Strangers to Us All Lawyers and Poetry

William Orlando Butler


engraving by T.B. Welch

The Biographical Encyclopaedia of Kentucky of the Dead and Living Men of the Nineteenth Century 124 (Cincinnati: J.M. Armstrong & Company, 1878)

William Orlando Butler "was born near Nicholasville, Kentucky, in 1791. He was the son of Percival Butler, a noted Revolutionary soldier. He was graduated from Transylvania University, Lexington, in 1812. Butler studied law for a short time, but the War of 1812 called him and he enlisted. At the River Raisin he was wounded and captured and carried through Canada to Fort Niagara, but he was later exchanged. Butler was with General Jackson at the battle of New Orleans, and his gallantry attracted the attention of the general, who placed him upon his staff.

Attack on New Orleans, during the Battle of New Orleans
during the War of 1812

[Mara L. Pratt, M. D., American History Stories (Boston: Educational Publishing Co., 1890)] [Used with permission of the Florida Center for Instructional Technology]

In 1817 Butler returned to the law, married, and settled in the little river town of Carrollton, Kentucky, on the Ohio, his home henceforth. In July, 1821, the first draft of his famous poem, The Boatman's Horn (then called The Boat Horn), was published in The Western Review, a monthly magazine of Lexington, Kentucky. . . . The poem was subsequently published as the title-poem in a small collection of his verse, entitled The Boatman's Horn and Other Poems. From 1839 to 1843 Butler was a Kentucky Congressman; and in 1844 the unsuccessful candidate for governor of Kentucky. Upon his Mexican War record, General Butler was nominated by the Democratic party for vice-president of the United States with General Lewis Cass, of Michigan, as the head of the ticket, but they were defeated by Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams. In 1855 General Butler declined the governorship of the territory of Nebraska; and in 1861 he went to Washington as a member of the famous 'Peace Congress.' General Butler died at his home, Carrollton, Kentucky, August 6, 1880, in the ninetieth year of his age. Though famous as a soldier and politician, The Boatman's Horn is the work that will keep his name green for many years; and several of his other poems are not to be utterly despised." [John Wilson Townsend, 1 Kentucky in American Letters 1784-1912 84-85 (Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Torch Press, 1913)(2 vols.)(attributing biographical information to F.P. Blair, Biographical Sketch of Gen. William O. Butler (Washington, 1848); W.T. Coggeshall, The Poets and Poetry of the West (Columbus, Ohio, 1860)][We find no OCLC listing for Butler's The Boatman's Horn and Other Poems.]

Butler's Confederate Army service is described in somewhat greater detail in Lewis Collins' History of Kentucky (1878):

[Butler] volunteer[ed] as a private in Capt. N.S.G. Hart's company at Lexington [Kentucky]; was elected corporal, and marched to the relief of Fort Wayne; promoted to ensign in Col. Wells' 17th U.S. infantry; in the two battles of the river Raisin, Jan. 18 and 22, 1813, he signalized himself by self-devotion and daring, was wounded and taken prisoner; captain of 44th U.S. infantry, in the attack at Pensacola; in the battles at New Orleans, Dec. 23, 1814 and Jan. 8, 1815, Gen. Jackson says he "displayed the heroic chivalry and calmness of judgment in the midst of danger, which distinguished the valuable officer in the hour of battle:' received therefor the brevet rank of major; was aid to Gen. Jackson, 1816-17; resigned. . . .

[Lewis Collins, 2 History of Kentucky 191 (Covington, Kentucky: Collins & Co., 1878)(rev'd & enlarged, Richard H. Collins)]

W.H. Venable in Beginnings of Literary Culture in the Ohio Valley comments on the first appearance of Butler's "The Boatman's Horn":

The last number of the last volume of The Western Review, July, 1821, contains a genuine poem, entitled the "Boat Horn," by Orlando. This was the first draft of William Orlando Butler's melodious lyric, the "Boatman's Horn," afterward made familiar to the public in Coggeshall's "Poetry of the West." Coggeshall says it was first published in 1835, but he is mistaken. It came out, as I have said, in 1821, when the author was twenty-eight years old.

[W. H. Venable, Beginnings of Literary Culture in the Ohio Valley: Historical and Biographical Sketches 65 (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1891). Venable, like John Wilson Townsend, in his Kentucky in American Letters 1784-1912 (1913), cites F.P. Blair (Life and Public Services)(1848) as the source for his biographical information on Butler.] [online text]

Butler was, according to at least one source, a successful lawyer. [Edwin Anderson Alderman & Joel Chandler Harris (eds.), Library of Southern Literature 65 (New Orleans: Martin & Hoyt Co., 1910)(1907)(Vol. 15, Biographical Dictionary of Southern Authors, 1929, Lucian Lamar Knight ed.)]

Butler, William Orlando, 1791-1880
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress

William Orlando Butler

William Orlando Butler
Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., 2001

William O. Butler
National Cyclopedia of Biography

American Political Prints

Butler Family History

Butler County, Iowa

Butler County, Nebraska

Butler County, Missouri

General Butler State Resort Park
Carrollton, Kentucky

General Butler State Resort Park lies at the confluence of the Ohio and Kentucky Rivers. It was named in honor of one of Kentucky's foremost military families, and General William Orlando Butler. The Butler-Turpin Historic House, built in 1859, is on the park grounds. The park is located 44 miles northeast of Louisville.

Butler County, Missouri

Butler, Georgia

Gen. Wm. O. Butler Bed & Breakfast
Carrollton, Kentucky


William Orlando Butler, "The Boatman's Horn," in Bennett H. Young (ed.), Kentucky Eloquence. Past and Present. Library of Orations, After-Dinner Speeches, Popular and Classic Lectures Addresses and Poetry 440-441 (Louisville, Kentucky: Ben LaBree, 1907) [online text]


Francis P. Blair, Biographical Sketch of Gen. William O. Butler (Washington, D.C.: Printed at the Congressional Globe Office, 1848)

Bibliography: Articles

Mary Ann Gentry, General William Orlando Butler (1791-1880), 4 (1) Northern Kentucky Heritage Magazine (Autumn/Winter, 1996)

Research Resources

William Orlando Butler Poem Manuscript
[Manuscript of a poem entitled "A Night View of the Battle of Raisin," dated January 22, 1813, and written by then Major Butler after the battle in the War of 1812. The poem was published in the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society in September, 1912]
Kentucky Historical Society
Frankfort, Kentucky