Ira Allen tries to write (and map) his way out of a corner

Palmer, engraver, A MAP of the STATE of VERMONT Drawn under the Direction of Ira Allen Esqr. late Surveyor Genl. of the said STATE for his HISTORY thereof. London: March 28th, 1798.
Engraving, 17 ¾”h x 21 ½”w at neat line plus margins, outline color. Minor soiling, lower-right margin trimmed to neatline for binding, upper-right margin a bit rough. Folds as issued, backed on linen and re-folded at a later date, though not recently.

A rare and significant map of Vermont, compiled by Ira Allen for his Natural and Political History of the State of Vermont (1798).

As a map of Vermont, Allen’s has at least two curious features, one glaring, the other subtle. The first is the coverage, exceedingly broad for a “state” map: Allen’s map takes in not just Vermont, but almost all of northern New England, northeastern New York and a large swathe of Quebec (“Lower Canada”). The other feature is the “Proposed Canal” connecting the Richelieu River (aka the “R. Sorel”) with the east bank of the St. Lawrence across from Montreal. A full explanation of these features would require many pages, and indeed volumes have been written about Ira Allen, his better-known brother Ethan, and their vital role in the early years of Vermont.

A concise version of the story is this: After the Revolution Ira Allen owned some 200,000 acres in Vermont’s Champlain Valley (The story of how he and his brothers invested in Vermont lands in the 1760s-70s, fought to defend their titles, and ended up helping found first the Republic and then the State of Vermont belongs to another time.) Unfortunately, by 1795 Allen

“…was painfully short of the cash needed to develop his holdings and satisfy his many creditors. The end of the Revolution had opened the Champlain Valley to settlement, but the British restrictions on trade between Canada and Vermont, along with the transportation problems of shipping goods north to Quebec, had frustrated Ira’s plans for a commercial empire with its headquarters at his mills on the Winooski River in Colchester.” (Graffagnino, Vermont, p. 71)

Thus in December of 1795 Allen took ship for Europe with two plans in his pocket, one merely ambitious, the other harebrained. He landed first in England, where he pitched Plan A, a scheme to construct a canal linking the Richelieu and St. Lawrence. This would open British Canada as a market for Vermont timber and grain, while offering Allen any number of opportunities to trade in British manufactured goods.

The pitch fell flat, so Allen moved on to France, where he somehow sold the Directory on Plan B, the seizure of Canada from the British and declaration of the democratic republic of “United Columbia”. France would supply 3000 troops along with (for a price) cannon and muskets, while Allen was to supply a volunteer army of 10,000 men[!!!] and coordinate the operation. Madness… but such were the times: just a few years earlier Jean Genêt, French envoy to the United States, had commissioned American privateers to raid British shipping and raised an American volunteer force to attack Britain’s Spanish allies in Florida.

Alas for Allen, in November 1796, while returning to the United States on the Olive Branch, loaded with French cannon and muskets, he and the ship were captured by the British. Detained in Britain for more than a year, in May 1798 he published his Natural and Political History of the State of Vermont, in the hope that his spin on recent history would bolster his efforts to obtain the release of both his person and the weapons. The History was illustrated by the large “Map of the State of Vermont” offered here, with its curiously expansive coverage and unobtrusive canal. Per Graffagnino, the map

“illustrated a number of the points he was trying to make in his text. Despite its title, the map showed Vermont within the unusually broad context of northern New England, New York and Canada. The result was a two-pronged visual emphasis: on the state’s commercial position vis á vis the Champlain-St. Lawrence waterways; and on the concomitant depiction of Vermont’s exposed and vulnerable frontiers, which required a numerous and well-armed militia for the state’s defense. Never one to miss the opportunity to promote a project, Ira also included the line of his proposed canal, no doubt to indicate the relative ease with which the Vermont and Canadian markets might come together. Allen’s map offered few details within the actual borders of Vermont, but as with the History itself, his main purpose was something quite apart from the simple description of the Green Mountain State.” (Graffagnino, pp. 72-3)

The map is rare in trade. Antique Map Price Record lists but a single example, sold at William Parkinson’s spectacular Vermontiana sale in 2003 (lot 205) for $1900. Per Rare Book Hub, the last complete copy of the Natural and Political History, with map, to change hands was offered for $2500 by MS Rare Books in 2008.

David Cobb, Vermont Maps Prior to 1900, #130. Kevin Graffagnino, The Shaping of Vermont, p. 70 (illus.), pp. 71-73. McCorkle, New England in Early Printed Maps, #V798.1. The Shaping of Vermont has a nice discussion of the map’s context, but for something fuller I recommend Graffagnino’s superb “The Country My Soul Delighted In”: The Onion River Land Company and the Vermont Frontier”, The New England Quarterly, March 1992, pp. 24-60 and his ““Twenty Thousand Muskets!!!”: Ira Allen and the Olive Branch Affair, 1796-1800”, The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. XLVIII, July 1991, pp. 409-431.  I would be happy to supply copies of both to the purchaser of this map.