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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
Ethan felt himself increasingly cramped in Connecticut. For one thing, he was in rather frequent trouble with the law as a result of his swearing, drinking, and brawling. In the spring of 1765, having sold his interest in the blast furnace to one George Caldwell, he celebrated the deal by getting drunk with Caldwell and ended by fighting with him. Allen was brought before the justice of the peace on the charge that he “did in a tumultuous and offensive manner with threatening words and angry looks strip himself even to his naked body and with force and arms without law or right did assault and actually strike the person of George Caldwell of Salisbury in the presence and to the disturbance of many of His Majesty’s good subjects.” He was fined ten shillings.
A little later he had another violent row with Caldwell and the latter’s friend Robert Branthwaite, during which he struck Branthwaite and then “in an angry and violent manner stripped off his cloaths to his naked body and with a club struck … Caldwell on the head,” according to the official charge made by the constable who arrested all three. Hours later he again “stripped off his cloaths to his naked body and in a threatening manner with his fist lifted up repeated … three times [to Caldwell]: ‘You lie you dog’ and also did with a loud voice say that he would spill the blood of any that opposed him.”
All this happened on the day before his departure for Northampton, Massachusetts, to oversee a lead mine in which he was financially interested. He moved his family with him, but his stay in Northampton was brief. The selectmen ordered him to leave after the local minister had complained of his loud, persistent, fearsome profanity.
He returned to Salisbury in disgust, and there he was soon actively enlisted in the dispute centered on the New Hampshire Grants—enlisted on the side of the Connecticut men whose titles had been first granted by Benning Wentworth. Salisbury may have become too civilized by then for Ethan’s taste, but it was still a new and raw pioneering community which attached to his drunken brawling no such opprobrium as had been his lot in staid and settled Northampton. Indeed, this propensity of his may actually have recommended him, in a way, to the holders of contested titles. He was rough and tough; but such a man was needed to serve their interests in the north. He was also, they clearly realized, highly intelligent and essentially trustworthy, else they would not have entrusted him with the management of their defense in an Albany law court in the summer of 1770. The test case involved one John Small, who had received a New York grant to land in the town of Shaftsbury, and Josiah Carpenter, who had a New Hampshire title to the same land. Carpenter lost, of course (the presiding judge, Robert Livingston, was himself one of the largest holders of New York titles to the disputed land). “War” was then begun. …
The land grants issue gave Ethan Allen his opportunity. Here was space enough, freedom enough for a giant’s full self-expression.
With three of his brothers—Ira, Heman, and Zimri—and his cousin Remember Baker, he became a partner in the so-called Onion River Company, a loosely organized speculative enterprise which purchased some 77,000 acres along Lake Champlain north and south of the mouth of the Onion River (later renamed the Winooski). Ira operated as the principal business manager, stationed at Onion River; Heman as the Connecticut representative, in Salisbury; and Ethan as salesman, promotion man, and political lobbyist (the cost of printing his political pamphlets was charged to the company). Ethan was also the company’s chief armed guard, having built two forts on Onion River land and several times driven off “trespassers”—New York titleholders—with parties of Green Mountain Boys. Thus no one on the Grants had now a greater material interest in the defeat of New York’s claims—for none stood to make a greater money profit from it—than Ethan Allen.
But the essential motivation for his public activities was not economic, and no one who knew him really well ever assumed that it was. Indeed the Onion River Company had been Ira’s idea originally; he had had to talk his oldest brother into it. In essence, Ethan was the very opposite of acquisitive. He may consciously have longed for a kind of mystically undefined Glory and perhaps, though this is less certain, for a coercive Power over other men; but he was no coldly calculating machine that must run wholly on energies supplied from the outside. On the contrary, he was himself an energy that must spend itself—an electric energy that radiated an aura felt by all those around him on the Grants; it entered into them, inspired them, became a means of communication between them—became, so to speak, the vital substance and texture of human community.
His sense of justice was acute. Once he visited with his Boys the town of Durham, whose residents held their titles from New York. With a little violence and many threats, he forced them to give up the New York titles and agree to buy New Hampshire ones. But when he found out a little later that the sellers of the New Hampshire titles were asking outrageous prices—as outrageous as those of the “thieving Yorker land-jobbers” —he was furious. In an open letter he told the Durham men that they “in justice ought to have [the titles] at a reasonable rate, as new lands were valued at the time you purchased them.” If the New Hampshire title-holders demanded “an exorbitant price …, we scorn it, and will assist you in mobbing such avaricious persons, for we mean to use force against oppression, and that only.”