Who Was Ethan Allen?

Ethan Allen, who has become a folk hero in Vermont, was an unusually flamboyant backwoodsman-turned- statesman from Connecticut. He was one of the early inhabitants of Burlington and lived on his property in the Winooski River Intervale from 1787 until his death in 1789. He made a very significant contribution to the early history of Vermont, at that time called the New Hampshire Grants, then the territory constituted the northern frontier of the New England colonies, and of the emerging nation.

He is best known for the capture of Fort Ticonderoga at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War and his leadership of the Green Mountain Boys. He was also a Deist and philosopher. Towards the end of his life he published Reason the Only Oracle of Man, rewritten from a manuscript he and Dr. Thomas Young, a Deist friend and mentor from Connecticut, had written together years earlier.

As is so often the case with folk heroes, around whom myths grow up during and after their lives, it is hard to form an accurate picture of Ethan Allen. Indeed, there is no portrait of him! By most accounts, he was over six feet tall, unusual for that time, and, according to contemporary evidence, was a confrontational, even belligerent person, yet had that power to attract the most devoted and loyal followers. Persistent and independent like many frontiersmen, Ethan was, however, unusually well-read and articulate for a settler of the northern frontier.

Fort Ticonderoga

Redcoats

In the Spring of 1775, Fort Ticonderoga was captured for the American Colonies by a troop led by Ethan Allen. The fort is situated at a very strategic point at the southern tip of Lake Champlain, and had been in British hands since the Peace of Paris in 1763. At the time of the attack it was neither well-maintained nor well-guarded; furthermore the garrison had no idea that hostilities had broken out in Concord and Lexington.

Ethan Allen recognized the significance of capturing the fort and was preparing to do so, with the Green Mountain Boys, when Benedict Arnold arrived with a military commission from the Massachusetts and Connecticut revolutionary councils to lead an attack.

Aerial View of Fort Ticonderoga

The Green Mountain Boys refused to serve under anyone other than their own commander, so Ethan took charge leaving Benedict Arnold the honor of being co-commander of the force. At dawn on May 10th the fort was easily taken, as the garrison of a mere fifty men was indeed totally surprised.

Crown Point, another British fort a few miles to the north, was also taken without an engagement the following day. The capture of these two forts secured protection from the British to the north, and provided much needed cannon for the colonial army.

Although popular mythology attributed these early victories to Ethan's military skill, they were possible because of the total unpreparedness of the British.

Imprisoned

In June 1775, Ethan, who was by now at the northern end of Lake Champlain, proved himself to be somewhat successful at recruiting Indians and disenchanted Canadians to join the campaign to invade Canada, but never received a commission in the army assigned to the task. Frustrated by delays during the summer, Ethan decided on his own initiative, and in his impulsive fashion, to attack well-prepared and forewarned Montreal on September 25th. A second attack force failed to arrive and Ethan, deserted by some of his men, was easily captured, and sent to be tried as a traitor in England.

Pendennis Castle

Ethan's experiences as a prisoner were varied, according to our only sources of information, his own action-packed account written some years later. At times he suffered greatly, particularly on board prison ships, but once his status changed from traitor to prisoner-of-war, he fared better. His fortunes as a prisoner were most favorable when he was incarcerated in Pendennis Castle, Cornwall, and on his return voyage, when the citizens of Cork in Ireland greeted him. After some time on parole on Long Island, Ethan was finally repatriated in the spring of 1778 in exchange for the release of a British officer.

The Haldimand Affair

In the late 1770s, after Vermont had declared itself an independent republic, the New York government was as hostile as ever. The Continental Congress, afraid of antagonizing the powerful state, was noticeably unsupportive, and New Hampshire and Massachusetts were making their own claims to the territory. The governor of Canada was, at that time, Frederick Haldimand. In order to guarantee land titles in the republic, negotiations began through Haldimand between members of the Vermont government and the British headquarters in New York for the republic of Vermont to become a part of the British Empire.

While a prisoner in England, Ethan had been approached to spy for the British after his release; but there is no evidence that he did so. There is written evidence of direct communication between members of the Vermont government, including Ethan Allen, and the British, from 1780 until 1783. The conspirators did not have the support of the Vermont Assembly, which was more interested in having Vermont accepted as the fourteenth state of the Union than rejoining the British Empire.

It is difficult to understand the motives of the people involved; a desire to protect the sovereignty of Vermont, or concern for their own property? The Vermont participants contended that the action was a ruse to prevent English invasion and to pressure Congress into admitting Vermont as a state of the Union. However, modern scholars have remained dubious about this interpretation, and have pointed out that the Green Mountain leaders continued negotiations with Britain and Canada for several years after the end of the revolution, when all danger of invasion had passed.

It was not until 1791 that Vermont became the fourteenth state.

Defender of the New Hampshire Land Grants

After the New York Supreme Court ruled that any claim to ownership of land granted by New Hampshire was invalid, Ethan became extremely involved in defending these Yankee grants. He did so to protect his own considerable interests and those of the pioneers who came north from Connecticut and Massachusetts after the end of the French and Indian War in 1759. He preferred to associate the newly developed lands with historically democratic New England rather than New York, where there was a less democratic tradition and a government influenced by wealthy landowners. He even went as far as proposing complete independence for the land between the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain, before the Revolutionary War intervened.

Ethan Allen's Final Years

From the early 1780's Ethan's influence on Vermont politics waned. Although he continued to involve himself by writing pamphlets and letters to further the Vermont cause, his pursuit of an alliance with the Empire certainly contributed to his failing popularity. At the same time, Vermont's population doubled, and its government required qualities of diplomacy, stability, and accountability, none of which were strong in Ethan.

He contented himself with rewriting a philosophical work begun in earlier years with his Deist friend, Dr. Thomas Young of Salisbury. In 1785 his Reason the Only Oracle of Man was published. This book was a financial disaster and not well-received, probably because its ideas were as controversial as its author. It most clearly reflected his personality as a free thinker and an independent spirit. He tore the Old Testament to shreds and ridiculed the New. He postulated a Natural Law and the ideal of a Good God in harmony with Nature, hardly ideas that would endear him to New England.

The last five years of Ethan's life were his most tranquil. He and his second wife, Fanny, moved to a home on their property in the Burlington Intervale. Ethan concentrated on farming and writing, and died in 1789. As so often in his life, Ethan presents yet another unanswered question as to the manner of his death. He either suffered a stroke returning across the frozen lake, or, as popular legend tells it, fell from the loaded sleigh in a drunken stupor. Whatever the cause of the trauma, he did not regain consciousness, and died the next day at home.

Without doubt, Ethan Allen's life had great impact upon and significance for the early history of Vermont, and it can be safely said that his frontier spirit and independent way of thought still linger here.