· · · VERMONT, NEW YORK · · ·
Lately purchased by Allens and Baker, in company, a large tract of land situate[d] … on Lake Champlain containing about forty five thousand acres.… The land will be sold at a moderate price. Whoever inclines to be a purchaser may, for further particulars, apply to Ethan, Zimry and Ira Allen or Remember Baker on the premises, or Heman and Levi Allen of Salisbury, per Ethan Allen & Company.
—ADVERTISEMENT IN THE CONNECTICUT COURANT, 17731
Ethan Allen was not a furniture maker. He did, however, burn a good deal of it as the leader of a self-proclaimed military force known as the Green Mountain Boys. Their mission was to defend homesteads whose land titles had been issued in New Hampshire but were being claimed by New York.
The dispute, based on conflicting colonial charters, had actually already been resolved. In 1764 King George III ruled that the region above Massachusetts, between the Connecticut River and the Hudson River, was part of New York. Prior to his ruling, however, New Hampshire had begun selling land in the region and issuing titles. In an effort to strengthen its claim, New Hampshire’s land sales suddenly increased between 1761 and 1763.2 The landowners themselves, for the most part, didn’t have particularly strong feelings whether they were part of New York or New Hampshire—until New York declared their deeds invalid.
Ethan Allen (ca. 1738-1789) (photo credit 8.1)
New York before the Revolution
In order to validate a deed, New York required that a fee be paid for registering it in New York. The fee was based on the current value of the land, which, following occupation and settlement, was far higher than when it had been purchased as uncleared property. Consequently, registration fees were often as much as the original purchase price. This did not set well with the settlers. To make matters worse, New York frequently sold land titled in New Hampshire but not in New York. When surveyors appeared to stake out these lands, they began to face increasingly large groups of hostile New Hampshire-based settlers. Among those settlers was Ethan Allen.
Allen was the eldest of eight children, born and raised in Connecticut. His plans for a college education were derailed by the death of his father, which obliged Ethan to become a farmer while continuing his education informally. In time he added lead mining and iron manufacturing to his endeavors. With his profits he began purchasing land, often in partnership with his brothers, in what would eventually become Vermont. By the time New York declared the “New Hampshire Grants” invalid, Allen had extensive holdings throughout the region, including the 45,000 acres advertised in the Connecticut Courant.
When, in 1770, the owners of land titled by New Hampshire were named in lawsuits being brought by New York claimants to their lands, the defendants turned to Ethan Allen to take the lead in coordinating their defense. Allen collected official documentation of New Hampshire’s deeds and, for the trial, secured the services of Jared Ingersoll, a prominent attorney who later served in the Continental Congress and participated in the writing of the Constitution. The trial was presided over by Judge Robert R. Livingston, who himself owned 35,000 acres of Vermont land deeded, in his case, by New York. Livingston refused to admit into evidence the documents Allen had gathered, and the subsequent verdict in favor of the New York plaintiffs surprised no one.
Before returning to his home in Bennington, Allen was visited by the attorney general of New York, John Taber Kempe, and James Duane, attorney for the New York plaintiffs in the case. They told Allen that if he and other leaders in Vermont could understand New York’s view, and convey the justice of that view to the people in Vermont, Kempe and Duane could arrange for Allen and the other Vermont leaders to acquire considerable amounts of land in the region on highly favorable terms. Allen did not say no. He said, “The gods of the valleys are not the gods of the hills.” When Kempe asked what that meant, Allen suggested he accompany him to Bennington, where he’d find out.
The following summer, New York’s deputy surveyor general, William Cockburn, arrived in Rutland to divide it into lots. As his crew commenced work, he was approached by two property owners with New Hampshire deeds. In a letter to the land’s New York proprietor (none other than attorney James Duane), Cockburn related that, “Your acquaintance Nathan [sic] Allen was in the woods with another party [of men], blackened and dressed like Indians.… By all accounts, we should not have been very kindly treated.”3
The incident was the first of many that would ensue between New York surveyors or property claimants and Allen’s Green Mountain Boys. It took place against a backdrop of increasingly violent confrontations. What had begun as spontaneous gatherings of angered residents were now evolving into organized groups of as many as a hundred men, dressed in a lurid mixture of American Indian headwear, women’s caps, and powdered wigs. They had taken to brandishing clubs, swords, and rifles, issuing threats, knocking down fences, destroying crops, and burning haystacks. Often these frightening mobs were led by a man named Seth Warner. But New York’s worst Vermont nightmare was about to take place: Seth Warner and Ethan Allen joined forces.
Allen’s furniture-burning days were first recorded that fall in an October 1771 deposition regarding a dispossessed New York claimant. “One, surnamed Allen,” a witness recounting what the victim had told him, vowed that “they had resolved to offer a burnt sacrifice to the gods of the world in burning the logs of that house. That they then kindled four fires on the logs of that house.… Allen and Baker, holding two clubs over the deponent’s head, commanded him to leave that land.”4 Allen and others named in the proceedings soon found their efforts widely publicized in notices offering a reward of £25 for their arrest.
Allen’s response revealed his continuing outrage at the corruption he had encountered in the New York legal system now seeking his arrest. He posted notices saying:
TWENTY FIVE POUNDS REWARD
Whereas James Duane and John Kempe of New York have by their menaces and threats greatly disturbed the public peace and repose of the honest peasants of Bennington and the settlements to the northward … any person that will apprehend these common disturbers, viz. James Duane and John Kempe, and bring them to Landlord Fay’s at Bennington, shall have fifteen pounds for James Duane and ten pounds for John Kempe, paid by,
With confrontations escalating on both sides, New York Governor William Tryon sought the assistance of British troops. But the last thing England wanted, with its American colonies already a political tinderbox, was to have its army firing upon its subjects. Likewise, the residents living on land obtained through the New Hampshire Grants turned to New Hampshire for assistance from its militia. New Hampshire, with its own concerns about potentially igniting the tinderbox politics in the colonies, abstained. Vermont was, as it would remain, on its own.
By August 1773 Ethan Allen and Seth Warner were burning entire settlements that had recently been established under grants from New York. Governor Tryon increased the reward for Allen’s arrest to £100. The New York legislature upped the ante, declaring that if Allen, Warner, and six other named cohorts did not turn themselves in within seventy days, they would be deemed guilty of felonies for which they would be (if caught) put to death.
As before, New York’s declaration was answered by a declaration, this time issued in the name of the Green Mountain Boys, though widely believed to be the voice of Ethan Allen. It met New York’s bet … and raised it:
And furthermore that we will kill or destroy any person or persons whomsoever that shall presume to be accessory, aiding or assisting in taking any of us as aforesaid; for by these presents we give any such disposed person or persons to understand that, though they have license by the law aforesaid to kill us, and “indemnification” for such murder from the same authority, they have no indemnification for doing so from the Green Mountain Boys.5
Going all in with their chips, Allen and the other leaders of the Green Mountain Boys set up their own government. New York claimants now found themselves being put on trial in courts created by the Green Mountain Boys. Floggings and other sentences were administered as homesteads continued to be burned.
A major confrontation with New York was on the verge of exploding. Then suddenly it ended—silenced by a gun fired 137 miles away. On April 19, 1775, British troops marching to Concord, Massachusetts, to destroy a cache of weapons, encountered an armed group of colonists in the village of Lexington. In moving to disarm them, a shot was fired, triggering a battle that triggered the American Revolution.
Allen recognized a major opportunity here, but it required a critical choice. His writings attacking the tyranny of New York’s royal governor had always made a point of expressing nothing but devotion to the king. Moreover, Vermont, positioned like a dagger from Canada wedging through New England before piercing the upper reaches of the Hudson River, could be of inestimable value to the Crown. Should Vermont make good on Allen’s professions of fealty, it would undoubtedly gain control over the conflicting deeds to its land—if the British won the war. On the other hand, by denying the British this weapon and instead joining forces with the colonists, Vermont stood to gain independence as a state in an independent nation—provided the colonists won.
Being, if nothing else, an independent man—tumultuous, riotous, licentious, in the words of New York’s legislature6—Allen opted for the colonists. At first the Continental Army wasn’t sure what to do with this audacious man and his Green Mountain Boys when they ran into each other, both heading for the stronghold guarding the main highway to Canada: Fort Ticonderoga. Confusion over protocol, however, was quickly resolved, and their combined forces ousted the British on May 10, 1775—less than a month after the battle at Lexington and Concord. By surprising the British through such quick action, the Americans gained control of a vital artery.
Allen quickly seized the political opportunity afforded by this victory. He wrote to the Continental Congress, asking that the Green Mountain Boys be incorporated as a regiment in the Continental Army. The members of the Continental Congress were well aware of the group’s vigilante reputation, but under the circumstances, how could they say no? In June they passed a resolution stating “that it be recommended to the Convention of New York, that they, consulting with General Schuyler, employ in the army to be raised for the defense of America, those called Green Mountain Boys, under such officers as the said Green Mountains Boys shall choose.” Representatives from Vermont’s towns soon met to elect the commander of their now respectable and official regiment. The choice of either Allen or Seth Warren was a foregone conclusion. By a vote of 41–5 they elected Warner. Evidently, Allen’s independent nature, while ideal for rebellion, was not ideal for friendship.
To his credit, Allen continued to serve, accepting an offer from General Schuyler to perform assignments as needed. Schuyler availed himself of Allen’s persuasive skills by sending him to seek support from the French Canadians of Quebec. Allen wrote to Schuyler that he was returning with both recruits and information he’d been given regarding local pathways and routes. While returning, however, Allen’s independent nature surfaced again. He and a fellow officer, Major John Brown, concluded that the British in nearby Montreal, being focused on Schuyler’s advance, could be ousted by a surprise attack in which Allen and Brown divided their small force and slipped into opposite ends of the city under cover of night. Not wanting to lose precious time by awaiting approval, they went ahead with their plan. Allen’s men made it across the St. Lawrence River; Brown’s did not. In short order, Allen and his men were surrounded.
Allen’s defeat was no small thing. The Continental Congress had been sending letters and emissaries to the French Canadians, hoping that the province of Quebec would become the fourteenth colony to join the rebellion. Allen’s debacle, Warner wrote, “put the French [Canadian] people into great consternation.… The Canadians were before nine-tenths for the Bostonians; they are now returned to their duty.”7
For Allen, the consequence was that he spent the bulk of the American Revolution as a prisoner of war. From a public relations point of view, it was the best thing that could have happened to him. After being released in a prisoner exchange in 1778, he was widely hailed—in no small part because of his book, published within a year of his release, A Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen’s Captivity. As before, his skill with words served him well: the book quickly sold out several printings and went on to be reissued in 1807, 1814, 1838, 1846, 1849, 1930, 1961, 1992, and 2000.
Allen returned to Vermont, which, during his absence, had declared itself an independent republic. Arriving to a hero’s welcome, his compatriots immediately sent him back to Philadelphia—three times, in fact—to lobby the Continental Congress for statehood. By the time of his third effort, in 1780, he was secretly contacted by an agent for the British who suggested that a negotiation regarding Vermont joining England’s efforts to win the war might yield mutually beneficial results.
Ever the high-risk negotiator, Allen commenced negotiations with the British and also secretly informed the Continental Congress that he was negotiating with its enemy. “Vermont had an indubitable right to agree on terms of cessation of hostility with Great Britain, provided the United States persisted in rejecting her application for a union with them,” he wrote, arguing that Vermont “would be the most miserable were she obliged to defend the independence of the United States, and they at the same time claiming full liberty to overturn and ruin the independence of Vermont.”8
Congress yielded. But another eleven years would pass before the details regarding land deeds and restitution could be ironed out, enabling Vermont to enter the union in 1791. While Allen had led Vermont to the threshold of statehood, he did not live to cross it with them. He died in 1789 at the age of fifty-one.