Date of Award

December 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Andrew W. Cohen


American Colonies, American Revolution, Colonial New York, French and Indian War, Iroquois, Rangers

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


Historians follow those tributaries of early American history and trace their converging currents as best they may in an immeasurable river of human experience. The Butlers were part of those British imperial currents that washed over mid Atlantic America for the better part of the eighteenth century. In particular their experience reinforces those studies that recognize the impact that the Anglo-Irish experience had on the British Imperial ethos in America. Understanding this ethos is as crucial to understanding early America as is the Calvinist ethos of the Massachusetts Puritan or the Republican ethos of English Wiggery. We don't merely suppose the Butlers are part of this tradition because their story begins with Walter Butler, a British soldier of the Imperial Wars in America. We don't assume it because his son, John Butler and grandson, Walter Butler were Tories and Loyalists during the American Revolution. An imperial identity was one that they claimed for themselves in a country where other, alternative identities were possible. For the Butlers, the British imperial ethos informed the nature of their careers, their wealth, and the manner in which they were socially connected to other Americans. It is manifest in their claim of ancestral connection to the Butler-Ormonde family, a fountain of Anglo-Irish leaders for centuries. It is manifest in Walter Butler’s career on the garrisons of the New York frontier, at Fort Hunter and Oswego. It is manifest in the type of wealth the Butlers amassed and the traditions passed down to Walter Butler’s sons. Lastly it is manifest in the part the John Butler played in the transformation of a frontier garrison to an English county within the British Empire. They are not merely representative of the way an imperial ethos impacted early America, they are important as well for the lasting impression that they in particular made on the English frontier of New York.

A close look at the Butler family reveals a reality of the frontier largely ignored in previous works. That the imperial frontier embodied colonial ideals not often realized to its full extent. That the advantages that came from being part of the imperial frontier could be significant, but were often contingent on circumstances beyond the reach of those that commanded frontier posts. That competing colonial interests festered for years before the American Revolution. Finally, That the British Indian Department, long thought of as not only the personal creation of folk legend Sir William Johnson but a bulwark of imperial strength on the New York frontier, was much weaker than earlier supposed, in terms of the ability to direct Indian peoples and control frontier settlement by European peoples. The Butlers amassed great wealth and power over three generations on the New York frontier, lost much to imperial and civil war, and helped forge the new British nation of Canada in the wake of the American Revolution. The Butlers were not aberrations, bogeymen bent on evil or herculean forest warriors. They were British frontier soldiers, carving out pieces of Anglo empire from a turbulent frontier land, and struggling to navigate the myriad of obstacles and opportunities that would spell success or doom for the British Empire and the Butlers themselves.


Open Access