Those Turbulent Sons of Freedom by Christopher S. Wren

Those Turbulent Sons of Freedom: Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys and the American Revolution
by Christopher S. Wren
Simon & Schuster, 2018

It was about the land. It was always about the land.


At first it was a squabble of empire. To the north, the French and their native allies used the land as a buffer and a highway to raid the villages of the New England colonists. To the south, the English and their native allies used the very same land to retaliate in kind. The English colonials in this war crisscrossed a landscape that was densely forested and rocky. The only routes of transportation were rivers and dark woodland trails. These soldiers were also farmers, so it would have been obvious to them that the land was less than ideally suited for the establishment of family farms like the ones in southern New England. The wooded hills did offer old growth forests full of prime lumber, wildlife for meat and furs, and a ready market for potash for those hardy enough to settle and clear the land.

After the English victory in what became known as the French and Indian War, these former rangers remembered the land to the west of New Hampshire. Word got around in their Connecticut and Massachusetts villages. Many of the old farms in colonies were made up of exhausted soil, or too many children led to family farms being subdivided or younger siblings being left with lesser inheritances. Then there were the misfits, the type of people who bristled at the rules and conventions of the old colonies. What they all had in common was the dream of land. Without land, there was no security. Seeing an opportunity, and being a rogue of the first order, the cash-strapped colonial governor of New Hampshire, Benning Wentworth, began selling the dream of new lands in what became known as the New Hampshire Grants.

Christopher Wren focuses his new history, Those Turbulent Sons of Freedom: Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys and the American Revolution, on a family that played a critical role in the creation of what would become the state of Vermont. The first of this family to settle in the Grants was Remember Baker. Baker had been a teenaged ranger in the French and Indian War, and by 1764 he was settled in the Grants hunting deer and selling their hides. By 1769, the most famous member of the family, Ethan Allen, fled a suffocating life beset with lawsuits and a growing family, to join his cousin in the Grants. Not long after, the most capable member of the family, Seth Warner, was wandering the forest of the Grants identifying and collecting medicinal plants for his physician father. Add to this group the various Allen brothers, including Ira, and you have a cast of characters that dominated the early years of the region. Later, they were joined by their friend and neighbor Justus Sherwood, a man who valued loyalty and order. He would play a key role in a story of mixed goals as both a Loyalist soldier and spymaster.

As tens of thousands of settlers moved into the Grants, New York, which claimed to hold title to the land, took notice of the wealth flowing to the New Hampshire governor. The dispute over title went all the way to the royal court, and New York got the better of the argument. New York began selling land to speculators who had already been settled and improved. Offers were made to allow the settlers to repurchase the land they thought they already owned.

For most, this would have been ruinous. This started a resistance and a war that pitted New York against the Grants. In Bennington, named in honor of Benning Wentworth, the settlers formed resistance groups, one of which would become the famous Green Mountain Boys. Into the fray strode Ethan Allen and his extended family. This war, between the Grants and New York, was the real war in the region. Green Mountain Boys would resist sheriffs and their posses, and the authorities in New York would scheme and strategize every time they were humiliated. In New York, great landlords ruled over tenant farmers with few rights. The settlers in the Grants were New Englanders used to owning their own farms. In March of 1775, the New Yorkers, or Yorkers as they were called, had a brief show of force in Westminster that led to what was called the Westminster Massacre. A New York sheriff and a posse of sixty loyalists descended on the Connecticut River town in the Grants to protect and enforce the orders of a New York court there. In the face of a hundred or more protesters, the sheriff’s men opened fire, killing and wounding many. This was a month before the historic events in Lexington and Concord that opened the Revolutionary War.  

It was as if a hornet’s nest had been kicked. Men – armed, tough frontier types –  came pouring out of the mountains. They kept on coming and fighting. They fought the Yorkers who held them in disdain as rabble rousers and they fought the British we looked on them as their social inferiors. They fought for American officers who looked down on them because they worked their farms and fought, instead of giving all to a cause that wasn’t theirs. The Virginian General Washington held them in contempt while his plantation was worked by slaves. To them, he was a foreigner.

The author’s decades of experience as a reporter, correspondent, and editor for the New York Times is evident in this history. A writer who has headed news bureaus in Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, Ottawa, and Johannesburg is unlikely to fall for myth and legend, especially where ample facts lead to a more interesting and human story. It is Christopher Wren’s ability as a reporter and an academic to find, sift, and weigh the evidence in the service of crafting an engaging and lively narrative that is the strength of this book. Though the land we call Vermont is now the subject of picturesque post cards, maple sugar shacks, and pricey ski resorts, Wren is able to lift the modern veil and reveal a land of rocky ridges, mountain ranges and narrow valleys. It was a land so blanketed by old growth forests that settlers had to clear the land before they could bring either livestock or horses to their new homes. Vermont’s white water rivers are now explored by tourists in rubber rafts, but they were once highways for natives, settlers, and armies. Wren’s book expertly weaves landscape, weather and war into a turbulent and relentless drama.

Mark Richardson is a small town library director in New England. His career includes archival work at a maritime museum and an art museum, as well as local history librarianship. A proud veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, he now spends his time inland raising his family in a centuries old farmhouse that resist the very idea of a level or straight surface.