Seth Warner or Ethan Allen: Who Led the Green Mountain Boys?

Statues of Seth Warner at Bennington, Vermont (left) and Ethan Allen in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda (right).

The legendary stories of Ethan Allen and Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys have long been part of American folklore. Their heroically described exploits are fabled in many fictional accounts and children’s books.[1]  Allen’s name is synonymously linked with the Green Mountain Boys as if he was their sole leader.  However, while Allen receives the fame, there is a strong case that Seth Warner, a lesser-known member of the Green Mountain Boys, was the more impactful military leader during the American Revolution.

Prior to the revolution, Allen organized New Hampshire land grantees into a militia-like organization to protect their disputed land claims from New York usurpation in the area we call Vermont today.  New York authorities derisively referred to this extra-legal organization as the Green Mountain Boys, and Vermonters adopted the name with pride.   Allen became its widely recognized leader by employing aggressive pamphleteering, intimidation and strong-arm tactics.  Allen famously thumbed his nose at the New York authorities with bombastic statements such as:

“The Gods of the valleys are not the Gods of the hills”[2]

Under Allen’s direction and encouragement, the Green Mountain Boys became a very effective paramilitary force, which backed up his magniloquent oratory.

In May 1775, Allen’s place in American history was cemented by leading a contingent of the Green Mountain Boys (along with Benedict Arnold[3]) in seizing Fort Ticonderoga.  The colorful surrender demand attributed to Allen is:

“In the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.  Damn it!”[4]

Although Fort Ticonderoga was widely regarded as the “Gibraltar of North America,” Allen’s military conquest was vastly overestimated in light of the fort’s poor condition and ineffective garrison.

During the revolution, Seth Warner emerged as the leader of the Green Mountain Boys.  A day after Fort Ticonderoga fell, Warner led a contingent of the Green Mountain Boys in capturing British forces at Crown Point.  Crown Point was as weakly defended and as strategically important as Fort Ticonderoga.  Both Warner and Ethan Allen traveled to Philadelphia to meet with the Continental Congress to obtain military pay for the Green Mountain Boys and to obtain permission to enlist a Green Mountain regiment in the Continental Army.  They returned with both.

The Green Mountain Boys regiment was authorized by the Continental Congress but under the auspices of the State of New York.  In deference to their unique status, the Green Mountain Boys received the right to elect their own officers rather than having them appointed by the New York authorities.[5]  By a surprising margin of 41 to 5, Seth Warner was elected leader of the Green Mountain Boys regiment.[6]  The rationale for selecting Warner over Allen is not clear.  Perhaps there was a feud between the two men or maybe the conservative residents of the New Hampshire Grants sought a less rash and impetuous leader.[7]

Although Ethan Allen was piqued with the decision to elect Warner he managed to wrangle a volunteer role in the American expedition to drive the British from Canada in the fall of 1775.  The Green Mountain Boys made a good decision as Allen rashly attacked Montreal with a small group of Canadian farmers ahead of the main American force. He was captured and sent to Britain in chains.

In contrast to Allen’s defeat, Warner led the Green Mountain Boys, now known as Colonel Warner’s Continental Regiment, to victory against Major General Guy Carleton[8] at the battle of Longueuil near Montreal on November 1, 1775.  The victory blocked Carleton’s attempt to relieve the American siege of St. Johns and demonstrated Seth Warner’s military prowess.  After this battle, Warner and his men returned to their homes for the winter.

In January 1776 Brigadier General David Wooster asked Seth Warner to reform his regiment and return to Canada.  Remarkably, Warner was able to raise the regiment in the dead of winter and travel to the front lines.  In the spring, when the British returned with overwhelming force, Warner orchestrated a well-organized rear guard defense.  This allowed the Continental Army to avoid annihilation during a disorganized retreat from Canada to Fort Ticonderoga.

During the 1777 British invasion led by General Burgoyne, Seth Warner again proved that he was a capable military leader.  In July 1777, he ably commanded undersized rear guard units at the battle of Hubbarton, Vermont and rallied his troops to cement a patriot victory at Bennington in August.  British losses at these two battles weakened their invasion force, which aided the Continental Army victory at Saratoga in October.  After the 1777 campaign, Warner continued leading his regiment despite declining health until the unit was disbanded on January 1, 1781.

While Warner was protecting Vermont from British invasion, Ethan Allen remained a prisoner of war.  After three years of captivity, Allen was exchanged and returned to Vermont after General Burgoyne’s invasion had been thwarted. Shortly after his homecoming, he was named a general in the Vermont militia but commanded no troops in the field or in battle.  His energies turned to the political future of Vermont.

As the war dragged on Ethan Allen became increasingly concerned that the Continental Congress would not uphold the New Hampshire land grants, and therefore would fail to recognize Vermont as an independent state.  Whether this was the cause or not, Allen opened up clandestine negotiations with Canadian Governor Sir Frederick Haldimand for Vermont to rejoin the British Empire.  Initially, these negotiations were privy to a small group called the Arlington Junto, but eventually rumors leaked to other military and political leaders including New Hampshire General John Stark.[9]

Allen attempted to justify why Vermonters needed to negotiate with the British.  In a December 7, 1780 letter to Stark, Allen said:

“I am at a loss to form an Idea what the people of the United States would have Vermont to do –”[10]

Allen’s perspective was that Vermont was in a bind without allies who would recognize its sovereignty.

In opposition to Allen’s parley initiative, Seth Warner publically demanded that Allen and the Arlington Junto cease their negotiations.[11]  This was to be Warner’s last public service.  His life was cut short by an illness probably hastened by extensive exposure to the brutal Vermont winters during his military service.  He died at the age of 42 in 1784.  Although Allen lived another five years, neither leader lived to see Vermont join the United States.

There are good reasons why Warner should be regarded as the leader of the Green Mountain Boys during the revolution.  He was elected by his peers to lead them into battle.  He did so during three hard years of campaigning and performed admirably as a tactical battlefield commander.  Furthermore, unlike Ethan Allen, Seth Warner’s loyalty to the United States was never questioned.

Allen’s knack for self-promotion, blustery political writing and bellicose oratory created an illusion of him as the superior Revolutionary War leader of the Green Mountain Boys.  His principal accomplishments emanate from his pre-war activities to defend the New Hampshire land claimants and for his leadership role in seizing the dilapidated but vaunted Fort Ticonderoga.

In actuality, Seth Warner was the elected and recognized commander of the Green Mountain Boys during their entire service with the Continental Army, with Ethan Allen playing the important political roles of firebrand, publicist and spokesperson. Clearly, the American cause benefited from Seth Warner’s military leadership, while Ethan Allen’s political leadership was critical to the formation of Vermont as a distinct, independent sovereign entity.

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Statues of Seth Warner at Bennington, Vermont (left) and Ethan Allen in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda (right).]


[1] Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys by R. Conrad Stein, Ethan Allen: The Green Mountain Boys and Vermont’s Path to Statehood by Emily Raabe and Ethan Allen: Green Mountain Boy by Gertrude Hecker Winders are good examples of children’s books.

[2] Willard Sterne Randall, Ethan Allen – His Life and Times (New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, 2011), 236-7 provides the context and provenience of this quote.

[3] While there is some dispute whether Allen or Arnold was in command (or were co-commanders), Arnold’s role is downplayed in many popular accounts due to his subsequent traitorous actions, further burnishing Allen’s exploits.

[4] Walter Hill Crockett, Vermont – The Green Mountain State (New York:  The Century History Company, Inc., 1921), Vol. I, 436.  The exact wording of Allen’s surrender demand is open to considerable conjecture and debate.  Crocket is convinced that the version he reports is correct given subsequent attributions by Ethan Allen, Ira Allen, Samuel Williams (who wrote the first history of Vermont) and an aged survivor quoted in the “History of Shorham”; see pages 438-9.

[5] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Friday June 23, 1775.

[6] Daniel Chipman, Memoir of Seth Warner (Middlebury, VT: L. W. Clark, 1848), 35.

[7] Crockett, Vermont, Vol. I, 478-9.

[8] Guy Carleton was Governor and Commander of Quebec.

[9] Frederic F. VandeWater, The Reluctant Republic – Vermont 1724-1791 (New York:  The John Day Company, 1941), 270-1.  VandeWater names seven key members including Thomas Chittenden, Ira Allen, Ethan Allen, Timothy Brownson, Jonas Fay, John Fassett and Matthew Lyon.

[10] John J. Duffy, Ethan Allen and his Kin Correspondence 1772-1819 (Hanover and London:  University Press of New England, 1998), Vol. I, 106-7.

[11] Crockett, Vermont, Vol. II, 334 and Charles A. Jellison, Ethan Allen – Frontier Rebel, (Syracuse, NY:  Syracuse University Press, 1969), 266-7.

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11 Comments

  • The author makes a strong case why Seth Warner was the real leader (the other guy was sitting in prison!). I found this to be a good history lesson.

  • Fort Ticonderoga was actually in very good shape and had been largely rebuilt since the French had destroyed it.

    • The British did make plans to improve the fort but only minor improvements to make it more habitable were made before Allen’s capture in May, 1775.

      Major-General Haldimand to Governor Tryon September 1, 1773

      “…Ticonderoga, being in a most ruinous state…”

      General Thomas Gage to Haldimand October 5, 1774

      “I am fully sensible of the bad state of the Buildings at Ticonderoga and am not surprised at the accident you mention, you did right in ordering some small repairs, to make the Commissary’s Room habitable, but you will be at as little Expense as possible , as it may soon be expected something will be decided respecting the Fort.”

      On November 5, 1774, Lord Dartmouth ordered both Ft. Ticonderoga and Crown Point to be put “in such a state as may effectually answer the purposes for which they were originally intended”

      Fortunately for Allen and his raiders, communications delays and the winter conditions kept these orders from being for being carried out.

  • There is enough primary source evidence to completely support the thrust of the article that Warner was the real leader – and a darn good one too (the evidence in the primary sources has impressed this old retired Infantry First Sergeant). The article mentions the Haldiman negotiations very superficially, shallow even. I have found several primary sources mentioning the Regiment being raised for a particular purpose; that purpose was, by all evidence, to keep Warner (considered by Congress to be very influential in Vermont) loyal to the US. Governor Chittenden and the Allen Bros. were indeed negotiating with the Crown on being recognized as a Province BUT, this seems to have been a response to Congress’ plan to invade Vermont and subdue it (I have a transcript of the debate, which is in the Congressional Record). The article notes Allen involved in the negotiations, while Warner spoke against it; true. However, looking behind the scenes (VT had promoted Warner to Brigadier General of Militia and was paying supplements to the Regiment) it very strongly suggests that Vermont was playing Balance of Power politics, fending off two great powers (Britain and the US) by pretending they would go the other way if either invaded, while simultaneously fighting a bit of a war with NY (have an after action report of one battle), in an armed stand off with NH, and really bad relations with MA… all of whom were claiming the ground. It is a situation that is just not simple at all. *Speculation Alert: Noting that Allen and Warner were cousins, and all knew Governor Chittenden quite well, I have often wondered if Warner wasn’t playing “good cop” to the Allens’ and Chittenden’s “bad cop”. E. Allen was an impetuous self promoter, but he and his brother Ira were no rubes.

  • Gene neatly stated the case that after Ft. St Jean, in May 1775, Seth Warner became the military leader of the Green Mountain contingent throughout the remainder of the Revolution, and I agree. I would like to opine on the election of Seth Warner to command the Continental Independent Regiment. I won’t footnote it, as its an opinion, but intend to use readily known or easily verifiable fact in support.

    Allen was a land speculator. He sowed the seeds of his speculation as a scout throughout the 1760’s, during which time he ranged the New Hampshire Grant area – the no-man’s land between New York and New Hampshire – and excerpts from his glowing reports were used by agents of Benning Wentworth (Governor of New Hampshire) as inducements to prospective grant purchasers. During this time he made some small land purchases of his own, and participated in several land speculation companies operating in the southwestern New Hampshire Grant area. As a result, Allen was known to New Hampshire Grant settlers as a prominent figure in the land speculation market and the grant disputes. His recognizable position and personal investment had made him a natural selection to lead Grant settler’s legal battle against New York in 1770 and to continue in a lead role in land protection affairs thereafter. Loss of the court case begat real threat as New York issued and tried to enforce warrants to dispossess New Hampshire Grant settlers. This indirectly led to Allen’s formation, along with his brothers and cousin Remember Baker, of the “Onion River Company” in 1771. The Company specialized in buying, from panicked sellers at fire-sale prices, New Hampshire land grants. The Allen-led Onion River Company invested their life fortunes buying up hundreds of thousands of acres of disputable grants (including about 250,000 acres that is todays Burlington, Vt.). Resale of these grants along with Allen’s commitment to hold out against New York enhanced Allen’s reputation and status among Grant settlers; many of whom had purchased titles from Allen or his company and looked to him to make them good. Thus, while Allen was vested with leadership in the land dispute with New York, his motivation wasn’t solely to achieve justice for Grant holders but also preservation of his own substantial interest and reputation.

    Allen’s statements and activities throughout the grant fights of the early 1770’s led to extreme animosity of New York authorities against Allen and the speculators; leading to death threats and warrants issued by both sides. In the absence of a government structure within the Grants, an Allen-engineered meeting at Bennington’s Catamount Tavern led to institution of a set of rules intended to provide order within the New Hampshire Grants. This ersatz “law” included a rule that forbade anyone in the Grants from holding “any office of honor or profit under the colony of New York”.

    In New York animosity towards Allen and New Hampshire grant-holders wasn’t limited to Crown representatives, but carried throughout the ranks of “Yorkers”, public servants, private grant holders and members of speculation companies who held conflicting New York-issued land patents and who had rallied to the cause of American republicanism. Allen’s “deal” with the Continental Congress to raise a regiment of skilled Green Mountain frontiersmen was based upon the premise that the Continental Congress would dismiss New York Crown-based claims against those settlers occupying property within the grants. But, Congress could not so easily dismiss New York claims and turned the tables by placing command of the new regiment under Northern Department commander Phillip Schuyler (who favored the New York position on the grant issue) and putting the responsibility for funding the regiment upon the provincial government of New York.

    This was the situation facing New Hampshire Grant leaders who gathered at Kent Tavern in Dorset in the summer of 1775 to elect officers for the new Independent Green Mountain Regiment to be raised for the Northern Department under the auspices of New York. But leadership against New York in the land dispute was not the same as leadership of a Continental regiment in a collective effort with New York against Britain. Electors had to weigh the value of Ethan Allen as commander of a Continental regiment which could be called away from the region to fight elsewhere, so leaving the area void of leadership and men to protect against New York sheriffs bearing eviction warrants; versus the value of Allen as the dogged protagonist able to mount legal defense of land interests and homesteads and rally the settlers to defense of their property. Next was the ability of Allen to work constructively with New York leaders and if he did, how that relationship would erode Allen’s ability to protect New Hampshire grant holders. Finally, if Allen were to command under New York provisional government it would have invalidated the Catamount rules forbidding Grant people from holding office under New York government and with it the invalidation of the remaining Catamount rules which were the only governance in place at the time… which leads to consideration of the urgent need to create a more formal governance of the Grants and to postulate Allen’s role in the development of an independent Catamount Republic.

    The cumulative factors indicate Ethan Allen’s considerable value at home within the Grants, clearly suggesting someone other than Allen to lead the Continental regiment; but not just anyone. There were ample reasons why Seth Warner was a good choice. Warner had long been considered second-in-command of the Green Mountain Boys and had recently displayed military ability in the capture of Ticonderoga, Crown Point and was largely responsible for successful extrication of the men when Allen overextended his reach at Fort St. John. He was considered a relatively long-term Grant resident with a well-regarded reputation. He was involved, along with Allen and others, in organizing Grant homesteaders into a disciplined militia force with effective notification and response measures. He had displayed forbearance on several occasions in dealing with Grant settlement issues. On one occasion a New York posse under Justice Munro had captured Remember Baker and cut off his thumb. During Warner’s intervention he spared Munro’s life by striking him with the flat of his sword-blade rather than inflicting serious injury. Warner had also spared settlers who had built homes based on New York grants, causing them to remove the roofs from their homes which were later replaced after the settlers had their grants verified through purchase of conflicting New Hampshire titles. He had also proven his tactical acumen in the Breakenridge standoff, during which Warner’s astute position of Green Mountain militia thwarted a large New York eviction posse without a shot being fired. Since Warner wasn’t a member of any land speculation company, he was a private figure in the grant dispute and could not be overly criticized for defending his personal homestead interest. Warner’s election placed an uncontroversial and respected figure at the head of the Continental regiment while keeping Allen at home where it was thought he could be best utilized in defense of the Grant homesteads and in formation of a government to represent the independent Republic of Vermont. A conclusion reached without looking at subsequent events for verification.

  • Jim, you provide a well reasoned, plausible rationale for Vermonters selecting Seth Warner over Ethan Allen to lead the Green Mountain Boys Continental Regiment. I have always been concerned with the simplistic explanation that the Vermonters were concerned with Allen’s impetuosity, especially since many of the examples happened after the officer selection (i.e., the ill advised attack on Montreal). Certainly economic and political security concerns were paramount on the minds of the Vermonters and they had all the reason to focus Allen on these objectives and not be distracted by a command which did not share these goals.

    • Gordon, please share any stories you learn about your Warner ancestors. Much is left unsaid about Seth Warner’s life.

    • Hello Gordon, as Seth Warner was one of my 6th great grandfathers I would be interested in any more information you may have found.

      Thank you cousin!

  • In response to Jim G.’s well reasoned conclusion regarding the choice of Warner over Allen, I wonder if you’ve come across information regarding the nonmilitary behavior of the Boys after Ticonderoga fell, and how many people were concerned about the lack of order exhibited by the Boys.
    This, compounded with Allen’s self interest in his family’s investment in the Grants may have led voters to see Allen as a less desirable military leader than Warner.
    In numerous writings concerning Warner and Allen, it seems Warner put the needs of his neighbors before himself, while Allen did the opposite, placing his needs before his neighbors. Who would you vote for?

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