It seems like there’s been a surge recently in the discovery of lost tombs. Richard III was found under a parking lot. Miguel de Cervantes was found in the convent in Madrid where he was known to have been buried (that may sound a bit backwards, but trust me, it makes sense. The convent was rebuilt in the 17th century and they lost track of where they put Cervantes*). All of these fantastic discoveries set me thinking about an interesting “Is he really there?” story from the American Revolution: the final resting place of British Col. Walter Butler.
Butler was one of the most cruel and vicious soldiers of the Revolution (and in a conflict and theater known for its cruelty and viciousness that’s really saying something!). His deplorable, savage conduct at the Battle of Fort Stanwix and the Massacre of Cherry Valley made him one of, if not the most hated and feared soldier on either side of the War. But by 1781 his luck was running out.
Butler was with Major John Ross when Ross was defeated at the Battle of Johnstown by Colonial militia under Lieutenant Colonel Marinus Willett. After the battle Ross and Butler attempted to retreat north, towards the safety of the Adirondacks and ultimately Canada.
The American’s wouldn’t quite make it, the British troops always just out of their reach. Advance elements of Willett’s force exchanged some shots with the British as the Red Coats struggled across West Canada Creek, just above what is today Hinckley Reservoir. By the time Willett made it to the creek all that remained behind of the British was a single corpse, lying in the snow. It had been shot, tomahawked, and scalped. Several American troops, as well as a document in the body’s pocket, identified it as Walter Butler.**
What happened to the body is a mystery. Butler was never heard from again, so it certainly seems safe to assume it was him, but that’s the last thing anyone can say with certainty. None of the accounts of that day mention burying the body, but one interesting story has been passed down through the years.
A few nights later (so the story goes) after Willett’s troops had moved on, loyalists found the corpse and smuggled it back to Schenectady. Under cover of darkness they buried Walter Butler in the nave of St. George’s Episcopal Church where he remains to this day in an unmarked grave under the right side of the third pew from the front. The church itself dates from 1759 and was built with contributions from, among others, Sir William Johnson, who sided with the Crown during the Revolution. Its reputation as a loyalist institution caused it to fall on hard times following the war and it was many years before it would shake off the stigma.
So is the tale true? Is the body of one of the most despised and loathsome men in New York history still lying underneath a church in Schenectady?
No one really knows for sure. Common sense would say no, it’s much more likely that Walter Butler never left the bank of West Canada Creek. But still the story lingers. Many years later Dr. Rogers Tayler, a rector of St. George’s Episcopal, would immortalize the legend in a poem:
“Beneath the pew in which you sit
They say that Walter Butler’s buried.
In such a fix, across the Styx
I wonder who his soul has ferried?
And so the ages yet unborn
Shall sing your fame in song and story
How ages gone you sat upon
A Revolutionary Tory.”
For more info on the Revolution in Upstate New York I would highly recommend “Bloody Mohawk” by Richard Berleth. Excellent book!
*Shameless plug: For more information on Cervantes’ life check out our Bookworm History episode on the story behind “Don Quixote”: https://youtu.be/_Tb0iK2HYkc
**No one is certain what this mystery paper was, and it does not seem to have survived. Some said it was Butler’s commission from the king, others maintain it was a notice of a death sentence passed for Walter Butler by military tribunal in 1777.