The Green Mountain Boys: Vermont’s Freedom Fighters

In the mid-1700s, the land we now call Vermont was contested territory. The colonies of New York and New Hampshire both felt entitled to the mostly unpopulated territory. As such, their governors made efforts to send settlers to land, known as the Grants. When these efforts ultimately created tensions in the Grants, a militia, known as the Green Mountain Boys, formed to enforce the New Hampshire’s settlers right to the land. 

Over the decades that followed, the Green Mountain Boys played an interesting role in the early history of Vermont. Going from a vigilante force to freedom fighters for both Vermont and the United States, they carved out an interesting place in the annals of American history.

The Wild, Snowy West

In the mid-1700s, before the American west spanned across an entire continent, and settlers rode west in covered wagons, there were the New Hampshire Grants. Surrounded by New York to the West, New Hampshire to the east, and Canada to the north, the Grants had been left untouched by the European settlers for decades. 

A map of the New Hampshire Grants, where the Green Mountain Boys formed.
Map of the New Hampshire Grants

Hoping to change this, the governor of New Hampshire, Benning Wentworth, granted millions of acres of land in the western part of the colony (this is where the Grants got their name). All the settlers had to do to claim their lot was clear and cultivate the land – though this was harder said than done. For his part, Wentworth made out alright on the deal, as well. He collected fees and commissions on each grant, plus he kept 500 acres of land for himself in each township established in the Grants. To this day Bennington, Vermont still bears his name. 

Between 1749 and 1764, Governor Wentworth issued hundreds of grants. And, with each year, more families from across New England made their way to the Grants. The journey, however, was not for the faint of heart. The land was so remote and the few trails that led there so rough, that winter proved the best time to undertake the trek to the Grants. New England winters have never been something to mess with, especially 300 years ago when it was even colder than today. So, why did these settlers do it? In the dead of the New England winter, the snow and ice packed themselves so tight that it was easier for settlers to move across the white surface than to drudge through the hot summer heat, dirt, and mud.

New York Enters the Fray

Though the conditions were hard, plenty of people made the trip and established homesteads, farms, and towns. So many people took Wentworth up on his offer of land that he literally ran out of land to sell. By 1764, the Grants had 135 townships spread out from Lake Champlain in the west to the Connecticut River in the east. And the growth would not stop there. Over the next ten years, the Grants’ population swelled to some 18,000. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. 

1764, it turns out, was a pivotal year for the Grants. It turns out New Hampshire was not the only colony that felt it had the right to the Grants. New York had, in fact, claimed that the land belonged within its eastern border. And, in 1764, George III rendered a verdict on the subject: the Grants did indeed belong to New York. With this ruling in hand, the governor of New York, William Tryon, began dolling out land grants of his own. Tyron’s plan: give the land to New Yokers and evict the New Englanders currently living there.

So, in the late 1760s, a crisis came to this pie-piece-shaped slice of paradise. As “Yorkers” began making their way into the Grants, claiming land, and setting up farmsteads, the people already living there were none-to-happy. They became even less enthused when officials from New York brandished court-enforced claims and tried to drive them out. That’s where the Green Mountain Boys come in. 

The Green Mountain Boys Are Formed

As more and more Yorkers made their way into the Grants, the inhabitants became increasingly irritated. At first, they tried legal action. The inhabitants of the Grants felt their right to property, rights they held as Englishmen, were being trampled upon. Interestingly, whether they realized it or not, the residents of the Grants used the same logic to defend their land, as the English had to seize it from Native Nations: they took a “wilderness” and made it “productive.” Their attempts at solving their problem within the legal system ultimately failed, which isn’t too surprising – the New Yorkers had King George on their side! And King George was never one to admit that he was wrong.

So, one night, in 1770, at the Catamount Tavern in Bennington, a group of residents came together to form a militia. As their leader, they elected Ethan Allen as their “commandant colonel.”

The Green Mountain Boys meeting in a tavern

Originally from Connecticut, Allen saw it as his duty to keep the Grants in New England. To aid in his mission, Allen filled out the leadership ranks within the new militia with trusted family members. He named several of his cousins captains, including Seth Warner (remember that name), Remember Baker (amazing name), and Ebenezer Allen (why don’t you hear the name Ebenzer anymore?), as well as his two brothers Levi and Ira Allen.  

Known as the Green Mountain Boys, the militia saw its ranks swell to several hundred members. Keen to keep their lands out of the hands of New Yorkers, the Green Mountain Boys used threats, intimidation, and the occasional dash of violence to get their way. 

The Adventures of the Green Mountain Boys

In the five years between the formation of the Green Mountain Boys and the beginning of the American Revolution, Allen and his men served out their brand of extra-legal justice all across the Grants. They became such a thorn in the side of New York settlers and British officials alike, that a £20 reward was issued for the capture of not only Ethan Allen, but any member of the Green Mountain Boys. In response, Allen promised £15 to any man who could bring him the attorney general of New York, John Kemp, and James Duane, a lawyer active in his colony’s attempts to seize the grants. While the acts of charivari committed by Allen and his men are too many to name, several interesting stories have survived in the record books. 

Under the Cover of Night

Two of the earliest examples of the Green Mountain Boys’s form of extra legal justice also served as interesting foreshadowing for the Boston Tea Party. 

In 1771, Allen and a few other men under his command dressed up as women and vandalized the property of New York settlers. In this nighttime escapade, they scattered livestock, took down fences, and burned hay of New York grant holders. 

On another occasion, Allen and his men took the even more un-PC approach of donning blackface, dressing as Native Americans, and forced a New York surveyor, William Cockburn, to leave the Grants on threat of death. Even though they made their point, it doesn’t seem like the disguises worked all that well. 

The Not-So-Proverbial Whipping Post

While they often used threats and intimidation to drive New Yorkers out of the Grants, the Green Mountain Boys weren’t above violence, either. Though they never killed anybody, as far as we can tell, they didn’t shy away from dolling a good whipping in the name of liberty and property. Armed with “twigs of the wilderness” – switches made of birch – Allen and his men left who knows how many New Yorkers beaten and bloodied. 

In one episode, a less-than-subtle New York sympathizer passed on information from the Grants to New York City about the Green Mountain Boys. Knowing that Allen had declared anyone in possession of a New York magistrate’s commission to be the enemy of the Grants, this anonymous New Yorker passed along what he knew of the militia to authorities. When the Green Mountain Boys found out, it did not go well. 

Tying him to a tree, the militia and other spectators surrounded him and served him 200 lashes with their “twigs of the wilderness.” But, because they weren’t such bad guys, Allen’s men cleaned and bandaged his blood covered back before exiling him from the Grants. 

A Well Regulated Militia

The Green Mountain Boys committed plenty more acts of vigilante violence against New York commission holders over the years. But, on occasion, they also picked fights with someone their own size. One example comes from the summer of 1771. 

For some time, New York officials have been attempting to eject a New Hampshire grant holder by the name of James Breckengridge. After him two evacuation orders, however, Breckenridge stubbornly stayed put. Finally, Henry Ten Ecyk, the sheriff of Albany County, New York, decided enough was enough. On the third attempt to evict Breckenridge, the sheriff took 150 men across his country’s border with the Grants. 

Somehow, a full century before the first telephone, word of Ten Eyck’s march out ran him. When the Albany sheriff and his men reached Breckenridge’s farm, they were greeted by the Green Mountain Boys. The New Yorkers clearly recognized the 300 assembled men as part of “Allen’s mob.” Apparently not wanting to start a fight after all, Ten Eyck and his men left the Grants without either side firing a shot.

The Green Mountain Boys Join the Revolution

For five years, Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys worked to keep unwanted settlers out of the Grants. They proved so effective that, in 1774, Governor Tryon and other New York officials declared Allen and several other prominent members of the militia to be outlaws. This meant, the next time they refused to surrender the leaders of the Green Mountain Boys would face capital punishment. Fortunately for Allen and his men, it never came to that. For, just two years later, New York and twelve other colonies would declare independence from the empire that appointed Tryon in the first place. 

Two men of the Green Mountain Regiment, what the Green Mountain Boys became.
The Green Mountain Rangers

With the coming of the American Revolution, a new chapter in the history of the Green Mountain Boys began. The colonial officials who wanted them arrested were dethroned and revolutionaries put in their place. In the wake of Governor Tryon’s ouster from office, Allen cut a deal with the new men in charge of New York. After getting approval from the Continental Congress, revolutionary America’s main governing body, to turn the Green Mountain Boys into the Green Mountain Regiment, Allen went to New York’s congress to get funding for the project. Why New York? Well, the Continental Congress technically didn’t have any money to give out. And then, as now, New York was pretty loaded. 

While Allen traveled between Philadelphia and Albany seeking military funding for his troops, back in New Hampshire the Green Mountain Boys voted to replace him. In his stead, they elected Seth Warner, Allen’s cousin and longtime captain in the militia. Under Warner’s command, the Green Mountain Regiment saw sporadic action throughout the whole war, notably in the Battles of Hubbardton, Bennington, and Saratoga.

The Grants Become Vermont

While the 13 American colonies struggled against Great Britain to gain independence, the Grants, too, decided they had had enough. In 1777, the Grants declared themselves an independent republic called Vermont. Adopting the slogan “Freedom and Unity,” Vermont remained an independent republic for 14 years. In 1791, the leaders of this erstwhile nation voted to join the United States as the fourteenth state in the union.

Though the Green Mountain Boys had dissolved to form the Green Mountain Rangers, Ethan Allen continued to play an important role in Vermont. After languishing for three years as a prisoner of war, Allen was released and returned to Vermont. Upon his return, Allen was named the commanding general of Vermont’s regulated militia.

For the next three years, until the end of active fighting in the American Revolution, Allen used his militia to protect and enforce Vermont’s claims to independence. Allen cared so much about keeping Vermont independent from New York and New Hampshire that he even attempted to broker a deal that would return the republic to the British empire. Ultimately this came to nothing.

Allen lived the rest of his life in the Vermont Republic. After resigning from his command, he retired to his farm where he lived until his death in 1789. 

Sources on the Green Mountain Boys

  1. Christopher S. Wren, Those Turbulent Sons of Freedom: Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys and the American Revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster): 2
  2. “Green Mountain Boys,” britannica.com
  3. “Fort Ticonderoga (1775),” battlefields.org
  4. John J. Duffy, Samuel B. Hand, and Randolhp H. Orth (ed.), The Vermont Encyclopedia
  5. Duffy, Hand, and Orth, The Vermont Encyclopedia
  6. Duffy, Hand, and Orth, The Vermont Encyclopedia
  7. Wren, Those Turbulent Sons of Freedom, 11
  8. Duffy, Hand, and Orth, The Vermont Encyclopedia
  9. Duffy, Hand, and Orth, The Vermont Encyclopedia
  10. Duffy, Hand, and Orth, The Vermont Encyclopedia
  11. “Fort Ticonderoga (1775),” battlefields.org
  12. “Fort Ticonderoga (1775),” battlefields.org
  13. “Ethan Allen is captured,” history.com
  14. Kennedy Hickman, “Ethan Allen: LEader of the Green Mountain Boys,” thoughtco.com

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