New Brunswick

'This is my authority': The war that got New Brunswick a border 180 years ago

While the battles were limited to an injured horse and a bar fight, the Aroostook War had the potential to drive the United States and Great Britain into a third Anglo-American war.

The Aroostook War produced no great battles but led to the New Brunswick we know today

Two blockhouses were built at Fort Fairfield, Maine, to defend a U.S. lumber boom on the Aroostook River. (Google Maps)

Sometime overnight on Feb. 11,1839, Maine land agent Rufus McIntire and his posse retired to a home in Fort Fairfield, Maine.

They had come to the Aroostook Valley on a mission from the Maine legislature: stop the trespass cutting of trees in the area, where the jurisdiction had been in dispute for generations.

A group of New Brunswickers, including lumberman Punderson Beardsley, broke into the home to apprehend McIntire and his men.

When someone in the posse asked on what authority they were being arrested, Beardsley brandished his gun.

"This is my authority," he said, igniting the Aroostook War.

"It's a little bit on the comic opera side," said Gary Campbell, a historian who's written a book about the war.

"But it was all very serious business. … Maine was by itself creating a border crisis that could've plunged the United States and Great Britain into the third Anglo-American war."

The Border

The 'highlands' in early documents were interpreted differently by the U.S. and British. The British believed them to be the Mars Hills, pictured, northwest of Florenceville, while the Americans believed they were in the St. Lawrence River Valley. (Library and Archives Canada)

The border between what is now New Brunswick and the state of Maine had been ill-defined long before the confrontation 180 years ago.

The border wasn't clear when the French controlled Acadia or when the British controlled the colonies.

After the American Revolution, the oversight took on new meaning, but efforts to establish a border had been unsuccessful.

"In 1829 there had been a commission of the two sides trying to decide the border but they couldn't come up with a decision," said Chip Gagnon, a political scientist in Ithaca, N.Y., who's researched the Upper St. John River Valley.

"They basically decided that William the First, the king of the Netherlands, would be the arbitrator."

Much of the confusion can be attributed to maps, which were not good, and conflicting interpretations of the "highlands," a reference to either the Mars Hills, as the British claimed, or a group of hills in the St. Lawrence River Valley, as the Americans claimed.

King William presented a compromise that would make the border the St. John River, but the Americans, citing William's strong ties to the British, rejected the idea.

This led to a disputed area that covered much of present day Madawaska County in New Brunswick and Aroostook County in Maine.

While the battle was between the English-speaking British and Americans, the population in the area was largely French-speaking, including Acadians and Brayons.

"The people who lived there were overwhelmingly francophones," said Gagnon. 

The causes

While lumbering rights in the disputed area was a major cause of the war, there was much more at stake. (UBC)

While an ill-defined border may have facilitated a war, the causes are more complex.

The area was covered with white pine, a lucrative resource for whichever jurisdiction could sell lumber rights, which may explain the rare "winter war."

"That makes perfect sense because in those days lumbering took place … in the winter," said Francis Carroll, who's written a book about the Canada-U.S. border.

"The lumbermen could use the icy roads to get the logs to the river to Saint John."

Maine, with a growing debt, needed little incentive to stake its claim.

The Grand Communication Route up the St. John River and along the St. Lawrence to Quebec City. (Google Maps)

Neither side was supposed to cut timber in the area but both did.

A report from a Maine lumber watchman, George Buckmore, predicted an astronomical increase in the amount of trespass cutting in 1839, provoking Maine. That many observers, including many Americans, considered Buckmore's prediction absurd made little difference.

But Campbell warns against viewing the Aroostook War strictly through a resource lens. He believes what eventually became known as Manifest Destiny — a belief that it was America's destiny, dictated by God, to expand its territory —  also played a part.

"While people were moving west, at the same time you had the northeast frontier of the United States that was in doubt. I personally feel there's a lot of the Manifest Destiny emanating from the Maine politicians … and the average Maine citizen as well."

While the British would never turn down land or resources, Campbell said, the Grand Communication Route, which provided overland access between Halifax and Quebec City during the winter when the St. Lawrence froze, was their primary concern.

The war

The Edmundston blockhouse was built to protect the settlement then called Madawaska. The settlement would later be split in two as the border was finalized. (Google Maps)

Considering its long-lasting impact, the war was over quickly, lasting little more than a month and a half, with little bloodshed.

"The only bloodshed … was in the opening days of the crisis. The Maine land agent's horse was shot [and] wounded slightly by a lumberman.

"Other than that, some British regulars and Maine militia had a punch-up in a tavern on the Canadian side of the Woodstock-Houlton road."

Despite the minor confrontations, Campbell said the situation had potential to turn ugly.

The British mustered troops at what are now Saint John, Saint Andrews, St. Stephen, Fredericton, Woodstock, Florenceville-Bristol, Perth-Andover, Grand Falls, Edmundston and in Quebec.

Maine did the same at Calais, Houlton, Bridgewater, Masardis, Presque Isle and Fort Fairfield.

Old acquaintances

Brig.-Gen. Winfield Scott, left, chief negotiator for the U.S., and Sir John Harvey, the lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick. (Library and Archives Canada)

At the end of March, both the governor of Maine and the lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick signed an agreement to end hostilities, as minor as they were, and agreed they would not expand farther into the disputed territory by cutting timber or establishing new settlements.

While a few more skirmishes occurred, and Maine encroached on the disputed territory anyway, the war was essentially over.

The end of hostilities had much to do with the two men negotiating the peace, U.S. Gen. Winfield Scott and New Brunswick Lt.-Gov. James Harvey.

Scott and Harvey had developed a relationship while fighting on opposite sides of the War of 1812.

"When U.S. forces had invaded the Niagara area, a lot of British equipment was captured," said Carroll.

"Scott had discovered a soldier had picked up a gold-framed painting of [Harvey's] new bride … this was sent back to [Harvey.]"

The gesture set up a relationship that made negotiating and compromise between Scott and Harvey easier than between Scott and Maine Gov. John Fairfield.

The compromise

Daniel Webster, left, and Alexander Baring, 1st Baron Ashburton, the U.S. and British negotiators who worked out the final border. (Library and Archives Canada)

While peace had, more or less, returned to the area there was still the whole border issue to solve.

To this end the British appointed Alexander Baring, 1st Baron Ashburton, and the Americans named Daniel Webster to negotiate a final location for the Maine-New Brunswick border.

The border that Ashburton and Webster agreed on was basically the rejected compromise border that King William had suggested.

While neither side was necessarily happy, both were convinced it could've been worse.

"There's this map discovered [where the border] was even further south than the British claimed," said Gagnon.

"Meanwhile the British found a map that showed the U.S. claim as a map that was from the original negotiations. … Both sides had to say 'Hey, it could've been worse.'"

Who won?

Map showing the proposed boundaries. The red represents the border the British wanted, the green what the Americans wanted and the yellow was the proposed compromise. The purple represents a line all parties agreed to. (New Brunswick Archives)

While neither side got everything  it wanted, each received what was most important to it.

Maine was given vast timber land that the cash-strapped state desperately needed, while the British solidified control of their Grand Communications Route, which would continue to play a major role in British North America.

"Both sides came out with what was their priorities," said Campbell.

"It's probably a reasonably even split."

Who lost?

The blockhouse at Fort Kent, Maine, bears the Acadian flag, a reminder of the area's French heritage. (Google Maps)

The major losers of the war and its aftermath appear to be the Acadians living in Maine.

Their communities were split from their New Brunswick halves, and while this didn't affect things much at first, as time moved on the Acadians in Maine found themselves ill-prepared to protect their language rights.

"My dad grew up in the 30s and pretty much his mother didn't speak English, he grew up on the U.S. side in Frenchville," said Gagnon.

"I think people are much less likely to speak French as their first language, the younger generation in particular."

Lise Pelletier, an Acadian archivist at the University of Maine Fort Kent, said at first the split didn't change life in the area all that much.

People regularly crossed the river to do business, visit family and to attend social events.

The religious-based education system helped preserve the language, but that changed in 1919, when the state government of Maine took over the schools and banned instruction in French.

"Even to this day, there are people still traumatized by the punishment and sense of inferiority they were made to feel because they were told that their language was inferior," said Pelletier.

"But how do you express yourself when you only have one language?"

Lessons

'It’s better to work out a compromise solution as opposed to engaging in conflict,' said Gary Campbell. (Catherine Harrop)

The Aroostook War was one of the first instances of the Americans and the British talking through a major problem, as opposed to fighting it out on the battlefield.

"The fact that Scott and Harvey could draft a document that both sides were prepared to agree to that allowed them to withdraw their forces in conditions which were not a surrender of one side or another was really important," said Carroll.

Campbell said the war showed the value of negotiation.

"It's better to work out a compromise solution as opposed to engaging in conflict," he said.

About the Author

Jordan Gill

Reporter

Jordan Gill is a CBC reporter based out of Fredericton. He can be reached at jordan.gill@cbc.ca.

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