Ethan Allen (1738-89) was a controversial Revolutionary War hero. Born in Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1738, he is best known as one of the founders of the U.S. state of Vermont and for his involvement in forming the volunteer militia known as the Green Mountain Boys. Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, along with Benedict Arnold, captured Fort Ticonderoga, on the New York State side of Lake Champlain, from the British.
In the late 1760s Allen became interested in the region known as the New Hampshire Grants, an area which comprised present-day Vermont. In 1769 he settled in Bennington where he soon attained prominence in the legal struggle between New York and New Hampshire for control of the region. Setbacks led to the formation of a volunteer militia, the Green Mountain Boys, to resist and evict proponents of the New York cause. At the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775, Allen and the Green Mountain Boys offered their services against the British.
Early on the morning of May 10, 1775, acting on orders from Connecticut, Allen, Benedict Arnold, a Connecticut soldier, and a contingent of the Green Mountain Boys surprised and captured Fort Ticonderoga. Allen demanded the surrender of the British commander “in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.” Following this military feat, he rendered valuable service in the operations against Canada as a member of Gen. Philip Schuyler’s army. In September 1775 Allen was taken prisoner after a failed attempt on Montreal; he was confined until released in a prisoner exchange in 1778. He returned home following his release and was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army and a major general of the militia.
Allen’s activities following 1778 included appearing before the Continental Congress on behalf of Vermont’s claims for recognition as an independent state. Along with his brother and other Vermonters, he devoted most of his time to the territorial dispute, negotiating with the Canadian governor between 1780 and 1783, ostensibly for establishing Vermont as a Canadian province. Unfortunately, on the basis of this, Benedict Arnold was later charged with treason. This charge was never substantiated—the negotiations were intended to force favorable action on the status of Vermont by the Continental Congress.
Allen wrote accounts of his exploits in the war, as well as philosophical treatises relating to the politics of the formation of the state of Vermont. Business dealings included one of Connecticut’s early iron works, successful farming operations, and land speculation in the Vermont territory. Allen and his brothers purchased tracts of land that eventually became Burlington, Vermont.
History describes Ethan Allen as a fiercely independent man, a bit crude, brash and daring; in life, an overbearing, loud-mouthed braggart, although a loyal patriot who did not know the meaning of fear. George Washington is said to have written about Allen, “There is an original something about him that commands attention.” Alexander Graydon, paroled with Allen during his captivity in New York, described Allen:
His figure was that of a robust, large-framed man, worn down by confinement and hard fare; but he was now recovering his flesh and spirits; and a suit of blue clothes, with a gold laced hat that had been presented to him by the gentlemen of Cork, enabled him to make a very passable appearance for a rebel colonel … I have seldom met with a man, possessing, in my opinion, a stronger mind, or whose mode of expression was more vehement and oratorical. Notwithstanding that Allen might have had something of the insubordinate, lawless frontier spirit in his composition…he appeared to me to be a man of generosity and honor.
Allen died in Burlington, Vermont on February 12, 1789, two years before Vermont was admitted to the Union; he is assumed buried near the site of his monument. His final home, on the Onion River (now Winooski River), is part of the Ethan Allen Homestead and Museum. Guided tours are available for viewing his homestead in Burlington.