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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.

With a reference to Benedict Arnold, Allen said he would not agree to any “dam’d Arnold plan to sell his country and his honor by betraying the trust reposed to him.” More practically, Ethan told Sherwood that if the people of Vermont knew that he was talking seriously about reunion with Britain, they would “cut off his head.” Allen insisted that Vermont could do no more than be neutral even if Haldimand promised to send troops to help Vermont repel an invasion sent by the Congress to subdue a Vermont rebellion against the colonies. Allen and Sherwood agreed to keep their negotiations secret and to terminate them if the Continental Congress recognized Vermont’s independence. Sherwood promised that the British would suspend offensive operations in Vermont and northern New York. They would continue to talk, they said, under the guise of trying to arrange an exchange of prisoners.

Negotiations were continued but the Allens, while professing to the British a firm desire to rejoin the Empire, were also finding ways to delay and complicate the process. The ice on Lake Champlain impeded travel, Ira told Sherwood, and he couldn’t get to Isle aux Noix, the narrow island in the Richelieu River only a few miles above Lake Champlain where they agreed to meet. When he did get there in May 1781, he said the time wasn’t ripe for reunion. Vermonters were warm towards admission to the union of American states, he claimed, and they would have to be educated about rejoining England. Nothing could be done until after the legislature had met in June.

Ira and Sherwood agreed to talk some more in July, and in July they agreed to talk some more in September. The British were impatient; they hinted they might use force if the Vermonters didn’t act on their own to reunite. The Vermonters were fidgety too. Rumors were flying about disloyalty in high places.

Ira proposed to Sherwood that when the next legislative session convened in October Haldimand should issue a proclamation of the terms offered to Vermont if it rejoined. It was agreed that a British force would be at Fort Ticonderoga when the proclamation was released in case British troops were needed to protect Vermont or to quiet dissent within the republic about joining the Empire. The British were optimistic about the way the negotiations were culminating, but in case the Vermonters rejected the offer the British spoke direly of “melancholy consequences” which would smite the fickle Yankees.

In October, a week after the Vermont legislature had convened, General Barry St. Leger with two thousand British troops arrived at Fort Ticonderoga. He was carrying Haldimand’s Proclamation, and he was waiting to hear from Ira as to when it should be released. When Ira sent no word St. Leger decided to send a message to him by capturing a Vermonter and sending the prisoner as a courier. But capturing a Vermonter proved more difficult than expected; a party sent over to Mount Independence exchanged shots with some Vermonters and accidentally killed Sergeant Archelaus Tupper. The General was horrified when told of this. Despite the fact that war existed between the British and the Vermonters, just as it did between the British and the colonials elsewhere in North America, St. Leger had been warned by Haldimand that “every appearance of hostility must be carefully avoided.” St. Leger wrote a letter of apology to Governor Chittenden and invited the Vermonters to come over for the grand funeral he promised to give Sergeant Tupper. The Sergeant’s clothes were bundled and sent to his widow.

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Updated Monday, February 11th, 2008

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