It all began on January 3, 1749. From then through August, 1764, Benning Wentworth, the Royal Governor of the Province of New Hampshire, sold more than one hundred thirty Grants of Charter for towns in the land that became Vermont. The land granted was called the New Hampshire Grants, or often simply the “Grants”.
After that fifteen-year period, the farmers who had bought those New Hampshire grants were finally seeing the rewards of all of their hard work in clearing and planting the land and building homes. Just when things finally seemed to be going well, up stepped New York and began issuing grants for the same lands New Hampshire had already sold.
Worse for the Grants settlers, New York demanded they again purchase the land they had cleared, settled, and planted – for at least ten times the amount they had originally paid.
By 1765, Ethan Allen and most Grants settlers joined the rest of the colonists in protesting the Stamp Act. But New York was not swayed. When the Grants settlers could not afford the exorbitant amount New York demanded, New York sent surveyors with armed sheriffs to claim and re-sell the land out from under the people who had paid for and settled it.
New York sent armed sheriffs to escort its surveyors onto the already settled Grants lands, but New Hampshire gave no aid or support for the people who had paid New Hampshire and settled under its grants.
Ethan Allen, never one to sit still for an injustice, walked all the way to New Hampshire to request help from New Hampshire’s Royal Governor. The new Governor, nephew of the prior Royal Governor Benning Wentworth (who had issued the land grants) clearly did not have his uncle’s sense of civic pride. He listened to Ethan Allen but did not send help.
So Ethan came up with another plan. In June 1770, he hired a Connecticut lawyer, Jared Ingersoll, to defend the Grants settlers against charges of ejectment in a New York court. The Chief Judge of the New York court, Robert Livingston, was a close friend of wealthy Yorkers (as the Grants settlers called New York’s rich and powerful) who had bought Grants claims from New York. Those prominent people included New York’s attorney general and lieutenant governor. In a show of specious jurisprudence and impartiality, Livingston heard the case and excluded all evidence of the grants sold by New Hampshire. Naturally, this prevented any proof that the Grants settlers owned their land, so this same judge decided in favor of the New Yorkers, ordering the Grants settlers ejected from their land.
When Ethan Allen returned to Bennington with this news, the Grants settlers took stock of the forces surrounding them. Not unreasonably, they decided that since they received no help from New Hampshire and could not receive justice from New York, they would have to defend themselves from the Yorkers.
On that hot summer day in Bennington, Ethan Allen called for a meeting at Stephen Fay’s Green Mountain Tavern, commonly called the Catamount Tavern. The Catamount Tavern got its nickname because of a stuffed catamount (a type of wildcat; short for “cat-a-mountain”) poised high on a pole in front of the tavern, its mouth posed open, teeth bared, and snarling in the direction of New York. The Grants settlers evidently felt this symbolism made the tavern an appropriate meeting place.
At that meeting, the Grants holders decided to form a militia group headed by Ethan Allen (who chose the title “Colonel Commandant”) to provide their own defense. Lieutenants included Seth Warner, Remember Baker (yes, that’s really his name!), and Robert Cochrane.
When New York’s Governor Colden heard about this plan, he vowed to drive the “Bennington Mobb” back into the Green Mountains. Ethan, naturally, soon heard of that taunt. His notorious sense of humor kicked in and he dubbed the group the “Green Mountain Boys.”
The Green Mountain Boys were definitely “irregulars.” They seldom drilled. (In fact, it’s rumored that only Seth Warner drilled his militia company). They gathered only if they received word of a problem. Even then, they were not required to answer the call, so they did only if they deemed their current farm responsibilities less important than the purpose calling them away. Then, when the Green Mountain Boys had completed that particular duty, they returned to their homes - usually after celebrating with large amounts of alcoholic libation.
Because they needed the skills for survival in the wilderness, the Green Mountain Boys were talented at stealth, tracking, trapping, and sharpshooting; most of the Grants settlers lived in poverty, so they could not waste bullets. They had to make every shot count. Little did the Yorkers know they were taking on guerilla warfare!
The Green Mountain Boys designed a flag: a green field with a blue canton on the top left spattered with 13 white stars of various sizes. But it is said that the only uniform the Green Mountain Boys wore was a sprig of evergreen in their cap. However, it seems likely that most of them knew each other and often did not need to wear that “uniform.”
To sway public opinion to support the Green Mountain Boys and the cause of the Grants settlers, Ethan Allen published several articles in the Hartford, Connecticut Courant newspaper. He also printed his marketing on large pieces of paper referred to as “broadsides” and tacked them up on trees and other convenient posting places. Ethan signed these publications as “A Lover of Reason and Truth”. Although his father’s untimely death prevented him from following through on his longtime plan of attending Yale, Ethan clearly had an understanding of how to sway public opinion and peoples’ hearts. He called the struggle in the Grants a “struggle of poor, honest men of the land” against “princes of privilege.” He also referred to it as the struggle by the colonies against wealthy landlords and English.
Because New York had attempted similar claims for land against other neighboring states, the plight of the Green Mountain Boys raised more support in those states than they might otherwise have gained.
The Green Mountain Boys met each Yorker challenge with ingenuity and wit. Ethan Allen specified that the Boys were to kill no one. In fact, in the over ten years from their creation until the time when fighting between New York and the Grants effectively ceased due to the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, the Green Mountain Boys killed no one. The Boys, and especially Ethan Allen, cultivated a fearsome and challenging image because it helped their cause to be seen as fierce, and helped to make Yorkers back down. But Ethan and the Boys considered it a point of pride that they killed no one.
Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys successfully protected the lands of the New Hampshire Grants settlers from the Yorkers. On January 15, 1777, the Grants settlers declared themselves an independent State. They first chose the name New Connecticut, but ultimately they adapted the French for “Green Mountain” into “Vermont”. The Green Mountain Boys had already joined the rest of the States in their fight for independence. Nonetheless, New York prevented the State of Vermont from joining the union of the other thirteen states until March 4, 1791, when Vermont became the fourteenth State in the United States of America.
The Green Mountain Boys are featured in my historical novels set in Vermont slightly after this time, during a portion of the Revolutionary War, The Valiant Thirteen books.