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.