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Classic: Ira and Ethan Allen and the Republic of Vermont

Classic: Ira and Ethan Allen and the Republic of Vermont
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From Yankee Magazine October 1981

(Also, read about the Ira Allen House, Yankee‘s House for Sale this month.)

Vermonters have always been proud of the fact that their state was an independent republic before it joined the United States. Ethan and Ira Allen are justly famed as the leaders who steered that independent course. But few are aware of how close the Allens came to taking Vermont right back into the British Empire 200 years ago, when the success of the new American nation was hardly a sure bet. And not until an American historian found a moldering handmade flag in a French museum did anyone realize how close the Allens came to creating a North Woods empire of their own, mighty enough to rival the United States.

In both these escapades, the guile of Ira Allen is apparent. Ira was 12 years younger than his more famous brother, and shorter in stature — his nickname was “Stub” — but according to a recent biographer, he was “without peer in his mastery of deceit.”

Ethan Allen was also no stranger to chicanery, and the two made a marvelous team. One story from Vermont folklore tells how Ethan and Ira managed to postpone a well-attended sheriff’s auction of a farm in Charlotte, Vermont, near Lake Champlain. In league with the sheriff, they announced the sale as rescheduled for “one o’clock tomorrow.” The crowd dispersed, planning to return the next afternoon, but at one o’clock the following morning, the sheriff met at the farm with Ethan and Ira, and in the darkness asked for bids. From the shadows came Ethan’s voice, bidding one dollar for the house, barn, and one hundred acres of fertile farmland. From elsewhere in the gloom came Ira’s bid for two dollars. “Sold!” said the sheriff, banging down his gavel, “to the short man in the coonskin cap!”

Ever since the early 1770 — when they first arrived in Vermont (then called the “Hampshire Grants”), the Allens had tried to create a commercial empire in the Champlain-Richelieu Valleys which would make them wealthy forever. They dreamed of shipping farm products and timber on the Champlain- Richelieu waterway to the St. Lawrence and then on to Europe; from Europe they envisioned importing manufactured goods.

This was their reason for forming the Onion River Land Company in 1773 as a family venture for buying 60,000 acres in Vermont. This was Ethan’s reason for first defying Yorkers who claimed Vermont was part of New York, and secondly for controlling Lake Champlain by capturing Fort Ticonderoga from the British in 1775. This was Ira’s reason for founding the city of Burlington with its marvelous harbor location on Lake Champlain.

This was their reason for leading Vermont into separate statehood as an independent republic in 1777; they knew that trade advantages would come to those who controlled the fledgling government of this new nation. And it was their reason, early in the 1780 — for secretly conducting the so-called Haldimand Negotiations with the British in Canada about annexing the republic of Vermont to the British Empire.

Frederick Haldimand was Governor- General of Canada, and in October 1780 he sent an agent, Justus Sherwood, to talk with Ethan Allen at Castleton, Vermont. Sherwood proposed that Vermont join the British because the Continental Congress would never recognize Vermont or admit it to the Union, but sooner or later would force it to submit to New York’s authority. By aligning with the British the Vermonters could have status as a separate province, recognition of their land titles, free trade with Quebec, and their own troops commanded by their own officers.

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