The Outhouse Story, and did he really fall off his horse?
by Guy Page
On June 23, 1775, Ethan Allen appeared before the Continental Congress to be commended for leading the Green Mountain Boys in their capturing of Fort Ticonderoga, the British Fort on Lake Champlain.
Allen’s capture of the fort was one of the colonists’ first significant military victories. So this weekend is Ethan Allen Weekend at the Ethan Allen Homestead. The event begins at 10 AM Saturday at the site off Burlington’s North Avenue and the Intervale and features re-enactors, traditional artisans, a “Liar’s Dice” tournament Saturday night, and a talk 2 PM Sunday by Vermont historian William Sterne Randall entitled “Founders’ Fortunes: And How Ethan Allen Survived the Frontier.”
Allen, who has become a folk legend in Vermont, was an unusually flamboyant backwoodsman-turned-statesman from Connecticut, according to the Ethan Allen Homestead website. He was one of the early Anglo inhabitants of Burlington and lived on his property in the Winooski River Intervale from 1787 until his death in 1789. He made a very significant contribution to the early history of Vermont, at that time called the New Hampshire Grants, then the territory constituted the northern frontier of the New England colonies, and of the emerging nation.
He is best known for the capture of Fort Ticonderoga at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War and his leadership of the Green Mountain Boys. He was also a Deist and philosopher. Towards the end of his life Ethan published Reason the Only Oracle of Man, rewritten from a manuscript he and Dr. Thomas Young, a Deist friend and mentor from Connecticut, had written together years earlier.
As is so often the case with folk legends, around whom myths grow up during and after their lives, it is hard to form an accurate picture of Ethan Allen. Hero to some, rogue to others, it depends to whom you speak!
Two stories about Allen come to mind…..
First, the Graveyard story. Ethan Allen was known as a man who stayed long at the tavern in order to delay returning home to his first wife, with whom the strong-willed Allen reportedly had a sometimes unhappy relationship, according to one historical source:
“Ethan’s marriage to Mary [Brownson], who was several years older than he, does not seem to have been particularly happy. Mary was an intrepid frontier wife, though, and according to tradition, illiterate, deeply religious, and shrewish. There is little historic evidence of these qualities, and much more for the fact that Ethan was not an easy man; he was impulsive, a heavy drinker, and frequently absent from home.”
Anyway. The story goes, one night, after at least one rum too many, he was reluctantly riding home from the tavern past a graveyard, when two of his fellow imbibers jumped out from behind tombstones and began making scary ghost noises.
Allen – no coward and an unsuperstitious Deist to boot – addressed the boogeymen: “If ye be just men, then be off with ye. But if ye be demons, then come on home, my wife’s one of ye.” And then fell off his horse.
And there’s the English Outhouse story that Abraham Lincoln loved to tell, whether or not it was true.
After the war, Ethan Allen visited England (his second wife was a Loyalist), and his British friends made fun of him. One day they put a picture of George Washington in an outhouse where Allen would be sure to see it. He used the outhouse but said nothing about the picture. Then the British asked him about it and Allen said it was a very appropriate place for an Englishman to hang the picture because “nothing will make an Englishman’s bowels move so quickly as the sight of General Washington.”
The news story above contains content from the Ethan Allen Homestead website.
Thanks, Guy. Very nice. Worthy of a deeper study by all of us Vermonters.
Great piece. But…..he’s a dead white male. Be careful about touting him too much. Next thing you know, some woke smarty pants will unearth a revelation about his purported “racism” from the archives, another one will write an op ed indicting the patriarchy that founded Vermont, and Vermont Digger will concoct our own special Green Mountain version of the 1619 Project, leading to the removal of his story from history books and classes, and his name’s removal from the UVM Chapel. You read it here first, sad to say.
The life of Ethan Allen, the legend vs. the man, begs a question that I’ve been asking a lot lately, and one that I’m not sure has an easy answer: Is it worth it to have perfect historicity yet lose the didactic qualities that the legend provides? Isn’t the point of recording history to learn from it, to understand not only who we are but how we ought to be? And if so, shouldn’t we hold up the legend as a parable to inspire others to follow its virtuous example, if not to greatness?
Good history does both. Speak truth in love