“in The Name Of The Great Jehovah And The Continental Congress!”

PrintPrintEmailEmail

He was such a man as legend is made of —and when first we see him, in Bennington’s Catamount Tavern on the evening of May i, 1775, his gaudy legend is already so thick and close around him that we can only imperfectly distinguish it from the man himself. Must we do so in order to know him as he “really” was? After all, his legend was no imposed creation of professional image-makers. It emanated from him directly, naturally, for the most part spontaneously—though he was not above adding to it now and then by playing a quite conscious role. In all probability, the legend illuminates more of his essential character than it distorts.

For instance, as he sits now in Landlord Stephen Fay’s taproom he is tossing down his huge gullet a concoction known as a “Stonewall.” It consists of the hardest possible cider liberally laced with rum—a liquid hellfire of a drink—and has derived its name from the fact that it facilitates the building of those hundreds of miles of wall which every year are extended across the settled areas of New England. Not a man on the New Hampshire Grants can down more Stonewalls at a sitting than Ethan Allen.

On one occasion in this very taproom—so the story went—he drank a number unusual even for him before beginning a long journey afoot through the wilderness with his great friend and cousin, Remember Baker. When the drinks began to wear off, the two lay down beside a sun-warmed rock and fell into deep sleep. Some time later, Baker was awakened by an ominous, dry, hissing sound. Turning his head, he saw to his horror a huge rattlesnake coiled on Allen’s chest, striking again and again at the arms, the shoulders, and the neck of the still sleeping giant. Springing to his feet and grabbing his gun, Baker moved cautiously to prod the snake away. Before he could do so, however, the snake slithered onto the grass, its lifted head weaving, its body fantastically writhing. Utterly astounded, Baker saw that the snake was looking at him cross-eyed! Then, incredibly, it emitted a mighty hiccup and hiccuped again as it disappeared into a blueberry thicket. Baker was still staring in frozen astonishment when Ethan Allen awoke and began to curse the “damnable blood-sucking mosquitoes” that had bitten him in his sleep. …

Witness, too, the sign under which Allen drinks on this May evening. It is no ordinary tavern sign. Mounted on a twenty-five-foot pole in the yard, it consists of a huge stuffed catamount with bared fangs snarling toward New York, symbolizing the “war” that has been waged by the Green Mountain Boys against the hated Yorkers these five years past. It may also remind onlookers of another often-repeated story. As Allen strode along a mountain path one day, he was attacked by the largest catamount imaginable. The great cat leaped without warning upon his back, where-upon Ethan calmly reached up over his head, grabbed his attacker by the throat, threw it on the ground before him, and strangled it to death without once relaxing his grip! When he arrived at his destination that evening he complained that the “goddamn Yorkers” had “trained … varmints” to claw him down. On yet another occasion, attacked by a wounded bear, he is reputed to have killed it by ramming his powder horn down its throat.

No doubt about it, this Ethan Allen is the original rough, tough, ring-tailed terror of the mountains, a giant in stature (he stands six-and-a-half feet tall), beautifully proportioned, and immensely strong. He chews up nails and spits them out as buckshot. He seizes bushel bags of salt with his teeth and throws them over his head as fast as two men can bring them to him. Alone in the woods, he encounters two surveyors for New York land claimants; lifting one in each hand, he beats them together until they yell for mercy and promise never again to set foot on the New Hampshire Grants. Alone again, he encounters a New York sheriff with no fewer than six armed deputies, all sent from Albany for the express purpose of arresting him; he lays them all senseless and bleeding on the ground without even getting his wind up.

Nor is his fighting prowess limited to physical encounters. In the war of words he is, if anything, even more effective. Take, for example, his extended comments on the Act of Outlawry passed in 1774 by the legislative assembly of New York. Governor William Tryon in Albany has been empowered to issue a proclamation commanding Ethan Allen and seven others, all named in the act, to surrender to New York authorities within seventy days or be judged “attainted of felony” and, upon capture, to suffer death without trial or benefit of clergy. This law, cries Ethan in print, is “replete with malicious turpitude!” He goes on:

And inasmuch as the malignity of their disposition towards us, hath flamed to an immeasurable and murderous degree, they have, in their new fangled laws, … so calculated them, as to correspond with the depravedness of their minds and morals;—in them laws, they have exhibited their genuine pictures. The emblems of their insatiable, avaricious, overbearing, inhuman, barbarous and blood guiltiness of disposition and intention is therein pourtrayed in that transparent immagery of themselves, which cannot fail to be a blot, and an infamous reproach to them, to posterity.