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 on November 11, 1778, during the American Revolutionary War. It has been described as one of the most horrific frontier massacres of the war.
A mixed force of Loyalists, British soldiers, Seneca and Mohawks descended on Cherry Valley, whose defenders, despite warnings, were unprepared for the attack. During the raid, the Seneca in particular targeted non-combatants, and reports state that 30 such individuals were slain, in addition to a number of armed defenders.
The raiders were under the overall command of Walter Butler, who exercised little authority over the Indians on the expedition. Historian Barbara Graymont describes Butler’s command of the expedition as “criminally incompetent”. 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. Butler’s authority with the Indians was undermined by his poor treatment of Joseph Brant, the leader of the Mohawks. Butler repeatedly maintained that he was powerless to restrain the Seneca against accusations that he permitted the atrocities to take place.
During the campaigns of 1778, Brant achieved an undeserved reputation for brutality. He was not present at Wyoming, although many thought he was, and actively sought to minimize the atrocities that took place at Cherry Valley. The massacre contributed to calls for reprisals, leading to the 1779 Sullivan Expedition which drove the Iroquois out of western New York.
Cherry Valley had a palisaded fort (constructed after Brant’s raid on Cobleskill) that surrounded the village meeting house. It was garrisoned by 300 soldiers of the 7th Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Army commanded by Colonel Ichabod Alden. Alden and his command staff were alerted by November 8 through Oneida spies that the Butler–Brant force was moving against Cherry Valley. However, he failed to take elementary precautions, continuing to occupy a headquarters (the house of a settler named Wells) some 400 yards (370 m) from the fort.
Butler’s force arrived near Cherry Valley late on November 10, and established a cold camp to avoid detection. Reconnaissance of the town identified the weaknesses of Alden’s arrangements, and the raiders decided to send one force against Alden’s headquarters and another against the fort. Butler extracted promises from the Indians in the party that they would not harm noncombatants in a council held that night.
The attack began early on the morning of November 11. Some overeager Indians spoiled the surprise by firing on settlers cutting wood nearby. One of them escaped, raising the alarm. Little Beard led some of the Senecas to surround the Wells house, while the main body surrounded the fort. The attackers killed at least sixteen officers and troops of the quarters guards, including Alden, who was cut down while he was running from the Wells house to the fort.Most accounts say Alden was within reach of the gates, only to stop and try to shoot his pursuer, who may have been Joseph Brant. His wet pistol repeatedly misfired and he was killed by a thrown tomahawk hitting him in the forehead. Lt. Col. William Stacy, second in command, also quartered at the Wells house, was taken prisoner. Stacy’s son Benjamin and cousin Rufus Stacy ran through a hail of bullets to reach the fort from the house; Stacy’s brother-in-law Gideon Day was killed. Those attacking the Wells house eventually gained entry, leading to hand-to-hand combat inside. After killing most of the soldiers stationed there, the Senecas slaughtered the entire Wells household, twelve in all.The raiders’ attack on the fort was unsuccessful—lacking heavy weapons, they were unable to make any significant impressions on its stockade walls. The fort was then guarded by the Loyalists while the Indians rampaged through the rest of the settlement. Not a single house was left standing, and the Senecas, seeking revenge, were reported to slaughter anyone they encountered. Butler and Brant attempted to restrain their actio
ns but were unsuccessful. Brant in particular was dismayed to learn that a number of families who were well known to him and that he had counted as friends had borne the brunt of the Seneca rampage, including the Wells, Campbell, Dunlop, and Clyde families.
Map detail showing the western frontier of New York. Cobleskill and Cherry Valley are marked in red, Unadilla and Onaquaga (spelled “Oghwaga” on the map) are marked in blue.
Lt. William McKendry, a quartermaster in Colonel Alden’s regiment, described the attack in his journal:
Immediately came on 442 Indians from the Five Nations, 200 Tories under the command of one 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.
McKendry identified the fatalities of the massacre as Colonel Alden, thirteen other soldiers, and thirty civilian inhabitants. Most of the slain soldiers had been at the Wells house.
Accounts surrounding the capture of Lt. Col. Stacy report that he was about to be killed, but Brant intervened. “[Brant] saved the life of Lieut. Col Stacy, who […] was made prisoner when Col. Alden was killed. It is said Stacy was a freemason, and as such made an appeal to Brant, and was spared.