The Bloodless Aroostook War
The northeastern boundary of the United
States had been a bone of contention between this country and
Great Britain for two generations until in 1839, the controversy
culminated in the Bloodless Aroostook War, which, though tame in
its conclusion, undoubtedly hastened the final settlement of the
question, through the Webster-Ashburton treaty of 1842.
The St. Lawrence River was the northern
boundary of both Nova Scotia (then comprising New Brunswick) and
New England, until the treaty of 1763, when France ceded both
Canada and Nova Scotia to England. The English king then
established new provinces, among them Quebec, composed of a part
of Canada north of the St. Lawrence and of Nova Scotia south of
the river. The southern boundary of this was "The highlands
which divide the rivers that empty themselves into the St,
Lawrence River from those that empty themselves into the
Atlantic Ocean.'' The treaty of 1783 between Great Britain and
the colonies at the close of the Revolution provided that the
southern boundary of Quebec should be the northern boundary of
Massachusetts (then comprising Maine), the eastern boundary
being a line running due north from the St. Croix River.
It was recognized by both nations that
the boundary line was very indefinite, and in the Treaty of
Ghent at the close of the War of 1812, provision was made for
its adjustment by Commissioners appointed by both countries,
also in the event of their disagreement for the reference of the
matter to a "friendly sovereign."
Commissioners were appointed and a
survey was commenced in 1817. In 1818 the British surveyor
exploring northward from the St. Croix River, discovered Mars
Hill and gave it as his opinion that this was the "Highlands"
mentioned in the treaties. He proposed to discontinue the survey
along the highlands just south of the St. Lawrence River, to
return to Mars Hill and explore thence westerly, thereby making
about one-third of Maine British territory.
From this time on England claimed all
country north of Mars Hill. Of course the surveyors disagreed,
the work was abandoned, and the Commission, after sitting five
This was the condition of affairs when
Maine became a State in 1820. In 1827 the King of the
Netherlands was selected as umpire, according to the provisions
of the Treaty of Ghent, and in 1831 he announced his decision.
Instead of determining, however, what the wording of the treaty
meant, he evidently "split the difference" and put the line
about half way between the Mars Hill line claimed by the British
and the old "Highlands" boundary claimed by America, about where
it is today.
Neither Nation was satisfied; the people
of Maine were very indignant and the United States refused to
accept the decision.
In the meantime settlements were being
made along the northern frontier. The French Acadians, driven
from Nova Scotia by the English as told in Longfellow's
"Evangeline," crossed the Bay of Fundy, went up the St. John
River to Grand Falls, over which they decided no British warship
could follow them, and made settlements from the Falls up the
river many miles. These settlements were incorporated as the
town of Madawaska. In attempting to hold an election in 1831 for
representative to the Maine Legislature, the settlers were
arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to Fredericton jail by
the New Brunswick authorities.
One John Baker from Kennebec County, who
had settled in that same region, reaching it by way of the
Kennebec River and a short carry to the headwaters of the St.
John, was also arrested and cast into Fredericton jail for
having on his premises a flagstaff with a rude representation of
the American eagle upon it.
In 1837, Ebenezer Greeley of Dover,
Maine, employed by the United States to take the census of the
people along the St. John River, was arrested and taken prisoner
to Fredericton jail by the Provincial authorities. Thus was
Great Britain asserting her claims.
All this land in dispute included the
greater part of the Aroostook of the present day, then belonging
to Washington and Penobscot counties and not made into a
separate county until late in March, 1839. This was the finest
of timberland. Each side claimed that the other was cutting
"When the Legislature assembled in
January, 1839, the people of Maine had become thoroughly angry,
for the trespassing had become more bold, not only in the
Madawaska region but in the whole territory north of Mars Hill.
Lumber crews from New Brunswick were working along the Aroostook
and Fish Rivers. The Governor, reporting these depredations,
recommended that the State Land Agent be instructed to proceed
to the Aroostook region and break up the lumber camps, and the
Legislature so instructed. This may be regarded as the beginning
of the famous Bloodless Aroostook War. The State Land Agent that
year was Rufus McIntire of Parsonsfield, a lawyer who had
represented Maine in Congress for four terms and of marked
ability. Mr. McIntire employed Major Strickland of Bangor,
sheriff of Penobscot County, to accompany and assist him. They
left Bangor Feb. 5th, accompanied by a civil posse of 200 men,
and proceeded to the Aroostook River by what is now called "The
Old Aroostook Road" from Mattawamkeag through Sherman and Patten
to Masardis, the National Government, foreseeing hostilities,
had built this road to Fort Kent in 1837.
The Canadian trespassers, hearing of
this movement, supplied themselves with arms from the arsenal at
Woodstock, N. B., and prepared to stand their ground. They
numbered nearly 300, but when they found that the sheriff had
brought a six-pound brass cannon from Lincoln they concluded
that discretion was the better part of valor, and retired.
The Land Agent followed them down the
Aroostook River on the ice, capturing about twenty men. The
posse encamped for the night at the mouth of the Little
Madawaska Stream between the Caribou and the Fort Fairfield of
the present day.
There was no settlement at Caribou.
Indeed, one of Caribou's very first settlers was Ivory Hardison
of Winslow, who came that winter with the soldiers and, seeing
the possibilities of the new country, stayed and sent for his
family. Much of northern Aroostook was settled afterwards either
through the return of the soldiers or their reports of the
To return to our story, Mr. McIntire
himself, with three companions, proceeded down the river to the
house of one Fitzherbert, in what is now Fort Fairfield village,
under appointment to meet the British Land Warden, though it was
reported by political enemies that he had gone there in order
that he might have a feather bed to sleep on! Be that as it may,
the house was surrounded during the night by about forty
Canadians, and Mr. McIntire and his companions were taken
prisoners and carried on an ox-sled to Woodstock, some fifty
miles, and thence to Fredericton jail some sixty miles father.
Meanwhile Major Strickland hurried back to Augusta to give the
Sir John Harvey, governor of New
Brunswick, declaring that "hostile invasion would be repelled,"
called for a draft for immediate service, and on February 13th
demanded of the Governor of Maine the recall of the State forces
from Aroostook. The State Legislature answered by immediately
ordering out one thousand of the militia, appropriating
$800,000, and a day or two later, ordering a draft of 10,000
men. Meanwhile New Brunswick was marshalling her forces and "the
war was on!"
|Major Hastings Strickland
Our soldiers started on their northward
march singing to the tune of ''Auld Lang Syne''
''We are marching on to Madawask to
fight the trespassers,
We'll teach the British how to walk and come off conquerors,
We'll have our land right good and clear for all the English
They shall not cut another log nor stay another day.
Come on! brave fellows, one and all, the Red Coats ne'er shall
We Yankees feared to meet them armed so gave our land away.
Onward ! my lads, so brave and true, our Country's right demands
With justice and with glory fight for these Aroostook lands."
Houlton, first settled in 1807, had been
a U. S. Military Post since 1828. Major Kirby commanding the
garrison there was requested by the Governor to cooperate with
the State forces. Kirby declined, fearing to compromise the
United States, the National Government still holding aloof.
In the meantime, the men left behind by
Land Agent McIntire fell back to Masardis. Upon the arrival of
reinforcements, they went down the river to the month of Presque
Isle stream, a little below which they left the ice and cut
across by a rough portage to Letter D plantation, then a very
small settlement of Canadians who had come up by way of the St.
John River. Here the men encamped, built a boom in the river to
hold the logs and commenced the erection of a fort, named after
Governor Fairfield. They also captured a number of ox-teams,
their drivers, and, best of all, the British Land Warden
McLaughlin, with a companion, so that on February 17th the
citizens of Bangor were diverted by the sight of British
prisoners escorted through their streets.
The Bangor Daily Whig and Courier of
that date was moved to wrath and said, "It is worthy of remark
and remembrance that our Land Agent, when passing through
Woodstock, was greeted with jeers and insults by British
subjects, but when the British Land Agent rode through this
city, although 1,000 people assembled in the streets, he was
suffered to pass in silence. Not a lip was opened nor an insult
offered." Moreover, McLaughlin was lodged at the Bangor House
where it was said that he "fared sumptuously." At the same time
the "Whig" admonished the people to rise and "per-adventure,
demolish the prison at Fredericton, so long a standing monument
to our disgrace. ''A day or two later, the fiery "Whig"
exclaimed, "Our State has been for the third time invaded and
our citizens arrested and incarcerated in a Foreign Jail! The
first time Mr. Baker and his neighbors, next Mr. Greeley, and
now the Land Agent. We have remonstrated long enough and to no
purpose. We now appeal to arms. As we are in the midst of a
great excitement it behooves us all to keep calm and cool [!!!]
Expresses are passing every day through this city from Aroostook
to Augusta and back. The artillery has been forwarded and large
quantities of ammunition. Twenty men are engaged at the foundry
casting balls." Evidently Maine's Minister of Munitions believed
in ''speeding up'' the war, so much so that in his excitement a
solitary bullet mould was forwarded by express and lead for the
bullets sent later by ox-team!
Looking over the dusty files of the
''Whig, '' one can see that
"There was mounting in hot haste, the
The mustering squadron and the clattering car
Went pouring forward with impetuous speed
And swiftly forming in the ranks of war."
Bangor was as busy as ''Belgium's
capital'' the night before the battle of Waterloo. Within a week
from the time of the draft, 10,000 of the State Militia had
passed through the city on the way to Aroostook, over the
Military Road built in 1832 by the Federal Government, through
Macwahoc and Haynesville to the garrison at Houlton headed this
time for the frontier rather than the Aroostook River.
Some of the troops stayed at Houlton two
weeks, waiting for their side-arms (and possibly for the
bullets), meanwhile spending their spare time at the garrison
watching the U. S. regulars drill. Then they continued their
march northward by the rough road laid out to the Presque Isle
stream by the Washington County Commissioners in 1833, but
hacked through by the State only as far as Monticello. From
there on they took lumber roads where they could be found
through the almost unbroken wilderness, and cut their own road
the rest of the way by spotted trees to Fairbanks Mills on the
Presque Isle stream, then a settlement of only three families,
now the town of Presque Isle. Someone on the expedition wrote
back to the Whig from Fair-banks Mills, ''Of all roads commend
me to that upon which we have travelled from Houlton to this
jumping-off place for extreme roughness and the length of the
miles." Here they encamped where is now the well-known Parsons
From thence the soldiers went across by
the portage to Fort Fairfield, where they assisted in the
building of the fort and blockhouses according to plans drawn by
Col. Robert E. Lee of the U. S. Army, who was afterwards
commander-in-chief of the Confederate Army. The troops were also
stationed for garrison duty at different points on the road
running along near the frontier, erecting temporary defenses.
An appeal having been sent by the State
of Maine, the National government at Washington awoke to the
seriousness of the situation, authorized the raising of 50,000
troops and $10,000,000, and ordered Gen. Winfield Scott to
Maine. Scott arrived in Augusta March 5th and immediately opened
negotiations with Gov. Harvey through Major Kirby of the Houlton
garrison. The result was that on March 23d Harvey agreed to the
terms of the settlement made by Gen. Scott, who was afterwards
called the ''Great Pacificator" as a joke. On March 25th the
same terms were agreed to by Gov. Fairfield, who immediately
recalled the troops from Aroostook, with the exception of a
small force left at Fort Fairfield, and the prisoners on both
sides were released.
Thus ended the Bloodless Aroostook War
with the loss of only one man and he died of consumption. The
fear expressed by Gov. Fairfield in his farewell address to the
soldiers that ''the blood of our citizens was going to be shed
by British Myrmidons" proved groundless. The ''War" has been
regarded as more or less of a huge joke, yet it was no joke to
the patriotic men who left their homes in the dead of winter and
marched some two hundred miles through the deep snows of the
Northern Maine wilderness where the temperature frequently drops
to 40° below zero. Teams were taken out of the woods, tools and
bedding from the lumber camps, in some instances whole crews
enlisted, and farmers and mechanics laid down their work. They
encamped wherever night found them, in houses, barns, bough
camps and sometimes in the snow beside the road. Their food was
mainly hardtack and salt pork, though they apparently got what
they could to eat along the road, for the ''Whig'' afterwards
published an appeal for aid to the Aroostook settlers, as the
soldiers had eaten them out of house and home! Their regulation
uniforms were not nearly warm enough, but we read that the
government quickly made up this lack by the addition of thick
red shirts and pea green jackets.
Ridiculous or not, the Aroostook War was
an important incident in international history, and reflects
much credit upon the patriotism of Maine. The promptitude with
which our forces were put upon the ground to resist seeming
aggression, without doubt had much influence in the negotiations
that followed. The whole question was settled three years later
by the Webster-Ashburton treaty, but that ''is another story.'
Stella King White