By Julia Purdy
CHITTENDEN—Twenty-two people attended an informal talk hosted by the Chittenden Historical Society Tuesday, Sept. 13 at 7 p.m. at the historic Grange hall in North Chittenden, Vt. Vermont historian Richard B. Smith spoke on “Ethan Allen, the Revolution and Chittenden,” a topic that covered the period from the first town charter in 1749 to 1777, when Vermont established itself as a sovereign state.
A retired corporate executive, Smith is the author of the best-selling titles “The Revolutionary War in Bennington County: A History and Guide” and “Ethan Allen and the Capture of Fort Ticonderoga: American’s First Victory.” He is past president of the Manchester Historical Society and current trustee of the Vermont Historical Society.
Despite a fractious projector, Smith soldiered on and gave an overview of the chain of events that began with the controversial granting of towns in what is now Vermont by Benning Wentworth, governor of New Hampshire, which became known as the New Hampshire Grants, and ended with the Battle of Bennington. He concluded with a surprising and generally unknown fact.
Following the contest between France and England over the same territory, settlers began migrating north into “the Grants” from northwestern Connecticut, including Ethan Allen, his brothers, and other men who would become instrumental in the War of Independence. Smith explained that many homesteaders hailed from Salisbury, Connecticut, and relied on their long-time social relationships in the new frontier.
Watching as the Grants were settled, New York Province to the west challenged the New Hampshire titles under a prior claim, refused to hear appeals, and proceeded with evictions. Ethan Allen mobilized the Green Mountain Boys—many of whom were themselves Connecticut émigrés—to defend the homesteaders, with muskets if need be, but they “never killed anyone,” said Smith.
On the other end of New England, “the shot heard ‘round the world” launched the revolution, and Washington’s army needed artillery for his siege of Boston. Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain was then held by the British, but there were 100 cannon at the fort that the patriots wanted. In a risky but lucky raid on Fort Ti, Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys liberated the fort and the cannons were transported overland to Dorchester Heights by Henry Knox.
Of particular interest to present-day Chittenden residents, a man who was to found the town, Gershom Beach, is said to have traveled a circuit of 65 miles in 24 hours—on foot—to recruit for the capture of Fort Ti.
On July 6, 1777, as the British army under Gen. Burgoyne advanced up the lake, the Americans evacuated both Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence across the lake, with the main army proceeding eventually to Saratoga for its fateful and victorious encounter with the army of Gen. John Burgoyne, held to be the greatest army in the world.
At the same moment, Vermont’s constitution was hurriedly finalized in Windsor and everyone rushed to the Marsh Tavern, eventually absorbed into the Equinox Hotel, in Manchester. There Vermont’s first organized governmental body, the Council of Safety, presided over by Vermont’s first governor Thomas Chittenden, was formed and proceeded to send to New Hampshire for assistance, as Burgoyne sailed up the lake to split the colonies.
The man of the hour was N.H. General John Stark, who, with 1,800 men in civilian clothes and carrying their own weapons, marched to Bennington across what is now the Molly Stark Highway and on Aug. 16 prevented the British from taking the supply depot there and drove them into N.Y. to their defeat.
Smith ended with the surprising information—well known in New Hampshire but not in Vermont—that the N.H. license plate slogan “Live Free or Die” is an abbreviated version of a toast that John Stark, then 81, submitted for the 1809 reunion of veterans of the Bennington battle. The full toast read: “Live free or die, death is not the worst of evils.” The slogan was placed on N.H. license plates in 1945.
The evening concluded with homemade spice cookies, apple juice and conversation.
Historical society talk holds some surprises
By Julia Purdy