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“in The Name Of The Great Jehovah And The Continental Congress!”
So bellowed Ethan Allen as he took Fort Ticonderoga without a shot. Once again the brawling giant of the Green Mountains had lived up to a myth that was indeed mighty—but no greater, perhaps, than the actual man
October 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 6
And what is this quarrel with New York in which Ethan Allen has made his fame? It is a complex and involved dispute over real estate. New Hampshire, once a part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, assumed that its western boundary was a northward extension of Massachusetts’ western line—a line running some twenty miles east of the Hudson and through Lake Champlain into Canada. Its Royal governor, Benning Wentworth, felt he was sustained in this view by the fact that the first land grants in this area had been made by the provincial government of Massachusetts. He therefore ordered surveys and by 1762 had granted some sixty townships, including Bennington, which was named for him, receiving for each of them £20 in cash plus five hundred of the choicest acres reserved as his personal property. Onto these New Hampshire Grants, as the territory came to be called, settlers began to move in significant numbers after the French and Indian War. They had paid for their land; they had secured titles to it under the Crown.
The validity of these titles, however, was challenged by the provincial government of New York. The Royal governor in Albany claimed that on the basis of the original charter granted by Charles II to the Duke of York in 1664 his province extended eastward to the Connecticut River. Moreover, he managed to obtain a ruling to that effect from the Crown. He then divided the disputed territory, or the map of it, into four counties, established (on paper) a court of justice in each, and ordered the settlers to surrender their land titles and repurchase them under grants from New York. If they failed to do so their grants would be sold to New York landlords at prices of from £200 to £250 per township; the money would go into his own pocket, of course.
Naturally those who held New Hampshire titles were outraged. Very few of them complied with the Albany order. The rest promptly found themselves faced with writs of ejection issued in favor of New York landlords , and backed by New York courts. They organized. They sent an emissary to the King, who, sympathizing with settlers who had already paid once for land that had since been improved by their labor, ordered New York to make no more grants pending a further study of the matter—an order New York failed to heed. Thus, as Ethan Allen explained: “[T]he inhabitants … [were] drove to the extremity of either quitting their possessions or resisting the Sheriff and his posse. In this state of desperacy, they put on fortitude and chose the latter expedient.” Thus the legal dispute became a violent quarrel, exacerbated by the great differences in historical background and social organization between New York and New England: New York with its system of vast landholdings, its rigid class distinctions, its Tory politics; New England with its Puritan tradition, its predominance of small farmers and entrepreneurs, its relatively democratic society and growing passion for independence from George Ill’s England.
In Bennington and Rutland counties a convention was formed whose elected delegates ruled that no person in the district could take grants or have them confirmed under the government of New York, forbade inhabitants to hold any office or accept any honor or profit from New York, and required all military and civil officers who acted under the authority of New York to suspend their functions. To enforce these rules and to defend the settlers, a military association was formed, the Green Mountain Boys, a “regiment” of some five “companies” whose colonel commandant was —and on this May evening in 1775 still is—Ethan Allen.
He it is who, with his Boys, has “seized their [ i.e. , the New York] magistrates and emissaries, and in fine, all those their abettors who dared to venture upon the contested lands, and chastised them with the whips of the wilderness, the growth of the land they coveted.” (One Benjamin Hough, who had accepted a New York commission as justice of the peace, received two hundred lashes across his naked back before being banished.) He it is who locked two captured Yorker sheriffs in separate rooms on the same side of a house one night, strung up a realistically stuffed straw man from a tree where both could see it in the morning, and then told each that the other had been hanged and that the same fate awaited him if ever he returned. (They were released to flee in separate terror to Albany, where, with an astonished mingling of relief and humiliation, they met each other on the street.)
But it is a larger quarrel than the one with New York that agitates Ethan Allen’s mind as he sits this night in Catamount’s dimly lit taproom. …
Just twelve days have passed since the bloody events of April 19, 1775, on Lexington Common and at Concord Bridge—and Ethan has assessed their significance. Years later, describing the feelings which now animate him, he would write: “Ever since I arrived to a state of manhood, I have felt a sincere passion for liberty. The history of nations doomed to perpetual slavery, in consequence of yielding up to tyrants their natural born liberties, I read with a sort of philosophical horror; so that the first systematical and bloody attempt at Lexington, to enslave America, thoroughly electrified my mind, and fully determined me to take part with my country.”