of Patriots along the frontier. However, they were attributed not to Butler or Cornplanter but to Joseph Brant, the Mohawk war chief who was not even present at the Battle of Wyoming. A punitive expedition from New York, which included many paroled patriots, destroyed several Mohawk villages in September in retaliation. The violation of the paroles enraged the Seneca who vowed they “would not fight the enemy twice”. Finally Conrplanter and the Seneca warriors were livid that they were also implicated in American papers for the massacre. In October, Walter Butler, John Butler’s son, with two companies of rangers and 50 British regulars, joined forces with Cornplanter and Brant, and 300 Seneca and Mohawk warriors for a raid into the Cherry Valley of Pennsylvania.
Cherry Valley was defended by the 300 Continentals of the 7th Massachusetts Regiment under Col Ichabod Alden. Alden had a palisade built around the village church and meeting house after Brant’s raid on nearby Cobleskill in May. However the settlement was spread out along the length of the Cherry Valley. Alden chose Mayor’s Well’s house, which just happened to be the largest and nicest, for his headquarters, which was over 400 yards from palisaded fort. Most of his officers were quartered nearby. Several Oneida Indians warned Alden of the incoming raid, but he refused to believe them. Cherry Valley was completely unprepared for what befell them. On the evening of 10 November 1778, Butler’s soldiers, rangers, and warriors arrived in the Cherry Valley and immediately identified Alden’s defensive flaws.
After a “cold camp” that night to prevent their fires from alerting the Americans, Butler attacked at dawn and quickly surrounded the fort. A group of Senecas under Little Beard assaulted the headquarters house, and eventually broke in. The vengeful Seneca’s systematically killed all of the inhabitants, including the mayor, his family and the household. The attack on the headquarters rendered the regiment and fort leaderless. Only Aldin’s 2IC survived, and then only by appealing to Butler and Brant as a fellow Freemason. Legend has it that Alden was killed running to the fort, and just before he reached the gates turned to fire his pistol at a pursuing Brant. The pistol misfired, and Brant threw his tomahawk which struck Alden in the forehead.
Butler attempted to storm the fort but failed. However, with the Continentals and militia safely locked inside, his men could take their revenge, especially the rangers and Seneca. Walter Butler was not his father, and couldn’t control his men. Brant was personal friends with many in the valley and knew most of the families there. He attempted to curtail any excesses but was not successful. In a three hour orgy of violence and destruction, the British force put the entire village to the torch and scalped anyone they found, as the leaderless Continentals looked on impotently from the fort. In all, 30 civilians and 30 soldiers were killed, mostly officers around the headquarters, and another 50 combined taken into captivity.
The massacre at Cherry Valley wasn’t nearly as large as its predecessor in the Wyoming Valley, but it had a much more significant impact. The Cherry Valley Massacre was the last straw for George Washington regarding the Iroquois. A stalemate had developed around New York as the main British army under Henry Clinton was safely contained in the city. So Washington authorized a a grand punitive expedition for the spring with a large part of the Continental Army. Unfortunately for the Iroquois, command of the expedition fell to Maj Gen John Sullivan. The energetic Sullivan was one of Washington’s most competent and aggressive generals. With the Oneida and Tuscora Iroquois, Sullivan descended upon the homes of the loyalists and the four tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy that sided with British. Like Sherman’s march through another confederacy four score and six years later, Sullivan cut a swath of destruction through central and western New York. He torched over forty Iroquois villages and defeated every force the Butler family, Cornplanter or Josef Brant sent against him. Though the frontier war would continue in 1780, the power of the Iroquois Confederacy was broken forever and western New York and the Ohio country were permanently open to future American settlement.