Pork and Beans War

The Aroostook War (sometimes called the Pork and Beans War) was an undeclared confrontation in 1838/1839 between the United States and Great Britain over the international boundary between British North America (Canada) and Maine. The dispute resulted in a mutually accepted border between the state of Maine and the provinces of New Brunswick and Quebec. High tensions and heated rhetoric in Maine and New Brunswick led both sides to raise troops, arm them, and march them to the disputed border. President Martin Van Buren sent Brigadier General Winfield Scott to work out a compromise. The compromise created a neutral area, and the controversy gradually diminished.

The Aroostook War involved no actual confrontation between military forces, and negotiations between diplomats from Britain and United States Secretary of StateDaniel Webster quickly settled the dispute. Secretary of State Webster secretly funded a propaganda campaign that convinced leaders in Maine of the wisdom of compromise. Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 established final boundary between the countries, giving most of the disputed area to Maine and a militarily vital connection between Canadian provinces to Britain. Though there was no conflict between military forces, it has been reported that several groups of lumberjacks and hunters become violent if they spotted people who were not supposed to be on “their” side of the border. Many of the casualties caused by these small skirmishes went unreported because of the lack of police regulation throughout rural Maine at the time.

Disputed border

The Treaty of Paris (1783) ended the American Revolutionary War but did not clearly determine the boundary between British North America (Canada) and the United States. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts thereafter began issuing land grants in its District of Maine, including the areas that Britain still claimed.

During the War of 1812, the British occupied most of eastern Maine, including Washington County, Hancock County, and parts ofPenobscot County, Maine, for eight months, intending to permanently annex the region into Canada. The Treaty of Ghent ended the war in 1814 and reestablished the boundary line of Treaty of Paris (1783), but left the border ambiguities intact. The parties sent a collaborative survey team to locate and mark the source of the St. Croix River, the principal geographical feature identified in the earlier treaty. The eastern boundary of the United States ran north to the highland, where it met the Northwest Angle of Nova Scotia. A monument was put on the site where the waters passed through the Chiputicook Lakes.

When Maine broke away from Massachusetts in 1820 as a separate state, the status and location of the border emerged as a chief concern to the new state government. Massachusetts also retained an interest in the matter, as it retained half of public lands in Maine, including a large part of the disputed territory, as its property.

As late as September 1825, Maine and Massachusetts Land Agents issued deeds, sold timber permits, took censuses, and recorded births, deaths, and marriages in the contested area of the Saint John River valley and its tributaries. Massachusetts Land Agent George Coffin recorded in his journal during one such journey during autumn 1825, returning from the Upper Saint John and Madawaska area toFredericton, New Brunswick, that a thunderstorm had ignited a forest fire. This Miramichi Fire destroyed thousands of acres of prime New Brunswick timber, killed hundreds of settlers, left thousands more homeless, and destroyed several thriving communities. The journal entries of the newly appointed Governor of New Brunswick record the destruction and comments that survival of New Brunswick depended on the vast forests to the west in the area disputed with the United States.

Growing tensions

The mixed character of the population in the disputed area. Mostly early Acadians (descendants of the original French colonists) settled Saint John and Madawaska River basins. Some Americans then settled in the Aroostook River Valley. During 1826-1830, provincial timber interests also settled the west bank of the Saint John river and its tributaries, and British families built homes in Woodstock, Tobique, andGrand Falls, New Brunswick.

The French-speaking population of Madawaska were “Brayons” — nominally British subjects — who (at least rhetorically) considered themselves to belong to the unofficial “République du Madawaska“, and thus professed allegiance to neither Americans nor British. The population of the area swelled with outsiders, however, when winter freed lumbermen from farm work to “long-pole” up the Saint John River to the valley. These migrant seasonal lumbermen caused particular tension for the governments of Maine and Massachusetts, responsible for the protection of resources and revenues of their respective states. Some itinerant lumbermen eventually settled year-round in the Saint John valley. Most settlers found themselves too remote from the authorities to apply formally for land. Disputes heated as factions maneuvered for control over the best stands of trees.

John Baker on 4 July 1827 raised an American flag, which his wife made, on the western side of the junction of Baker Brook and the Saint John River. British Colonial authorities subsequently arrested Baker, fined him £25, and held him in jail until he paid his fine.

Crisis of 1830

In preparation for a United States census in 1830, the Maine Legislature sent John Deane and Edward James to northern Maine (alternatively northwestern New Brunswick) to document the numbers of inhabitants and to assess the extent of British trespass (from their point of view). During that summer, several residents of the west bank of the Saint John at Madawaska filed requests for incorporation into Maine. Acting on advice from Penobscot County, Maine, officials, they called a meeting to select representatives preparatory to incorporating Madawaska as a town. A local resident from the east bank of the Saint John river alerted local representatives of the New Brunswick militia, who during these meetings, entered the hall and threatened to arrest any resident attempting to organize. The meetings continued, however, while more militiamen arrived, New Brunswick authorities arrested some residents, some residents fled to the woods, and local Americans sent letters to the Maine authorities in Augusta. They also sent letters to the United States Government in Washington, DC. United States Secretary of State contacted the British Minister. The Acadian majority professed ambivalence about joining either the United States or New Brunswick, but identified more with French-speaking Quebec and its territorial claims in Madawaska.

Someone asked King William I of the Netherlands to arbitrate the border dispute in 1830. William I determined to compromise between the two listed options, and drew a line very close to the eventual settlement. The British accepted the decision of the king of the Netherlands. The state of Maine rejected it, believing that the decision of King William violated the parameters of his authority, of choosing one contested boundary or the other, and established a potentially dangerous practice of foreign influences within the policies of the United States government. The proposal also surrendered territory that United States citizens and residents of Maine and Massachusetts already lotted, sold, and settled. Maine and Massachusetts still intended to continue their jurisdiction over territory held since 1800.

President Andrew Jackson inclined to accept the new line to avoid diversion from his policies and programs of control of native populations in the south and west, particularly in regard to activities involving the growing conflicts in what would become the Republic of Texas. TheUnited States Constitution forbade the federal government from altering state ownership of properties without the consent of the state government, which Maine and Massachusetts did not grant. Senator Peleg Sprague of Maine outspokenly opposed Indian removal program of President Jackson and his interference in the internal government of Mexico; he led United States Senate to force compromise and to reject the decision of the Dutch king.

In the absence of a final ruling, Great Britain and the United States agreed to a provisional settlement in 1831/1832, stating that territory already in the exclusive jurisdiction and authority of the respective state and provincial authorities would remain as such, and that neither would attempt to extend jurisdictional authority over areas still in dispute.

Posses, arrests, and the mobilization of militia

As a consequence of the closing of the Second Bank of the United States, State of Maine in 1837 decided to issue a refund to all its residents who paid taxes. The state created a special census to determine eligible recipients. Penobscot County Census Representative Greeley thus began a census of the upper Aroostook River territory. Word of an official from Maine offering money to settlers quickly reached New Brunswick colonial-provincial authorities. The newly appointed Sir John Harvey (governor) of New Brunswick led authorities to arrest Census Representative Greeley and take him to Fredericton. Letters from New Brunswick accused the Governor of Maine of bribery and threatened military action if Maine continued to exercise jurisdiction in the basins of the Aroostook river and its tributaries. In response, Governor Robert Dunlap of Maine issued a general order announcing that a foreign power had invaded Maine.

Both American and New Brunswick lumbermen cut timber in the disputed territory during the winter of 1838/1839, according to reports submitted to the Maine Legislature, resulting in Battle of Caribou and other conflicts. On 24 January 1839, the Maine Legislature authorized the newly elected Governor John Fairfield to send the Maine State Land Agent, Rufus McIntire, the Penobscot County Sheriff, and a posse of volunteer militia to the upper Aroostook to pursue and arrest the New Brunswickers. The posse left Bangor, Maine, on 8 February 1839. Arriving at T 10 R 5, the posse established a camp at the junction of the Saint Croix River and the Aroostook River and began confiscating New Brunswick lumbering equipment and sending any lumbermen caught and arrested back to Maine for trial. A group of New Brunswick lumbermen learned of these activities and, unable to retrieve their oxen and horses, broke into the arsenal in Woodstock to arm themselves, gathered their own posse, and seized the Maine Land Agent and his assistants in the middle of the night. This New Brunswick posse transported the Maine officials in chains to Woodstock and held them for an “interview”.

Terming the Americans “political prisoners,” Sir John Harvey sent correspondence to Washington, DC, that he lacked the authority to act on the arrests without instructions from London, which he awaited. He added that he intended meanwhile to exercise his responsibilities to ensure British jurisdiction over the Aroostook, and he demanded removal from the region of all Maine forces. He then sent his military commander to the T 10 R 5 campsite and ordered the Maine militia to leave. Captain Rines and the others refused, stating they were following orders and doing their duty. The Maine side then took the New Brunswick Military commander himself into custody.

On 15 February 1839, the Maine Legislature authorized Major General Isaac Hodsdon to lead 1,000 additional volunteers to augment the posse then on the upper Aroostook River. Additional correspondence from governor Sir John Harvey of New Brunswick, reports of British bringing up their Regular Army troops from the West Indies, reports of the Mohawk nation offering their services to Quebec, and reports of New Brunswick forces gathering on the Saint John River resulted in the Issuance of General Order No 7 on 19 February 1839, calling for a general draft of Maine Militia. Maine militia companies mustered in Bangor and traveled to the Upper Aroostook until 26 February 1839, when the early construction of Fort Fairfield, which the earlier posse built on the Aroostook River from seized stolen timber, allowed for camping troops on the eastern boundary.

The American and British governments step in

During Congressional debates in Washington on 2 March 1839, Representative Francis Ormand Jonathan Smith of Maine outlined the events and the various communications sent and received since 1825. Representative Smith noted the primary responsibility of the federal government to protect and defend its own territory and citizens but declared that Maine would defend its territory alone if the government chose to not fulfill its obligations. President Martin Van Buren assigned Brigadier General Winfield Scott, then involved in the Cherokeerelocation, to the conflict area; he arrived in Boston in early March 1839.

Additional information arriving in Washington through April and May 1839 kept Congressional debate lively until Congress authorized a force of 50,000 men and appropriated $10 million, placed at the disposal of the President in the event foreign military troops crossed into United States territory during the Congressional recess of summer 1839. Maine initially committed three thousand to ten thousand militia to the conflict in addition to the posses of land agent.

Sir John Harvey had supervised Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott during his time as prisoner of war during the War of 1812, and the President and his advisers saw that relationship as a point of mutual respect. Pursuant to the terms of the truce for administration within the disputed area, the Maine Legislature on 6 April 1839 created an armed civil posse. On advice of Brigadier General Scott, Maine issued General Orders to recall the militia in May and June 1839 and to replace the militiamen with the armed civil posse. The office of Maine state land agent led the armed civil posse with Deputy Land Agent William Parrott at Fort Fairfield and Captain Stover Rines at Camp Jarvis on the Fish River (later Fort Kent, Maine). The Army began the permanent structure of Fort Fairfield in April 1839 and that of Fort Kent in October 1839. Major R. M. Kirby commanded of Hancock Barracks post near Houlton, Maine, with three companies of the United States 1st Artillery Regiment. Four companies of the British 11th Regiment marched to the area from Quebec City to represent Canada with the intent to build a suitable barracks across the Saint Johns River from Fort Kent. New Brunswick meanwhile armed every tributary of the Saint John River that flowed from the Aroostook Territory with regular and militia soldiers.

In 1840, Maine created Aroostook County, Maine, to administer the civilian authority of the area. However, reports of collusion resulted in the Maine Executive Council assigning Alphus Lyons to investigate Sheriff Packard and District Attorney Tabor. The United States and Britain agreed to refer the dispute to a boundary commission, but further clashes between their forces continued in the interim.


Daniel Webster and Alexander Baring, 1st Baron Ashburton, reached a compromise the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of Washington in 1842, which settled the Maine-Canada boundary and the boundary between Canada and New Hampshire, Michigan and Minnesota. This treaty awarded 7,015 square miles (18,170 km²) to the United States and 5,012 square miles (12,980 km²) to Great Britain. The British retained the northern area of the disputed territory, including the Halifax Road with its year-round overland military communications betweenQuebec and Nova Scotia. The U.S. federal government agreed to pay the states of Maine and Massachusetts $150,000 each for the loss of the lands of their states while the United States reimbursed them for newly acquired territory in the Northwest Territories and for expenses incurred during the time Maine’s armed civil posse administered the truce period.

Webster used a map that Jared Sparks, an American citizen, found in the Paris Archives (and which Benjamin Franklin supposedly marked with a red line in Paris in 1782) to persuade Maine and Massachusetts to accept the agreement. The map showed that the disputed region belonged to the British and so helped convince the representatives of those states to accept the compromise, lest the truth reach British ears and convince the British to refuse. Later historians discovered that the Americans hid their knowledge of the Franklin map. Britain apparently used a map supposedly favorable to the United States claims but never revealed this map. Some claim that Britain created the Franklin map as a fake to pressure the American negotiators. The evidence is that the British map placed the entire disputed area on the American side of the border

Only the original Brayon (and Native) inhabitants of the region ultimately lost; they saw their territory reap the advantages of occupying land in both the American state of Maine and the British colony of New Brunswick.

The Aroostook War, though devoid of actual military combat, did not lack casualties. Private Hiram T. Smith from Maine died of unknown causes while in service in 1828. He is buried in Maine on the side of the Military Road (U.S. Route 2) in the middle of the Haynesville Woods. Other Maine militiamen died of illness or injury while on the Aroostook expedition and dozens went unaccounted, leaving their camps to go on patrol and never returning.



4 thoughts on “Pork and Beans War

  1. This is a smart blog. I mean it. You have so much knowledge about this issue, and so much passion. You also know how to make people rally behind it, obviously from the responses. Youve got a design here thats not too flashy, but makes a statement as big as what youre saying. Great job, indeed.

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