Americans Massacred at Cherry Valley in 1778

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Incident in Cherry Valley - fate of Jane Wells / from the original picture by Alonzo Chappel (1828-1887); Thomas Phillibrown, engraver. Jane Wells is pleading for her life, and a man attempts to protect her from an Indian who is about to kill her. House behind them is being burned by Loyalists and Indians led by Major Walter Butler and Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant, Cherry Valley, New York. Published: N.Y. : Martin, Johnson & Co. publishers, c1856.

One of the worst events of the Revolutionary War was the Cherry Valley Massacre, in which many colonists were killed or captured, and the town burned.

On this day in history, November 11, 1778, British Loyalists and their Mohawk and Seneca Indian allies attacked a village and fort east of Cooperstown near Lake Otsego in New York State during the American Revolutionary War, killing scores of soldiers and civilians in the Cherry Valley Massacre.

It was cold, foggy and snowy in Cherry Valley, New York, that morning. While the war was being waged in pitched battles in the chief colonies, British and Indian forces fought a guerrilla war in the west, and many villages were raided. The fighting was fierce in the Mohawk Valley of New York, and the frontier was in an almost constant state of terror.

The Seneca tribe was incensed about the recent burning of Tioga by troops led by patriot Colonel Thomas Hartley; his accusations of Iroquois atrocities at the Battle of Wyoming, where the British and Indians torched the towns on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, as well as the colonists’ destruction of the native settlement of Onoquaga.

The Cherry Valley Massacre

The fort at Cherry Valley was built around the town meeting house and included a 250-man garrison from the Continental Army’s 7th Massachusetts Regiment, which was commanded by Colonel Ichabod Alden, who had refused to believe rumors and reports about an approaching enemy force of natives planning to attack.

The 7th Massachusetts Regiment was attached to the New York Brigade of Brigadier General James Clinton. Loyalist Captain Walter Butler led two companies of Butler’s Rangers, commanded by Captain John McDonell and Captain William Caldwell, as well as Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant’s Volunteers.

Alden refused to allow the settlers to move into the fort at Cherry Valley, and his soldiers were not prepared for the arrival of 600 Indians under the command of Brant and the 200 soldiers from Butler’s Rangers. The attackers killed at least 16 officers and soldiers, including Alden, in the surprise raid, which lasted several hours.

Many accounts claim Alden was within reach of the fort’s gates, but stopped and tried to shoot his pursuer, perhaps Joseph Brant. His pistol misfired several times and he was reportedly killed by a tomahawk that hit him in the forehead. Lieutenant Colonel William Stacy, who was second in command, was taken prisoner.

Then, Brant’s forces turned on the defenseless residents, burning and pillaging about six of 40 farmhouses. In the gathering darkness of the storm, the captives, including 11 soldiers, huddled together and half-naked, were led away. Fortunately, about 182 residents of the village escaped death and captivity.

Eyewitness Accounts of the Massacre

Lieutenant William McKendry kept a journal with eyewitness accounts of the massacre. One read: “Immediately came on 442 Indians from the Five Nations, 200 Tories under the command of Col. Butler and Capt. Brant; attacked headquarters; killed Col. Alden; took Col. Stacy prisoner; attacked Fort Alden; after three hours retreated without success of taking the fort.”

He identified the fatalities as Alden, 13 other soldiers and 30 civilians, while a local newspaper reported: “The enemy killed, scalped, and most barbarously murdered 32 inhabitants, chiefly women and children, as well as Colonel Alden. They committed the most inhuman barbarities on most of the dead and the lieutenant colonel; all the officers and continental soldiers were stripped and drove naked before them.”

And the diary of Captain Benjamin Warren read: “On Wednesday, the 11th, about 12 o’clock, the enemy to the number of 650, rushed upon us, surrounded headquarters and the fort immediately and pushed vigorously for the fort, but our soldiers behaved with great spirit and alertness; defended the fort and repulsed them, after three hours and half smart engagement.

“A Shocking Sight of Brutal Barbarity”

“Col. Alden in endeavoring to reach the fort was killed; Col. Stacy made prisoner together with Lieut. Holden, Ensign Garrett, the surgeon’s mate, and a sergeant, about 12 or 14 of the regiment: twelve of the regiment besides the Col. killed and two wounded.

“November 12th. No reinforcements till about 9 or 10 o’clock. The Indians came on again and gave a shout for rushing on, but our cannon played brisk; they soon gave away: they then went round the settlement burnt all the buildings mostly the first day and collected all the stock and drove the most of it off; killed and captivated all the inhabitants, a few that hid in the woods excepted, who have since got into the fort.

“In the afternoon and morning of the 13th, we sent out parties after the enemy withdrew; brought in the dead; such a shocking sight my eyes never beheld before of savage and brutal barbarity; to see the husband mourning over his dead wife with four dead children lying by her side, mangled, scalpt, and some their heads, some their legs and arms cut off, some torn the flesh off their bones by their dogs – 12 of one family killed and four of them burnt in his house.”

The Sullivan Expedition

Before the Revolutionary War, Chief Joseph Brant was friends with a number of prominent people in the area. Despite his efforts to stop the butchery, at least 30 and as many as 77 residents, including women and children, were scalped and killed, mostly by tomahawk. Butler bought the captured officers back from the Indians, and many of the 71 prisoners, including women and children, were also freed.

The massacre at Cherry Valley was followed by continued sporadic assaults on colonial settlements in the Mohawk Valley, spreading fear throughout the New York and Pennsylvania borderland. General George Washington ordered a counteroffensive.

A three-pronged expedition led by Major General John Sullivan in the spring of 1779 destroyed 40 Iroquois villages in western and central New York, and the Indians were cleared from the Mohawk, Susquehanna and Allegheny valleys. But the British Loyalists and their Iroquois allies continued to spread death and destruction in 1779-81.

Cherry Valley Monument

Although the savage struggle in the backwoods of America never settled any of the main issues of the war, it remained a matter of life and death for everyone. Throughout the Revolution, Indian guerrilla warfare posed a threat along the western borders. But the British mostly failed to use their native allies effectively because they had no strategic plan.

In 1878, a monument was dedicated at Cherry Valley on the centennial of the massacre. Former New York Governor Horatio Seymour delivered a speech to about 10,000 people who gathered around for the official ceremony.

“I am here today,” he said, “not only to show reverence for those dead patriots, but to offer my respects and heartfelt gratitude to the living descendants of those illustrious persons of the early settlements who have erected this memorial stone.”

Sources:

  1. Goodnough, David. The Cherry Valley Massacre, November 11, 1778, The Frontier Massacre that Shocked a Young Nation. 1968.
  2. Graymont, Barbara. The Iroquois in the American Revolution. 1972.