The Rebel and the Tory: Ethan Allen, Philip Skene, and the Dawn of Vermont by John J. Duff, H. Nicholas Muller III, and Gary G. Shattuck (Vermont Historical Society: Barre, VT, 2020)
Every polity requires a founding saga to help form its societal identity. Oft recounted, Vermont’s foundation story starts with a group of democratic, yeoman farmers fending off the aristocratic, feudal New York landlords to create a progressive, independent-minded state and citizenry. Led by the heroic, larger than life Ethan Allen, the fabled Green Mountain Boys opposed the devious Yorker land speculators who used spurious legal tactics to displace the rightful Vermonters. Although a bit rough and tumble at times, Allen and the Green Mountain Boys successfully overcame long odds and powerfully entrenched interests to carve a new republic, offering more freedom than the surrounding states.
However pleasing a legendary narrative, if you want to know the real story, read The Rebel and the Tory chronicled by a trio of discerning historians steeped in the history of the eighteenth-century north country. Using newly discovered primary sources, the authors prove that what really happened does not comport with the fabled founding story told and re-told by over two hundred years of Vermont historians.
The genesis of the decades-long clash emanated from ill-defined and overlapping colonial boundaries. New York’s royal governor believed that all lands west of the Connecticut River and north of Massachusetts lay within New York’s jurisdiction. Alternatively, the New Hampshire governor alleged that its boundary with New York extended west of the Connecticut River to a line twenty miles from the Hudson River, the same demarcation that defined New York’s eastern boundaries with Connecticut and Massachusetts. Without a legal resolution, both colonial governors granted lands within the disputed regions; some with overlapping titles. In 1764, British King George III considered the merits of this disagreement and ruled in favor of the New Yorkers. On firm legal grounds, the New York government sought to extend its political and legal control over the region and offered the New Hampshire grantees secure legal land titles upon payment of fees. Many New Hampshire grantees objected to paying a second fee for their land titles and resisted the imposition of New Yorker control.
New Yorker efforts to exert political control culminated in the 1770-71 ejectment trials to enforce their legal rights and land titles on recalcitrant New Hampshire grantees. At the core of the authors’ new volume are previously undiscovered trial documents located by the authors in obscure New York State and County archives. Previous historians overlooked these legal proceedings and have instead relied on, and many times embellished, brief ejectment trial descriptions written by Ethan and his brother Ira Allen. Both Allen accounts are biased and unreliable. Simply recounting the Allen version is an outstanding example of the need to assess prejudice and veracity of primary sources before integrating them into historical interpretations. In addition, the authors point out that, often, historians fail to consult with and properly interpret legal and court records.
The purpose of the Albany ejectment trials was to force the New Hampshire grantees to either vacate their lands or to pay for clear New York titles. Gathering documents from authorities in New Hampshire, Ethan Allen organized a defense for the New Hampshire claimants. The authors offer a new assessment of Allen’s litigation preparation activities, characterizing his endeavors as sloppy and ineffective, leading to a clear judicial victory for the New Yorkers.
Failing on the legal front, Allen and the vigilante Green Mountain Boys turned to violence. Opposing the execution of all New York laws, they disrupted New York surveyors, burned “Yorker” farms and intimidated justices of the peace, judges and sheriffs. While the loss of life was minimal, the extralegal, mob-rule tactics were physically brutal with considerable property destruction and multiple expulsions of Yorker families from the disputed territory. While contested boundaries were common, other New York boundary disputes with Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey were resolved with a minimum of violence. Particularly poignant, the authors point to a New York and New Jersey boundary commission which peaceably resolved the property issues in a manner satisfactory to both sides.
Further looking into untapped historical sources, Duffy, Muller, and Shattuck add a fascinating, previously untold second dimension to the story. After the ejectment trials, Ethan Allen changed tactics and collaborated with Philip Skene, owner of tens of thousands of acres on the south shore of Lake Champlain, to petition the King to create a separate colony to resolve the land title controversy and to affirm the New Hampshire land grants. Intensely working together, the Skene-Allen partnership succeeded in obtaining royal approval for a colony, but the 1775 outbreak of war intervened before the new colony could be implemented. Quickly realizing a new realpolitik, Allen dumped Skene, branded him a Tory and attacked Fort Ticonderoga, setting the stage for an independent Vermont. The authors present copious new evidence overlooked or misinterpreted by previous historians describing this fulsome pre-war state-building partnership.
Typically, appendix materials are dry, uninteresting and are likely skipped by even the most engaged readers. In the case of The Rebel and The Tory, I highly recommend that readers digest the almost one hundred pages of appendices with the same vigor as the mainline narrative. The first appendix is a compelling historiographical review which points out errors and omissions in over 225 years of Ethan Allen scholarship. Another appendix identifies the archives and repositories containing letters, papers and records associated with under-researched Philip Skene, opening the door for a future full-length biography. The authors provide three appendices with primary sources associated with the ejectment trials uncovered in New York archives. The authors’ transcriptions make the difficult-to-read source materials available to all and afford opportunities for inquisitive scholars to trace the authors’ conclusions back to the source materials. The last appendix describes for twenty-first century, lay readers, a clearly understandable legal definition of the ejectment process. The authors argue that this seemingly obtuse process was widely understood in the eighteenth century, even by a legally untrained populous.
I enthusiastically recommend this book to a wide variety of people. For Vermonters, it is not the authors’ intent to denigrate the state’s founding saga, but contribute richness and realism to an often-violent struggle between competing factions. Further, the authors elevate Philip Skene as a key player in the state’s formation and offer a more realistic, balanced view of Ethan Allen than that of a folksy, frontier hero. For historians, the authors provide a treasure trove of new documents and posit fresh lines of valuable research. For all, the authors’ work demonstrates the perils of not investigating and weighing all sides of a controversy before forming a point of view. The winning Vermonters may have written the prevailing narrative, but the voices of the losing New Yorkers are critical to truly understanding the seminal 1750-1800 events in the north country.
Purchase this book directly from the Vermont Historical Society here.