Ethan Allen, popularly known as the Founder of the State of Vermont, was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on January 10, 1738. He was a flamboyant folk hero of Vermont, who organized Green Mountain Boys during the American Revolutionary War, and together with Colonel Benedict Arnold captured Fort Ticonderoga in May 1775. Later while invading the British colony of Canada with Colonel John Brown, Allen was captured on September 1775, and was held as prisoner for two years in England and New York before finally being exchanged in 1778.
Back with the Patriots, he was immediately honored with the brevet rank of colonel in the Continental Army. He came back to Vermont and was given the honor of major general of Vermont. Allen, his family, friends and supporters made significant contribution to the early history of Vermont. Allen tried statehood for Vermont by petitioning the Continental Congress. After Congress denied permission, he directly negotiated with the British for Vermont and hence was accused immediately of treason. As an early inhabitants of Burlington, he settled well on his property at the Winooski River Intervale during his last years and died on February 12, 1789, two years before Vermont was finally admitted into the Union as its fourteenth state.
Like most other folk heroes, myths grew around him during and after his life in Vermont. In terms of history, it is difficult to get an accurate picture of Ethan Allen. There is no accurate portrait of him even in any of the museums. He was assumed to be over six feet tall, which was unusual at that time. He seemed to have a confrontational personality, yet attracted devoted and loyal followers. Like most other frontiersmen he was always independent, but uncharacteristically well-educated and articulate for an early settler in the north.
Early Life and the Green Mountain Boys
Allen, the farmer and later statesman of Connecticut, was an early explorer of the New Hampshire and Vermont region. He got involved in the “Hampshire Grants” dispute due to conflicting land claims made by New Hampshire and New York. The Governor of New Hampshire granted lands in this region without any clear authority. The King and the New York Governor started to confiscate the lands and subjected them to heavy New York fees.
Allen was the prime person to defend the New Hampshire Land Grants, he did it to secure his own land interests, and also of those settlers who migrated North from Massachusetts and Connecticut. Allen increasingly associated himself with the principles of democratic New England rather than with the wealthy landowner dominated New York. He initiated the proposal for complete independence for the region from Connecticut River and Lake Champlain, even before the Revolutionary War started.
In 1770, the New York Supreme Court declared the New Hampshire grants invalid and so the settlers under Colonel Ethan Allen formed a militia group called ‘Green Mountain Boys’ for defending and securing their property. Soon, Allen and his family started the Onion River Land Company and invested in the undervalued Hampshire lands. Allen’s vision and leadership provided Vermont with an identity of its own and a greater spirit of independence which stays to this day. Petty skirmishes with the Loyalists lead to more serious conflicts and finally Allen was declared outlaw by Governor George Clinton of New York in 1771.
Fort Ticonderoga and the Revolutionary War
By the spring of 1775, Allen was taking up more armed conflicts with the Loyalist army. He had no prior sanctions from the Patriot forces or the Congress and made many decisions on his own. Fort Ticonderoga is located at a very strategic area at the southern corner of Lake Champlain and was in British hands since 1763. The British were ill-equipped for war and had no idea that conflict had started at Concord and Lexington. Allen was the first one to recognize the significance of capturing Fort Ticonderoga and was preparing to do so, with his Green Mountain Boys, when Benedict Arnold was commissioned by the Massachusetts and Connecticut revolutionary councils to lead an attack. Since Green Mountain Boys refused to obey Arnold, Allen took charge along with Arnold as co-commander of the force. Early on May 10th, the fort was easily taken by the American Colonies, and its Chief was captured without a fight as the garrison of a mere fifty British men was totally surprised.
Ticonderoga was the first British Crown property captured by American forces and served as the source of the cannon for George Washington which drove the British forces away from Boston. Crown Point, another British fort just few miles to the north, was taken similarly without conflicts the following day. These two command points secured protection from the British to the north. The capture show cased Allen’s military skills and also exposed the unprepared Loyalist forces.
Montreal Attack and Capture
In June 1775, Allen had the command of the northern region of Lake Champlain, and successfully recruited Indians and other Canadians to prepare for a campaign to attack British Canada. He again never got a formal commission, and based on his own impulsive fashion, decided to attack the well-prepared and previously forewarned Montreal on September 25th. He took help from Colonel John Brown, but a second attack force under General Schuyler never arrived. Defeat was imminent, and his own men started deserting him. Allen was easily captured by the British, and sentenced as a traitor in England. The Green Mountain Boys was also integrated slowly into the American army elsewhere under Seth Warner and other commanders.
Prisoner of War
Allen’s struggles as a prisoner are documented in his own words in an action-packed book written some years later. He was put on board ill-equipped prison ships, where he suffered greatly. Once his status changed from traitor to prisoner-of-war, his treatment was better. At Pendennis Castle in Cornwall, he got even better treatment and during his return passage to America, the citizens of Cork in Ireland greeted him warmly. At Long Island, he spent some time on parole only to be imprisoned again for violating parole rules by wandering away on hearing the news of his son’s death. After two years in prison, his name was suggested for prisoner swap; he had good time with the British officers on his last few days in prison. It is not clear whether he was approached to become a British spy, but his actions later never revealed such. Allen was finally repatriated during the spring of 1778 in exchange for the release of Colonel Archibald Campbell.
He returned to Vermont and was honored as the major general in the Vermont militia and became the commander of the armed forces of Vermont. He grew popular in Vermont Politics and later became a Judge on disputes over property owned by known Tories. He also made sure Vermont defended the Union’s northern border from any further British-Canadian attacks.
In September 1778, Allen petitioned the Continental Congress for the sake of Vermont’s statehood and to admit Vermont into the American Confederacy. When refused, he started negotiations directly with the British from 1780 to 1783; he was accused of treason for his actions. It is unclear what Allen’s motive was by contacting the British, but his ruse might have been to prevent the English from invading Vermont. Since the revolution had ended and peace returned, Allen’s conflicting ways of administration had less takers and his power center in Vermont started to decline.
Life in Vermont
During 1780’s, Allen’s influence on Vermont politics waned away. At Vermont, his family’s land assets started to multiply and being the first English speaking surveyors and explorers of north Vermont came in handy to usurp lands. Once peace returned, Allen spent time on creating a remarkable farm on the Winooski River at Burlington and indulged in a philosophical career. He wrote Reason, the Only Oracle of Man on his own, with some ideas from his American philosopher friend Thomas Young. Though the book financially failed, it expressed his personality as a free thinker with a spirit of independence. Meanwhile, New York started to support Vermont as a state of America. Allen continued to write pamphlets, letters and books in support of the Vermont cause.
Final Years at Vermont
Allen spent a tranquil life in his waning years. Along with his second wife, Fanny, he moved to a home on their property at the Burlington Intervale. Allen concentrated on farming and publishing, and died quietly in the year of 1789. Like his whole life, his death too is dogged with unanswered question – one legend has it that he suffered from stroke upon crossing the frozen lake, and another says he fell down from a sleigh in a drunken state. Either way, he never regained consciousness, and passed away the next day at his home.
Ethan Allen has a larger than life impact on Vermont and its frontier spirit. He influenced the earlier history of Vermont, and his independent way of thought still persists here. Ethan Allen is honored with a historic Allen site and his farmhouse in Burlington is open for visitors daily. Schoolchildren enrich their knowledge of history and cultures when they visit this site.