American History and Genealogy Project


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 years, dissolved.

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 timber unlawfully.

"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 country.

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 alarm.

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 say,
They shall not cut another log nor stay another day.
Come on! brave fellows, one and all, the Red Coats ne'er shall say
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 steed,
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 farm.

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

Source: Maine My State, The Maine Writers Research Club, The Journal Print Shop, Lewiston, Maine, 1919

Back to AHGP

Copyright August @2011 - 2024 Copyright ©2000-2006  Founded April 8, 2000. Debbie Axtman,  Jim Powell, Jr., Ginger Cisewski, and  Brenda Hare, for
the exclusive use and benefit of The American History and Genealogy Project. All rights reserved.