This Day in History: Folk hero Ethan Allen is born
On this day in 1738, folk hero Ethan Allen is born. He is best known for his contributions to the founding of Vermont.
Nevertheless, he began life a few states over, in Connecticut.
Indeed, Allen might never have ended up in modern-day Vermont but for a decision made by New Hampshire Governor Benning Wentworth in the mid-1700s. Wentworth began issuing land grants for territory west of the Connecticut River. Today, that land lies in Vermont. Back then, it was simply a disputed stretch of territory between New York and New Hampshire.
Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that the New York Governor began issuing land grants that contradicted the New Hampshire grants? In 1764, however, King George decided the ownership dispute in favor of New York.
The King couldn’t have been happy when the quarreling continued.
At some point, Ethan Allen began investing in the New Hampshire grants. He and many other grant holders decided to fight for their property. Allen was more of a speculator, but many others had already settled their land. They did not want to pay more fees to New York for the privilege of keeping something they thought they already owned. They did not acknowledge the legitimacy of settlers who arrived from New York, with competing claims to their property.
In this atmosphere, the Green Mountain Boys were born! Allen was elected their colonel. The Green Mountain Boys harassed the settlers from New York and tried to intimidate them into leaving. Property was destroyed. New Yorkers responded by offering cash rewards for the capture of Allen.
Perhaps it was fortunate that the American Revolution intervened?
In 1775, Allen led his Green Mountain Boys on an excursion to Fort Ticonderoga, along with Benedict Arnold. They took the fort without firing a shot! The artillery captured during this expedition would prove vital to George Washington’s army, stationed outside Boston. Soon afterwards, Allen left for Canada, where he was captured during an ill-advised attack on Montreal. He was held as a prisoner of war for quite some time, but he was finally freed in a prisoner exchange and returned home. By then, Vermont had declared its independence. Allen served as commander of Vermont’s forces and helped defend the Canadian border against British invasion.
There was just one problem: The Continental Congress had so far failed to recognize Vermont as an independent state. What happened next became controversial.
Vermonters opened negotiations with Great Britain. They were worried about their indeterminate status with the American confederacy, and they were worried about the possibility of British invasion. The Continental Army did not have a strong presence within Vermont’s borders. Some have argued that Allen was a traitor because he entered into these negotiations with Great Britain. Others claim he was being crafty, merely stalling and protecting Vermont from invasion until the close of the Revolution.
The situation was saved when the war finally came to an end. Vermont became an independent republic for a period of time. Some may have had doubts about Allen’s negotiations with Britain, but his reputation as a Patriot was perhaps saved a few years later when he refused an invitation to join Shay’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts.
Allen passed away just two years before Vermont joined the United States as the fourteenth state.
About Colonel Ethan Allen (Ethan Allen Institute website)
Charles Walter Brown, Ethan Allen: Of Green Mountain Fame, a Hero of the Revolution (1902)
Gene Procknow, Ethan Allen: Patriot, Land Promoter or Turncoat? (Journal of the American Revolution; Nov. 5, 2013)
Michael Bellesiles, Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier (1993)
Willard Sterne Randall, Ethan Allen: His Life and Times (2011)