Born January 21, 1738
Died February 12, 1789
Military leader, businessman, writer
The fiery Ethan Allen was one of the first heroes of the American Revolution. He is remembered for leading a small group of soldiers against the British at Fort Ticonderoga, New York, in May 1775, and winning the surrender of the fort with no bloodshed. He is honored as the folk-hero of Vermont for strongly promoting its statehood and representing Vermonters' independent spirit.
Little is known about the early life of Ethan Allen. He was born in Connecticut in 1738, one of eight children of Joseph and Mary Baker Allen. His father died when the boy was preparing for college in 1755, cutting short his education and forcing him to take over as head of the large Allen family. In 1757 the young man took part in the French and Indian War (1754–63), which was fought between England and France to determine who would control North America. Allen and his brothers joined a group of soldiers formed to defend nearby Fort William Henry.
Colonists in land dispute
Allen saw little military action in the conflict. Upon his return home, he went to work mining iron ore and using it to mold large kettles to sell. In 1762 Allen married Mary Bronson and the couple moved to New Hampshire Grants (as Vermont was then known). Allen and other of his family members purchased land there, both for farming and to sell at a profit. They started a real estate company called the Onion River Land Company. Allen, who loved reading and learning, furthered his education by borrowing books from his neighbor, Thomas Young, a well-educated physician, who enjoyed engaging Allen in conversation.
Not long after settling in New Hampshire Grants, the Allen family became involved in disputes over land ownership. Because of a confusing system of land grants from the British government, both New York and New Hampshire claimed authority over the land where the Allens had settled. In part because of high taxes imposed by New York on settlers in New Hampshire Grants, the Allens supported New Hampshire in the dispute. Ethan Allen and his brothers soon became leaders of a group of like-minded New England settlers in New Hampshire Grants.
In 1770, as the land dispute raged, the Allen brothers raised a small force of rough-and-tumble fighters they called the Green Mountain Boys. These citizen soldiers strove to protect their rights and their chances of keeping their land in the area that would later become known as Vermont. Ethan Allen led the Green Mountain Boys in attacks on "Yorkers" (settlers from New York) over the land issue. New York's Governor William Tryon was upset enough to offer a substantial reward for Allen's capture, but the wily Allen managed to avoid being caught.
Jen Fritz, in her book Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold, describes Allen the soldier as a "tall man with a flashy style, [who] dressed in a green jacket with enormous gold epaulets [ornaments on the shoulder] and carried an oversized sword at his side. He wasn't much on drilling or the fine points of military procedure but he didn't need to be. When he was ready to go, he just said, 'Come on, boys,' and his men, backwoods farmers, came along."
The "Boys" capture "Fort Ti"
When the Revolutionary War (1775–83) broke out and Americans declared their independence from England, Allen turned the Green Mountain Boys into an independent organization of American patriots (a regular American army had not yet been formed). Allen and his men were joined in a historic raid by Benedict Arnold see entry, who later gained attention as America's most famous traitor. At dawn on May 10, 1775, they captured Fort Ticonderoga on Lake George in upper New York from its astonished British commander.
Historian James L. Stokesbury wrote in A Short History of the American Revolution that when the Americans rushed the fort on that stormy morning, "opposition was almost nonexistent, and the actual taking of the place consisted largely of shouting and haranguing [arguing] between the American leaders and the two British officers in the post, which was held by a mere 48 men." Allen himself later described the defending troops there as "old, wore out, and unserviceable." They took the fort without a single shot being fired. Ticonderoga was the first British-owned fort to fall to the American colonists.
The fort was important because it was a storehouse of guns and ammunition, which were badly needed by the Americans. Its captured cannon later allowed George Washington see entry to drive the British troops out of Boston, Massachusetts. After Allen's triumph, he and his men took the lesser post at New York's Crown Point. They also tried to capture St. Johns, Canada, but were unsuccessful.
Capture, confinement, and parole
In the summer of 1775, the Green Mountain Boys were combined with troops from New York and placed under the command of General P. J. Schuyler of the Continental army, newly formed to defend the American colonies from the British. But when it came time to elect a head of the Green Mountain Boys unit, Ethan Allen was not chosen.
Edwin P. Hoyt described what happened during the voting in The Damndest Yankees: Ethan Allen & His Clan: "All Ethan's enemies came out of the woods… He had trod on thetoes of the churches [shocking some of their members by his unrestrained behavior]. He had punished several respected citizens for their [sympathy with the Yorkers]. And now these enemies… saw a chance to strike back at Ethan Allen for his high and mighty ways of the past." Their votes defeated Ethan Allen and placed his cousin, Seth Warner, in charge of the Boys.
Upset by this rejection, Allen gathered up some men and, on his own authority, boldly tried to capture Montreal, Quebec, before the arrival of the main section of the Continental army. He was captured by the British almost at once, put in chains, and shipped to Great Britain, where he was kept prisoner in Pendennis Castle and then sent to Ireland. There he astonished the locals with his enormous size, flowing uncut hair, red stocking cap, and fringed jacket.
Fearing that if they hanged Allen his American followers would take revenge on British captives, the British returned him to America. He was paroled (released from captivity by promising to abide by the conditions set forth by his captors) in New York City in October 1776.
Attains freedom, goes to Vermont
For a while, Allen lived comfortably in New York City on money loaned to him by his brother until the British jailed him for violating his parole. Alexander Graydon, who was a prisoner in New York at the same time as Allen, wrote about his fellow prisoner in his Memoirs: "His figure was that of a robust, large-framed man, worn down by confinement… I have seldom met a man, possessing, in my opinion, a stronger mind, or whose mode of expressions was more [passionate and well-spoken]. His style [combined vulgarity and] phrases [from the Bible], and… he appeared to me to be a man of generosity and honor."
In early May 1778 the British exchanged Allen for Archibald Campbell, one of their men being held by the Americans. Allen then traveled to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where he reported to General George Washington. He was made a colonel in the Continental army "in reward for his fortitude, firmness and zeal in the cause of his country, manifested during his long and cruel captivity, as well as on former occasions." Allen wrote about the experience in his popular book Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen's Captivity, which was published in 1779.
Works for Vermont statehood
In 1779 Ethan Allen returned to the newly formed Republic of Vermont, which had just declared its independence but was not yet recognized by the Continental Congress, America's governing body at the time. By that time, Allen was widely recognized as the most powerful man in Vermont. He and his younger brother, Ira (see box), made efforts to ensure that the new colony stayed independent. Ethan wrote pamphlets, newspaper articles, and letters to Congress arguing the subject.
In 1779 the northeastern area of the United States was still in danger of a British assault from Canada. In addition, New York continued to block Vermont's attempts to be admitted as a state. The British tried to make a deal with the Allens to make Vermont part of Canada, and thus ensure its independent status, but no such deal was finalized.
American troops defeated the British once and for all at Yorktown, New York, in 1781. This brought to an end the negotiations between Allen and the British over the future of Vermont. Later, Allen was accused of betraying his country for engaging in the talks, but in time the charges were dropped. Historians disagree as to whether or not Allen sincerely considered making Vermont part of Canada. Some say he merely pretended to do so to threaten Congress with what could happen if they did not grant Vermont statehood.
Remarriage and a failed book
By the end of the war, the Allen family owned more than 100,000 acres of Vermont land, which they began selling on a large scale. Members of the Allen family were the first explorers of many portions of the state and the first to determine its boundaries. They developed the land by building sawmills and gristmills (where wheat was ground). Although they succeeded in opening up the northern part of Vermont, in the end the land company they started proved to be the financial ruin of many of the Allens.
In 1783 Mary Bronson Allen, mother of Ethan Allen's five children, died. The next year, he quit politics and married Frances Buchanan, a young widow by whom he had three more children. Allen built up an impressive farm on what is now Burlington's Winooski River.
Allen was a believer in the Deist (pronounced DEE-uhst) religion, which worshiped nature as its god. His views on life were published in a witty 1784 book called Reason, the Only Oracle of Man, which became known as Ethan Allen's Bible.
In his book Allen attacked American clergymen for failing to recognize the dignity of the common man. The book sold few copies but gained a lot of publicity when various churchmen attacked it during their church services. Reason became a rare book because many copies were burned in a fire, while many others were destroyed by the book's publisher, who decided the book was anti-God.
In 1787, when Ethan Allen was fifty-one, his health began to fail. Still, he insisted on working on his farm in Bennington, Vermont, and overseeing the building of a new house in Burlington, which weakened him further. Allen died at his new home on February 12, 1789. Many of his Green Mountain Boys took part in his funeral procession, which was accompanied by muffled drum beats and cannon fire.
At the time of Allen's death in 1789, Vermont was still independent, but had not yet attained statehood. In time, New York dropped its claims on Vermont when it realized that Vermont's vote as a state could help preserve the power of the northern states in Congress. Vermont became the fourteenth state of the United States in 1791, two years after Ethan Allen's death.
For More Information
Boatner, Mark M. "Allen, Ethan" in Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA, Stackpole Books, 1994, pp. 17-18.
Fritz, Jean. Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1981, pp. 29-30.
Graydon, Alexander. Memoirs of a Life Chiefly Passed in Pennsylvania. Self-published, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1811.
Holbrook, Stewart. America's Ethan Allen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1949.
Hoyt, Edwin P. The Damndest Yankees: Ethan Allen & His Clan. Brattleboro, VT: The Stephen Greene Press, 1975.
Pell, John. Ethan Allen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1929.
Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of the American Revolution. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1991, pp. 52-53.
"Ethan Allen History." [Online] Available http://www.uvm.edu/~dpayne/eallen/eahistory.html (accessed on 6/22/99).
Ira Allen, Brother of Ethan
Ira Allen was nearly as famous as his older brother Ethan. Born in 1751, he was one of the early Vermont revolutionaries and was appointed to various high positions in its independent government. He served as Vermont's first treasurer and surveyor general.
A partner with Ethan Allen in the Onion River Land Company, Ira developed land for industrial use. He later founded the University of Vermont and designed the Vermont State Seal. Ira Allen played a large role in the discussions of whether to make Vermont a part of Canada.
In 1795, Ira traveled to Europe to purchase guns for the Vermont militia. But he also planned to sell any excess guns he obtained for a healthy profit to pay off his own personal debts. At that time, England and France were at war. In France, Ira purchased thousands of dollars' worth of cannons and shotguns. He then went to London and chartered an American ship, the Olive Branch, and loaded it with his cargo of weapons.
Fearing that Allen might be working on behalf of the French, the British seized the ship with all its cargo before it could reach Vermont. As a result, Ira became poor overnight. He left his beloved Vermont in 1803 and spent the years before his death in 1814 living in poverty in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
An American Revolutionary War soldier and Vermont leader, Ethan Allen (1738-1789) achieved a place in history by capturing Fort Ticonderoga in 1775. He championed Vermont's drive for statehood.
Ethan Allen was a distinct type of frontier soldier. His influence on the settlers of Vermont was comparable to that of John Sevier on the inhabitants of Watauga, East Tennessee, and of Thomas Sumter on the up-country men of South Carolina. Frontier people possessed clanlike loyalties, and they looked to strong men to lead them. Allen had all the credentials. Tall and broad-shouldered, he had great physical strength, along with "rough and ready humor, boundless self-confidence and a shrewdness in thought and action equal to almost any emergency." When Vermonters were threatened by New York authorities who claimed the area and denied the validity of their land titles, they formed in 1770 a military association, an unauthorized militia which Allen commanded. The members were mostly rough, roistering young men, and they called themselves the Green Mountain Boys.
Allen was born in 1738, the eldest son of a substantial farmer in Litchfield, Conn. His father's early death left him with the responsibility of caring for his mother and seven other children, and it brought his schooling—he was preparing to enter Yale College—to a permanent end. Allen, however, had a genuine intellectual bent, and he was to write a number of pamphlets on such diverse subjects as the taking of Ticonderoga, Vermont's controversies with New York, and religion.
From 1770 to 1775 Allen and his Green Mountain Boys harassed the New York surveyors, sheriffs, and settlers who had invaded Vermont, which was then commonly known as the Hampshire Grants. Allen himself speculated in lands, forming a company to sell tracts along the Onion River. As "chieftain of the Grants," his authority uncontested, Allen sympathized with the colonists elsewhere in their opposition to British imperial policy, although the position of the Vermonters was complicated by the fact that they were currently petitioning the King to be reannexed to New Hampshire.
Even so, Allen felt the need to take British Fort Ticonderoga in case Anglo-American hostilities should erupt. The once-mighty fortress at the juncture of Lake Champlain and Lake George was now a crumbling and lightly garrisoned structure, but New York governor William Tryon had suggested that it be used as a base for bringing Vermont to heel. Moreover, Allen recognized that any large-scale effort by Britain to win an American war would undoubtedly include a southward invasion from Canada along the Lake Champlain-Lake George route.
According to Allen, word of the battles of Lexington and Concord "electrified my mind, and fully determined me to take part with my country." When Allen, with the financial support of Connecticut, proceeded with his plan to grab Ticonderoga, he discovered that Massachusetts had commissioned Benedict Arnold to do the same thing. Allen and his men agreed to let Arnold join them, though it is doubtful that they recognized Arnold as joint commander, as Arnold subsequently claimed. The fracas over authority and the boat trip across the dark, squall-ruffled waters of Lake Champlain to the western shore were more troublesome to the Americans than the Redcoat garrison: 45 officers and men who were "old, wore out, and unserviceable." Just before daylight on May 9, 1775, Allen easily overwhelmed the sleepy garrison "in the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress," or so he later said in describing his ultimatum to the British senior officer. The capture of Ticonderoga's heavy guns, sledged eastward the next winter to Washington's camp, hastened the British evacuation of Boston in 1776.
Soon afterward Allen appeared in Philadelphia and persuaded the Continental Congress to authorize the organization of a regiment of Green Mountain Boys under such officers as the citizens of Vermont should elect. Allen's further advice on the advantages of an invasion of Canada seems to have added some impetus to Congress's order to Gen. Philip Schuyler to advance northward from Ticonderoga against Montreal and other parts of the province. At a public meeting in Vermont, however, Allen's former subordinate Seth Warner was chosen instead of Allen to raise the regiment of Green Mountain Boys—because, according to Allen, the older settlers constituted a majority of the voters at the meeting, and they considered him to be headstrong and radical.
Allen then joined Schuyler's army as a volunteer and was sent to operate behind the British lines with a body of Canadian recruits. He and John Brown, who was leading a similar group, decided to surprise and capture Montreal on their own. Unfortunately for Allen, word got to the town that "Ethan Allen the Notorious New Hampshire Incendiary" was at hand. When Brown's men failed to show up, Allen was easily overwhelmed. "Mr. Allen's imprudence," as Schuyler noted, had brought about his defeat and capture.
Following a nearly 3-year captivity spent mainly in England and New York City, Allen was exchanged, but he never again had an active role in the Revolution. During his absence Vermont had declared itself free and independent and had unsuccessfully petitioned Congress for recognition as a state. Allen also failed to bring results, largely because of the opposition of New York and also New Hampshire, which disputed the claims of some Vermonters to lands on the east side of the Connecticut River. Between 1780 and 1788 Allen and his brothers Ira and Levi flirted with British agents in an effort to compel Congress to recognize Vermont's aspirations to statehood. If that body would not, they held up the possibility of conducting a separate peace or, after the war, uniting with Canada. Nothing came of these threats, though Vermont did not become the fourteenth state until 1791, 2 years after Allen's death. Allen is also remembered for authoring the only extended statement of deistic religious principles ever written in America, Reason the Only Oracle of Man (1784). Although vigorously condemned by orthodox Christian clergymen, the work probably had little influence at the time since all but a few copies were destroyed in a fire.
Two scholarly biographies of Allen are John Pell, Ethan Allen (1929), and Charles A. Jellison, Ethan Allen: Frontier Rebel (1969). Stewart H. Holbrook's popularly written Ethan Allen (1940) also has merit. Allen's own story of Ticonderoga is available, The Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen, introduction by Brooke Hindle (1961). Recommended for general historical background are Allen French, The Taking of Ticonderoga (1928) and The First Year of the American Revolution (1934), and Matt B. Jones, Vermont in the Making (1939).
Bellesiles, Michael A., Revolutionary outlaws: Ethan Allen and the struggle for independence on the early American frontier, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993. □
ALLEN, ETHAN. (1738–1789). American officer. New Hampshire (Vermont). Born on 10 January 1738 in Litchfield, Connecticut, Allen moved to the New Hampshire Grants in 1770. The next year he was named "colonel commandant" of the Green Mountain Boys, the volunteer militia that fought a largely bloodless conflict with New York for control of the region that became Vermont. In 1771 Governor Tryon of New York declared Allen an outlaw, placing a twenty-pound reward on his head, raised to one hundred pounds in March 1774. With the events at Lexington, Allen immediately linked the cause of the New Hampshire Grants with the American Revolutionary struggle, leading the force that took Ticonderoga on 10 May 1775. Within two days, Allen's forces captured control of Lake Champlain without loss of life. He was voted out of command of the Green Mountain Boys by the region's elders, who thought he operated too precipitously. Allen then joined the staff of General Richard Montgomery as a recruiter, enlisting Indians and Québecois to join the forces invading Canada. Operating ahead of Montgomery's invading army, he was captured after his premature attack on Montreal on 25 September 1775. Identified as the captor of Ticonderoga, Allen was sent in irons to England and lodged in Pendennis Castle. The government, fearing reprisals if it hung Allen, returned him to America, where he suffered notoriously harsh treatment at the hands of the British in Halifax and New York City. On 6 May 1778 he was exchanged for Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell and reported to Washington at Valley Forge. On 14 May he was brevetted colonel in the Continental army.
Back in Vermont, Allen led the efforts to gain congressional recognition for the new state of Vermont. But Congress avoided getting involved in a dispute between New York and New Hampshire, especially as New York's Governor Clinton threatened to abandon the war effort should Vermont be admitted to the Union. Appointed major general of Vermont's militia in 1779, Allen launched a long and crafty political and diplomatic campaign to insure Vermont's independence, playing New York against New Hampshire and Congress against the British. The British recognized their opportunities for capitalizing on the situation in Vermont, and in July 1780 Allen received a letter from Beverley Robinson that led to a correspondence between Allen and Canada's governor, General Frederick Haldimand.
By not hiding his negotiations with the British from Congress, Allen set himself up for charges of treason, but he maintained the autonomy of his state. As New York's passion for holding onto the region died down in 1784, Allen dropped his negotiations with the British. He used the upheaval of Shays's Rebellion in 1786 to persuade the New York elite of Vermont's reliability, rejecting offers to lead the Massachusetts uprising. Pushed by Alexander Hamilton, New York's legislature dropped its claims to Vermont, though Governor Clinton stalled its entry into the Union until 1791.
Allen's book about his captivity, Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen's Captivity (1779), was a major success, apparently selling more copies than any book of the period with the exception of Paine's Common Sense (1776). Less successful, but more controversial, was Allen's Reason the Only Oracle of Man (1785), the first deistic work published by an American. Allen died while returning to his home in Colchester, Vermont, on 12 February 1789.
SEE ALSO Green Mountain Boys; Haldimand, Sir Frederick; Hamilton, Alexander; Montgomery, Richard; Montreal (25 September 1775); Robinson, Beverley; Shays's Rebellion; Ticonderoga, New York, American Capture of.
Allen, Ethan, Papers. Vermont State Archives, Montpelier, Vermont.
Bellesiles, Michael. Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.
revised by Michael Bellesiles