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Saturday, July 11, 2015

Ethan Allen before he was a furniture store

The romantic notion of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys outwitting the British as a Swamp Fox of the North is largely myth. In his one and only armed confrontation with the British, his soldiers largely deserted the battlefield and the British captured him, effectively ending his military role in the Revolutionary War.

But the true story of Ethan Allen was far more delightful. He was an educated frontiersman who led the charge to create the Republic of Vermont, whose government met at a tavern, and who devoted his life to besting the enemy.

New York.

Born on January 21, 1738, in Litchfield, Connecticut, he was the first of the seven children of Joseph and Mary Baker Allen, all of whom would reach adulthood, a rarity for the time. Brothers Ira and Herman also were instrumental in the founding of Vermont. His parents were Puritans, which exposed him to philosophical debates. He became expert at Bible passages as a young man. He would grow up to be a Deist and pen a book on philosophy, "Reason: the Only Oracle of Man." His father's death dashed Ethan Allen's plans for Yale. The son joined the militia in 1757, but saw no combat in the French and Indian War.

He was a feisty man, standing 6-foot-tall, which put him a head taller than most men in his time. He and his brother Herman built a forge in Connecticut that still stands today. Their business failed. When they sold it, Ethan Allen got in a fight with the new owner. The court fined Allen ten shillings. He and his brother stole a pig. The court fined them ten shillings. He also got hauled to court for being inoculated against smallpox without the permission of the town. He won that case.

The death of a sister and of his mother led to him losing his job. The town kicked him out because he had no visible means of support. He took his wife and family to New Hampshire, where Royal Governor Benning Wentworth did dandy selling land under New Hampshire Grants. The only problem was the land he was titling was in New York, which at the time owned Vermont. Land speculators were ripping off settlers, which included Ethan Allen.

In the wilderness of Vermont, Ethan Allen thrived. The enemy was New York, which refused to honor the New Hampshire Grants. Allen joined the Green Mountain Boys, who fought back against. He quickly became the leader. His headquarters was Fay's Tavern in Old Bennington, Vermont. Someone mounted a stuffed cougar in front of the place to keep New Yorkers out. Fay changed the name of his place to the Catamount Tavern after that. It became the seat of government on the frontier. They drank a lot, did a little governing, drank a lot more. If only Washington worked like that today, Congress would get nothing done and we would all be freer.

New York still claimed Vermont, but New Hampshire seemed disinterested. New York occasionally sent officials to Vermont. On one occasion, the Green Mountain Boys captured two sheriffs from Albany. Ethan Allen put them in two cells that had windows on the same side, but were separated by a wall. The two men could not see each other. Then he hung a effigy from a tree. The next morning, he told each sheriff, separately, that he had hanged the other guy, then he released the man. Not knowing the other was alive, they returned to New York telling tales of what a cruel and wicked man Ethan Allen was -- until they ran into each other.

He had a big laugh over that one many a later time at the Catamount.

However, the double titling of the land was a serious situation. New Yorkers did kill unarmed settlers in the Westminster Massacre, and likewise, the Green Mountain Boys were not above burning a barn or house down to get New Yorkers to move out of the area. After one such burning in November 1771, Ethan Allen told the victims, "Go your way now, and complain to that damned scoundrel your Governor, God damn your Governor, Laws, King, Council, and Assembly."

Then there was the arrest of David Redding, a horse thief, a loyalist, and a New Yorker. I am not sure which of the three was the worst crime. They tried him and sentenced him to hanging at the Catamount. When it was pointed out the jury had only six men instead of 12 and he would be retried, the crowd was disappointed. But Allen addressed the people and said to come back on June 11, 1778 and "you shall see somebody hung, for if Redding is not hung, I will be hung myself."

But that is getting ahead of the story. In the spring of 1775, Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys learned of Lexington and Concord and set off to take Fort Ticonderoga from the British at the southern tip of Lake Champlain. The Continental Army sent Benedict Arnold to head the effort but the men refused to follow anyone but Allen, and so they became co-commanders.

The fort was lightly guarded and the British quickly surrendered, but not before Captain William Delaplace demanded to know by what authority the Vermonters had entered the post. Allen replied, "In the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!"

A failed raid on May 14, 1775, cost Ethan Allen his command, as the men elected Seth Warner as their leader. Ethan Allen acquiesced and joined the regiment as a scout. Warner was an excellent commander in the brief time the Green Mountain Boys battled the British, which forced the British to give up on taking the state.

All went well for the Green Mountain Boys until they decided to invade Montreal. As a scout, Allen enlisted the support of some Indian tribes and some French-Canadians. They attacked on September 25, 1775, and the British brushed the attackers aside. Men deserted the field. Reinforcements never came. He was captured and sent to England to be tried for treason. He spent almost two years at Pendennis Castle in Cornwall, a fortification built in the days of King Henry VIII. Exchanged for British prisoners, Ethan Allen returned to an entirely different world. His state was now the Republic of Vermont, which it would remain until the rest of the nation finally admitted it as the 14th state. He died in Burlington, Republic of Vermont, on February 12, 1789, a free man and a free spirit -- much like the state he helped found.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.


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