John Butler (1728–1796) was a Loyalist who led an irregular militia unit known as Butler’s Rangers on the northern frontier in the American Revolutionary War. He led Seneca and Cayuga forces in the Saratoga campaign. He later raised and commanded a regiment of rangers.
John was born to Walter Butler and Deborah Dennison, née Ely, in New London, Connecticut in 1728. In 1742, his father moved the family to Fort Hunter on the frontier in the Mohawk Valley near modern Fonda, New York. The Walter Butler Homestead was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. In 1752, he married Catherine (Catalyntje) Bradt, and the couple raised five children (two others died in infancy). He knew several Indian languages and was employed as an interpreter.
In 1755, he was made Captain in the Indian department and saw service in the French and Indian War under William Johnson. He saw action at Fort Ticonderoga, the Battle of Fort Frontenac, the Battle of Fort Niagara, and Montreal. At the Battle of Fort Niagara he was second in command of the Indians.
After the war he came home, and built his estate up to 26,000 acres (105 km²) at Butlersbury, near Caughnawaga. He was second only to Sir William Johnson as a wealthy frontier land owner. He was a judge in the Tryon County court and was appointed Lt.-Colonel of Guy Johnson’s regiment of Tryon County militia. Butler worked under Sir William Johnson in the Indian department. Butler was one of the two members representing Tryon County in the New York assembly.
Butler returned to service as a Loyalist when the American Revolution turned to war in 1775. In May, 1775, he left for Canada in the company of Daniel Claus, Walter Butler, Hon Yost Schuyler and Joseph Brant. On July 7, they reached Fort Oswego and in August, Montreal. He was involved in the defense of Montreal against an attack led by Ethan Allen. In November, Carleton sent him to Fort Niagara with instructions to keep the Indians neutral.
His oldest son Walter Butler served with him, but his wife and other children were detained by the American rebels.
In March, 1777 he sent a party of about one hundred Indians to Montreal to force the Americans out of Quebec. In May, Butler received instructions to employ a body of the Six Nations in an attack on New York. On June 5 he received instructions to send as many Indians as he could to Fort Oswego for an attack on Fort Stanwix as a part of the Saratoga campaign. He was put second in command of the Indians, under Daniel Claus.
He led the Indians and a small number of Loyalists in a successful ambush in the Battle of Oriskany. As a result, after this expedition he was commissioned a lieutenant colonel and given authority to raise his own regiment, which became known as Butler’s Rangers, initially with a strength of eight companies. He traveled back to Fort Niagara and the first company was completed in December.
In July 1778, Butler led his rangers and Iroquois allies at the Battle of Wyoming, in which he defeated Zebulon Butler and took Forty Fort. The Patriots suffered heavy losses, and after the battle many homes in the area were burned. Later, the battle was referred to as the Wyoming Valley massacre because some of the victorious Loyalists and Iroquois were said to have executed and scalped prisoners and fleeing enemy soldiers.
The American novelist, Joseph Altsheler referred to John Butler as “Indian Butler” in a novel about the Wyoming Massacre, and called him a turncoat and villain who sided with the Indians against the white settlers.
Later that year, after the burning of Tioga, his son Captain Walter Butler led two companies of rangers and 300 Iroquois allies in a raid which was later referred to as the Cherry Valley massacre. The name of Butler was thereafter anathema to the rebels.
His unit of rangers was spread through frontier outposts from Niagara to Illinois. Butler himself commanded from Fort Niagara. In 1779, he was defeated by the Sullivan Expedition at the Battle of Newtown, and withdrew to Fort Niagara.
At the end of the Revolution, Butler once again turned to farming in the Niagara region. He became one of the leaders of Upper Canada, later called Ontario. He was a Deputy Superintendent for the Indian Department, a Justice of the Peace, and the local militia commander. He was also prominent in establishing the Anglican Church and Masonic Order in Ontario.
Butler died at Niagara on May 12, 1796. His wife had died three years prior. He was survived by three sons and a daughter. He is interred in the family burial ground in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.
A school in Niagara-On-The-Lake is named after him as are numerous other establishments including a Best Western Hotel, a sports bar, a street leading to the family burial ground on land that was his former property, and the Butler’s Brracks NHS built immediately after the War of 1812. In 2006, Lt-Col Butler was honoured by the Canadian Government with a life-sized bronze bust located at the Valiants Memorial in Ottawa. Alongside Joseph Brant, he is considered a key player in the founding of British North America and eighteenth-century Canada. In 2010, a bust was installed on top of a memorial cairn at the site of his homestead in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.