Ethan Allen

This  extraordinary man was born at Litchfield, or Salisbury, Connecticut, about the year 1740. He had five brothers and two sisters, named Heman, Heber, Levi, Zimri, Ira, Lydia and Lucy. Four or five of the former emigrated to Vermont, with Ethan, where their bold, active and enterprising spirits found an abundant opportunity for its display. Many a wild legend, touching their adventures, still lingers among the traditions of the Green Mountains.

About the year 1770, a dispute between New York and New Hampshire, as to the dividing line between the two provinces, and which had long been pending, came to a crisis. The territory of Vermont was claimed by both parties; and some of the settlers who had received grants from Governor Wentworth, of New Hampshire, were threatened with being ejected from their lands by legal processes, proceeding from the province of New York.

The Allens had selected their lands in the township of Bennington, which had now become a considerable place. The New York government, in conformity with their interpretation of their rights, had proceeded to grant patents, covering these very lands on which farms had now been brought to an advanced state of culture, and where houses had been built and orchards planted by the original purchasers. These proprietors were now called upon to take out new patents, at considerable expense, from New York, or lose their estates.

This privilege of purchasing their own property was regarded by the Vermonters as rather an insult, than a benefit, and most of them refused to comply. The question was at last brought to trial at Albany, before a New York court, Allen being employed by the defendants as their agent. The case was, of course, decided against them, and Allen was advised, by the king's attorney-general, to go home and make the best terms he could with his new masters, remarking, that "might generally makes right." The reply of the mountaineer was brief and significant: "The gods of the valley are not the gods of the hills;" by which he meant that the agents of the New York government would find themselves baffled at Bennington, should they undertake to enforce the decision of the court, against the settlers there.

Allen's prediction was prophetic. The sheriffs sent by the government were resisted, and finally, a considerable force was assembled, and placed under the command of Allen, who obliged the officers to desist from their proceedings. A proclamation was now issued by the governor of New York, offering a reward of twenty pounds for the apprehension of Allen. The latter issued a counter proclamation, offering a reward of five pounds to any one who would deliver the attorney-general of the colony into his power.

Various proceedings took place, and for several years, the present territory of Vermont presented a constant series of disturbances. The New York government persevered in its claims, and the settlers as obstinately resisted. In all these measures, whether of peace or war, Allen was the leader of the Green Mountain yeomanry. Various plots were laid for his apprehension, but his address and courage always delivered him from the impending danger. At last, the revolution broke out, and the dispute was arrested by events which absorbed the public attention. The rival claims being thus suspended, the people of Vermont were left to pursue their own course.

A few days after the battle of Lexington, a project was started at Hartford, Connecticut, for the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, then belonging to the British. Several persons set out upon this enterprise, and taking Bennington in their way, Allen joined them with some of his "Green Mountain Boys," and was appointed commander of the expedition. The little band arrived, without molestation, on the banks of Lake George, opposite the fort. They procured boats sufficient to carry eighty-three men. These crossed in the night, and landed just at the dawn of day. While the boats were gone back with the remainder of the troops, Allen resolved to attack the fort.

He drew up the men in three ranks, addressed them in a short harangue, ordered them to face to the right, and placing himself at the head of the middle file, led them silently, but with a quick step, up the heights where the fortress stood; and before the sun rose, he had entered the gate, and formed his men on the parade between the barracks. Here they gave three huzzas, which aroused the sleeping inmates. When Colonel Allen passed the gate, a sentinel snapped his fusee at him, and then retreated under a covered way. Another sentinel made a thrust at an officer with a bayonet, which slightly wounded him. Colonel Allen returned the compliment with a cut on the side of the soldier's head, at which he threw down his musket, and asked quarter.

No more resistance was made. Allen now demanded to be shown to the apartment of Captain Delaplace, the commander of the garrison. It was pointed out, and Allen, with Beman, his guide, at his elbow, hastily ascended the stairs, which were attached to the outside of the barracks, and called out with a voice of thunder at the door, ordering the astonished captain instantly to appear, or the whole garrison should be sacrificed.

Startled at so strange and unexpected a summons, the commandant sprang from his bed and opened the door, when the first salutation of his boisterous and unseasonable visitor was an order immediately to surrender the fort. Rubbing his eyes, and trying to collect his scattered senses, the captain asked by what authority he presumed to make such a demand. "In the name of the Great Jehovah, and the Continental Congress!" said Allen.

Not accustomed to hear much of the continental congress in this remote corner, nor to respect its authority when he did, the commandant began to remonstrate; but Colonel Allen cut short the thread of his discourse, by lifting his sword over his head, and reiterating the demand for an immediate surrender. Having neither permission to argue, nor power to resist, Captain Delaplace submitted, ordering his men to parade, without arms, and the garrison was given up to the victors.[A]

The fruit of this victory was about fifty prisoners, with one hundred and twenty pieces of cannon, beside other arms and military stores. A few days after, the fort at Crown Point was taken, and some other successful enterprises were achieved. Allen obtained great credit by these performances.

In the following autumn, he was twice despatched into Canada, to engage the inhabitants to lend their support to the American cause. In the last of these expeditions, he formed a plan, in concert with Colonel Brown, to reduce Montreal. Allen, accordingly, crossed the river in September, 1775, at the head of one hundred and ten men, but was attacked, before Brown could join him, by the British troops, consisting of five hundred men, and, after a most obstinate resistance, was taken prisoner. The events of his captivity he himself has recorded in a narrative compiled after his release, in the most singular style, but apparently with great fidelity.

For some time he was kept in irons, and treated with much severity. He was sent to England as a prisoner, with an assurance that, on his arrival there, he would meet with the halter. During the passage, extreme cruelty was exercised towards him and his fellow-prisoners. They were all, to the number of thirty-four, thrust, handcuffed, into a small place in the vessel, not more than twenty feet square. After about a month's confinement in Pendennie castle, near Falmouth, he was put on board a frigate, January 8, 1776, and carried to Halifax. Thence, after an imprisonment of five months, he was removed to New York.

On the passage from Halifax to the latter place, he was treated with great kindness by Captain Smith, the commander of the vessel, and he evinced his gratitude by refusing to join in a conspiracy on board to kill the British captain and seize the frigate. His refusal prevented the execution of the plan. He remained at New York for a year and a half, sometimes in confinement, and sometimes at large, on parole.

In 1778, Allen was exchanged for Colonel Campbell, and immediately afterwards, repaired to the head quarters of General Washington, by whom he was received with much respect. As his health was impaired, he returned to Vermont, after having made an offer of his services to the commander-in-chief, in case of his recovery. His arrival in Vermont was celebrated by the discharge of cannon; and he was soon appointed to the command of the state militia, as a mark of esteem for his patriotism and military talents. A fruitless attempt was made by the British to bribe him to lend his support to a union of Vermont with Canada. He died suddenly at his estate at Colchester, February 13, 1789.

Allen was a man of gigantic stature, being nearly seven feet in height, and every way of relative proportions. He possessed undaunted courage, and blended bold enterprise with much sagacity. His early education was imperfect, but he was the master-spirit in the society among which he lived, and he exercised a powerful influence in laying the foundations of the state of Vermont. He was a sincere friend of his country, and did much in behalf of the revolution. When applied to by the rebel Shays, to become the leader of the insurrection in 1786, he rejected the proffer with indignation.

Allen was a man of great determination, and, living in the midst of turmoil, was somewhat reckless in his temper. While he held a military command, during the revolution, a notorious spy was taken and brought to his quarters. Allen immediately sentenced him to be hung at the end of two or three days, and arrangements were accordingly made for the execution. At the appointed time, a large concourse of people had collected around the gallows, to witness the hanging. In the mean time, however, it had been intimated to Allen that it was necessary to have a regular trial of the spy.

This was so obvious, that he felt compelled to postpone the execution of the culprit. Irritated, however, at this delay of justice, he proceeded to the gallows, and, mounting the scaffold, harangued the assembly somewhat as follows: "I know, my friends, you have all come here to see Rowley hanged, and, no doubt, you will be greatly disappointed to learn that the performances can't take place to-day. Your disappointment cannot be greater than mine, and I now declare that if you'll come here a fortnight from this day, Rowley shall be hung, or I will be hung myself."

The rude state of society in which Allen spent the greater part of his life was little calculated to polish his manners. Being at Philadelphia, before the election of General Washington as president, he was invited to dinner, by the general upon an occasion of some ceremony. He took his seat by the side of Mrs. Washington, and in the course of the meal, seeing some Spanish olives before him, he took one of them, and put it in his mouth. It was the first he had ever tasted, and, of course, his palate revolted. "With your leave, ma'am," said he, turning to Lady Washington, "I'll take this plaguy thing out of my mouth."

When Allen was in England, a prisoner, persons who had heard him represented as a giant in stature, and scarcely short of a cannibal in habits and disposition, came to see him, and gazed at him with mingled wonder and disgust. It is said, that, on one occasion, a tenpenny nail was thrown in to him, as if he were a wild animal. He is reported to have picked it up, and, in his vexation, to have bitten it in two. It is in allusion to this that Doctor Hopkins wrote,—

"Lo, Allen 'scaped from British jails,
His tushes broke by biting nails," &c.

But however rude were Allen's manners, he was a man of inflexible integrity. He was sued, upon a certain occasion, for a note of hand, which was witnessed by an individual residing at Boston. When the case came on for trial in one of the Vermont courts, the lawyer whom Allen had employed to manage it so as to get time, rose, and, for the purpose of securing this object, pleaded a denial of the signature.

It chanced that Allen was in the court-house at this moment, and hearing this plea, he strode across the court-room, and, while his eyes flashed with indignation, he spoke to the court as follows: "May it please your honors, that's a lie! I say I did sign that note, and I didn't employ Lawyer C****** to come here and tell a falsehood. That's a genuine note, and I signed it, please your honors, and I mean to pay it; all I want is to put it over till next court, when I expect to have money enough to meet it!" This speech gratified the opposing counsel so much, that he immediately consented to the delay which Allen desired.

Though Allen's education was limited, by reading and reflection he had acquired a considerable amount of knowledge. Presuming upon this, and guided by the eccentricity which marked his character, he ventured to assail the Christian religion, in a book entitled, "The Oracles of Reason." Though he here expressed belief in a God, and a future state of rewards and punishments, he rejected the Bible, and seemed to favor the Pythagorian doctrine of transmigration of souls. He entertained the idea that he was himself destined to reappear on earth in the condition of a great white horse! These absurdities show into what depths of folly a great man may be led, if he permit his self-conceit to involve him in the discussion of subjects beyond his grasp.


[A]Sparks' Biography.