A Mixed Blessing

Francis Montresor Buchanan may have been surprised at the turns her life had taken as a result of the American Revolution. Born at the onset of the imperial crisis, she had grown up with it and had made conscious decisions concerning with which side, Loyalist or Patriot, she affiliated. Once a member of the new republic, she chose former Patriot revolutionary Ethan Allen as a spouse, after having previously been married to a retired British officer.

At the close of the Revolution, Fanny and her mother were living in the boarding home of Colonel Stephen R. Bradley in Westminster, Vermont, as they sought to claim their rights to Crean Brush’s confiscated property nearby. There, Fanny and Ethan Allen met in 1784, when Ethan Allen was visiting Colonel Bradley, a friend of his, while attending the Vermont Assembly in Westminster. Ethan was 47 years of age and Fanny was 24, but legend has it that they matched wits. Not only was she beautiful, observers said, she was polished and sophisticated—she could play the guitar, speak French fluently, had a beautiful singing voice, was a notable botanist, and was a “lady of New York fashion.” Reverend Fairbanks, a Westminster minister who wrote a history of the town in 1888, stated that

Mrs. Buchanan is spoken of as a “dashing woman,” with an “imperious bearing,” which attracted the attention of the quiet people of Westminster. She is said to have been a “fascinating woman, endowed with an ease of manner, which she had acquired from intercourse with polite society, and possessed of a refined taste and many accomplishments.

During one of his frequent visits to Westminster, Gen. Ethan Allen, who was at that time a widower, formed an acquaintance with Mrs. Buchanan, which afterwards “ripened into a warm, but singularly intermittent friendship.” (588)


Fanny Margaret Allen was the well-educated child of Francis and Ethan Allen. She purportedly shared her mother’s interest in science and her father’s religious skepticism. In 1807, Fanny went to Montreal to study French, where she converted to Catholicism and entered a convent after having a vision. Contemporaries were shocked that Ethan Allen’s daughter had become one of the first Catholic converts and nuns from New England. Fanny spent the rest of her life using her skills to serve the sick and poor as the hospital chemist. After her death, the Religious Hospitaliers of St. Joseph named the Fanny Allen Hospital in Colchester, Vermont, after her. (Image: Artist unknown, printed in the 10th Biennial Report (1911-1913) of the Fanny Allen Hospital, Hotel Dieu of St. Joseph. Public domain, Wikimedia commons.)

Supposedly, when John Norton, the local tavernkeeper, told her that if she married Ethan Allen she would be queen of a new state, Fanny responded, “Yes; and if I should marry the devil, I shall be queen of hell,” an answer which bemused Allen. Despite her response, the prospect seemed to have some appeal to Fanny, who married Ethan Allen shortly thereafter, on February 16, 1784, after Ethan had appeared in the boardinghouse parlor while Fanny was still in her dressing gown on the morning of February 9 and declared, “If we are to be married, now is the time.” Fanny said ‘fine,’ then added that she would need to get her jacket. Fairbanks wrote that “The aversion…with which she at times held the character of the man ‘whom all feared and few loved,’ appears to have given a place to the admiration of his nobler traits, and she consented to become his wife” (588). Their marriage announcement in the Vermont Gazette described Fanny as “a lady possessing in an eminent degree every graceful qualification requisite to render the hymenial bonds felicitous.” (Brown, 278). They departed on a sleigh with Fanny’s belongings to Ethan’s home in Sunderland, Vermont. In 1784, Ethan sold the Sunderland home and the family moved to Bennington, where Ethan could better conduct his land business.  Fanny appreciated being in a more cosmopolitan area that was bustling with events and people. She gave birth to their first two children, Fanny Margaret (1784) and Hannibal Montresor (1786) in the Allen’s large rented home in Bennington. Another son, born before Hannibal, died in infancy of whooping cough.

All accounts of Ethan and Fanny’s marriage state that it was a happy one, and that it had a settling effect on Ethan, who retired his penchant to be at the center of the political scene. Nevertheless, each had tempestuous natures. Ethan was a passionate man, heavy drinker, and a critic of organized religion, all of which were unbearable to his first wife, Mary Brownson, who was illiterate and deeply religious, and had a reputation for scolding. Fanny’s more vivacious character may have appealed to Allen after the trials of his previous marriage, which had ended at Mary’s death six months earlier. According to one Ethan Allen biographer, “Fanny was expensive and flighty and sometimes given to sudden flurries of temper, but she was also young and gay and witty. In short, she was everything that Mary had not been.” (Jellison, 315). Fanny and Ethan enriched one another with their intellectualism, she even helping him learn French. Accustomed to considerable wealth, Fanny was reportedly a spendthrift. A lack of currency available in the new Republic strained her spending habits, especially as Ethan was frequently selling and reinvesting in Vermont land as the state’s population grew. Financial difficulties increased in 1785, when Ethan published Reason the Only Oracle of Man, which was not well-received due to its controversial views. On several occasions Ethan faced the threat of debtor’s prison. Nevertheless, Ethan expressed a fondness of Fanny. He gifted a copy of his book to her, the following verses inscribed within:

Dear Fanny wise, the beautiful and young,
The partner of my joys, my dearest self,
My love, pride of my life, your sexes pride,
And partner of Sincere politeness… (qtd in Jellison, 315)

Fanny, Ethan, and their family moved to Burlington, Vermont, in the late summer of 1787. In 1778, Ethan had purchased about 150 acres of land in Burlington from Colonel James Claghorn, “Commissioner for the confiscation and sale of the estates of the enemies of Vermont and the United States.” The land had formerly belonged to loyalist William Marks. By August 1784, Ethan was writing to his brother Ira about plans for constructing a “34 x 24, two-story” house, and proceeded to purchase land until he owned 1400 acres by the time his family settled on the property.


The Allen’s “Intervale” home in Burlington, Vermont. Photo taken by the author.

For their first three months in Burlington, Fanny, Ethan, and the children lived with John Collins in Burlington Bay until their farmhouse was complete. There, Fanny gave birth to their last child, Ethan Voltaire Alphonso, on November 28, 1787. Ethan wrote to his brother Levi that, “Mrs. Allen was brought to bed on the 24th instant with hearty well looking Boy, she is as well as could be expected.” (Duffy, 253). Meanwhile, three black hired laborers, Newport, Williams Stewart, and a woman [name unknown] worked on the farm. Soon, the family moved into a modest, isolated farmhouse on their “Intervale” land.

Fanny’s marriage may have transformed her outlook and prospects following the Revolution. Daughter and widow of Tories, Fanny was struggling to obtain the 20,000 acres of Vermont land she had inherited from her father, which Ethan and the Court of Confiscation had seized in 1778. Now, married to a leader in the new state and the very man who had succeeded in confiscating the property to begin with, her status in society rose as did her odds of obtaining her inheritance with her husband’s aid. Before their marriage, Ethan had been fighting for decades against others like her seeking Vermont land claims with New York title, but now he labored on her behalf. Margaret and Fanny had succeeded at obtaining some of the estate through the aid of attorney Stephen Bradley, 3,200 acres of which Margaret transferred to Ethan on April 6, 1784. Valued at 3,000 in New York currency at the time, it was the most valuable piece of property Allen owned in his land business. Together with Fanny’s mother, Margaret, and Margaret’s new husband, Patrick Wall, Ethan and Fanny sought to acquire the remaining land through litigation. However, the Vermont legislature had sold most of the land to settlers and speculators, and those who had leased the land immediately after its confiscation now claimed they owned it. Though largely unsuccessful, Fanny, Ethan, Margaret, and Patrick, according to one account, “attempted to capture some money value out of Brush’s estate by redeeming at tax vendues and then selling lands Brush had acquired in Westminster by New York grants, but the old problem of conflicting New York and New Hampshire titles worked against any great profits going to Brush’s heirs.” While they were able to secure and keep some of the land, and sold other portions of it, Ethan Allen died before they could obtain most of it.

Fanny and Ethan’s marriage was contented, but short. The couple would visit their neighbors on an ox-sled during the winters, and their neighbors observed that Ethan valued Fanny’s cleverness and was kind to her, and that she put up with his excessive drinking better than his previous wife. Ethan spent the year of 1788 editing the appendix to his book, Reason the Only Oracle of Man, and tending to the farm. However, due to a partial crop failure, Ethan had not set enough hay aside for his livestock that winter. On February 11, 1789, as he and Newport, his hired black hand, conveyed a load of hay across the river that Ethan had acquired from his brother, Ebenezer, Ethan unexpectedly fell into a violent fit. When Newport brought Ethan home on his shoulders, Fanny fled into the other room, believing Ethan was drunk again. On the following morning, Ethan Allen died at the age of 52. Fanny arranged his funeral for February 16, 1789.

Following Ethan’s death, Fanny boarded with the widow of Stephen Lawrence, then returned to Westminster to live with her mother. There she met and married Dr. Jabez Penniman in Westminster on October 28, 1793. Jabez took Ethan Allen’s minor children under his care. In 1794, they moved back to the Allen farm, where they had three children. Due to Allen family conflict over the property and increasing debts, Fanny and Jabez returned to Westminster in 1800. In 1803, the family moved to Swanton when Jabez became the United States Customs Collector for Vermont. During the War of 1812, they lived in Burlington and Colchester while Jabez served in the roles of probate judge for Chittenden County, town clerk of Colchester, and eventually as legislative representative from 1817 to 1826. He sold the Burlington farm in the spring of 1814 for $2800 to support the Allen children.

Frances Montresor Buchanan Allen Penniman never ceased seeking out what was due to her and her family. The lands which Fanny had inherited from Crean Brush were now in Ethan Allen’s estate, of which Ethan’s brother, Ira, was the administrator. In 1802, thirteen years after Ethan Allen’s death in February 1789, Ethan’s will had not yet cleared probate, so Fanny still had not received her share of the estate. Disputes quickly began to arise between Ira and the Pennimans. In January 1802, Ira had invited Jabez to bring Hannibal and Ethan Voltaire Allen (sons of Fanny and Ethan Allen), so that he could enroll them in the first class of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Jabez wished to relieve himself from the expense of their care, but wrote to Ira on Fanny’s behalf to ensure that Ira would provide well for her children:

“…But—Sir—It was Mrs. Penniman’s particular desire to know on what conditions I left them—I conceive for myself that you take the charge on yourself and be at the expense of their Board Clothing and Education in future and exonerate me—as I have been at great expense for ten years past—You will be so good as to write me plain and explicit on the subject that I can be able to show Mrs. Penniman how I have disposed of her Orphan Children and ease the feelings of an ancious [sic] Mother”

Jabez Penniman to Ira Allen, Burlington, February 16, 1802

On June 12, 1802, an incensed Ira Allen wrote to Fanny from Colchester:

“Doctr Penniman Brought your sons to me & Left them in my Care. I immedeately put Hanible into Collage & Ethan in School with my sons where they are doing as well as might be Expected—But to my supprise after Mr. Penniman was gone I was Informed that he had found means to Get himself appointed thier guardian. I Enquired of Hanible how he Came to appoint Mr. Penniman his Guardian. He s’d Mr. P. informed him that he had Consulted me & that I had agreed to it. I Positively Declare that I had not the most Distant Idea of such appointment and assure you that However dear the sons of a Respected & Deceast Brother may be to me I will not have anything to do with thier Education Under the Guardeanship of any Man in Existance. Therefore my Letter to Doctr Penniman of this Date must be Complyed with & I Receive Returns by Mrs. [Nancy] Allen [Ira’s wife] who is on a Visset to see a Number of her frends on Connecticut River or their Guardean must Immediately take Charge of them. Be assured that this Letter is the Result of mature Deliberation and that at all Times I shall feel it a Duty I owe to the Memory of my Borther & you as Parent to three of his Children to advise with you for their best Good as occasions may from Time to time Require—Mrs. [Nancy] Allen will more fully Explain my Reasons for Writing you this Letter and inform you of some other things that may be usefull to you in more ways than one & which I have not time to State in a Letter—Give my Best Compliments to Mr. Wall Mrs. Wall & Miss Fanny.”

Family tensions over the education of Fanny and Ethan’s children escalated as they became tied into land disputes over Ethan Allen’s Burlington estate and the confiscated lands from Crean Brush that Allen had acquired through Fanny’s inheritance. A letter from Ira Allen to Jabez Penniman on June 12, 1802, began with an accusation. Ira had been suing settlers who had been occupying the former lands of Crean Brush held in Ethan Allen’s estate by buying deeds from those who owned the land before Allen. One of these individuals was a man named Gideon Ormsby. While Ira was in the midst of the suit, Jabez and Frances Penniman, who had been leasing the land to Ormsby, filed an ejectment action against him because he had failed to make payments. When a Mr. Tuttle also claimed that he had a lease to the land under the Pennimans, Ira blamed the Pennimans for undermining his success in the lawsuits, and linked this to the conflict over responsibility for Ethan and Fanny’s children, writing:

“…I find these Courts are Verry Expensive and Uncertain Espetially when the Defendant Clames a Right to Possess Under a Lease from you which I had not the most Distant idea of when I Commensed the Suit. In order for me to Prosecute these Suits & to Continue the Education of Hanible & Ethan (Brought to me Verry Destitute of Close Nothwithstanding the Imbarrisments on the old farm said to have been for their Benefit) the following things must be Complyed with. The Lease in your Possession […] Under which Capt. Tittle Clames a Right to Possess the s’d Lands in Dispute with the Lease you gave to Russel of the Suydam Lot must be by you Consigned to me. The Letters of Gardeanship you obtained over my Nephews Unknown to me after you Brought them to my Home must also be Transmited and they appoint me their Guardean. I have in the Course of my Life done Two much in the Education of my Nephews to now Consent to do it Under the Direction of any Man in Existance* Mrs. Allen will further Explain these and some other matters to whom I Refer You.

Your most Obedient Humble Servt

Ira Allen

*What an Awkward figure Should I make in Instructing my Nephews when they might Retort and say that I had no Controle over them—”

Jabez, in turn, issued a long response to Ira in his and Fanny’s defense on July 12, 1802. He denied any knowledge of a lease with Mr. Tuttle. As to the issue of Guardianship, Jabez expressed the wish that the responsibility be put into the hands of a third party. Jabez further advocated for the dower owed to Fanny from Allen’s estate, withheld from her for fifteen years, without which she could not be expected to provide for herself and her children. He accused Ira of providing very little for the children of Allen and Frances. Jabez claimed that he had done more for the care of the children, even though his resources were meager, and that he sought only from the Allen estate what was his due for the expense, and that the rest was owed to Fanny as her private property. He claimed he and Frances had turned down offers from a Mr. Hathaway to support the children at his own expense, because Fanny did not want the children to rely on charity. However, Jabez insisted that if Ira as administrator of the children’s rightful property would not provide for them, then the children must turn elsewhere for help. Jabez wrote that he would write to Colonel Hay, as a friend to both him and Ira, to arbitrate the dispute. View the full letter here.

Silas Hathaway agreed to pay for Hannibal and Ethan Jr.’s expenses to study at the University of Vermont on November 5, 1802, if he could receive remuneration from Ethan Allen’s estate. Ira Allen left Vermont in 1803, the dispute with the Pennimans over the leasing of land in Ethan Allen’s estate unresolved. Eventually, in May 1803, Fanny and Jabez were able to acquire a decree from the Court of Chancery in Rutland against Ira Allen to pay $7,000 from Ethan Allen’s estate to Frances as her widow’s right of dower, which was paid to them in the form of eight rights of land in Swanton.

Though her peers and immediate family greatly admired Fanny, some records hint that, in addition to these disputes between the Pennimans and Ethan’s brothers, Fanny’s stepchildren (Ethan Allen’s children from his previous marriage with Mary Brownson) were not as fond of Fanny as Ethan was. Writing to his wife Lucy Allen Hitchcock from Bennington on August 28, 1791, Samuel Hitchcock wrote sarcastically of Lucy’s stepmother, “I shall be obliged to call & See our chaste, discreet & virtuous mother—shall I express a great deal of love to her on your account?—I shall be glad to see the little boys and on this account shall call—but I should be happily disappointed if she should be from home.” Perhaps Fanny’s imperious or impulsive personality was too much for them. Perhaps she was more partial to the welfare of her own children than of her stepchildren. Perhaps they felt that in her efforts to claim what she believed was due to her and her children, Fanny neglected what was rightfully theirs.

Fanny’s revolutionary settlement, and that of her family, fluctuated as the postwar years played out. Struggling to claim her Loyalist father’s land, her prospects improved when she met and married Ethan Allen. However, Fanny did not become the “queen of a new state,” as the tavernkeeper once teased. Struggling with financial strains, Fanny and Ethan lived in a modest farmhouse as together they battled over land claims. Though she may have enjoyed a happy marriage with Ethan, relations with the rest of the Allen family grew strained after his death, especially when she entered into her third marriage with Jabez Penniman, whose aid she solicited in obtaining the land owed to her from Allen and Brush, as well as in the care of the children from her previous marriage. What looked at the onset to be a comfortable and hopeful new life became an ongoing challenge, but she never ceased fighting for what she believed she, her mother, and her children deserved.

Header image: View from the window of the Allen’s Burlington homestead. Image taken by the author.



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