Documentary Editing, Association for


Date of this Version


Document Type



Documentary Editing, Volume 21, Number 4, December 1999.

ISSN 2476-1796 (electronic); ISSN 2167-1451 (print)


1999 © the Association for Documentary Editing. Used by permission.


On May 1775, Ethan Alien wrote to the Albany (N.Y.) Committee of Correspondence one of the most exciting letters, not only in this two-volume edition of selected Alien Family correspondence, but arguably in the entire annals of American military and political history. Only the day before, he had led two hundred Vermont and Massachusetts militiamen to capture the British fortress of Ticonderoga in what some consider the colonists' first offensive action of the Revolutionary War. Members of the Second Continental Congress had not yet even convened when Allen demanded the fort's surrender jointly in their name and that of the "Great Jehova." (Don't look for the famous quote in the letters; the legend dates from Alien's memoir published four years after the fact.) Yet there was Allen asking the Albany Committee for five hundred New York troops "Till the Other Colonies can have Time to Muster" (p. 20)-more than a month before the Continental Congress would adopt the" Army of Observation" outside Boston as its own genuinely inter-regional Continental Army.

The bravura and political audaciousness Allen parades ~ the letter are two of the characteristics that have placed him at the head of America's early frontier folk heroes. His appearance at the head of the edition's title, on the other hand, is more of a nod to the importance of name recognition, since the "kin" referenced in the second half of the title account for the vast majority of the volumes' letters and extend their coverage three decades beyond Ethan's death. Title notwithstanding, the edition focuses with equal sharpness, if not depth, on an exceptional trio of brothers: the family "dictator" Ethan (1738-89); the free-spirited Levi (1746-1801), who danced with Indians in Detroit and ended the Revolutionary War as an outcast Loyalist; and Ira (1751-1814), businessman, philanthropist, and international agent provocateur. Their correspondence illustrates the influence they had on each other and, together and individually, on the political, economic, and social development of what became the state of Vermont.