Ethan Allen's Burlington Home 1787-1789
by David J. Blow
This article originally appeared in the Chittenden County Historical Society Bulletin April, 1978, Vol 13 No. 1
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Chittenden County Historical Society
Situated on a small promontory just above the Winooski River out of reach of flood waters in Burlington's Intervale is a small, unassuming frame house. Its style is what real estate agents today would call “Cape Cod.” Modern siding makes it look quite ordinary, but this house has stood there for 192 years. No marker identifies it; tourists do not swarm about it. Yet its identity has never been actually lost. Sitting in untouched surroundings, out of site of a new development off North Avenue and visible now from the “Beltline”, this modest farm house was the last home of General Ethan Allen, Vermont's revolutionary hero. It was built by him and in it he died.
Ethan Allen in Burlington
Ethan Allen was fifty years old when he came to Burlington in 1787 to take up the life of a farmer. Fifty was an advanced age for the late 18th century and perhaps he figured on living about seven more years at best – at least he conveyed some land to his brother Ira in return for a written contract that Ira's store would provide him with supplies for seven years. Actually he had less than two years to live.
Ethan Allen in his later years
Until 1777 Ethan Allen's family had lived at Sheffield, Connecticut. They moved to Vermont during his captivity, settling at Sunderland in that year. Mary Bronson Allen, Ethan's first wife, died in 1783. In 1784 he met Frances Buchanan at the home of Col. Stephen R. Bradley in Westminster, VT., where she and her mother had rooms in the house. Ethan and Frances were married February 16, 1784; he was 47 and she 24.
Ethan had been planning to settle in Burlington since 1778 when he bought some 150 acres of land in the northern end of the town from Col. James Claghorn, “Commissioner for the confiscation and sale of the estates of the enemies of Vermont and the United States.” 1 In August of 1784 Ethan wrote to his brother Ira that “I have plan'd the house 34 X 24 two story high which plan I will now depart from.” He continued to buy land and before he finally settled in Burlington he possessed 1400 acres.
Ethan Allen, his wife and children moved up to Burlington in the late summer of 1787. They lived about three months at Burlington Bay with John Collins while the farm house was being finished.2 Part of the family – particularly the laborers, two black men and a woman – lived at the farm during this time. Allen's last son, Ethan Voltaire was born at Collins' house on November 24, and shortly after that the family moved in to the newly completed farm house on the Intervale. A letter written by Ethan to Col. Stephen Bradley of Westminster that same month gives a pleasant impression of this farm and the life he lived on it:
Burlington, 6th November 1787
Sir: I have lately arrived at my new farm of 1400 acres in one body, in which are 350 acres of choice river intervale, a quantity of swales and rich upland meadow, interspersed with the finest of wheat land and pasture land well watered and is by nature equal to any tract of land of the same number of acres that I ever saw. I have put forty acres under improvement. The country settles fast and I wish that you were well settled in it. Little is said about philosophy here: our talk is of bullocks and our glory is in the gad. We mind earthly things.
When Allen removed to Burlington in 1787 his property on the Grand List for that year was 14 pounds. His brother Ira's was five. The next year, 1788, Ethan's taxable personal property and improved land were rated at 41 pounds and ten shillings. His unimproved lands lands rated at 25 pounds. This shows something of the relative value of improved and unimproved lands at the time; out of his 1400 acres only 40 were cleared.
Years later, in 1858, when a controversy developed over the location of a monument to Ethan Allen in the Green Mountain Cemetery and the site of his grave was disputed, several people that had known Ethan Allen in life and attended his funeral were discovered by the committee. While most of their testimony concerned the identification of the site of Allen's burial, they did give some interesting facts of his life during the last two years in Burlington. Huldah Lawrence was a six year old girl the year that General Allen died. Her father, Stephen Lawrence, the first settler to return to Burlington after the revolution, lived just south of the High Bridge (now called Lime Kiln, at Winooski Park) in what is now South Burlington,. The Lawrences were on intimate terms with the families of both Ira and Ethan Allen. Huldah remembered Ethan and his wife visiting at the Lawrence house the winter before his death.
... He was an honest man – was very kind to his wife. She was a clever woman. He paid up well. Ira Allen paid me after he died; he always paid his men well, but they had to stir about and attend to their business. He used to drink hard at times. Was a pretty tall man – pretty red faced. 3
About the same time a Mrs. Forbes, a Burlington resident, told Zadock Thompson that when Ethan and his wife visited the families living at the Bay (on Battery St.) during the winter they used to ride on an ox sled, going down from their farm to the mouth of the river and around Colchester Point. 4
In June of 1788 Ethan went to Quebec City with his brothers Ira and Levi to see Lord Dorchester, the Governor General, on the possibility of shipping beef from the Onion River to Quebec. He was also busy that year working on an appendix to his book, The Oracle of Reason, an 80 page manuscript.
Heavy rains during the late summer and an early frost that fell caused a partial crop failure in northern Vermont. Consequently, Ethan didn't lay in enough hay to get his livestock through the winter. On February 11, 1789 he and his hired man, Newport, drove the oxen over the ice to South Hero for a load of hay which his cousin Ebenezer Allen had promised him. Returning early the next morning, Ethan Allen unexpectedly died.
Henry Collins, son of John, talked with the black man, Newport, shortly afterward. Newport told him that “... after they had reached the river on their return, Mr. Allen was taken with a fit and struggled violently for some time – from half to three quarters of an hour. “5 Newport had to hold Allen to keep him from falling off the load of hay. He hurried as fast as possible to the house and carried him inside on his shoulders. Mrs Allen fled in to the other room thinking that Ethan was drunk again. Some sources say that Ethan died during the course of the morning, others say in the afternoon. In any case, he died on February 12, in his house, at the age of 52.
Collins reports that messengers were sent to “different persons immediately.” Huldah Lawrence remembered that her mother and father were sent for soon after General Allen was brought home. Her impression was that on their eventual return home they said that he was dead.
She remembers that there was talk about when the funeral would be. That she went with her father's family down to the house where he had lived to attend the funeral on the day which the widow had proposed, but that on arriving there they learned that Ira Allen, who had been absent on a journey to Manchester, Vt., had returned, and had said that it was always his bother Ethan's particular request that he should be buried under arms, and therefore the funeral was deferred for some days till word could be sent about the country, and arrangements for such a funeral could be made. She remembers seeing the corpse of Ethan Allen a the time. The corpse was afterwards removed to Ira Allen's because his house was larger than that of Ethan and much nigher to the place of burial. On the day of the funeral she went with her father's family to the funeral at Ira Allen's, and went with them in procession of the grave. The procession crossed the river on the ice, above the dam at the falls. There was snow on the ground. Drawn swords were laid on his coffin. There was a military procession, and a large gathering, especially considering that the country was then very thinly settled. She remembers distinctly that once in a minute by the watch an officer made the procession halt and a cannon was fired. Once the halt and firing was while the procession was on the ice of the river. When the coffin was placed in the grave several discharges of musketry were made over it. Her impression is that there were six platoons who fired. The procession then formed again and returned across the river. ...She remembers that it was a common remark in the family that he had two fits before the last and fatal one, and that he expected to die in a fit.” 6
Henry Collins remembered muffled drums and that the coffin was opened at the grave and remembered “distinctly that Mr. Allen looked very natural.”
Mrs. Elizabeth P. Root, granddaughter of James Hawley, who lived with Ira Allen at the Falls at the time of the funeral, remembered that “before his death Ethan Allen appointed James Hawley tapster to draw good liquor for those who attended the funeral.” 7 Characteristically Ethan Allen had kept in reserve a barrel of good liquor in his cellar for the occasion.
The House's Obscure Years
After his death Ethan Allen's widow boarded for about a year with the widow of Stephen Lawrence (he had died in April 1789), and then returned to live with her mother in Westminster. There, in 1793, she married Dr. Jabez Penniman, who also assumed responsibility for the minor children of Ethan Allen. It was in their interest that Peniman sold Ethan's Intervale farm during the spring of 1814 to Cornelius P. Van Ness for $2800. Thus for the rest of the 19th century it would be known as the Van Ness farm. 8
The Van Ness family continued in possession of the farm until 1862 when it was advertised for sale at a public auction. Proof that its identity had not been list is found in the description in the local newspaper:
...this farm is situated on Winooski River, two miles and a half from the village of Burlington, and contains 330 acres of intervale, wood and upland. This farm was the property of Gen. Ethan Allen and upon which he resided at the time of his decease...” 9
The purchaser was Alfred Brookes of New York City and at his death in 1878 it went by his will to his son, Col. Horace J. Brookes. In 1902 William J. Van Patten bought it from Brookes for $20,000. In later years Van Patten told of his reason for buying the land:
The Tower in Ethan Allen Park
I was first interested in the property through Mr. Edward P. Hatch, who abut five years ago asked me if I had ever visited it and if I knew what a beautiful view was obtained from what was then known as Prospect Rock. Although I had lived 30 years in Burlington, with the great majority of our people I had never been on the spot and knew nothing of the beauties of it, but upon Mr. Hatch's recommendation I visited it, and was at once struck with the desirability of the property as a park for our citizens. At that time we had no place where people could go and freely enjoy themselves without trespassing on private property. I became so much interested in the matter that when I found that Col. H. J. Brookes had placed the property in the hands of Mr. E. P. Shaw for sale, I feared it might be sold to some person who would be unwilling to sell it to the city or who would cut off the woods so as to spoil it for park purposes. Because of this fear and my great desire that it should be available to Burlington, I purchased the farm of which it was part, paying Colonel Brookes $20,00 for the same. 10
Appreciating its historic associations, Van Patten set apart about 12 acres between the road and the river, including the ledge of rock now enclosed by the park, and offered it to the Sons of the American Revolution on condition that a stone tower, a memorial to General Ethan Allen, be erected on the top of the ledge and a road built leading to the tower and to Ethan's former house. Accepting the offer, the S.A.R. Built and dedicated the present tower in 1905. Van Patten himself designed the tower.
In an earlier attempt to identify the site the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a memorial tablet on a large stone in 1895 in what is now Ethan Allen Park with the inscription: “This farm became the home of Gen. Ethan Allen A.D. 1789 and near this spot he died February 12, 1798.”
Despite the curiously mistaken dates, the tablet served the purpose and still can be found in the park.
The newspaper article which announced the intention of building a memorial tower included a map of the proposed park which clearly identified Ethan Allen's house on the Intervale,and gave a short history of the farm.
By 1914 the farm was being run by Van Patten as a dairy farm. And in that year a large fire destroyed its barns, no doubt the original ones built by Allen in 1787.
Ethan Allen Park with its monumental stone tower became a landmark in Burlington and overshadowed the modest little wooden house standing nearby on private land on the Intervale, nearly forgotten. This was how matters still stood in 1974 when Ralph Nading Hill while working on his latest book on Lake Champlain took an interest in the small house, which was still lived in, and decided it was time to confirm its identity for modern Vermonters. A committee including experts from the Shelburne Museum visited the site and determined the authenticity of the basic structural features of the building. Although the interior had been remodeled, and an ell and new exterior added, physical evidence confirmed it to be the original Ethan Allen house.
Their report, submitted to the Burlington Historic Sites Committee on January 27, 1975 concluded among other things that:
- The original deed to the land surrounding the house proves that this was the Ethan Allen Farm.
- The 34 x 24 foot dimensions of the original part of the house are precisely those specified by Allen when he wrote to his brother, Ira, requesting that he saw the boards for it.
- The surroundings of the house near the river are all as Allen described them various correspondence, and the dates when the house was completed and when he moved into it are authenticated.
- The house is in exactly the location shown in a publication appearing when the memorial tower was erected on the Ethan Allen farm.
- The design of the house is typical of cottage architecture of the 1780's. The construction of the roof bears this out. Many of the original materials, as shown in the attic and basement, remain untouched and are uniformly characteristic of the period of the 1780's. These included the masonry, hand-hewn beams and wide boards with marks clearly demonstrating that they were cut at Ira Allen's “up and down” saw mill then in the area.
- The present owner of the property, who has owned it for over three decades, is the latest of a succession of owners who have always known it as the Ethan Allen Farm, and the house as the Ethan Allen House, The present owner attests that during the 1940's he removed the massive fireplace, which opened into four rooms around the central chimney on the first floor, and that during the alterations every detail confirmed the house's age and authenticity. 12
There are various theories as to why the house has been in obscurity for so long. Ethan Allen's reputation as a religious free thinker and heavy drinker probably led to the downgrading of his image in the late 19th century. The house itself does not conform to what people in the early part of the 20th century wanted to think of as a glamorous “colonial” house. Perhaps its isolated location was a major cause.
Whatever the reasons for the obscurity, the Burlington Historic sites Board is now correcting this, and in the future Ethan Allen's last home will at least be listed among the landmarks of Burlington.