If you want to hold onto the traditional image of Ethan Allen—the one where he was a highly principled, uncompromising hero who fought for liberty and the people, and almost single-handedly outwitted and outfought both the Yorkers and the British army to forge the new state of Vermont—well, then the book “Inventing Ethan Allen” is not for you. But if you are interested in a glimpse of a more human Ethan Allen — a complex person, who was, at his best, courageous and loyal, and at his worst self-seeking and self-aggrandizing, perhaps to the point of treachery—then you’ll likely be interested in what this book has to say.
I have been thinking about this book lately because of the recent passing of one of its authors, H. Nicholas Muller III, early last month. His co-author, John Duffy, died in 2020. For decades, the two were stalwarts in the field of Vermont history, collaborating regularly with others on essays and books that explored the wilds of Vermont’s early days, cutting away the fables that had overgrown the state’s verifiable past.
When “Inventing Ethan Allen” was published in 2014, Muller told me in an interview that “we tried very hard not to make the book a debunking of Allen.” Rather, the point was to delve into how collective memory is formed. Since a society doesn’t actually have a memory in the way individuals do, it has to manufacture one.
“We wanted to make it a story of how memory plays with people’s reputations, of how the mythology about Ethan Allen got started, and why,” Muller said.
To understand how Allen became the icon he is today, the authors explained, you have to look at the 1830s. By that point, people had largely forgotten about old Ethan since his death in 1789. His legacy resided in a “somewhat shadowy place in public memory,” they said.
Vermonters were suffering a crisis of confidence during the 1830s. The state had experienced radical, and to many people troubling, changes since its founding. Vermonters had been divided over whether they supported the War of 1812; at the same time, the state was shifting from a subsistence to a market economy. Farmers were joining the sheep craze, and their vast, newly cleared fields changed the way Vermont looked. Even who was a Vermonter was changing, as immigrants from Quebec, Ireland and elsewhere flooded Vermont, while many early settlers were leaving the state in search of cheaper land and better opportunities.
Some Vermonters turned to millennial religions to ease their anxieties, but a group of nonfarming elites in Vermont’s larger towns sought their salvation in the past. They summoned Ethan Allen, posthumously, to the rescue. In 1838, Henry Stevens, of Barnet, helped found the Vermont Historical and Antiquarian Society (which has long since dropped the “and Antiquarian” part), whose early members were a handpicked group of prominent citizens—politicians, scholars and the like. What we might call opinion makers today. Stevens and his associates used their positions to herald a pantheon of Vermont heroes, men of solid Yankee stock whose values, they believed, would return the state to its former glory. Stevens placed Ethan Allen at center stage in this reimagining of early Vermont.
Allen was a logical choice. Not only had he been involved in some of the important events of the era, but he and brothers Ira and Levi had a tendency to write things down and keep what they wrote. During his own lifetime, Ethan Allen was keenly aware of the importance of public opinion. He “used his pen to present himself as he wished others to regard him,” Muller and Duffy wrote, and by accepting those self-promotional documents as facts, historians have often made Allen “larger in memory than in life.”
Stevens wanted to find someone of greater professional reputation to bring Allen to a national audience. He scored a major coup when he persuaded Harvard professor Jared Sparks to write an Allen biography. Sparks’ “Life of Col. Ethan Allen” created the template for many uncritical biographies that were to follow.
Ethan Allen came to Vermont to make a living. Originally, he came to hunt deer for their skins but then decided that buying land would be more profitable. He speculated in risky land titles in the New Hampshire Grants, which would later become Vermont. The titles, granted by New Hampshire’s Colonial government, came cheap because they were legally dubious. New York seemed to have the stronger claim.
After a court sided with the Yorker settlers in 1770, two prominent New Yorkers paid Allen to rally support among New Hampshire grant holders for reaching an accommodation with New York, which offered to confirm New Hampshire land titles for a price. Biographers have said Allen simply pocketed the Yorkers’ money, never intending to seek compromise. But Duffy and Muller cited a contemporaneous account of Allen arguing New York’s case at a meeting in Bennington.
Soon, the “fickle and enterprising” Allen, as one Yorker called him, went against his word, joining his cousins Seth Warner and Remember Baker to lead a gang of settlers, known as the Green Mountain Boys, to scare off settlers holding New York titles. Some biographers have likened Allen and the Green Mountain Boys to Robin Hood and his Merry Men. In fact, the authors note, the Green Mountain Boys used terror tactics, dressing as Indians, physically attacking the Yorkers, destroying their crops, maiming their cattle and threatening to kill any who didn’t leave.
In his “A Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen’s Captivity,” Allen declared that he wished to “signalize” himself (i.e., distinguish himself) during the Revolutionary War. That might explain why he embellished the story and omitted details that would have been embarrassing to him. The book caught the public’s imagination, becoming one of the era’s best-selling.
Allen was a gifted storyteller. In his narrative, Allen detailed the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and his two and a half years as a British prisoner during the war. Allen described his supposedly careful logistical work to prepare to attack Ticonderoga, making it sound like a particularly perilous mission. He neglected to mention, however, that his own error made the job more difficult. He failed to procure enough boats to ferry all the men across Lake Champlain.
Still, 83 men managed to cross. At the fort, whose walls were crumbling from age, they faced 23 sleeping British soldiers who had recently been deemed “serviceable” by a British officer. (The other dozen at the fort were rated either too old or weak to be of use.) Allen didn’t mention his forces’ nearly four-to-one superiority in numbers. Nor did he mention that he shared the command with Col. Benedict Arnold, of Connecticut. Likewise, he omitted his rash decision a week later to launch what turned into a farcical and ultimately failed attack on Fort St. John’s with a small and exhausted force.
If the general public was unaware of Allen’s reckless streak, delegates at a convention in Dorset in July 1775 certainly were not. They selected Seth Warner over Allen to lead a new Green Mountain rangers regiment by a vote of 41-5.
Allen still longed for glory and, without orders, launched a doomed assault on Montreal, where he and 38 of his men were captured. Allen was transported to prison in Britain and later held in New York City.
So it was that Allen, often referred to as Vermont’s founder, missed the actual founding of the state—its declaration of independence from Britain and the creation of its Constitution.
Some biographies have reported that Allen received a jubilant, statewide hero’s welcome when he eventually returned from captivity. His brother Ira’s description was comparatively muted. He stated only that his brother returned to “the great joy of his family and friends.”
With war still raging, Allen, his brother Ira, Gov. Thomas Chittenden and others clandestinely negotiated with Frederick Haldimand, the British governor of Quebec, about making Vermont a British province. Many biographers have claimed that this was merely a clever ploy on Allen’s part to protect Vermont. Allen knew, the argument goes, that the negotiations would forestall a British invasion of Vermont, since Allen and the others would be seen as amenable to joining Britain; at the same time, when word of the talks inevitably leaked, the United States would feel pressure to admit Vermont to the union, which some argue was Allen’s ultimate goal.
However, when news of the talks became public, some Vermont lawmakers didn’t react as Allen might have hoped; instead they accused Allen and his allies of treason. Furthermore, Muller and Duffy pointed out, Allen continued the talks even after the British defeat at Yorktown had alleviated fears of an invasion. The authors argued that Allen was doing what came naturally to him—serving his own interests, in this case by exploring every avenue to secure unassailable title to land. Allen’s motivations often seem linked to land; after all, he as a partner in the Onion River Land Co., which had acquired title to more than 200,000 acres in the New Hampshire Grants.
When Allen died, his passing was little enough noted that historians believe it was probably on Feb. 12, 1789, though it might have been a few days later. His funeral was probably a more modest affair than we might expect, given his celebrated status today. A recent biographer, however, asserted that 10,000 people (or roughly one-eighth of the state’s population at the time) turned out to honor Allen.
That was highly unlikely, Duffy and Muller argued. The multitude would have had to travel the state’s virtually nonexistent road system in the dead of winter, on short notice. Also the authors found no contemporary references to such a monumental gathering taking place.
In 1858, after the state Legislature appropriated money to erect a granite column to mark Allen’s grave in Burlington’s Green Mount Cemetery, workers found no body at what was thought to be the spot. People had forgotten exactly where in the cemetery he was buried. Fifteen years later, when it came time to place a statue atop the column, the sculptor was left to his own imagination as no known portrait of Allen exists.
At our distant remove, it is even more difficult to get a sense of who Allen truly was. Muller and Duffy did Vermonters a great servicing by working to disentangle the man from the myth.
Correction: A previous version of this story had a wrong headline.