Morgan Bulkeley III: Ethan Allen's Sheffield years
Just how deep were Ethan Allen’s roots in Sheffield during his family’s residence there from 1767 to 1777? In that period, one historian terms Ethan’s whereabouts "mysterious," while another says he was "living around on the Wentworth Grants." Neither one dug very deep because the family genealogy compiled in 1909 makes it very clear that his home was in Sheffield.
This "Allen Memorial" also states that his sister Lucy, who married Dr. Lewis Beebe of Sheffield, was said to have lived and died there; and that his half-sister Lydia, who lived in Greenfield, often road over on horseback to visit members of the family, and spent her last days there. Ethan’s favorite brother, Heman, ran the general store in nearby Salisbury, and brother Zimri ran the Sheffield farm during Ethan’s frequent and extended absences.
Ethan was an impetuous 28 when he brought Mary, age 24, and their two children, Loraine and Joseph, to Sheffield after they were expelled from Northampton on account of his wrangling with the town fathers. He was an individualist, an avowed deist, a child of nature -- self-schooled on John Locke and Thomas Paine -- a mixture of Robin Hood and Aristotle who swung from stormy action to philosophic contemplation, with little patience for anything in between.
Mary, on the other hand, was a pious Catholic doomed by plainness, nature and training to dull mediocrity. The two could hardly have been more opposite. While Ethan authored seven books, she never learned to write her own name. Nevertheless, the unhappy marriage endured for more than 20 years until Mary’s death in 1783.
Of their five children, the three youngest were born in Sheffield. These were Lucy Caroline, born in 1768, and Mary Ann and Pamelia in years soon after.
Without going into the details of Ethan’s stormy career, let us summarize his Sheffield sojourns recently revealed by Professor Jellison, realizing meanwhile that he must have been there many undiscovered times as his activities demanded and his travels permitted.
His Vermont trips were at first hunting expeditions to secure pelts for Heman’s store, but he soon shifted to land speculation on the grants that Gov. Wentworth of New Hampshire had allowed west of the Connecticut River. Ethan became the staunchest defender of settlers’ rights on these grants, which were increasingly contested by New York claimants and their government in the violent "Yankees vs. Yorkers" controversy that was ended only the unifying effect of the Revolution.
In mid-June of 1778, Ethan arrived in Sheffield, weary from a horseback trip of 400 miles, largely through wilderness to Portsmouth to secure copies of the Wentworth titles, thence to New Haven to get a lawyer to defend them. By the end of June, he was testifying stormily at the Albany trials. A year later, New York declared him an outlaw with a price of $100 on his head.
In the spring of 1772, Ethan spent several weeks with his family, much of it shut off in the front room of the Sheffield farmhouse composing angry tracts against Gov. Tryon of New York and all of his "mercenary, intriguing, monopolizing men -- an infamous fraternity of diabolical plotters." The Connecticut Courant in Hartford printed many of his diatribes which were signed "the Philosopher." His account of the New York vs. Connecticut and Massachusetts boundary disputes puts him in the select company of pre-Revolutionary Berkshire authors that includes Jonathan Edwards (though they will not be comfortable in the same sentence.)
The next winter he was back in Sheffield to form a realty trust with his four brothers and cousin Remember Baker. The partnership was soon called the Onion River Co., and within two years, it boasted over 100 square miles of choice settling land along the present Winooski River to Lake Champlain. Bought at 10 cents an acre, this soon sold at $5 an acre, skyrocketing company assets to $300,000.
From the fall of 1774 to January 1775, Ethan remained in Sheffield waiting for a Hartford printer to clear his "Brief Narrative" of 200 pages in defense of the Wentworth Grants. By February, he was back on the Grants with his Green Mountain Boys.
After hearing of the "bloody attempt at Lexington," Ethan determined to oppose the British tyrants by taking Ticonderoga and its precious cannons. Leading 130 Green Mountain Boys, he joined forces at Bennington with 16 Connecticut regulars and Col. James Easton and Capt. John Brown of Pittsfield leading 24 recruits from Hancock and 13 from Williamstown. With Benedict Arnold tagging along without followers, on May 10, 1775, they entered the fort without a fight. Ethan knocked down a guard with the flat of his sword, routed the commandant from his bed and demanded surrender "in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress," though he had no commission from either one. Thus did the mighty men from Sheffield carry out the first aggressive action of the American Revolution.
Having obtained the blessings of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and an endorsement from Gen. Schuyler from the New York Provincial Assembly, in July Ethan made a last stopover with his family in Sheffield before undertaking the assault on the British Empire in Canada. He was captured at Montreal in September, imprisoned and harshly treated for almost three years in England, Nova Scotia and Long Island.
Ethan’s release in 1778 came after long negotiations by General George Washington, whom he joined for three days at Valley Forge before setting out for Sheffield. He received the first official commission of his career as a reserve colonel in the Continental Army.
His arrival home May 25, 1778, was a sad one. Brother Heman had died only the week before from wounds suffered at the Battle of Bennington; Zimri was gone, and his 11-year-old son, Joseph (gravestone in Sheffield?), had succumbed to smallpox; "Mortality has frustrated my fool hopes, and with him my name expires -- My only son, the darling of my soul -- who should have inherited my fortune, and maintained the honour of the family." Mary and the girls had removed to brother Ira’s at Arlington on the Grants. The Sheffield years were over.
But evidently Ethan had some fond memories of South Berkshire, for the Great Barrington registry shows that the general purchased land, dwelling house and shop from Moses Soul in New Marlborough on Oct. 25, 1782. Was this more speculation, or did he for a time contemplate coming back?
Morgan Bulkeley III, who died last September at the age of 99, wrote an Our Berkshires column for The Eagle from 1960 through 1973. The Eagle is running periodic samples. This column is from May 26, 1972.
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