This Place in History: Ira Allen at UVM

Vermont Historical Society


At ‘This Place in History’ we’re on the University of Vermont Green with Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins.

“We’re going to talk about a love-hate relationship that founded this university. We’re standing in front of this big statue of Ira Allen. We could talk about Ira Allen for hours, but we’re going to talk today about the founding of the University of Vermont,” began Perkins.

“He acquired hundreds of thousands of acres of land, really centered around the Winooski River. And so, he wanted to increase that value of his land. He knew in the Constitution of 1777, Vermont’s original constitution, it said that the state would establish a state university.”

“When that happened in the beginning, the state said that there already is a university in Vermont, Dartmouth. Hanover, New Hampshire, used to be called Dresden and it was part of Vermont for a number of years. Ira Allen didn’t like this because Dartmouth is over on the Connecticut River side.”

“At the time, Vermont was split politically east-west by the mountains. And, if he could get a university where his land was, it would bring power to that political faction and it would bring people and investors here. He put forward a proposal for 5000 pounds to establish a university in Vermont. He said I’ll sweeten that pot, 5000 pounds and 50 acres to put the university on,” explained Perkins.

“It went to the legislature, we’re talking 1789 at this point. It took them a couple of years to actually get around to acting on it because, of course, at that point, they were turning us from a republic to a state. But in 1791, [the legislature] voted to award the site of the state university to Burlington.”

“As I said before, it was somewhat of a love-hate relationship. If you remember, he proposed this 5000 pounds. He didn’t pay. He couldn’t pay. So Ira Allen had all of this land. He was a land speculator, a developer. He never had any money. He had lots of land and lots and lots of schemes to make lots of money, but he was always in debt,” said Perkins.

“The powers-at-be came to Burlington and said here are the 50 acres we want, give it to us and that’s what we’re on right here. In fact, he was so much in debt that in 1803 he was arrested. He made bail and then snuck out in the middle of the night and went to Philadelphia where he died penniless and is buried in an unmarked grave.”

“For years after that, he wasn’t really spoken of at UVM. UVM was a very poor state university because it didn’t haven’t any of that seed money. He was not really liked by the university in those early years of the 19th Century,” added Perkins.

“Eventually, the university – I mean, it’s a beautiful, big campus. It’s the state’s flagship university and Burlington is really happy that it’s here because it did bring people here. It did bring investment here. Now, it’s the biggest city in the state of Vermont. And a lot of that is because the university was placed here.”

“In the 1920s, James Wilbur, a very wealthy Burlingtonian said [of] Ira Allen, we know he didn’t pay his debts, but he did get the university here. And so James Wilbur paid for this statue and he also paid for that little building over there, the Ira Allen Chapel,” concluded Perkins.

At ‘This Place in History’!

For more from our ‘This Place in History’ series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont’s roadside historic site markers, click here.

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