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Well-Known Vermont Masons

Brother Ira Allen

A Vermonter whom we should never forget.

Warren A. Williams, awaw@together.net

Were you present in Burlington for the Bicentennial Celebration of the Grand Lodge of Vermont on that hot June morning in 1994? Do you recall marching up the hill to the Green at the University of Vermont where a Masonic apron was placed on the statue of Brother Ira Allen? That event was marked with dignity to honor and venerate one of the most important early citizens of what was to become our State of Vermont. And it made a lasting impression on me.

This article will outline some of the important details in Ira Allen's life, as well as the sad conclusion to his very prominent and devoted career.

Ira was born on May 1, 1751 at Roxbury, CT, the fifth son of Joseph and Mary Allen. He was an outstanding example of a young man prominent in public affairs even though his educational opportunities were few. But he had a keen and alert mind and evidently was brought into contact in his youth with able and energetic men.

In the fall of 1770, at the age of twenty, he made is first visit to Vermont, following a cousin, Remember Baker and his older brother, Ethan. With forty-eight pounds from his father's estate he purchased several rights of land in Poultney. Hew learned land surveying and practiced the profession in the New Hampshire Grants, where he continued to add to his land ownership, until in later years he became one of the great land owners of New England. In 1772 he came to the Grants and entered actively into the pioneer life of the region, taking part in the defense of the homes of the settlers against attempts by colonial authorities of New York to dispossess holders of New Hampshire titles.

In 1775 he, along with his brother Ethan, began his career as a soldier as a member of the Ticonderoga expedition. He became a lieutenant in the regiment of the Green Mountain Boys organized that year. Ira Allen accompanied the American army in the invasion of Canada in the autumn of 1775. He was the messenger chosen to carry to General Carleton a demand to surrender Montreal. In the attack upon Quebec General Montgomery selected Ira Allen as one of two officers ordered to direct an attack on Cape Diamond.

Returning home in 1776, he began in a quiet way to prepare the minds of the people of the New Hampshire Grants for an independent government, participating in a series of conventions and traveling throughout the Grants in the interest of a separate commonwealth. In the formation of the state of Vermont and the adoption of its constitution he took a prominent part.

As secretary of the Council of Safety he sent an appeal to New Hampshire for aid, which brought General Stark and his troops to Bennington in time to win the battle which was instrumental in the final defeat of Burgoyne. He sent spies into the British camp who brought information of great value to General Stark.

Advocating before the Council of Safety the raising of a full regiment instead of only two companies, he was opposed by the elder statesmen of the group, who assigned to him the apparently impossible task of reporting a plan "at sunrising on the morrow." He was ready at the hour named with an original plan for the sequestration of the estates of Tories and the sale of their property. The plan was adopted, the regiment was raised and the new state found the method of securing revenue very useful.

Ira Allen was the treasurer of Vermont (forerunner to Br. Jim Douglas) and its first surveyor general, offices of great responsibility and importance in the early period of Vermont's history. He was secretary to Vermont's Governor, Surveyor general and an ambassador to Congress and the 13 states that had been formed from the original colonies.

At a period when Vermont was surrounded by unfriendly neighbors, and Congress refused aid, when a British army, threatened the northern border, Allen and a few associates deceived His Majesty's officers, making them believe that Vermont might be made a British province. Negotiations continued until the British armies were defeated.

In the long period of negotiations with other states for recognition, Ira Allen, the diplomat, traveled thousands of miles on horseback on errands for Vermont. He was one of the negotiators who arranged the treaty with New York which made possible the long-deferred admission of Vermont to the Federal Union. It is supposed that Ira Allen was responsible for including in Vermont's first constitution a complete system of education from the common schools, through county grammar schools to a state university. He was the active force which secured the chartering of the University of Vermont in 1791, and location in Burlington, He also was one of the earliest advocates of higher education for women.

Allen established mills and forges, engaged in the lumber trade with Canada and in a letter to the Duke of Portland set forth Vermont's agricultural and industrial opportunities. At this time he was the owner of 200,000 acres of land!

In 1795, Ira Allen went to Europe as senior Major General of the Vermont militia, ostensibly to purchase arms for the state. Probably a more urgent reason was the hope that he might interest the British government and English capital in the construction of a ship canal connecting the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain. The British and French were engaged in war, and the time was not opportune for the promotion of the canal project. Crossing to France, he purchased a cargo of arms, but the ship carrying the guns was seized by British craft, and there followed a long and vexatious period of litigation in English courts.

Allen returned To France to secure additional evidence and was thrown in prison as a spy. He was finally released and returned in 1801 after an absence of several years to find much of his large estate sold for taxes, and himself financially ruined. He fled to Philadelphia to avoid a debtor's prison, writing pamphlets and never giving up dreams of returning to Vermont. In exile, at the last, he was buried in a nameless grave in 1814 with few in Vermont noting his passing. If these years had been devoted to the building of Vermont, the industrial and commercial history of the state might have differed markedly from the record that has been written.

It was one of the tragedies of history that he, who more than any other had made possible for formation of the state of Vermont, should be driven from its borders. More than a century later a statue of Ira Allen was erected on the UVM campus, a beautiful chapel named in his honor, and a gift of a valuable collection of Vermont books and historical documents given to the institution in his name. After many years of obscurity, Ira Allen had come into his own.

Ira Allen recognized in a Significant Way

Ira Allen achieved one distinction that is older, more famous brother never accomplished--his portrait appears on a U.S. coin, the 1927 Vermont-Bennington Sesquicentennial half dollar, a commemorative coin honoring the founding of the 14th state.

Allen's portrait was the choice for the obverse from the beginning "as symbolizing better than any other the creation of the state" according to the Vermont Sesquicentennial Commission. "It can hardly be gainsaid," wrote the commission's president to the Mint director, "that Ira Allen's vision and courage caused the State of Vermont to be established. We believe that no head of any man in our history could possibly be so generally acceptable."


Grand Historian's note: this information was taken from articles entitled Ira Allen, by Walter H. Crockett, in Vermont' s History and a Coin World article entitled Ira Allen--with empire in ruins, this founder of Vermont ends up forgotten in pauper's grave, December 18, 2000.