On July 4, 1827, less than a decade into Maine’s life as an official state, outspoken sawmill owner John Baker raised a homemade American flag on the western side of the junction between Baker Brook and the St. John River.
It was a bold statement on what was still disputed territory as the dust slowly settled from two previous wars against the British. Baker, the so-called “Washington of the Republic of Madawaska,” was arrested by New Brunswick authorities and held until he could pay a 25-pound fine — an amount estimated to be worth tens of thousands of U.S. dollars in today’s money.
The incident contributed to growing pressure on the U.S. and Great Britain to determine once and for all where the northeasternmost borders between the two countries’ North American territories should be placed.
Many Mainers have at least heard of the resultant Aroostook War, otherwise known as the “Pork and Beans War.” But what largely became a footnote in U.S. military history changed America forever, in ways few people may recognize.
At the time of Baker’s unofficial annexation, the borderlands were starting to become increasingly contentious.
In 1830, many people living in the area Baker had placed the flag sought to be included in the U.S. Census. Those residents were rounded up and arrested or forced to flee by local New Brunswick militia loyal to the British crown.
The two countries sought an independent opinion from King William I of the Netherlands on where the boundaries should be drawn, but the royal arbitrator couldn’t make sense of the previous treaties reached by the fledgling U.S. and Great Britain, and came up with what he considered a compromise option in 1831.
The British accepted it, but Maine leaders and the U.S. Senate rejected it. That began years of negotiations over where Maine should end and Canada should begin, a period of time during which thousands of militia men were gathered on both sides of the dispute, ready to settle the issue with military action.
The disputed territory represented prized timberland, and the two sides took turns arresting lumberjacks and land agents from the other. The feud simmered for years while politicians tried to work out a deal that would avoid any serious armed conflict.
Ultimately, in 1842, famed attorney and then-U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster reached an agreement with British diplomat Alexander Baring, 1st Baron Ashburton, to draw the line between Canada and Maine, as well as the borders between the British-controlled northern country and the states of New Hampshire, Michigan and Minnesota.
The compromise prevented any blood from being spilled in battle — although a few deaths were recorded by accident and disease during the dispute — and the Aroostook War was ended before it could escalate into a third significant war between the U.S. and Great Britain.
The Webster-Ashburton Treaty gave the U.S. 7,015 square miles of the territory, while turning over 5,012 square miles to the British. Maine was reimbursed by the U.S. federal government for the loss of what state leaders considered their rightful territory, as well as for the costs incurred by Maine’s armed civil patrol of the area.
The British retained what they considered a crucial northern region, providing a direct overland connection between Quebec and Nova Scotia.
But while few people outside of the affected regions are aware of the Aroostook War, the conflict altered the American landscape forever, and its effects can still be felt today. Here’s how:
The United States and Great Britain are key international allies.
The Aroostook War remains the last serious confrontation between the U.S. and its Revolutionary rival, the United Kingdom. The peaceful resolution to the dispute set the stage for what would become an enduring international partnership, as Americans and British have never again lined up on opposite sides of a war.
This relationship was perhaps tested most strenuously less than two decades after the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, when America fell into its Civil War. While a number of complicated factors motivated Great Britain to remain neutral in the affair, many in the British elite were sympathetic to the Confederate cause.
Foreign intervention on the side of the Confederates could have tipped the scales in their favor.
Had the Aroostook War ended differently — had it escalated into a recent armed conflict between the British and the northern U.S. fighters, for instance — it could have changed the political equation significantly for the United Kingdom.
States can’t attack other countries any more.
Frustrated by what they considered a lack of progress on the part of the federal government, Maine leaders pulled together their own militia and prepared to fight with the British.
U.S. Rep. Francis Ormond Jonathan Smith of Maine was among those who would declare that the state would defend its territory on its own if the feds failed to intervene.
Recognizing the potential danger in allowing any individual state to enter into a war with a foreign nation, Congress authorized the deployment of 50,000 troops to Maine in the event that Great Britain invaded, and sent Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott to urge the state to recall its militia.
Moving forward, the federal government would assume total control over international military actions, leaving the states latitude only to use militias for internal conflicts or natural disaster relief.
Maine — and America — shrank…
Over the years, different U.S. and British leaders drew the Maine border in different places. Perhaps most notably, Webster discovered a map drawn decades earlier by founding father Benjamin Franklin indicating that America originally agreed to turn nearly all of what’s today Aroostook County over to Great Britain as part of Canada.
From that perspective, the state of Maine grew by several thousand square miles as a result of the Aroostook War.
But the compromise line proposed by King William I of the Netherlands, which the British agreed to, actually gave the U.S. 7,908 square miles of the disputed territory and Great Britain about 4,119 square miles.
Had Maine accepted that offer, the conflict would have ended 12 years earlier and the state today would be more than 800 square miles larger, with the northwestern border stretching that much farther into Canada. Quebec towns such as Saint-Pamphile and Lac-Frontiere would have been entirely in Maine.
… but New Hampshire grew.
The King William compromise gave more acreage to Maine, but also took a bite out of the northern border of New Hampshire — although New Hampshire stood to lose much less land than Maine stood to gain in the proposal.
By holding out for a better deal, Maine and the U.S. Senate would give up hundreds of square miles to Maine’s northwest, but would get back a small slice of New Hampshire approximately west of Chartierville, Quebec, according to a map published in the 1980 book “Minnesota’s boundary with Canada: Its evolution since 1783” by William E. Lass.
Foreign trains travel across U.S. soil.
As part of the treaty that resolved the Aroostook War, the British secured a right-of-way for their commercial interests to cross Maine to and from southern New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
That right-of-way became the train route used by the Canadian Pacific Railway and, more recently, a subsidiary of the New Brunswick Railway Co.
America ultimately settled its presidential line of succession.
The ripple effect of the Aroostook War continued far and wide. U.S. President Martin Van Buren was criticized for not getting the situation under control, and it was one of many controversies that contributed to his defeat at the polls after just one term in office.
Sixty-eight-year-old William Henry Harrison took advantage of Van Buren’s vulnerability to claim the 1840 elections, but died shortly after taking office, forcing the U.S. to determine once and for all that the vice president — John Tyler at the time — would become the president not just the “acting president,” as was debated at the time.