CONNECTIONS: The enigmatic Ethan Allen, ‘founder’ of VermontMore Info
About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.
Everyone knows who Ethan Allen was: the man who led the Green Mountain Boys in an attack on Fort Ticonderoga and won. He took possession of the British cannons, which were taken to Boston Harbor via Knox Trail. There, the cannons blew the British out of the water. Thus, early in the Revolutionary War, the rebels became a legitimate military opponent rather than rabble in an unimportant rebel uprising. In acknowledgement, Washington made Allen a colonel in the Continental Army. After he survived captivity in a British prison, Washington complimented his strong constitution and made Allen a general. Before he was an officer, Allen was a farmer, a miner, a land speculator and a soldier of fortune. When not busy elsewhere, Allen founded Vermont.
Actually, that is not who Allen was — it was what he did. There are two mysteries about Allen: Who was he and where is he?
Taking the second question first, no one knows where he is. He died in 1789 at the age of 50. His gravestone read, “The corporeal part of Ethan Allen rests beneath this stone…” Sadly, it does not, and apparently never did.
In 1858, the Vermont legislature voted to erect a 42-foot marker and install it on Allen’s grave. The marker was meant to honor their most famous son and assure that all who came to Burlington could find his grave. The marker was fashioned and, as it was being installed, the problem was discovered. There was no body in the grave, no remains, no casket — nothing.
They tried to determine what happened. They asked elderly citizens, but none were elderly enough. They checked the records and found nothing. There was no record of grave-robbing or official disinterment. There was no sign and no explanation — most importantly, there was no Allen.
It is now 160 years after the installation of the monolith and we still know nothing. If he was buried someplace else, why place his gravestone at that site? If he was moved, why was there no record, where was he moved, and why?
The state placed the memorial where his gravestone had been but changed the wording from “beneath this stone” to “near the site of this monument.”
Not knowing where he is, does anyone know who he was? Two weeks after Allen’s death, the president of Yale College, Ezra Stiles, wrote in his diary, “Died in Vermont the profane and impious Deist General Ethan Allen…and in Hell he lifts up his eyes being in torment.”
Yikes! If that is who Allen truly was, perhaps the family hid the body so the devil couldn’t find it.
The next president of Yale, Timothy Dwight, called Allen “a freak.” He characterized his speech as “voluble, blunt, coarse, and profane.” Dwight was writing more than 30 years after Allen’s death and never heard him speak coarsely or any other way. Dwight was relying upon information he collected in Vermont after Allen’s death. On the other hand, Stiles was a contemporary. He knew Allen and did hear him speak. However, Stiles’ description of Allen’s character was not as fair and accurate as it was defensive. Allen challenged and dismissed the religion on which Yale was founded, in which President Stiles believed, and upon which he relied.
Others who knew Allen, even those who were pitted against him such as Vermont lawyer John Graham, admitted, “Allen was an intrepid soldier, a man of extraordinary character, an able general, and a man with the strictest sense of honor, integrity, and uprightness.”
Perhaps if an opponent characterized him that way, we can trust it as the most accurate. And yet, his wife, Mary, an upright and religious woman, despaired of him. She found him to be irredeemable because he was unwilling to mend his ways. So who was this man? Was he a hero and invaluable ally, entrepreneur and literary man or crude backwoodsman and heretic?
All agreed on one point: “His writing was repugnant to reason.” His ideas expressed in his writing “merited only contempt.” Dwight dismissed Allen as a “pigmy in the [literary] field” and dismissed his prose as “crude and vulgar.”
What did Allen believe as opposed to what others believed? Putting aside the critics who complained his sentences were too long and too convoluted, contempt was generally focused on the content. One sentence neither long nor convoluted read: “The Bible lies.” And equally terse: “I am no Christian.”
You can see the problem. Allen stood opposed to everything the pious and the faithful of 18th-century New England believed. Instead he believed in a religion of Nature, and a God of love. His was not a God of Retribution, but a nonjudgmental God largely uninterested in man’s day-to-day activities. Furthermore, Allen did not believe in original sin. Allen’s God was loving and benignly neglectful; mankind was free to choose and act. Born in 1737, Allen was spouting doctrine a century before its time — no wonder that, in his day, his writing was considered “repugnant to reason.”
That was not the only way in which Allen was controversial. He fought hard for the rebel cause and, at key moments, turned the war in America’s favor. Yet, among the founding fathers, he is comparatively unsung. The reason is not difficult to understand. After founding Vermont, he actively negotiated with Britain to make Vermont a separate British province and keep it out of the newly formed United States. It makes it hard to fit his behavior into the usual founding fathers’ paradigm.
Allen’s Berkshire connection is equally difficult to define. He was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, and was moved to a farm in Cornwall when he was 2. He remained there until his father died in 1754, making him the 17-year-old head of household. He married Mary Brownson in Cornwall in 1762. The next year he left the farm to try mining, first in Lakeville, Connecticut, (1763-65), and then in Northampton, Massachusetts (1765-67). In 1767, he came to Sheffield with his wife and two children. They had three more children but none of the births are recorded in Sheffield.
Allen immediately succumbed to the allure of land speculation in what would later be Vermont. He was in Sheffield periodically and for short periods of time while he formed the Green Mountain Boys and fought New York for control of Vermont. In 1774, when he and his brothers formed the Onion River Company to buy and hold land, he is listed as a resident of Colchester.
In 1775 he took his “Boys” to Fort Ticonderoga and secured the cannons for the rebels. Later in 1775, Allen was taken prisoner by the British. In 1777, while he was still a prisoner, Mary moved to Vermont where Allen joined her upon his release.
Interestingly, there is a record of Allen buying 3 acres, a dwelling house and shop in New Marlborough in 1782. Was it in anticipation of moving from Vermont back to Massachusetts? We don’t know. Mary died in 1783 and Allen married Fanny in 1784. Fanny was less religious, more attractive; Allen considered it a better fit. Did Ethan and Fanny move to New Marlborough or stay in Vermont? Was Allen a resident of Sheffield or did he park his family there and live elsewhere? And where exactly did Mary and the children live? Sheffield and Salisbury share a common border for 6 miles. The Allen brothers lived in Salisbury, Connecticut. Which side of the Connecticut/Massachusetts border was Mary on? Why did Allen list himself as a resident of Colchester when the brothers formed the Onion River Company?
You can collect the conflicting reports of Allen’s actions, beliefs and written words and decide who he was, but, dead or alive, it is harder to know where he was.