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The Aroostook War of 1839

Chapter One

Origins of the Disputed Territory

[F]rom . . . that angle which is formed by a line drawn due north from the source of St. Croix River to the highlands . . . which divide those rivers

— Treaty of Paris, Article 2, signed September 3, 1783

The Aroostook War, variously referred to as the Lumbermen’s War, the Pork and Beans War, or the Bloodless Aroostook War, is generally considered to have been a tempest in a teapot, and an almost comic opera-like affair. It was much more than this, however, and it was certainly more serious. Looking back over 174 years, it is difficult to understand why the Aroostook Valley, where a minor border crisis occurred in the depths of winter, could have become a flashpoint in relations between Britain and the United States. Yet it was, and though the subject of much mockery, the Aroostook War almost led to a third Anglo-American war.

The reasons for the confrontation were found in the Maine-New Bruns­wick border dispute, which began with the Treaty of Paris in 1783 that ended the American Revolutionary War and lasted until the British Par­liament endorsed the Ashburton-Webster Treaty sixty years later. At issue for the new state of Maine was its inheritance from the Treaty of Paris, while New Brunswick wished to claim its share of what was considered disputed territory. But the key difference between the two sides was the British government’s determination to secure the Grand Communications Route to the Canadas. In an era before railways and powerful steamships, the winter road along the St. John River and over the portage to the St. Lawrence River was a route of great strategic importance — and one worth fighting for.


The Disputed Territory. MB

At the heart of the dispute was about 12,027 square miles (3,114,993 hectares) of the watershed of the upper St. John River, an area now shared by the state of Maine and the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick. Feeding the St. John in this region are several key tributaries. Moving up­stream from the west, the more important ones are the River de Chute, the Aroostook, the Fish, and the Allagash rivers, all of which drain what is now northern Maine. To the east are the Tobique, Madawaska, and St. Francis rivers; the Tobique drains the north-central area of New Brunswick, the Madawaska drains Lake Temiscouata and the smaller rivers feeding into it, while the St. Francis runs for the most part in Quebec. At the mouths of many of the rivers, including the River de Chute, the Aroostook, and the Madawaska, are falls; the largest in the whole system is on the St. John itself at Grand Falls. All of these falls present obstacles to transportation. Initially, the region was heavily timbered, with stands of tall white pine being particularly desirable. Cutting down the trees revealed valuable agricultural land along the river valleys’ “interval” land that flooded most years, providing some of the best land for farming.

The area had always been a poorly defined frontier lying between colonial powers. Before the Europeans arrived, it had been the indisput­able domain of the Maliseet people who inhabited the basin of the St. John River, known to them as the Wolostoq. During the French colonial period, the boundary between Acadia and the New England colony of Massachusetts was never clearly defined. It was thought to have been the Penobscot River — where an Acadian presence is recognized today by Acadia National Park — the St. Croix, or even the St. John, but no agreement was ever reached between the French and the British. For a while, after the British conquest of French North America in 1763, the issue of boundaries became less urgent. The boundary between Quebec and New York was surveyed and generally agreed to, but nothing was done to resolve the boundary in the remote area between Massachusetts and Nova Scotia, and since the entire region was now in the hands of the British, there was no urgency to settle the matter.

The American Revolution thrust the overland route up the St. John back into prominence, and it was left to the negotiators of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 to determine where the new boundary between the United States and British North America lay. They failed, mainly because the map they used — one that had been published by the Virginian cartographer John Mitchell in 1775 and updated in 1776 — was largely based on supposition, not surveys; its details on Nova Scotia were especially sketchy. Moreover, the Americans sent their best team of negotiators — John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and Henry Laurens — to Paris, while the British rep­resentative, Richard Oswald, does not seem to have been in the same class. Directed by London to reverse an earlier agreement to surrender Nova Scotia to the Americans, Oswald and his colleague, Benjamin Vaughan, had to find a boundary between Massachusetts and Nova Scotia that the Americans would accept. The Americans wanted that to be the St. John River, the British countered with the Penobscot, and the compromise was the St. Croix.

When finalized, the Treaty of Paris described the border as “from the northwest angle of Nova Scotia, viz., that angle which is formed by a line drawn due north from the source of 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 Connecticut River; thence down along the middle of that river to the forty-fifth degree of north latitude.” That description, however, immediately created two problems, one geographical, the other military. Unfortunately, the name “St. Croix River” was not then in use. The French expedition led by Pierre Du Gua, Sieur de Monts, had spent the winter of 1604 on an island in this river; Samuel de Champlain was part of this expedition and had mapped much of the coastline. By 1783, however, it was not certain which of two rivers flowing into Pas­samaquoddy Bay was the French St. Croix. The Americans claimed it was the easternmost one, the Magaguadavic; not surprisingly, the British claimed it was the westernmost one, the Schoodic, which would ensure that the village of St. Andrews, recently settled by Loyalists from present-day Portland, Maine, remained within British North America.

The Jay Treaty, signed in 1794, resolved a number of points of friction between Britain and the United States, and its article 5 authorized the formation of a boundary commission to determine which river was the St. Croix and to locate its source. Ward Chipman, a New Brunswick Loyalist and one of the three boundary commissioners, actively campaigned for the Schoodic to be designated as the St. Croix. By 1798, his arguments, mainly based on the discovery of the 1604 French habitation on the site of present-day St. Croix Island, had carried the day. Following this, the source of the St. Croix was agreed on and a marker placed at a site appropriately named Monument. According to the 1783 Treaty of Paris, a line was now to be drawn from Monument to the highlands that divided the waters flowing into the St. Lawrence River from those flowing into the Atlantic Ocean. Further boundary talks followed, but no consensus emerged on just where those highlands lay, and the War of 1812 intervened before any agreement could be reached.

The Jay Treaty also helped partially to resolve the military problem created by the Treaty of Paris. The St. John River was part of an important strategic line of communications that linked settlements along the St. Lawrence River with the outside world. This route ran up the St. John to present-day Edmundston, then followed the Madawaska River to Lake Temiscouata and Cabano where it went over the Grand Portage to the St. Lawrence. It had been an important route for the aboriginal peoples and then the French, but between 1763 and the outbreak of the Amer­ican Revolutionary War in 1775 it had declined in importance because the Hudson River was a more direct winter route to the St. Lawrence. The British military rediscovered the significance of the Grand Communications Route during the war, as it provided the only contact between London, Halifax, and Quebec City during the five or six months of each year when ice closed the St. Lawrence to navigation. Yet the British negotiators in Paris seemingly ignored it, as the terms of the Treaty of Paris did not give the British clear control of it. In fact, a pro-American interpretation of the description of the boundary placed most of the route in the United States. Had the Magaguadavic River been identified as the St. Croix, the north/south line of the boundary would have cut the route to the west of Fredericton. As it was, the line north of Monument crossed the St. John just west of Grand Falls and therefore cut the route well east of the mouth of the Madawaska River. In short, there would be no all-British overland route to the Canadas, making them inaccessible during the winter months except through routes controlled by the Americans.

One cannot help but wonder why, given the strategic significance of the Grand Communications Route, the British gave away uncontested control of it by the terms of the Treaty of Paris. The simplest and perhaps most logical explanation is that British negotiators were not aware of its importance or, given the inaccurate map they were using, that they did not realize what they were doing. The British military were well aware of the route’s importance, however, and after 1783 were determined to retain control of it, with the full support of the British government.

As the American Revolution was ending, Frederick Haldimand, the governor of Quebec, and John Parr, the governor of Nova Scotia, of which the future colony of New Brunswick was still a part, discussed ways to improve the route. In summer 1783, Haldimand called out the militia from the Rivière-du-Loup area to work on the portage road that ran between the St. Lawrence River and Lake Temiscouata. By the end of the summer, it was reported that the road was passable by carriages. Parr, for his part, had the route surveyed in preparation for establishing a regular postal service over it.

There was still concern, however, that the route was vulnerable to interference by the Americans, and measures were taken to defend against this possibility, the most important of which was to settle British subjects along it. The arrival of American Loyalists helped. By 1783 the route was sparsely settled by Americans of dubious loyalty to the Crown. Indeed, during the 1760s, farms along the lower St. John, freed by the expulsion of their Acadian owners, had been occupied by New England “Planters” who, in 1776, had risen in rebellion and laid siege to Fort Cumberland. The rebellion had been quashed, but now there was a new influx of Americans from New York, the Carolinas, Maryland, and several other former British colonies. This time, however, arriving as part of the great Loyalist Diaspora, they were indisputably loyal to the Crown, and after 1783 seventeen Provincial (or Loyalist) military units were settled along the St. John between Maugerville and Woodstock: the Maryland Loyalists, the 2nd Battalion New Jersey Volunteers, the King’s American Dragoons, the Guides, the Pioneers, the New York Volunteers, the Queen’s Rangers, the King’s American Regiment, the Pennsylvania Loyalists, the 1st and 2nd Battalions Delancey’s Brigade, Arnold’s American Legion, the Prince of Wales’s American Regiment, the Loyal American Regiment, and the 1st and 2nd Battalions New Jersey Volunteers. For administrative reasons, and because it was believed that the peace with the newly created United States would not last, these regiments were settled using a cantonment system. By locating each regiment in a specific block of land, it would be easy to mobilize them if war broke out again. This arrangement helped to secure the overland route from its start at Saint John to Woodstock.

The settlement of these loyal Americans along the lower St. John made life uncomfortable for the last pockets of Acadians in the area — in the Kennebecasis Valley and along the St. John at Aucpac, just west of Fredericton. While some of them had been granted the land they were living on, others had not. For the squatters, there was a real danger that they would lose their land for a second time. Fortunately, several of the Acadians, such as Louis Mercure, had been employed as couriers along the Grand Communications Route during the war and were familiar with the good farmland that lay vacant between Grand Falls and the Madawaska River. Based on this knowledge, the Acadians petitioned Haldimand and Parr, both of whose colonies claimed the area, for permission to re­locate there. The two governors approved; not only would the moving of the Acadians avoid friction with the Loyalists, but their presence would “facilitate the communication” between the two provinces. When New Brunswick became a separate province in 1784, its first governor, Thomas Carleton, also supported the plan. The Acadians from Aucpac began moving there in the late 1780s and were later followed by those from the Kennebecasis. These British settlements along the St. John River represented the only serious attempt in the eighteenth century to colonize the river’s watershed; unfortunately, those between Grand Falls and the Madawaska were located in what would become the Disputed Territory.

American settlement was sparser. After 1783, settlement in Maine, then still a district of Massachusetts, was focused in the southern areas and along the coast, since overland communications remained poor. The easiest access to the watershed of the St. John remained the river itself, which was now indisputably under British control.

The French Revolution of 1789 raised the possibility of a European war and once again highlighted the strategic importance of the Grand Communications Route, prompting the British to increase its security even further. In 1790, a militia company of Acadians was formed in the Madawaska settlement. The next year, two military posts were established along the route: Fort Carleton at Grand Falls and another at the junction of the Presque Isle and St. John rivers, just below present-day Florenceville-Bristol, which was referred to simply as the Presque Isle military post. These two “Upper Posts” served a number of functions. As Governor Carleton wrote, “by the chain of posts thus established, the Communication with Canada is become perfectly easy and safe, countenance and security is given to our extensive and flourishing Settlement of Acadians above Grand Falls, and there is every reason to suppose that the country between the two posts will soon become of consequence.” The Upper Posts therefore served to safeguard the Grand Communications Route, to maintain the link between Fredericton and the Madawaska settlement, and to encourage settlement along the Upper St. John River. Still, not everyone agreed these posts should have been built. James Glenie, a lumber merchant and out­spoken critic of Carleton’s government, complained about the cost and expressed concern that, due to the uncertain location of the international border, the posts were “within the limits of the United States.”

Governor Carleton and other senior British officials understood per­fectly well that the boundary remained uncertain, but this did not sway the British from their goal of maintaining control of the route. When war with Revolutionary France broke out in 1793, the two British regiments in New Brunswick were withdrawn for service elsewhere. They were replaced by the King’s New Brunswick Regiment (K.N.B.R.), raised as a provincial corps for service only within the province. The regiment was used mainly to garrison posts in New Brunswick, including those along the Grand Communications Route, where it provided security for the route and assisted the postal couriers who travelled along it. In 1794, the Boundary Commission established by the Jay-Grenville Treaty located the source of the St. Croix River at Monument, confirming the Upper Posts as being in British territory, thus securing for the British most of the upper reaches of the route and avoiding any immediate crisis over British occupation of territory claimed by the United States.


Presqu’isle, St. John’s River, July 1807 by George Heriot. One of two Upper Posts built in 1793 to protect the Grand Communications Route, it was abandoned in the mid-1820s after the military settlement was established. LAC C-012724

The 1802 Treaty of Amiens ended the conflict with Napoleonic France, at least temporarily, and the K.N.B.R. was quickly disbanded. Many of its soldiers received grants of land along the St. John between the northern edge of the Loyalist grants at Woodstock and the Presque Isle military post, making the British vision of a chain of settlements safeguarding the route another step closer to reality. Meanwhile, Americans were beginning to move into the northeastern part of the District of Maine as the “timber frontier” continued to advance. In 1807, the settlement of Houlton was founded. Access to it, however, was primarily from the St. John River at Woodstock, a distance of about fifteen miles, and it was only when the Commissioners’ Line was marked ten years later that Houlton was recognized as clearly within American territory.

While both British and American settlement was expanding in the area, little corresponding progress was being made on the diplomatic front. In 1803, a draft treaty, the King-Hawkesbury agreement, was drawn up, and in 1806 and 1807 further discussions took place, but they all came to nought. The resumption of war with Napoleon in 1803 soon created friction between the United States and Britain. Relations continued to deteriorate, culminating in a declaration of war by the United States on June 18, 1812.


Sketch of Fort Carleton by Major Joseph Treat, 1820. The fort was built in 1793 to help secure the Grand Communications Route. Maine State Archives

The War of 1812 touched New Bruns­wick in unpredictable ways. In expectation of an early American invasion, the province’s defences were quickly built up as new batteries and blockhouses appeared. American privateers attacked New Brunswick’s coastal shipping and trade in the Bay of Fundy, but there was no invasion. Instead, merchants in the District of Maine negotiated an informal neutrality agreement that allowed them to continue trading with New Brunswick and to provide the Royal Navy and British army with urgently needed supplies. The Grand Communications Route continued to be used during the war by couriers carrying mail and despatches and, more important, to move critical reinforcements to the Canadas during the winter months when the St. Lawrence River was closed to shipping. The quiet nature of the land war in New Brunswick allowed the British to send troops from there to reinforce the more threatened theatres in the Canadas. In the most famous of these troop movements, in the winter of 1813 the 104th (New Brunswick) Regiment of Foot marched from Fredericton to Kingston, in Upper Canada (Ontario). The following year, a Royal Navy party consisting of 217 sailors and marines travelled upriver to Kingston to help man war­ships being built as part of the naval war on the Great Lakes. The 2nd Battalion of the 8th (King’s) Regiment of Foot followed behind them.

This activity confirmed the importance of the Grand Communica­tions Route in the British plans to defend the Canadas, but there was still concern about its security. Lieutenant Henry Kent, RN, noted that, while the sailors were crossing Lake Temiscouata they were “apprehensive of being cut off by the enemy, being in the territory of the United States.” American agents did, in fact, make two ineffective attempts to interfere with the mail, and there was a report of an American spy being chased in the Woodstock area, but the route was never credibly threatened.

After Napoleon’s defeat and exile to Elba in April 1814, the British turned their attention to the still-ongoing war with the United States. During 1812 and 1813, they had fought a predominately defensive war in North America; now, with victory in Europe, sufficient troops were available to enable them to go on the offensive.

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