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Cherry Valley

The next occurrences in Brant's life are even more deplorable than those narrated in the preceding chapter. The Cherry Valley episode can only be regarded as a sad instance of what the use of Indian allies sometimes involved. A peaceful farming district was devastated; peasants were plundered and slain. It is true that some of them were in arms against British rule, but as a whole they were quietly engaged in farming operations, striving to build up homes for themselves on the outskirts of civilization. In this work of devastation and death Brant was only second in command; the leader was a white man and a British officer. But neither Brant nor Butler, who commanded the expedition, was able to restrain the cruelty and ferocity of the Indian warriors until much havoc had been wrought.

A haze was now brooding over the Susquehanna, and the autumn leaves were being tinged with red. The struggle of the year 1778 seemed over and Brant decided to spend the winter at Niagara. Accordingly he set out with a band of warriors from his entrenched position at Unadilla and went forward by easy stages along the old and well-beaten Indian trail leading towards Lake Ontario. He had proceeded well on his way when, to his surprise, a party of former allies crossed his path in the forest. Led by Captain Walter N. Butler, a son of Colonel John Butler, the victorious leader at Wyoming, a body of the Tory Rangers who had been with Brant at Oriskany were going eastward. In 1777 their youthful officer had suffered harsh imprisonment among the enemy, and, burning for vengeance, he was making a late-season tramp into the rebels' country. He had asked for a number of his father's rangers, and his request had been granted. He was also allowed the privilege of taking Brant along with him, should the chieftain be found willing to join his force.

On meeting with Brant so opportunely by the way, he gave him an outline of the measures of retaliation which he proposed to adopt. As the scheme was unfolded, the war-scarred chief of the Mohawks saw that he was meant to serve under this youth of small experience. Brant was ready for almost any work that might be of service to his king, but he was at first reluctant to serve under Butler. The situation between the two leaders became strained, but at last Brant gave in; their differences were patched up, and the two men came to friendly terms. Orders were issued by Brant to his motley throng of redskins, and five hundred of them reversed their march. The united contingent of seven hundred men first headed for the banks of the Tioga river, one of the branches of the Susquehanna. Here a conference was held, and it was agreed that they should make a combined attack upon the settlers of Cherry Valley. To Butler this was more than pleasing, eager as he was to pay off what he considered a heavy score. The heart of the War Chief throbbed with savage delight. A flaunting challenge still rang in his ears; the settlers had invited him to enter their valley, and now he would answer their gibing call. Little did the inhabitants of Cherry Valley dream what was in store for them. During the summer they had carried most of their movable property to a well-built fortress. But as everything had now grown tranquil, they had taken it back to their homes again. Yet hardly had this been accomplished before Colonel Ichabod Alden, commandant of the fort, received a note from an official source telling him that enemies were near at hand.

In spite of the trustworthy source from which it came, Colonel Alden gave barely any heed to this warning message. He declared that the threatened danger was but an idle rumor, that all would be well, and that he would take every precaution for the safety of his people. On November 9 spies were sent out in different directions with a view to getting fuller information. One body of these went boldly down the Susquehanna, where their own carelessness brought about their undoing. At nightfall they lit a fire, and, wrapping themselves up snugly, had gone fast asleep. But to their astonishment, as they rubbed their eyes in the light of morning, they were surrounded by a party of Indians, were bundled off as prisoners of war, and hurried into the presence of Brant and Butler, who extracted much useful information from them. In the light of this information plans were made for an immediate attack on the settlement in Cherry Valley. The settlers were still unsuspecting, when, on the evening of November 10, the enemy arrived within a mile of the fort and crept to the summit of a hill densely shaded by evergreens, and hid themselves from sight. The snow was fluttering down, but towards morning this had changed to a drizzling rain, and the air was thick and murky. Groping their way forward as silently as possible, they stole upon the slumbering cluster of habitations. Just as they came near the edge of the village, a settler was seen riding in on horseback. An Indian fired and wounded him. But the man clung to his horse and pressed on heroically to sound the alarm. Before rushing to the onslaught, the Rangers, under the immediate command of Butler, paused a moment to see what damage their powder had taken through the wet. This moment was fatal for the settlement, for the Indians now rushed on in advance and sped into the doomed village like hounds let slip from their leashes.

The savages were now beyond control, and Brant knew that even he could not stay the slaughter. Fiercest of all were the Seneca, who tomahawked and slew with the relentless fury of demons. But the War Chief thought of the family of a Mr Wells, whom he knew and hoped that he might save. He took a short cut for this settler's house, but the way lay across a ploughed field, and as he ran the earth yielded under his feet and he made slow progress through the heavy soil. When he came to the house, he saw that it was already too late. The Seneca and other Indians with them had done their work. Not one of the inmates had escaped the tomahawk.

While the attack upon the houses was in progress, the Indians made several assaults upon the fort, but to no avail. Their work of destruction, however, went on unchecked among the habitations of the settlers. It was not long before flames were mounting in every quarter. Butler, dismayed to see the Indians so completely beyond control, was forced to hold his regular troops in readiness to oppose a sally from the garrison. Brant meanwhile exerted himself in performing numerous acts of kindness, and did what he could to check the rude violence of his savage band. In one house he found a peasant woman working calmly at her daily toil.

'Are you thus engaged,' he questioned, 'while all your neighbors are murdered around you?'

'We are the king's people,' was the simple response.

'That plea will not avail you to-day,' said the chieftain. 'They have murdered Mr Wells's family, who were as dear to me as my own.'

'But,' replied the woman, 'there is one Joseph Brant: if he is with the Indians, he will save us.'

'I am Joseph Brant,' came the rapid answer, 'but I have not the command, and I know not that I can save you.'

No sooner had he done speaking than his sharp eye detected a group of Seneca coming to the house. 'Get into bed quick,' he said abruptly, 'and feign yourself sick.' The woman did his bidding, and the Indians when they entered were completely deceived by her pretence. Then, as they departed, Brant gave a piercing signal, and some of his Mohawks gathered into the room. He had called them to help him save this woman and her family. His mark on them would, he believed, make them safe even in this time of general slaughter. He had no coloring matter with him and he asked the Mohawks to use theirs. With deft fingers the Indians then placed the chief's own mark upon the woman and her children in order to protect them.

'You are now probably safe,' said Brant and moved out again into the smoke of fire and battle.

When the massacre was over, it was found that thirty or forty settlers had escaped death and had been made prisoners. From one of these Brant made inquiries respecting the whereabouts of Captain McKean. He learned that this officer had taken his family away to the Mohawk valley.

'He sent me a challenge once,' remarked Brant; 'I have now come to accept it. He is a fine soldier thus to retreat.'

'Captain McKean,' was the rejoinder, 'would not turn his back upon an enemy where there was a possibility of success.'

'I know it,' said Brant, with open generosity. 'He is a brave man, and I would have given more to take him than any other man in Cherry Valley. But,' he added, 'I would not have hurt a hair of his head.'

On the evening of the day of carnage the prisoners were led down the valley to the loyalist encampment, several miles to the south of the fort. Fires had been lighted on every side, and within the extensive range of these fires the luckless captives were corralled for the night. But the air was chill, and many who were clothed in scanty fashion passed the hours of darkness in helpless agony on the cold, bare ground. During the night the shrill cries of the Indians, as they gloated over the scene of their triumph, resounded through the forest. The spoils were divided among the raiders, and with the dawning of another day they set out in the direction of Niagara.

The captives were separated into small parties, and apportioned among the different sections of the force. They had expected little mercy from the victors, but to their surprise clemency was shown to them. Butler had now succeeded in reasserting his authority on their behalf. As the marching bands came to a standstill, they were collected together and the women and children were released. Only the wives of two colonial officers with their families were held captive and carried away into the western forests. In Cherry Valley heaps of smoking debris were all that remained. Groups of redskins still hovered about the unhappy village until, on the following day, they saw that an enemy was approaching. A body of militia had come from the Mohawk river, but they were too late; the savages, avoiding an encounter, departed, and the scene was one of havoc and desolation. As one chronicler has written: 'The cocks crowed from the tops of the forest trees, and the dogs howled through the fields and woods.'


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Chronicles of Canada, The War Chief of the Six Nations, A Chronicle of Joseph Brant, 1915

 

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