Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

From Forts & Firesides of the Mohawk Country
by John J. Vrooman, 1951
Published by Baronet Litho Co., Inc., Johnstown, NY


"Ringed by the ancient forests of the North, I saw the gray weatherbeaten walls of the house. The lawns were overgrown; the great well-sweep shattered; the locust trees covered with grapevines - the cherry and apple trees to the south broken and neglected. Weeds smothered the flower gardens, whilst here and there a dull red poppy peered at me through withering tangles; lilac and locust had already shed foliage too early blighted, but the huge and forbidding maples were all aflame in their blood-red autumn robes....

The shutters had been ripped off their hinges; all within was bare and dark; dimly, I made out the shadowy walls of a hallway which divided the house into halves ... The clapboards were a foot wide, evidently fashioned with care and beaded on the edges. The outside doors all opened outward- and I noted, with a shudder of contempt, the 'witch's half-moon' or lunette, in the bottom of each door, which betrays the cowardly superstition of the man who lived there. Such cat-holes are fashioned for haunted houses; the specter is believed to crawl out through these openings, and then to be kept out with a tarred rag stuffed into the hole - ghosts being unable to endure tar. Faugh! If specters walk, the accursed house must be alive with them - ghosts of the victims of old John Butler, wraiths dripping red from Cherry Valley - children with throats cut; women with bleeding heads and butchered bodies, stabbed through and through - and perhaps the awful specter of Lieutenant Boyd with eyes and nails plucked out, and tongue cut off, bound to the stake and slowly roasting to death, while Walter Butler watched the agony curiously, interested and surprised to see a disemboweled man live so long!

THE quotation is from Robert W. Chambers' novel "The Reckoning," and the description of the house is quite accurate today, with the exception of a shingled exterior.

The Tory Butlers fled the place with the prospects of war coming closer and the estate was confiscated and sold. It has been continuously occupied but many of its shutters are even now closely drawn and an uncanny atmosphere seems to envelop it, due perhaps to the mystery which surrounds it and the Butler men who occupied it.

Old Walter Butler built this frame house on the crest of a steep hill just cast of old Caughnawaga. From the house door one can see the Mohawk, winding out of a low range of hills on the western horizon. In its elevated position it equals that of a "look-out" post and from it on many occasions the Butlers and their Indian allies must have exchanged smoke signals with their comrades far up the Valley.

There is some question as to the ancestry of this Butler family and to their movements as well, both en route to America and as to their goings and comings after arrival. We read of a Walter Butler sailing from Barbadoes aboard the ketch John and Sarah on October 20th, 1679; destination, New York. The trail from New York to New London is obscure but we find a Walter Butler marrying Mary (born Nov. 4th, 1690) the only daughter of George Denison at New London in 1712. Her mother was Mary Wetherell, whose first husband had been Thomas Harris, a resident of the Barbadoes, who died there June 9th, 1691, leaving an estate estimated at 9927. This probably explains the remark that Mary (the bride) "was regarded as the richest heiress in the settlement."

In 1727 we find Lieutenant Walter Butler marrying Deborah (Ely) Dennis and it was this Deborah who rejoined her husband (Old Walter) in the "Northern Counties above Albany" in 1742.

Just when Old Walter went into the Mohawk Valley is indefinite but there is a record of a Crown Grant of land in the Schoharie and Mohawk Valleys to Walter Butler and forty-two others in 1733. In 1737 he was stationed at Fort Hunter, a very early settlement situated on the south bank of the Mohawk at the mouth of Schoharie Creek. This location is perhaps three miles from the site of Butlersbury, Old Walter's future home, north of the river.

In 1735 fourteen thousand acres of this land extending from Fort Hunter eastward along the south side of the river was sold to Sir Peter Warren, the uncle of Sir William Johnson, who was to become its overseer in 1738. Possibly Walter Butler realized some immediate cash from whatever interest he might have had in this tract for the same year (1735) he (together with three others) obtained a Crown Grant for land on the north side of the river which included his homesite.

He finished his house probably in the fall of 1742, which date coincides with an entry penned in a New London diary as follows:

"November 6, 1742. Mrs. Butler, wife of Capt. Walter Butler, and her children and family is gone away by water to New York in order to go to him in the Northern Counties above Albany, where he has been several vears, Captain of the Forts."

The house once built and the family gathered into it, Old Walter, now stationed at Fort Oswego, returned there to take up his duties. His two sons, John and Tom, seem to have been with him a great deal of the time. Tom was more trader than soldier, though in those days the merchant often enough shouldered his gun. As a family they were closely affiliated with Sir William Johnson as his agents in trade and as military aides and all seem to have shared his entire confidence. Old Walter died in this house in the winter of 1759-60.

Colonel John, born 1725, Old Walter's son, now grown up, was with Sir William at the capture of Niagara, which event just preceded his father's death. He had married Catherine Pollock about 1752 and Young Walter, his son, born early to the marriage, grew to be one of the most thoroughly detested Tories to carry the war into his own homeland. Walter's military service must have begun about 1768, for in that year his name is mentioned among others "recommended to be Captains and Subalterns for the new formed regiments of militia."

This was on the eve of the Revolution. In 1771 the Butlersbury estate consisted of some 5,000 acres and reached westward to include a part of old Caughnawaga. Indeed, the old Caughnawaga Church, spared during the Johnson raids, is said to have owed its immunity to the fact that it stood on Butlersbury acres. The importance of the Butler estate is noted by the fact that taxes levied against it were second only to those assessed against Sir William's holdings.

In May, 1775, the Butler men fled to Canada with Colonel Guy Johnson, and Butlersbury knew them no more. Mrs. Butler was taken to Albany and there held prisoner. The house was deserted. Colonel John and Captain Walter were attached for the most part to the Niagara garrison. It is a matter of documentary evidence that these two men, father and son, were the most active, most important and the most effective foes of the Clinton-Sullivan expedition. Their slender force, hopelessly out numbered, half starved and at a dangerously great distance from their base of supplies, could do but little to stem the irresistible advance of a well-planned campaign such as this. And the Indian country, its villages, homes and fields suffered a wholesale destruction which permanently crippled the entire Indian population. But it also added fuel to the fire of Indian hatred already at white heat. The Mohawk Valley was to feel the retaliatory effect of this expedition after the winter of suffering and privation had passed. However, so much of this story has to do with Niagara it is better told there.

So again the spotlight of interest is swung away from the old house as it had been so much of the time since Old Walter built it. One wonders what happiness the family did find in the home, for whenever mentioned the men folks were on the war-path or stationed at some fort or remote outpost where duty held them f ast.

The loyalty of the entire family to the Johnsons, "dogs of the Johnson family," some called them, and to Old England, made heavy demands on each one of them. Of them all, only Old Walter came home to die. Even Colonel John's wife shared in the sufferings when she was taken captive to Albany as stated and held an uncommonly long time while Colonel John and Captain Walter tried desperately to arrange an exchange of prisoners that would liberate her. This they finally accomplished and she joined them at Niagara, where she died in 1793. Colonel John died there three years later. From Captain Walter the supreme sacrifice was exacted when he was shot on the battlefield of West Canada Creek near the present Hinkley, N. Y., and in their hurried retreat his body was abandoned by his comrades to the creatures of the forest.

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