I must confess to ignorance concerning Ethan Allen. The sum of my knowledge concerning this historical figure in American history was pretty much summed up in the phrase, “Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys.” As is usually the case, there is so much more to the story.
Born in January of 1738 in Litchfield, CT, Allen was the oldest of eight children. He was recognized as a young man of “precocious” intelligence and a love of reading, which prompted his father to arrange for tutoring with the hope of admission to Yale. That plan was put on permanent hold when Allen turned seventeen; the death of his father necessitated that he return to manage the family farm.
Allen married at the age of 24 and he and his wife had five children. During the decade of the 1760’s, Allen and his brothers became involved in land speculations, in particular the area of the Green Mountains between New York and New Hampshire. These “New Hampshire Grants” were cause for dissension between the colonies as New Hampshire and New York both claimed the area of Vermont as their own.
When Allen relocated to this area in dispute, he used his military training learned in the French and Indian War to gather fellow settlers and form the militia group known as the Green Mountain Boys. This group effectively controlled Vermont between 1771 and 1775. So when the American Revolution officially started in 1775, Allen and the boys were ready.
The colonel commandant and his militia began planning the seizure of Fort Ticonderoga from the British. On the eve of the planned assault, Colonel Benedict Arnold showed up to take over. Loyal to their existing officer, the Green Mountain Boys threatened to return home, which forced Arnold to share command with Allen. On the eve of May 9, 1775, Allen and Arnold planned the assault for the next morning.
Arriving at the lake opposite Fort Ticonderoga, the army had difficulty obtaining boats to cross over to the fort. With dawn fast approaching, Allen knew that successful assault required immediate action—yet only 83 of the 230 Green Mountain boys had as yet crossed. In his own narrative years later, Allen recounts his speech to the 83 members of his militia:
“Friends and fellow soldiers, you have, for a number of years, been a scourge and terror to arbitrary powers. Your valor has been famed abroad, and acknowledged, as appears by the advice and orders to me (from the General Assembly of Connecticut) to surprise and take the garrison now before us. I now propose to advance before you, and in person conduct you through the wicket gate; for we must this morning either quit our pretension to valor, or possess ourselves of this fortress in a few minutes; and, in as much as it is a desperate attempt (which none but the bravest of men dare undertake), I do not urge it on any contrary to his will. You that will undertake voluntarily, poise your firelocks.”
Leading the ranks in front and center, Allen took the fort that day, stating to the surrendering officer (Captain Delaplace) that he took the garrison “In the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.”
Allen continued to lead the militia group, but four months later, they were engaged in fighting near Montreal when they were captured as prisoners. Thus began two and a half years of horror in prison as he and his men were transported first to England, then Halifax and finally to New York. During this time they were forced to survive in excrement-filled holds and forced to witness atrocities against captured patriots in New York. Concerning his first transport to England, Allen later wrote, “what is the most surprising is that not one of us died on passage.”
His imprisonment vacillated between inhumane conditions, then occasional reprieves by some officers who treated him in a more civil manor, since he was a colonel. At one point when imprisoned in New York, he was abruptly wined and dined by a British officer of rank and offered money and a tract of land if Allen would embark with General Burgoyne and “assist in the reduction of the country.”
Allen wrote, “I viewed the offer of land to be similar to that which the devil offered Jesus Christ, ‘To give Him all the kingdoms of the world if He would fall down and worship him.’”
On the third of May, 1777, Allen was taken out under guard and taken to a sloop in the New York harbor. Again, for two days, he was suddenly treated in a “polite manner” and given fine food and drink. A day later, this unexpected turn of events became clear: Allen was being exchanged for a British prisoner.
“I sailed to Elizabethtown-Point, and in a transport of joy, landed on liberty ground, and as I advanced into the country, received the acclamations of a grateful people.”
Taken to Valley Forge, Ethan Allen was “courteously received” by General Washington. Allen offered the general his further service on behalf of his country, “as soon as my health (which was very much impaired) would admit.”
“I then bid farewell to my noble General and set out for Bennington (Vermont) the capital of the Green Mountain Boys, where I arrived the evening of the last day of May to their great surprise; for I was to them as one rose from the dead and now both their joy and mine was complete.”
Allen was given the rank of major general in the Vermont militia but his health was severely impaired by his years of imprisonment. His first wife died in 1783, the year the Revolution ended. The following year he remarried and his young wife gave birth to three children.
In 1777, Vermonters had formally declared their independence from Britain and their fellow colonies and created the Republic of Vermont. Ethan Allen spent the rest of his life petitioning the Continental Congress to grant statehood to his beloved Vermont.
Even after the war concluded in 1783, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut all laid claim to the land in Vermont.
Allen died on February 12, 1789, at the age of 51, on his farm along the Winooski River in the still independent Republic of Vermont. The area was admitted to the Union two years later as the 14th state. His youngest child was only two years old at the time of his death.