One hundred and fifty years ago? Recent history to someone like me who thinks anything after Alexander the Great is just Current Events? The Aroostook War? Don’t bother me with a tavern brawl. That happened before anything really got settled after the Loyalists came.
I remember something about the Sheriff of York County locking up some Yankees and a squabble followed. I’m not sure even what grade we looked into it or if we were even supposed to bother with it.
Can you imagine my surprise when I looked at a Bangor Daily News for April 30th to see a story on two pages and pictures of Gen. Winfield Scott and the granite ramparts of Maine’s Fort Knox, the massive, unused, undeteriorated and, to me, a useless or unnecessary or foolish and very expensive boondoggle perpetrated by canny Yankees for twenty years on a know-nothing Congress.
Yes, dear Virginia, there are two, count ’em, Fort Knoxes. The gold one is in Kentucky, I think.
You see, I’ve driven past Fort Knox on the Penobscot River down below Bangor and wondered why otherwise sensible Americans would build such a monster of a pile of granite, a fort fit for the ramparts of Quebec City and one that makes Baltimore’s Fort McHenry of Francis Scott Key’s Star Spangled Banner fame look like a kindergarten playground or Kingston’s Fort Henry resemble a Lego set.
The answer was in the Bangor paper and in the story of the Aroostook War. I discovered a lot of exciting history I’d never known or only vaguely remembered
In 1783 Great Britain and its rebellious American met in the palace of Versailles in France to settle the war between them. The Treaty which resulted gained the colonies status as a new and independent nation. The American Revolution had succeeded. A republic and an experiment in representative democracy began.
(At this time, republicanism and democracy as Americans practiced it were items of horror, disdain or derision to most people. Nearly everyone then viewed the two political philosophies as Senator Joe McCarthy followers would have viewed Communism in the 1950s. New Brunswickers then were Monarchists to the core even though they were egalitarian to the bone, much to the surprise of visitors from the Mother Country. Keep that idea in the back of your head as you read on.)
Like all political documents, the Treaty of Versailles had some loose ends. One of these didn’t much concern the drafters at the time nor anyone else for that matter. The drafters looked over the claims of the English and French monarchs about the boundaries to the Northeast and came up with a sort of definition. Because few settlers of either revolutionary or loyalst persuasions lived in the lands being divided, no one got excited or even noticed.
Then came the event that everyone today spends every waking moment striving to recall.
The War of 1812!
Canadians may suspect that Americans saw Great Britain fully occupied with the struggle with Napoleon. The ally of France saw the former French colony north of them a fruit ready to fall and ripe for picking. Napoleon looked invincible, taking British North America would be a wonderful help. Today, we can’t imagine such American perfidy. Then, it was expected from them. However, the Americans did not glean success. Instead they reaped a disaster.
The Americans were inept in Lower Canada, outfought in Upper Canada, and outgunned in Chesapeake Bay. The British forces lacked large land forces but their colonial militias performed well. Americans couldn’t force their way along the Niagara peninsula but they had more success on the water. They came ashore from Lake Ontario and burned York in Upper Canada before they were routed. It’s called Toronto now. The British forces wreaked havoc in Washington, D.C. You see the Royal Navy had free run of Chesapeake Bay. Francis Scott Key notwithstanding nor Fort McHenry tucked deep in Baltimore Harbor could stop a small British force from occupying Washington. So the fire blackened Executive Mansion in the newly laid out capital city had to be painted white.
As a result, no part of British North America fell to the American invaders. The American purpose failed.
The two sides settled the squabble in Ghent, Belgium. You’ll notice it was nearly in sight of Waterloo. That’s where Naoleon’s hash was settled. That’s where a better general won the day, Wellington, the Iron Duke. Like Eisenhower a century and a quarter later, Wellington mounted to supreme political power. The difference is that his political career lasted d lot longer than Eisenhower’s. He still exercised political power into the 1840s.
The Treaty of Ghent brought Maine into the forefront of concern, perhaps because the Americans sought one last way to get the appearance of a win. You see, any knowlegable Canadian knows the Americans lost the War of 1812. The famous or infamous Battle of New Orleans was fought after the Treaty was signed. No wonder the British lost to a ragtag lot of Bayou Americans. The word hadn’t got up country. Contrary to the dumb hillbilly song, it wasn’t much of a fight. However, the southerners did have qood press agents.
The British on the other hand also looked for a chance to settle the Northeast boundary. They had long felt part of Maine ought to have been a refuge for Loyalists evicted during the revolution. They even had a name for the new colony — New Ireland.
The treaty makers in Ghent felt the language of the Treaty of Versailles was too vague. They agreed to set up a joint board of arbitration to fix the bopundary.
The arbitrators argued for five years. Finally, they could not even agree on a working map to show each side’s claims. Each side filed reports and quit.
In 1820, Massachusetts carved Maine out of itself and made the new territory a separate state. By 1827, London and Washington thought a neutral referee could divide the territory where the previous partisan board of arbitration had failed. The two governments convinced King William of the Netherlands. The State of Maine suspected the King of bias but could do nothing since they had no jurisdiction in the dispute.
King William decided.
He chose something no one else had done. He started at Mars Hill and meandered westerly follow the divide until he hit the headwaters of the Connecticut River. He had been asked to choose the better claim of the two sides. Instead, he settled on a compromise
The decision surprised both parties to the dispute.
However, after the initial shock, both parties, London and Washington, agreed the King’s decision was fair.
The State of Maine did not agree.
Great Britain was on her ascent to Imperial glory. She was now an adversary with no Napoleon to bedevil her. Washington must have been aghast at Maine’s obstinacy. President Andrew Jackson, the hero of New Orleans, that useless battle fought after the Peace Treaty was siqned, offered the state a large cash bonus plus one million acres in the territory of Michigan if it would give over Aroostook to control of the federal. government, that is, to Washington’s authority while they implemented King William’s proposal. imagine! Think of Detroit owned by Maine!
Maine’s Legislature indignantly refused. So much for foresight and vision. Maine’s delegation to Conqress scuttled the pact. They argued that if Maine’s positions were right all along, why give up anything to Great Britain?
Washington now had egg on its face.
Both sides had much more to squabble about. The disputed territory was found to have all sorts of riches: forests, rich lands, good rivers to take the products to market; a bonanza on the doorsteps of Massachusetts!
The cause of this wonder was a promoter named John Baker from Moscow, Maine. in 1817 he ventured into the pristine wilderness just upstream of modern Madawaska on the Saint John River. Baker laid out his claim on land granted to his late brother Nathan by the Province of New Brunswick. The lake next the land we call Baker Lake today
Baker’s sympathies lay in Maine. He petitioned the Maine Legislature to grant him the ground already granted to his brother by the Crown. With much bluster and bravado, Baker proclaimed the “Republic of American Aroostook.” He made himself “General” Baker, protector of U. S. sovereignty.
You can imagine such goings on would eventually reach the ears of the government in Fredericton. Though without roads, the land was all down river. You can also be sure the authorities in Fredericton viewed with alarm anything going on anywhere near the military winter overland route to Quebec City. The route followed the Saint John River to the Madawaska River, up it to Lake Temiscouta and on to Riviere du Loup on the St. Lawrence. Baker had set up at about the halfway point. This must now have been viewed in Fredericton as a matter of National Security.
To make matters worse, Baker and his fellow Yankees threw a proper Independence Day celebration on July 4th, 1827. A Liberty Pole, whatever that is; a makeshift American flag made up by Mrs. Baker; copious spirits; much noise making and a decision to draw up on August 10th a constitution so the United States could annex the budding republic.
Remember now, all this was taking place in a settlement near Baker Lake which would make a 19th Century woods camp look both palatial and positively citified in comparison.
A Magistrate Morehouse and party out of Fredericton arrived on August 10th. in the middle of the constitutional deliberations. The flag was ordered torn down. The King’s authority was hooted at. Morehouse didn’t have enough manpower to enforce his order. He withdrew from the standoff.
The King’s representatives’ presence had its effect. Baker’s nerve failed. He burned the new constitution. He stowed the makeshift flag in the wall of his cabin, likely in a chink between the logs.
Baker’s concern bore fruit on September 25th. The Sheriff of York County with deputies arrived with warrants for Baker and several associates on a charge of seditious conspiracy. The Sheriff seized Baker, searched his cabin, found the flag, took it as evidence and transported Baker for arraignment to Fredericton by bateau. The evidence suggests several of his companions were arrested too, but only Baker was convicted at his trial the next May. He was sentenced to two months in gaol (pronounced “jail”) and fined. Baker, of course, rejected the Crown’s authority to try him but he had no choice. He was in custody.
They had no telegraph then, but word of his imprisonment spread quickly to Maine. “Wood’s Telegraph” works by sea or land quicker than we might suppose. Maine’s Governor Enoch Lincoln was angry enough to declare a “State of Crisis”, whatever that meant. He said the “Americans captured on American soil” must be freed, or “American troops will march upon the capital of New Brunswick!” The town of Lincoln, Maine, is named after the Governor not the martyred President
At Lincoln’s demand, U. S. Secretary of State Henry Clay, whose fame over other issues is well known, negotiated Baker’s release. Baker had likely served most of his time, so this issue must have been quickly settled, likely by cash. Communications by sea between Washington and New Brunswick could take place in a matter of days even in those times.
Once freed and back home, Baker and his supporters resumed their agitation for annexation by the United States. The Maine Legislature started the process 1831 by incorporating most of Baker’s dream — 2.7 million acres — into a gigantic town called “Madawaska.” Soon they called elections to organize a town government.
The Governor of New Brunswick, Sir Archibald Campbell, made vehement protest to U. S. Secretary of State Henry Clay over the action. Clay tried to get out of responsibility for the situation. He argued Maine had incorporated the town without sanction by the United States government. He made no mention of how he was to correct the error.
The response disgusted Campbell. In September, he led a contingent of his garrison at Fredericton on a sweep of the territory to capture any who had taken part in the election or to shoot any who resisted.
Governor Campbell’s sweep met no resistance. His troops were not Hessian mercenaries skilled only in parade ground warfare. They had the training and in some cases the experience of Wellington’s clearance of the Iberian Peninsula and the removal of Spain from contention in the Napoleonic campaign. Moreover, they had the memory that they had taken the measure of American troops at Queenston Heights and Lundy’s They had the cachet of winners. Backwoodsmen did not treat lightly these soldiers.
Baker dodged the dragnet. He skedaddled to Portland, then Maine’s capital, to report to the Governor of Maine that British troops were on “his” territory.
The Governor alerted the State militia. The Federal government managed to defuse the action. In those two sentences are two long paragraphs of unstated and likely unknown machinations. In any case, violence was avoided.
Nonetheless, feelings ran high. Citizens of Maine did not like the Federal government’s inability to look after the state’s perceived interests. They were fed up with the “compromises”.
At Portland on July 4th, 1832, the Maine Governor said, “To our brothers of Madawaska, a little too white to be sold as slaves! To John Baker and Mrs. Baker, to all our chicks up yonder — let us drink the sweet wine of Maine.”
The reference to slavery is curious. Maine, like Massachusetts from which it was carved, was a free state. Bishop Wilberforce was in the last stages of freeing slaves in the British Empire. The American South was to continue with slavery for another thirty years. The only reason the words were said must have been to remind Mainers their state had freed slaves first. The Mainers had to know New Brunswick was a haven for freed slaves from the time of the Revolution. This shows the reader how weak the logic was in the rhetoric of the two parties. Likely equally silly talk issued from the New Brunswick side.
By 1837, five years later, the talk still went on. However, something unusual happened which manifestly ought not to have meant a thing on the No’theast, or No’thwest Frontier, whichever. The Jackson administration was leaving office with a budget surplus. They had such things then. They were greatly appreciated because the people expected the government to hand back the surplus.
Can you imagine such a thing today? Modern politicians would quickly devise some new way to spend money on the public. They’d die rather than directly give it back. Not so in the first half of the last century.
All they needed to make the return was to count the people. So in June, Maine ordered a census of the vast Town of Madawaska to determine who should get the money and to hand out the cash on the spot. The State appointed Ebenezer Greeley of Dover, Maine, for this purpose. He arrived on the scene and began work.
A New Brunswick constable suspected he was up to no qood, arrested Greeley and took him in custody to Fredericton. However, officials there concluded he was on legitimate U. S. Government business and released him.
New Brunswick had a new Governor, Sir John Harvey. He took a different view of the matter, concluding Greeley was a common bagman marching through the county purchasing allegiances to the United States. Harvey was specially fearful that the Acadians would fall for his bribes and become a fifth column on the heart of their winter overland supply line to Quebec.
The Governor ordered Greeley’s arrest for a second time. He was never tried but the Governor released him from qaol in exchange for a New Brunswick hostage taken by Mainers.
A new element had entered the dispute. Not only were common citizens at risk of detention and worse, but government officials were not immune. They too were at risk.
The heat of the talk on both sides rose.
In 1838, Maine swept to power its first Whig Governor, Edward Kent, on a strongly anti-British platform. (Now we know after whom Fort Kent was named.) But to the Maine voters, Kent was all talk and no action. He wasn’t hardnosed enough.
John Fairfield ousted Kent after one term.
In January, 1839, Fairfield was ready to do something. He presented the legislature with evidence of New Brunswick “encroachments” on “Maine” soil, detailing 250 woodsmen running cutting operations throughout Aroostook, “stealing” thereby $100,000. He claimed that more arrived daily.
Fairfield (after whom Fort Fairfield took its name) asked the Legislature to empower Rufus McIntire to lead an armed force “to seize the teams and provisions, break up the camps, and disperse those who are engaged in this work of devastation and pillage.” The lawmakers enthusiastically passed the request the next day.
No one can say that governments in those days dawdled over the details of a venture. McIntire left Bangor on February 5th. He took Penobscot County Sheriff Hastings Strickland and 200 men commanded by Captain Stover Rines. They seized “trespassers” along the way and sent them back to Bangor.
On February 12th, McIntire reached the farm of James Fitzherbert near the Little Madawaska River above Caribou. The officers lodged in the farm buildings. The men bivouacked outside.
That night a forty man force of New Brunswick soldiers surrounded the buildings, arresting McIntire. Pandemonium broke out with the aroused men bivouac nearby trying to fight. McIntire and two other officers remained in custody. The New Brunswickers routed Rines and most of his men and captured several. Strickland and the rump took what they could and fled to Masardis, the nearest outpost. Strickland took off by by horse to Bangor to spread the alarm. The alarm he felt we can all share when we realize the difficulty of travelling 150 miles in mid-February in a Maine winter on horseback with few tracks and no roads!
On February 13th, Governor Harvey defiantly summed up the “Battle of Fitzherbert’s Farm” and goaded Maine.
The fat was in the fire.
The Maine Legislature acted to mobilize the militia, authorizing $800,000 for the effort, a truly mind-boggling sum for the time. The recruiting centers overflowed, the rhetoric escalated. The federal regulars at Hancock Barracks at the top of what is now called Drake’s Hill did not move, but “all Maine rejoiced in the pump and circumstance of glorious war,” their militiamen practising musketry on effigies of Queen Victoria:
We’ll lick the redcoats anyhow,
And drive them from our border;
The loggers are awake – and all
Await the Gin’ral’s order;
Britannia shall not rule the Maine
Nor shall she rule the water;
They’ve sung that song full long enough,
Much longer than they oughter.”
Finally, the nation stirred. Canada did not except as the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada, now Ontario and Quebec, along with the colonies of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Collectively, these colonies were known as British North America and included the lands of the Hudson Bay Company and the Northwest Company which nailed down most of the northern half of the continent.
However, recruiting centers from Halifax to Montreal and West jammed up with people ready to see Impudent Yankee Doodle get his fight. Nova Scotia passed a special “war tax” to help her neighbor, New Brunswick.
For someone who for longer than he cares to admit has driven down Drake’s Hill on Military Street Houlton, Maine and not realized that on top of that hill was the “Seat of War,” all of the preceding flabbergasted him.
Journalism was in its infancy. Reporters learned their trade on both sides. They reported that in Edmundston (or whatever they called then the conflux of the Madawaska and Saint John Rivers) five hundred, count ’em, five hundred British regulars with eight field guns had just arrived from Quebec.
To add to the fear on both sides, word went out that eight hundred Fusiliers had just arrived from Ireland.
Governor Sir John Harvey had also called out the militia. The newspapers were not objective observers. The Woodstock Times had no doubts how events would turn out:
March, march, march in good order,
Kennebec has got over the border,
With Penobscot too,
And all of the curst crew,
In that highly favored land of disorder.
March, march, march in good order,
To meet Kennebec over the border,
With the bayonet and cheer,
We’ll! make them stand clear,
And soon, very soon, run home in disorder.
In Augusta, Governor Fairfield reviewed a great parade of troops outfitted in red shirts, green tunics and trousers. A cheering mob of spectators sent them off to the north woods with a will.
Such spectacles along with bold offers of help from such as the “Invincible Dragoons of the Illinois State Militia” gave the rest of the world its first glimpse of the raw people power the new experiment in democracy could muster. The world could compare this sudden outpouring with Cromwell’s Ironsides, Marlborough’s Troops, Napoleon’s Republican Guard, or Wellington’s Thin Red Line. The world would pay attention from that time on. Yet we mostly forget it today. In the Mother of Parliaments at Westminster, the Iron Duke, Wellington himself, denounced Yankee lawlessness. He was an old man by then but still capable of seeing to it that the engines of war ground exceeding fine. The American people’s mood would have led them into great folly had not cooler heads prevailed at the top.
President Martin Van Buren (now we know where the name of another border town originated) knew he had to act over and above the State of Maine. Congress voted to send 50,000 soldiers and spend $10 million on its “War Budget”. The sum in today’s dollars is somewhat like $10 billion.
Try those shoes on for size in the early winter of 1839.
Of course, nothing could be done until snowmelt. British and American forces began a network of roads and fortifications. In sight of each other, both sides strutted and drilled shamelessly. One careless move could tinder an explosion.
Both sides stood fast, so fast that in Houlton soldiers from New Brunswick and Maine drank together in a tavern like old comrades. Someone for fun shouted, “Success to Maine!” The fight resulting led to bloody noses and a broken arm. This event and British loggers persisting in breaking the boom the Maine militia had made to hold the lumber their loggers had cut were the only important incidents of the Aroostook War.
President Van Buren chose Major General Winfield Scott as his personal emissary. Van Buren wanted Maine’s votes but he did not want to fight. The general was a hero of the war of 1812. He was well known in Maine. He also knew Governor Harvey personally, each having saved the other’s life in curious twists of battlefield chivalry years before. They had met at the battle of Stony Creek in Ontario which Harvey had won and which resulted in the capture of two American qenerals.
Scott reached Augusta Maine on March 5th. He met with Governor Fairfield and the military chiefs to buy time to approach Governor Harvey. His instructions were to gain “peace with honor”, an early Richard Nixon.
Then Scott asked Harvey not to make the first and promising in return that he would get Maine to do likewise and to launch negotiations at the highest levels to settle the issue for good. Harvey agreed. Officer’s and gentlemen’s words were enough. Scott convinced Maine to do likewise. Both sides agreed to stand down and both sides agreed to settle the issue for good.
Scott and Harvey signed a truce on March 25th. The only fatality of the “War” resulted from a ricochet at Fort Fairfield fired in the celebration of the truce.
Soon on both sides of the Atlantic and in all jurisdictions elections were held and parties more willing to talk came into office.
However, before the talk began, the effect of the confrontation fell into place. Maine now was in control of the valuable timber country of Aroostook, British jurisdiction had been effectively denied and New Brunswick lost the advantage she had possessed in the areas under question. New Brunswick still had effective control of access to the land by the Saint John River. However, Maine had opened effective roads to the areas in question so British timber operators had to work under American control. Only Madawaska existed with American acceptance of the status quo ante
New Brunswickers did not view the truce as salvation from Yankee invasion. Many of then viewed the truce as akin to treachery. Sir John Harvey and his Executive Council were not popular.
Late in 1839, a Captain Mackenzie of the Carleton County militia, who had served as a sergeant at Waterloo, along with a band of loggers broke into a military storehouse on the Tobique. In the dark of night the gang made an ineffective demonstration before Fort Fairfield. Rather than admit of cowardice, the Captain did not order his men to cross back across the border. However, nothing more happened.
Meanwhile, Governor Harvey tried to negotiate directly with General Scott and Governor Fairfield. Harvey’s criticisms to the Americans of Tory speeches about the truce made in Parliament at Westminster became known. This ended his diplomatic status. London wanted to deal only with Washington. The British government set in charge Lord Sydenham, the Governor-General of Canada, Upper and Lower Canada that is.
Because Governor Fairfield had great pressure from a Whig opposition and also because Harvey now was piqued, a possible disaster began to unfold. Fairfield sent a commissioner into the Madawaska settlements take a census. Harvey failed to tell Sydenham, making only a formal protest to Fairfield. Sydenham found out from MacLachlan, the warden of the Madawaska settlements.
The Governor-General ordered two companies of infantry from Quebec to keep Americans out of the land north of the Saint John River. Harvey failed to stop the movements. Fearful of American action from Houlton, supported by his Executive Council, Harvey sent a letter of apology to Fairfield. He also sent a letter of serious complaint to the Governor-General. To keep his oar in, Harvey decided to raise a civil posse to keep the peace. To his mortification, the province’s legal advisors ruled that he had no authority to create a body of armed men without the consent of Parliament. Harvey now was seen as a spineless bumbler, Lord Sydenham as the patriot.
Harvey was recalled. The public belittled the hero of 1813. They forgot he was the man who with 729 British bayonets behind him had broken up an American army of 3,500 and changed the course of the war in the Niagara peninsula.
However, he had changed and greatly enhanced the powers of the legislature. Shortly before he left, the sheriff seized his silver for long-standing debt in England. The house voted £l,500 for him to replace his loss. This action may also reflect the anxiety felt by the public about any action affecting New Brunswick from Whitehall or from outsiders of any sort after the recall. Word of secret papers greatly favorable to the New Brunswick position was spreading. This fueled the unusual action of the Legislative Assembly. Proof of the favorable New Brunswick position only surfaced after the treaty which was to be negotiated.
In 1841, Great Britain sent Alexander Baring, the Lord Ashburton, to Washington to negotiate a treaty with Secretary of State Daniel Webster. Ashburton ignored instructions from London to strike a deal and Webster greased the skids so that any treaty signed received no substantial objection from Maine, especially when it reached the U. S. Senate.
The Treaty they finally ratified was little different from the decision King William of the Netherlands issued many years before. Had Lord Ashburton followed his instructions, Webster would have given ground. Maine doubtless would have kicked strenuously. However the Federal Government in Washington had now established its rights sufficiently to prevail if push came to shove. The two negotiators kept under cover papers favorable to the New Brunswick position. This allowed both governments to approve the treaty quickly.
Baker, who started all the trouble, ended up with his land in Canada. In 1895, his remains were brought to the United States and a memorial erected. His makeshift flag has never returned.
Hastily erected wooden fortifications crumbled quickly. Little remains except the names of places commemorating the participants.
Sadly, General Winfield Scott, the peacemaker, has no memorial in Maine or New Brunswick. He even failed to carry the state as the Whig Presidential Candidate in 1852.
Fort Knox? The Granite Leviathan on the Penobscot? It was an Aroostook War afterthought built because Maine still felt unsure of the British when a boundary dispute broke out in Oregon. For all the bluster and bravado, Mainers knew deep down that the Redcoats were tough adversaries. For two decades longer, the expensive project of building Fort Knox fed on that visceral fear.
In the United States, the Aroostook War settled constitutional issues about forbidding states to make war unilaterally and about the duties of the federal government to protect and defend individual states from attack.
In Canada, we have mostly lost even the fact of the near miss. We rarely remember a prime lesson in how good sense and willingness to talk at the highest levels can end serious conflicts. We do remember unfavorably being at the mercy of outsiders. Today the suspicion lingers, whether it is of London or Washington, of Ottawa or New York, of Fredericton or Augusta.
If there is a positive outcome of the conflict, it rests in the willingness of the colonists to begin to discuss getting together to protect themselves from the burgeoning neighbor to the south. When the U. S. Civil War began, the impulse to confederate in Canada fell on fertile and already cultivated soil.
1. The late Thomas Murray Simms, MA, was an astute scholar, a long time member of the Carleton County Historical Society, and possessed an impish sense of humour. This paper, undated, was written circa 1989.