Ethan Allen and Forming the Green Mountain Boys
by Laura Davies Tilley
Most people have heard of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, but few know the story behind their creation. (I’m talking about Ethan Allen before the furniture store!)
It all began on January 3, 1749. From then through August, 1764, Benning Wentworth, the Royal Governor of the Province of New Hampshire, sold more than one hundred thirty Grants of Charter for towns in the land that became Vermont. The land granted was called the New Hampshire Grants, or often simply the “Grants”.
Worse for the Grants settlers, New York demanded they re-purchase the land they had cleared, settled, and planted – for at least ten times the amount they had originally paid.
By 1765, Ethan Allen and most Grants settlers joined the rest of the colonists in protesting the Stamp Act. But New York was not swayed. When the Grants settlers could not afford the exorbitant amount New York demanded, New York sent surveyors with armed sheriffs to claim and re-sell the land out from under the people who had paid for and settled it.
Though New York sent armed sheriffs to escort its surveyors onto already settled Grants lands, New Hampshire gave no aid or support for the people who had paid New Hampshire and settled under its grants.
So Ethan came up with another plan. In June 1770, he hired a Connecticut lawyer, Jared Ingersoll, to defend the Grants settlers against charges of ejectment in a New York court. The Chief Judge of the New York court, Robert Livingston, was a close friend of wealthy Yorkers (as the Grants settlers called New York’s rich and powerful) who had bought Grants claims from New York. Those prominent people included New York’s attorney general and lieutenant governor. In a show of true jurisprudence and impartiality, Livingston heard the case and excluded all evidence of the grants New Hampshire sold to the Grants settlers. Naturally, this prevented any proof that the Grants settlers owned their land, so this same judge decided in favor of the New Yorkers, ordering the Grants settlers ejected from their land.
When Ethan Allen returned to Bennington with this news, the Grants settlers took stock of the forces surrounding them. Not unreasonably, they decided that since they received no help from New Hampshire and could not receive justice from New York, they would have to defend themselves from the Yorkers.
On that hot summer day in Bennington, Ethan Allen called for a meeting at Stephen Fay's Green Mountain Tavern, commonly called the Catamount Tavern. The Catamount Tavern got its nickname because of a stuffed catamount (a type of wildcat; short for “cat-a-mountain”) poised high on a pole in front of the tavern, its mouth posed open, teeth bared, and snarling in the direction of New York. The Grants settlers evidently felt this symbolism made the tavern an appropriate meeting place.
When New York's Governor Colden heard about this plan, he vowed to drive the ‘Bennington Mobb’ back into the Green Mountains. Ethan, naturally, soon heard of that taunt. His notorious sense of humor kicked in and he dubbed the group the “Green Mountain Boys.”
The Green Mountain Boys were definitely “irregulars.” They seldom drilled. (In fact, it’s rumored that only Seth Warner drilled his militia company). They gathered only if they received word of a problem. Even then, they were not required to answer the call, so they did only if they deemed their current farm responsibilities less important than the purpose calling them away. Then, when the Green Mountain Boys had completed that particular duty, they returned to their homes - usually after celebrating with large amounts of alcoholic libation.
The Green Mountain Boys designed a flag: green with a blue field on the top left spattered with 13 white stars of various sizes. But it is said that the only uniform the Green Mountain Boys wore was a sprig of evergreen in their cap. However, it seems likely that most of them knew each other and did not need to wear that “uniform” often, either.
To sway public opinion to support the Green Mountain Boys and the cause of the Grants settlers, Ethan Allen published several newspaper articles in the Hartford, Connecticut Courant. He also printed his marketing on large pieces of paper referred to as “broadsides” and tacked them up on trees and other convenient posting places. Ethan signed these publications as AA Lover of Reason and Truth@. Although his father’s untimely death prevented him from following through on his longtime plan of attending Yale, Ethan clearly had an understanding of how to sway public opinion and peoples’ hearts. He called the struggle in the Grants a Astruggle of poor, honest men of the land@ against Aprinces of privilege.@ He also referred to it as the struggle by the colonies against wealthy landlords and English.
Because New York had attempted similar claims for land against other neighboring states, the plight of the Green Mountain Boys raised more support in those states than they might otherwise have gained.
The Green Mountain Boys met each Yorker challenge with ingenuity and wit. Ethan Allen specified that the Boys were to kill no one. In fact, in the over ten years from their creation until the time when fighting between New York and the Grants effectively ceased due to the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, the Green Mountain Boys killed no one. The Boys, and especially Ethan Allen, cultivated a fearsome and challenging image because it helped their cause to be seen as fierce, and helped to back down Yorkers. But Ethan and the Boys considered it a point of pride that they killed no one.
Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys successfully protected the lands of the New Hampshire Grants settlers from the Yorkers. On January 15, 1777, the Grants settlers declared themselves an independent State. When they took a name, they first chose New Connecticut, but ultimately they adapted the French for “Green Mountain” into “Vermont”. The Green Mountains Boys had already joined the rest of the States in their fight for independence. Nonetheless, New York prevented the State of Vermont from joining the union of the other thirteen states until March 4, 1791, when Vermont became the fourteenth State in the United States of America.
Come back next time Laura Davies Tilley blogs to hear more about Ethan Allen. Ethan Allen also figures prominently in the historic romance Laura is currently writing, Wolf Hunt, set during the formation of the Green Mountain Boys. The Green Mountain Boys are also featured in her recently-completed historic novel set in Vermont slightly after this time, during a portion of the Revolutionary War, The Valiant Thirteen.