At the outbreak of the American Revolution, John Butler was a successful farmer on the Mohawk River opposite Fort Hunter (now Fonda, NY). He held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the colonial militia of New York and the appointment of Deputy Superintendent in the British Indian Department.
In June of 1775, Colonel Guy Johnson moved the headquarters of the Indian Department to Montreal. John Butler followed him, and in November was posted to Fort Niagara with instructions to maintain the neutrality of the Six Nations in accordance with British policy. In this, he had some success.
By 1777 the British realized that rebel overtures to the Indians might win over the Six Nations, and sent instructions to Sir Guy Carleton, the Governor and Commander-in-Chief at Quebec, to engage the Indians in an expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel Barry St Leger which was part of a grand strategy to secure the colony of New York. St Leger was to command the right wing of an invasion of Upper New York, entering the colony at Oswego and moving down the Mohawk to Albany where he was expected to meet a larger army commanded by General John Burgoyne. This combined army would then make contact with an army moving north from New York City.
Butler gathered a large force of Indians at Oswego in August of 1777 to operate in conjunction with St Leger. Unfortunately, St Leger was unable to capture Fort Stanwix, and bogged down in an unsuccessful siege. Rebel forces gathered on the Mohawk River, and mounted a relief column numbering over 600 men. Sir John Johnson was detailed to attack the column supported by the Indians under Butler. The Battle at Oriskany Creek was surprisingly successful and decimated the rebel army. However, the Indians became disenchanted at the lack of progress in the siege and slowly drifted away, forcing St Leger to abandon the expedition.
Butler's success with the Indians during the campaign led Sir Guy Carleton to authorize him to raise a Corps of Rangers to serve with the Indians on the frontiers. The Beating Order was issued 15 September 1777. The Corps was variously referred to as: "A Corps of Rangers commanded by Colonel Butler," "Lieutenant Colonel Butler's Rangers," "Butler's Corps of Rangers," and "Butler's Rangers," the latter being the most common designation. Butler wrote the Commander-in-Chief asking that the Corps be given a formal designation, but nothing seems to have come of the request.
Recruiting began immediately and although slow, the Rangers were probably the most successful corps in the north in attracting recruits. By mid December the first company was mustered complete.
Butler moved into the Indian country in the spring of 1778. He held numerous conferences with the Indians and dispatched small expeditions against rebel fortifications. By late June he had mustered a sizeable force of 200 Rangers and 300 Indians and moved against Wyoming (now Wilkes Barre, Pa). Small forts in the Wyoming Valley quickly surrendered, but a major rebel force held out in Forty Fort. Feigning retreat, Butler lured the enemy out of the fort, and after a fierce battle the rebels were completely defeated.
Butler once again moved his Rangers back into the Indian country where they conducted devastating raids against the rebel frontier.
On 10 November, tramping through newly fallen snow, Butler's son, Captain Walter Butler, led a punishing raid into Cherry Valley. The rebel soldiers at the outpost took refuge in the fort, leaving the civilians to fend for themselves. Unfortunately, the Indians discovered rebel soldiers who had previously surrendered and given their parole. Incensed, they cut a swath through the village, killing men, women and children. This outrage has left a stain on the history of the corps.
In 1779 the rebels mounted a major offence against Niagara, cutting through the Indian country and destroying almost every village they entered. At Newtown, on the Chemung River, Butler attempted to defeat and turn back the rebels, but artillery destroyed the confidence of the Indians and his defensive position was soon threatened by flanking forces. Butler ordered a retreat and the Rangers did not engage the rebels again until an ambuscade at the head of Lake Conesus. The trap was prematurely sprung, and Butler was forced to withdraw. Fortunately for Niagara, Sullivan had overextended his supply line, and within days of reaching Niagara he was forced to turn back.
The Rangers conducted a number of expeditions against the rebel frontier throughout the spring and summer of 1780. In the fall, Sir John Johnson was ordered to mount a major thrust into the Mohawk Valley by way of Oswego, and the Rangers were ordered to join him. As a raid, it was extremely successful, and Washington reported to Congress that the destruction would "likely to be attended with the most alarming consequences."
The war began to shift westwards, and one company of Rangers was dispatched to Detroit, and began operations against the Ohio frontier.
After a summer of company-sized raids in 1781, Major John Ross was ordered to mount another expedition against the Mohawk. Again, as a raid, it proved successful, but Captain Walter Butler was killed in action while commanding the rear guard at West Canada Creek.
Captain William Caldwell's re-enforced company was in action at Lower and Upper Sandusky in June 1782 and won a significant victory over rebel forces. In August, Caldwell's company was again in action at the Blue Licks in Kentucky where the Rangers and Indians were again successful. At the same time, Captain Andrew Bradt's company raided Wheeling, West Virginia, and put the settlement to the torch. This was the last action fought by the Rangers during the Revolution.
Nine companies were paid off and reduced to nil strength at Niagara on 24 June 1784, but Caldwell's company did not arrive from Detroit until 16 July. It was paid off and reduced to nil strength on that date.