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Lieutenant-Colonel John Butler – Founder of Niagara-on-the-Lake remembered

November 2023

The Butler name is one that is intertwined with the history of the Niagara area. Lieutenant-Colonel John Butler was a soldier in the British Army in the 18th Century who played a significant role in the founding of the new settlement at Niagara, in what was then known as Upper Canada.

Born in 1728 in New London, Connecticut, Butler was a soldier, Deputy Superintendent for the Indian Department, Justice of the Peace and father of five children. The son of a British army officer, Butler moved with his family to New York’s Mohawk Valley in 1742, where he befriended William Johnson, a man who was instrumental in forging alliances between the British and the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy.

His military service goes back to the French and Indian Wars (1754-63). It was during the American Revolutionary War (1776-1783) that Butler formed a regiment of Rangers that operated out of Fort Niagara. Butler’s Rangers would eventually earn a reputation for ruthlessness, often employing guerilla tactics. To many American military historians, Butler was a war criminal due to his participation in the Wyoming Valley Massacre in 1778, while he is viewed in Canada as an honourable founding father of Upper Canada.

The Wyoming Valley Massacre was a battle fought between American militia and British soldiers with their Iroquois allies in the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania on 3 July 1778. The battle was an overwhelming defeat for the Americans, with around 300 Americas killed, many by Iroquois warriors as they fled the battlefield or after they had been taken prisoner. The American government further complained that Butler had allowed the Iroquois warriors to take the scalps of the dead Americans, a tradition in Iroquois warfare.

In 1778, Butler established barracks for his men on the west side of the Niagara River in what is now Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Following the British defeat during the Revolutionary War, Butler and his men settled in the Niagara area, the first non-Aboriginal settlers of Niagara, where he served as the Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs to the Six Nations. Butler spoke several Indian languages and was knowledgeable in the intricacies of Native diplomacy.

Butler, his wife Catherine and their five children established a homestead near the current-day Regional Road 55 in what was then known as Butlersburg, named in his honour, now Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. A frame house and several outbuildings were built on the property, given to Butler in recognition for his service to the Crown.

John Butler died here in 1796 at the age of 66, three years after Catherine, and was interred in the nearby family burial ground on a corner of his farm, known today as Butler’s Burial Ground.

During the War of 1812, the homestead was occupied by American soldiers after they captured the town of Niagara and Fort George in May 1813. It was fortified by the Americans and was the focus point of several sharp skirmishes during the summer of 1813. When the American Army retreated in December, they burned the entire town, including Butler’s homestead.

The Butler Homestead monument was officially dedicated on 18 May 2008, in the newly-created Lieutenant-Colonel John Butler Homestead Park, on what was the original Butler homestead. A bust of LCol Butler sits atop a four-sided cairn of field stones, watching over the modern homes that occupy his former land. The foundations of the original Butler homestead buildings were marked out by lines of crushed rock.

The disused and sadly neglected Butler’s Burial Ground also received a much-needed clean-up. Most headstones were broken or lost and those still there were barely readable. The crypt containing Butler’s remains had been partially destroyed by a large tree that had fallen onto it, leaving it exposed to the elements and vandals. It has since been buried, with only the front parapet exposed.

LCol John Butler may be long gone, but his name lives on in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Butler’s Barracks, Butler Street, Butler Homestead, the Best Western Colonel Butler Inn, Butler’s Bar, Grill and Niagara College produced beer Butler’s Bitter, and the now-closed Colonel John Butler Public School, attest to the impact he had on the area.

Sources: Niagara’s History Unveiled: Colonel John Butler (niagaranow.com), file (heritagetrust.on.ca), Butler Homestead Monument – UELAC, Battle of Wyoming – Wikipedia, Secrets of Butler’s Burial Grounds – Issuu, NOTL duo calls for urgency restoring Butler’s Burial Grounds (niagarathisweek.com).

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/butlers-house-cemetery/

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