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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.

Among the Vermonters there was consternation about why a British general should apologize for the death of an enemy soldier. Once again the Allens were tested by angry questions implying duplicity with the British, and again they were able to alibi answers. The next day they sent a message to St. Leger asking that he not issue the proclamation until tempers had cooled. On the same day St. Leger received this message he learned also that General Cornwallis had been defeated at Yorktown, Virginia. The next day, realizing how events were shaping a different future, he sailed back to Canada.

The episode was a gentle graze against destiny. If St. Leger had not been tardy by a week in reaching Fort Ticonderoga, the scenario might have occurred quite differently, and Vermont’s fate might have been turned in a different direction. Did Ira and Ethan try sincerely to align Vermont with British Canada during the so-called Haldimand Negotiations? Until recently Vermont’s historians denied that their heroes could even entertain such a scheme.

Current historians, however, view the question dispassionately and concede less to the Allen brothers. H. Nicholas Muller 111, a historian at the University of Vermont who is now president of Colby-Sawyer College in New London, New Hampshire, believes the Allen brothers acted “in earnest” with the British. “One version best fits the facts,” he contends: “The Allens seriously attempted a reconciliation.” Similarly, Professor Charles Jellison of the University of New Hampshire asserts that “Ethan and his accomplices became firmly committed to the idea of taking Vermont back into the British Empire.” Ian Pemberton, a Montreal native now teaching at Canada’s University of Windsor, has studied the Haldimand Negotiations in detail and concurs.

But Jellison argues that Ethan was not a dishonorable man. “It seems much more likely that Ethan was moved to act as he did mainly by a genuine concern for the future of Vermont.”

This viewpoint is shared by J. Robert Maguire, an attorney in Shoreham, Vermont, who has studied the stormy history of the Champlain Valley during the Allen era as diligently as anyone. He believes the Allens conducted the Haldimand Negotiations “in good faith with the British and fully intended to return Vermont to British allegiance.” But he adds, “I don’t view this as having been to their discredit, in light of the treatment Vermont received from the thirteen colonies throughout the Revolution, and the prospect that the Continental Congress would eventually support the claims of New York against Vermont. The heavy measure of self-serving which seemed to color all of the Allens’ political dealings makes their actions appear more reprehensible than is deserved, perhaps.”

But the Haldimand Negotiations were just a prologue to a far more ambitious scheme Ira masterminded in 1796, which has come to be known as “the Olive Branch affair.”

Hiding money in the bottom of his trunk, Ira sailed to France in that year, ostensibly to buy 20,000 muskets and 24 pieces of artillery to arm Vermont’s state militia. The weapons left France bound for Vermont on a vessel ironically named the Olive Branch.

But the British were distrustful of Allen — hardly surprising, in view of their past experience with him. They suspected he wanted the guns and cannon to arm French-speaking citizens of the Province of Quebec for an uprising against the British government of Canada. England was at war with France at the time, and a revolt in French Quebec would be a serious threat to the Empire. A British ship intercepted the Olive Branch on its way to North America and impounded Ira’s cargo of weapons.

Ever since the so-called “Olive Branch affair” historians have wondered about Ira’s protestations that the arms were intended solely to outfit the Vermont militia. But even the most skeptical historians couldn’t prove that Ira was actually involved in a conspiracy to foment rebellion in Quebec. Documents from the 1790s simply did not reveal enough telling evidence to justify that harsh verdict.

But recently a historian from the University of Utah walked into the Archive Nationale in Paris and discovered 16 documents which no earlier students of the “Olive Branch affair” had ever seen. Her name is Jeanne A. Ojala, and with those documents she found a roughly sewn flag measuring about nine-by-twelve inches. She translated the documents from French to English and learned that the flag was Ira’s design. He proposed that this new banner be the official flag to signify the marriage of Vermont and Quebec into the new state of United Columbia.

In a note attached to this flag Ira explained its composition. Five stripes of colored cloth were stitched together vertically — first red, then white, green, and white, and then blue. The red and blue at each end were the colors of France; the green in the middle, separated by white stripes from the red and blue, symbolized Vermont. This attention to symbols “can appear useless to a philosopher,” Ira remarked, “but must have much influence on the masses.” Ira hoped it would motivate Vermonters to invade Quebec.

Elsewhere Ira outlined how the revolt against British authority in Quebec would begin in August of 1797. While Vermonters were streaming northward to capture the City of Quebec, the Provincial capital, a French naval force would bombard Halifax and then sail up the St. Lawrence River. These advancing pincers would guarantee a successful attack. The flag of United Columbia would be hoisted over the first Canadian garrisons that were captured, under the tricolor of the French Republic, and when independence was totally assured the new flag would wave in single splendor.

Ira made it clear that United Columbia was not to be appended to the United States. Indeed, he predicted boldly that the new nation would become “a counterpoise, a rival” to the American government.

After the “Olive Branch affair,” when Ira was accused by his detractors of being involved in a more nefarious project than simply buying muskets and cannon for the Vermont militia, this wily Vermonter proclaimed his innocence in several pamphlets and in a book he published in 1798 entitled The Natural and Political History of the State of Vermont. Until his death in 1814 he pleaded earnestly that he was unfairly maligned. But the documents in Paris, asserts Professor Ojala, “refute his denial and establish the existence of a carefully planned revolution to wrest Quebec from England.”

Why did these incriminating records lie unexamined for so long in the French archives? James B. Wilbur of Manchester, Vermont, came close to discovering these documents when he visited Paris in the 1920s to do research for his two volume biography, Ira Allen: Founder of Vermont, published in 1928. Because he recounted Ira’s visit in 1796 to France in detail, other historians apparently figured he had exhausted all sources on that subject.

But Wilbur relied solely on materials written in English, including a contract between Ira and the French Directorate which Ira had drafted in English. Wilbur didn’t look into a separate carton containing the flag and the documents in French which aroused Professor Ojala’s curiosity. In fact, Wilbur quoted from several papers Ira had deliberately written in English to camouflage his scheme to use the muskets while invading Canada. As Professor Ojala states: “It must be assumed from the collective evidence that the contracts written in English were simply an artifice used to conceal Allen’s actual intentions.”

Can all of this be put in perspective? At a ski resort in Vermont last winter a history-minded Canadian, down from Montreal for the weekend, was heard to observe wistfully, “It’s unfortunate Vermont didn’t unite with Canada 200 years ago. We like to vacation in Vermont because it is so beautiful. It would be nice to have it today as part of Canada.”

A Vermonter countered by saying, “You Montrealers wouldn’t be Canadians today if Ira Allen had succeeded with his scheme for a United Columbia.” And after a pause he added, “Nor would we Vermonters be Americans today. I guess we’d both be called ‘United Columbians.’ ” Neither liked the sound of that.

They discussed how Ethan and Ira Allen had shaped history — and had almost shaped it differently. They agreed that things had worked out well for Canadians and Vermonters over the past two centuries and concluded it was just as well that history had occurred as it did. Each expressed pride in his separate identity; each professed patriotism for his own nation.

To solidify that amiable judgment they drank a toast — to the Olive Branch.

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