What really happened in: Cherry Valley

By Gary Corrado, D.P.M.

The inhabitants of Cherry Valley had been fearful of an Indian attack for some time. They had been petitioning the Continental Congress and George Washington for Continental troops to be stationed in their town to replace those males who were already serving in the army. The destruction of tiny Andrustown, a community of twelve families at the head of Otsego Lake, just seven miles west of Cherry Valley, in July 1778, did little to allay their fears.

This, coming on the heels of the Wyoming Valley "Massacre", spurred them to put up their own "fort", really a wretched stockade affair which surrounded the church and the graveyard. The village felt it afforded at least some security to their most valued possessions, including furniture, which they brought from miles around. This fortification was recommended by Lafayette, who had visited the town in May 1778, to replace the flimsy fortification surrounding the home of Col. Campbell. When the military command was finally spurred into action by the destruction of Andrustown, it looked as if the village of Cherry Valley would get the protection it deserved. What they got would lead to disaster.

When the decision was made to garrison the village of Cherry Valley with Continental troops, Col. Peter Ganesvoort, the able commander at Fort Stanwix who had repulsed St. Leger, asked for command of the garrison. Here was a man familiar with frontier fighting, whose own regiment, the 3rd NY, had spend most of its history garrisoning Mowhawk Valley forts and chasing Loyalist and Indian raiding parties. He would have been the logical choice. But in one of those decisions made by the high command where logic seems, well, absent, Col. Ichabd Alden of the 6th Mass. Continental Line was chosen.

Col. Alden was born in Duxbury, Mass. in 1739. Promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1775 and placed in charge of a Continental regiment stationed in Albany, he was well-connected to the power base there. His selection was attributed to his friends, and the fact that neither he nor his Massachusetts regulars had experience in Indian warfare did not seem to matter a hoot.

One of the first orders he made upon arrival was to order the removal of all personal possessions from the fort. He felt that the fort should be used for the cantonment of his troops, and that the inhabitants had nothing to fear. He also felt the fort needed a name. He named it Fort Alden.

The inhabitants were angry at being forced to move their possessions, but Alden would not hear their complaints. He further exacerbated the situation by announcing that he and his officers would billet themselves upon the homes in the village in widely scattered locations. Even the civilians thought this was absurd military tactics, but then Alden was not known for being a tactician.

Meanwhile, in other nearby areas, the forces of war were now being felt by the Indians and their Loyalist allies. Two separate, though devastating, raids started the swell of resentment in the breasts of the Indians who would soon visit Cherry Valley. The first raid was led by Chief Hanyerry of the Oneida nation against the Loyalist and Mowhawk settlement in Unadilla, burning four large homes and taking ten Loyalist prisoners. The other expedition was unique in that two states took it upon themselves to retaliate against Brant and his allies for the devastating raid upon the Wyoming Valley settlements. Here two forces, one from New York and the other from Pennsylvania, had destroyed several principal Indian towns, including Joseph Brant's headquarters town of Oquaga. Returning too late from their own devastating raids in German Flats and the lower Delaware Valley to defend them, the Iroquois looked sadly at the smoking ruins of their homes. The cry for revenge went out almost immediately.

Months passed and with it the false sense of security that the village of Cherry Valley was safe from attack, at least for that season. Surely there would not be any further attacks from the Indians now that the winds had turned icy and with them the first hard pellets of snow had been felt. No, thought the all-too-complacent Col. Alden. The village would be safe.

At Fort Niagara, however, an expedition was being formed to raid that "safe" town. Two hundred and fifty Butler's Rangers and other attached Loyalists under Capt. Walter Butler moved out with Little Beard, was chief of the Senecas, with about 100 Indian warriors, chiefly Senecas. As they moved through New York, other Indians joined them — Onondagas, Cayugas, more Senacas, and when they intercepted Joseph Brant returning to Niagara with about 250 more Iroquois, principally Mohawks, their numbers now swollen to nearly 800 Indians and Loyalists. This was the first instance where the number of Indians outnumbered the Loyalist troops in great numbers.

And the Iroquois were not under Brant, their war chief, but rather Little Beard of the Senecas. This was decided at Niagara where the expedition was planned, and Brant was not there to object. Reluctantly, Brant agreed to join the expedition, but he already know this would be a mistake. It was.

Fear gripped Cherry Valley when a message was received from the commander of Fort Stanwix, carried personally by Capt. James Parr and Michael Burd. The note stated briefly that intelligence had been received from Oneida allies that an attack was imminent upon the settlement. Col. Alden acknowledged the message, and then offered to send out detachments of his garrison to help other forts in the neighborhood! His total preparations consisted of sending out one small serjeant's patrol for a "scout", to supposedly detect any raiding parties and report back. The safety of the village now depended on this one patrol!

Butler's scouts easily detected this patrol, and the raiding force captured the entire force without firing a shot, disarming them as they slept by their campfire. Precise intelligence was exacted from them, probably at the point of a knife, and the trap was tightened. Because snow and fog covered the village, the attack was scheduled for dawn.

The first hint of trouble came at about 10:30 AM, when a rider coming into town was ambushed by two Indians. Wounded but not dismounted, he spurred his horse into town and dismounted at the home of the Wells family, headquarters for the pompous Col. Alden, a mere hundred yards from the fort. He screamed for the alarm, but the sentries just froze, not believing their ears. The Seneca warriors hidden nearby now charged, dropping many soldiers in the first volley. Their objective was to "secure" the military guard around the headquarters house, roughly 40 in number. Many surrendered immediately, most not even bothering to resist, so terrified were these New England soldiers of the fierceness of the attack. Brant and his Mohawks headed off several officers fleeing for the fort, killing those who attempted to resist, and taking prisoner those who gave up.

One of the last to flee was Col. Alden, pistol in hand. Brant gave chase, and Alden heard the pursuit and stopped! Turning around, he committed his final act of stupidity and took aim with his pistol. But a tomahawk was already loosed from Brant's hand, and it caught Alden square in the forehead.

Turning to help the Wells family, friends of his in whose house he had sat at dinner in years past, Brant discovered he was too late. Two of the sons had fired out of second story windows at the cluster of Rangers and Indians who were standing in the yard below. Several Rangers went down, two hit by the same bullet, and Walter Butler himself led a party of Indians up to the second floor, killing the whole family who were assembled there.

Brant now separated his Mohawks to attempt to save as many of the inhabitants as possible from the fury of the small parties now ranging throughout the settlement. Scenes of barbarity now were commonplace, with civilians slaughtered at the first sign of resistance. Most who did not resist were simply hustled away as captives, some never to return.

Brant's Mohawks were able to intercede in some instances, especially in one particular horrific scene. Sarah Dunlop, wife of the Rev. Dunlop, had hit one of the Indian raiders on the head with a heavy frying pan, causing him to bleed profusely. A half-breed Mohawk from Canajoharie then knocked her down, stabbed her, and then cut out a piece of her flesh and swallowed it. Others did the same, helped by the barbarous Lt. Hare of Butler's Rangers, until a Mohawk named Kanonaron kicked the half breed from the body and called the rest animals for their behavior. Lt. Hare then knocked Kanonaron down and as the two faced off for the certain fight, up rode Capt. William McDonald with a squad of soldiers. He screamed at everyone to disperse, while pointing his pistol at the half breed, also denouncing them for their barbarity.

The fort had been surrounded early on in the attack, with orders to the besiegers to keep the garrison within the walls, and prevent a sally. Meanwhile, about 60 prisoners had been collected to start the journey home. All of the men were ordered to strip naked to prevent escape, and most of the raiding party escorted them. Others were left behind temporarily to prevent pursuit and gather any other prisoners who were now scattered in the woods around the settlement.

One of those hiding in the woods was sixteen year old Abigail Clyde. She had been separated from the rest of her family as they fled into the woods but had the foresight to mount a horse. When she thought she had the chance, she made a break for the fort. Some hidden Indians jumped out and cut her off, so she switched direction and galloped back into the woods, the shouts of the fort's garrison still ringing across the valley. She was never heard from again.

Casualties totaled 74 killed, 32 of them civilians. All but one house were burned, along with 31 barns, two mills, and a blacksmith shop. Walter Butler released all but a few of the women and children, and ordered the male captives' clothing be returned to them. The community never recovered, and whatever was not destroyed in the 1778 raid was finished off in the 1780 raid, this time including the fort. The inhabitants refused to return until after the war was over.

Author's Note: Many of the sites associated with the preceding article are still visible in Cherry Valley. An obelisk marking the site of the Dunlop house is a hundred yards down the road from the encampment. Further down this road, on the way to the high school, look to your left, and you will see the ravine where many of the inhabitants hid. On the opposite end of town as you travel into the town on route 166, on your left you will see a large white house on a hill, which is the site of the Wells house. A short distance past this is the marker for the spot where Col. Alden was killed. And just across the road and down a bit is the cemetary, marking the site of Fort Alden, which actually stretched across the road you are now on. The cemetary contains the mass grave of many of the massacre victims. As you leave the blockhouse battle, look for the large yellow house on a slight hillside. This house was built on the site of the Campbell home, which, until Fort Alden was built, was the only fortified structure in the village.

Copyright © 1995 Garry Corrado. All rights reserved.