How Maine’s International Border Got Its Shape

Every boundary, Maine state historian Earle Shettleworth Jr. says, reflects some “combination of geography and history.”

How Maine's International Border Got Its Shape
Illustration by Mike O'Leary
By David Shribman
From our November 2022 issue

The shape of Maine is nothing if not peculiar. Quite unlike, say, the perfect rectangles of Wyoming and Colorado, Maine flouts geometric sensibility, from its craggy coastline to the great span of its tortuous border with Canada. Most of the U.S.–Canada border, the longest shared border in the world, comprises relatively smooth lines. But from the mouth of Passamaquoddy Bay, in easternmost Maine, it zigzags up the St. Croix River, then follows the rambling course of a brook before abandoning topographical reference points and heading due north to join the St. John River. After snaking past Madawaska and Fort Kent, it detours up the St. Francis River to the state’s northern terminus, then pivots 90 degrees southwest, turns slightly more southerly, and eventually traces the many bends in the St. John River. The final stretch, passing Jackman and approaching New Hampshire, is the strangest yet: the border continues to twist and turn over dry land, as if following an imaginary river — or as if after so much wiggling, it just couldn’t stop.

What it’s really doing there, though, is following a divide between watersheds, which 19th-century diplomats seemingly deemed more reasonable than drawing a straight line. Every boundary, Maine state historian Earle Shettleworth Jr. says, reflects some “combination of geography and history.” When Maine became a state, in 1820, it was anyone’s guess just how big the place actually was, with Americans claiming land north of the St. John and the British (Canada wasn’t yet independent) claiming land to the south. In 1831, the Dutch king arbitrated a deal between the two, but Congress rejected the outcome. In 1839, the Aroostook War, a standoff between forces from Maine and New Brunswick, stirred up by competing timber interests, decided nothing. Finally, in 1842, U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster, proud of his New England roots, pressed for resolution, entering negotiations with the British Lord Ashburton.

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Webster knew of a map from 1746 marked with a red line, apparently drawn by Benjamin Franklin, that would have made a significant chunk of northern Maine a part of Canada. Webster, however, failed to mention this to Ashburton, who agreed to a compromise. Ashburton gave up what he called “my cherished Madawaska settlements.” Webster ceded what he called land “of no value for cultivation or settlement” to the north.

Today, Maine has two dozen international border crossings, and people flow constantly through them. Someone might live in Calais and grab dinner in St. Andrews or summer on Campobello but duck over to Lubec for gas and groceries. Indigenous groups maintain ties that span the boundary, while in the Francophone St. John Valley, residents on either side of the river share a unique heritage. For all the wrangling that went into formally splitting one nation from another, the view from the ground suggests a borderlands culture built around connection, not squiggly lines on a map.


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Down East Magazine, November 2022