In the region we call Vermont today land claims were vociferously contested between settlers from New York and from New Hampshire during the American Revolution. Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys who aggressively protected their perceived property rights were ringleaders of the New Hampshire claimants. The New Yorkers were equally forceful in pursuing their property rights, offering cash rewards for the capture of Ethan Allan and other Green Mountain Boys leaders.
Initially, Allen demonstrated support for the rebel cause with his daring capture of Fort Ticonderoga. But as the war dragged on with an uncertain ending and the Continental Congress refusing to recognize the Vermonters’ land claims, Allen and other political leaders of their self-proclaimed Republic of Vermont were open to negotiating a separate peace with the British Empire.
Sensing an opportunity, Frederick Haldimand, Royal Governor of Canada, offered protection and status as a separate British Colony to Vermont in exchange for terminating Vermont’s support of the 13 rebellious colonies. Through intermediaries, Haldimand opened negotiations with Allen and other influential Vermont politicians and leaders.
Ethan Allen asserted that he had no intention of becoming a “damned Benedict Arnold” but also said “I shall do everything in my Power to render this State a British province.” Was Allen, the fabled conqueror of the British fortress at Ticonderoga and a children’s storybook hero, really a turncoat on the order of Benedict Arnold, Allen’s co-commander in capturing Ticonderoga? What follows is a presentation of the facts as best as they can be known today and an informed conjecture of Allen’s true intentions.
In 1749, New Hampshire Royal Governor Benning Wentworth began selling land grants west of the historical boundary of the Mason Line, which follows the Merrimack River. At the same time the New York governor, believing that he had jurisdiction over land north of the Massachusetts border extending east to the Connecticut River, sold land grants to aspiring New York settlers. Soon there we two “rightful” land owners vying for the same property and major disputes ensued.
In 1764, King George III decided the dispute in favor of New York but delayed implementation. However, Governor Wentworth continued to sell land grants. As the inevitable conflicts arose, a group called the Green Mountain Boys, a paramilitary force led by Ethan Allen, banded together to forcibly protect their New Hampshire land grants and ward off the New York authorities. Allen was aggressively protecting the 60,829 acres that he jointly owned with other family members in northern Vermont between the Green Mountains and Lake Champlain.
There were mainly non-lethal skirmishes between the Green Mountain Boys and the New York authorities but considerable property was destroyed. New York could not enforce its laws and land ownership disputes continued throughout the American Revolution.
Vermonters in a Squeeze
In 1780, the British planned a complex three-phase plan to end the stalemated American rebellion. Previous fighting around New York City had devolved into a deadlock with the British safely ensconced in New York City and the Continental Army holding a ring of positions around the city.
The first phase of the British plan was to send an army under Lord Cornwallis to invade the southern states and rally the considerable number of loyalist residents. In a second action, the British tried to turn Continental Army officers including Israel Putnam, Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen, with grants of money, land and title.
The third phase was to negotiate a separate peace with the nascent state of Vermont and bring the northern frontier back into the British Empire. Lord George Germain, British Secretary of State for America in Lord North’s cabinet, recognized the unresolved dispute and sought to exploit the Vermonters’ plight by recognizing their land claims.
The Vermonters were facing a desperate situation. Since the Battle of Valcour Island on October 11, 1776, the British exercised undisputed control of the waters of Lake Champlain and could launch unopposed invasions into Vermont. There were approximately 10,000 Redcoats in Canada and virtually no Continental Army or New York Militia units in Vermont to oppose them. Even the Continental regiment formed by Vermonters and led by Colonel Seth Warner was stationed in New York to defend New York soil. The Vermonters were left on their own to face an overwhelming enemy.
As a way out of this tight squeeze, several Vermont leaders including Ethan Allen opened negotiations with the British to return as a separate province in the British Empire. Intense intrigue continued until the Treaty of Paris was signed in September 1783.
There are three potential explanations for the actions of Ethan Allen and his fellow Vermonters:
- Ethan Allen was a fervent and heroic patriot. He was aware of the British objectives to turn high profile rebel leaders and played along to forestall British invasion and obtain the return of over 200 Vermonters from Canadian captivity.
- Ethan Allen was principally a promoter protecting his land holdings. Allen and his coterie employed an old Native American tactic of playing two more formable foes against each other to stave off destruction. Allen and the Vermonters showcased negotiations with the British to force the Continental Congress to recognize Vermont. However, if the Americans lost the revolution, Vermont would be in a position to be a separate colony from New York and New Hampshire.
- Ethan Allen was a traitor to the American cause. In 1780, the military situation looked bleak for the Americans and Allen may have lost faith in the Continental Congress’s desire to formally recognize Vermont as a separate state. Therefore he was actively preparing Vermonters to re-join the British Empire and only the momentous defeat of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown invalidated his plans.
The case for each of these explanations is presented below along with a concluding assessment.
Ethan Allen as a Patriot
A strong case can be made that at the outbreak of the revolution Ethan Allen quickly sided with the rebel cause. After Lexington and Concord, Allen initiated aggressive offensive operations against the British Empire by capturing Fort Ticonderoga, the first British post surrendered to the rebellious Americans. No matter how lightly defended the fort was, this was a courageous act against the world’s most powerful empire. Further, he proved his patriotism in the Canadian invasion when, although not selected as an officer to lead the Green Mountain Boys, he nevertheless accompanied the army in a civilian capacity. He was captured and sent to England under heavy restraints and in miserable conditions. This harsh treatment at the hands of the British may have permanently secured Allen to the American cause.
As the leader of the Green Mountain Boys and a harshly treated prisoner, Allen felt a special loyalty to captive Vermonters incarcerated by the British in Canada. At the time of the Haldimand negotiations, there were over 200 Vermonters held in the Montreal Provost and on Prison Island 45 miles upstream on the St. Lawrence. George Washington ordered that no civilians be exchanged and that the Continental Army control the exchange of officers and enlisted men. So if Allen had a hope to obtain the return of his neighbors, he would have to negotiate separately and directly with the British. As Congress did not recognize the Republic of Vermont, he felt free to enter negotiations for a “cartel for the exchange of prisoners” with Haldimand.
Ethan Allen as a Land Promoter Protecting his Property
Initially Allen may have been motivated to attack Fort Ticonderoga as King George III was deferring recognition of the Vermonters’ land claims. If the British were not going to recognize their claims, the Vermonters would ally themselves with the rebellious colonists to attempt to get recognition from the Continental Congress for their land claims.
Further demonstrating Allen’s interest in protecting his property, the only time he left Vermont to fight the British was in support of the invasion of Canada and this was done to advance his personal economic interests. Water transport was critical and Lake Champlain flowed into the St. Lawrence River providing trading access for Vermont products. This made control of Montreal and Quebec considerably more important in 1775 than it is today. Although he earned a Continental Army commission he never again ventured out of Vermont, staying within to protect his land interests through his political dealings and militia leadership.
Like most Americans in 1780, Allen was tiring of war and willing to do what it took to protect his property and livelihood. Allen certainly was not fighting for either New York or New Hampshire and had little support for the Continental Congress, which would not recognize Vermont. So Allen’s economic interests were possibly paramount and he sought to create a separate Republic of Vermont to enforce land rights.
Ethan Allen as a Turncoat
Dithering by the Continental Congress may have caused Allen to lose faith in its formal recognition of Vermont as a state. Therefore his only course of action may have been to ally with the British who through Haldimand offered to legitimize the Vermonter land claims.
During 1780 and 1781 several sets of intense negotiations were conducted with the British over the status of Vermont. In November 1780, the Vermont General Assembly tried Ethan Allen for his correspondence with the British. He was exonerated but in a fit of pique resigned his generalship in the Vermont militia. However he continued to work with Vermont political leaders to pursue peace with the British.
In May 1781, the Vermonters agreed to a cartel for the exchange of prisoners that also included a truce for all territory between Vermont and the Hudson River. Subsequent to this truce, Vermont and the British negotiators continued to discuss terms by which Vermont would rejoin the British Empire. However, consensus among the Vermonters could not be reached. At the war’s conclusion, the ostensibly traitorous agreements were not concluded and the exchange of prisoners was the sole result of the three-year Haldimand negotiations.
In the end, Ethan Allen and the Vermonters obtained their desired outcome: Vermont was saved from British invasion, its captured citizens returned before other Americans in British captivity, and it prospered as an independent republic until 1791. Contemporary historians with access to personal testimony of principals emphasize Allen’s patriotism and service to the citizens of Vermont:
“Thus while the British Generals were fondly imagining that they were deceiving, corrupting and seducing the people of Vermont by their superior arts, address and intrigues, the wiser policy of eight honest farmers, in the most uncultivated part of America, disarmed their northern troops, kept them quiet and inoffensive during three campaigns, assisted in subduing Cornwallis, protected the northern frontiers, and finally save a State.”
Later historians emphasized the focus on protecting Vermonters’ land claims:
“Only a situation of extraordinary danger would justify the policy adopted by the Vermont leaders in the Haldimand negotiations. Surrounded on every side by avowed enemies or covetous neighbors, weakened by internal dissentions, with Congress indifferent if not hostile, deserted by those who should have been her friends, threatened by invasion from a force great that she could muster, Vermont’s existence as a State was threatened and the lives and property of her citizens were imperiled. A desperate situation like this could not be met by the use of ordinary methods. The Vermont leaders were playing with fire but they handled the perilous situation with such consummate skill that they preserved a brave little commonwealth from destruction and their own reputations from obloquy.”
The British believed that Allen and the Vermonters were traitors. Sir Henry Clinton in his war memoirs supports this perspective:
“At any rate I have little doubt that, had Lord Cornwallis only remained where he was ordered, or even after his coming into Virginia had our operations there been covered by a superior fleet as I was promised, Vermont would have probably joined us.…”
Haldimand was more suspicious of Allen and the Vermonters’ motives:
“I am assured by all that no dependence can be had in him – his character is well-known, and his Followers, or dependents, are a collection of the most abandoned wretches that ever lived, to be bound by no Laws or Ties.”
Allen’s participation in the American Revolution underwent three distinct phases, during which his loyalty was contingent upon the existing geopolitical situation between the tories and the patriots. The historical Ethan Allen was a combination of all three caricatures: a patriot for attacking the British at the Revolution’s outset; a land promoter maximizing the value of his holdings during the conflict; and, during the last years of the war, a turncoat for hedging his bets as America’s prospects looked bleak up to the victory at Yorktown and the successful negotiation of the Treaty of Paris.
 A £20 reward was offered by New York officials on each of the leaders of the Green Mountain Boys and in return Ethan Allen offered a £25 reward on each New York official. William Sterne Randall, Ethan Allen – His Life and Times (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011), 260-262.
 Ethan Allen to Frederick Haldimand, June 16, 1782. Ethan Allen and His Kin: Correspondence, 1772-1819, ed. John J. Duffy, Ralph H. Orth, J. Kevin Graffagnino, Michael A. Bellesiles (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1998), 130-131.
 For a listing of the New Hampshire Grants see Appendix I and for New York Patents see Appendix II, in Esther M. Swift, Vermont Place-Names – Footprints of History (Brattleboro, Vermont: The Stephen Greene Press, 1977), 571-599.
 The acreage owned was as of July 1775. For a chart of acreage by town see James Benjamin Wilbur, Ira Allen – Founder of Vermont (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1928), Volume II 522-525.
 For a more complete description of Native American tactics borrowed by Ethan Allen see Michael A. Bellesiles, Revolutionary Outlaws – Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier, 187.
 For a description of the Haldimand negotiations see A. J. H. Richardson, “Chief Justice William Smith and the Haldimand Negotiations”, Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society Volume IX No. 2 (June 1941), 84-114.
 Sir Henry Clinton, The American Rebellion – Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of his Campaigns, 1775-1782, with an Appendix of Original Documents, ed. William B. Willcox (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 292.