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Maine Gets Its Northern Crown

How a quasi-war with Canada made our state what it is today — and helped secure a lasting peace at the border.

The Fort Kent Blockhouse, the only remaining Aroostook War fortification
The Fort Kent Blockhouse is the only remaining Aroostook War fortification.
By Will Grunewald

The only combat fatality at the Battle of Caribou — and in the whole of the Aroostook War — was a bear. In late 1838, lumberjacks from New Brunswick were spotted cutting trees near Caribou, which, at the time, lay in a vast territory claimed for both the U.S. and British-ruled Canada. A band of Maine lumbermen arrived to confront the New Brunswickers. Both sides were armed. During the standoff that followed, a startled black bear attacked several Canadians, who shot it dead. Upon hearing gunfire, the Americans started shooting too, but the combatants quickly dispersed.

Such misadventure was typical of the long-running border dispute. When Maine commissioned a census of the disputed region, Canadian officials seized the census taker. When Maine dispatched a posse to arrest Canadian lumberjacks, the lumberjacks captured the posse’s leaders. When New Brunswick sent a military commander to order Maine militiamen out of the territory, the militiamen took him captive. And so on. Scholars have been tempted to remember the haphazard hostilities as a sort of screwball farce.

“The episode has been viewed by historians with a good deal of merriment,” professor Thomas Le Duc wrote in the American Historical Review in 1947, noting that the conflict is sometimes called the Pork and Beans War, presumably a jokey reference to the north-woods diet. Le Duc, though, argued that the causes were more complex and the outcomes more consequential than commonly understood, and over the years, he and other historians have worked out a fuller picture of the Aroostook War.

The border dispute stemmed from a time-honored European colonial tradition: drawing lines willy-nilly on a map. During treaty talks in Paris to end the Revolutionary War, American and British delegates defined the eastern U.S.–Canada border as “that angle which is formed by a line drawn due north from the source of the St. Croix River to the highlands; along the said highlands which divide those rivers that empty themselves into the river St. Lawrence from those which fall into the Atlantic Ocean, to the northwesternmost head of the Connecticut River.” Much confusion ensued.

The episode has been viewed by historians with a good deal of merriment.

First, no one knew which of several rivers was the St. Croix, a name that had fallen out of use, but a bilateral committee resolved the issue in 1792. The “highlands” that formed the northern edge of Maine proved trickier to pin down, due to the fact that they didn’t exist. Instead, the British argued that Canada extended south past the Aroostook River, to Mars Hill, and Mainers set the line 100 miles farther north, on the other side of the St. John Valley. In all, 12,000 square miles hung in the balance, roughly the area of Rhode Island and Massachusetts combined.

Most Mainers were willing to risk war for that land, in large part because the economy had slumped in the late 1830s and surveys around the Aroostook River had recently uncovered rich soils ideal for agriculture and extractable mineral deposits. The state’s economic prospects, it seemed, lay in the north. Meanwhile, British interest was primarily military: preserving an overland supply route from Halifax, though the St. John Valley, to Quebec, connecting inland Canadian colonies to the coast when ice made the St. Lawrence unnavigable in winter.

Tensions peaked in February 1839, after the state legislature had dispatched the militia and Congress had set aside $10 million for the cause. But President Martin Van Buren had no desire for a fight, so he dispatched the respected General Winfield Scott to reach a détente, buying time for Washington and London to hash out a lasting solution. Three years later, secretary of state Daniel Webster and Alexander Baring, First Baron Ashburton, finalized Maine’s boundaries via treaty, creating what’s now known as the state’s “crown”: some 7,000 square miles of northern territory that includes the prized Aroostook River valley, the hub of present-day potato farming. Britain kept its overland route, and Canada, which became self-governing a few decades later, got 5,000 square miles of the disputed area.

Neither side was quite happy. One senator accused Webster of turning Maine into a “deserted and doomed state,” while a parliamentarian conferred upon Baron Ashburton the nickname “Earl Surrender.” Ironically, some fuzzy cartography, after starting the whole mess, helped preserve the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. Webster secretly had in his possession maps that seemed to confirm the British claim. Their provenance and reliability were suspect, but behind closed doors, Webster used them to persuade Maine officials and U.S. senators that he’d struck a favorable deal. Meanwhile, in London, an old royal map seemed instead to support the American claim, which quieted Ashburton’s critics in Parliament.

And though the chief aim of the Webster-Ashburton negotiations had been to sort out the trouble on Maine’s upper frontier, the resulting agreement went on to address other border issues as far west as the Rockies, contributing to the amity that now prevails on the world’s longest shared border. In 1913, James L. Tryon, the New England director of the American Peace Society, penned an article encouraging Americans to celebrate the following year as a “centenary of peace” between the U.S. and Canada, dating back to end of the War of 1812, and not counting the Aroostook War and other occasional tensions. Considering in retrospect that, at the time of Tryon’s writing, Europe was on the brink of the first of two world wars triggered by territorial disputes, his point feels all the more meaningful. “Let all animosities be forgotten,” he urged, “and memorials of our unhappy conflicts give place to rejoicing over our long period of fraternity and peace.”

Timelines is a special monthly history column celebrating Maine’s 2020 bicentennial.