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The Aroostook War of 1839

One of the least known conflicts in Canadian history occurred in 1839, when the British and Americans clashed in an un-declared "war" on the Maine and New Brunswick borders.  The conflict, in which no shots were fired, is sometimes referred to as the "war of pork and beans", in reference to the rations eaten by the idle soldiers. Although no shots were fired, the war did see at least one tavern brawl... One night in a local bar, an Aroostook militiaman raised a toast to Maine.  The Canadians drinking in the same pub took offence to this, and a fight broke out.  Noses were bloodied, and eyes were blackened. That was about as violent as the Aroostook War ever got. 

The 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution, did not adequately determine the border between the British territory of New Brunswick, and the U.S. state of Maine (then a part of Massachusetts).  When Maine was granted statehood in 1820, land was granted to settlers in the Aroostook Valley.  The king of the Netherlands, William I, was asked to mediate the dispute, determining in 1832 that the St. John's River should be the boundary, but his recommendation was rejected by the United States senate.  The British, however, were accepting of the king's recommendation.

In the winter of 1838, Canadian lumberjacks began entering the Aroostook Valley to cut timber.  The Americans sent a "land agent" to the area to expel them, but he was arrested by New Brunswick officials, and taken to Fredericton.  Both Maine and New Brunswick called out their local militia regiments, and the United States Congress authorized a force of 50,000 soldiers, and $10 million towards the conflict. Maine immediately sent two hundred soldiers to the mouth of the Fish River in the disputed territory. Congress further raised a ten thousand strong militia to support the Maine troops in the area.

Stolen British timber was used by the American's to build a blockhouse at the mouth of the Fish River. Another blockhouse was built further down the river at Soldier Pond, but was burned by the American militia when it looked like it would be captured by the British.

President Martin Van Buren dispatched one of his top generals, Winfield Scott, to the region in an attempt to avert all out war.  Before a single shot was fired, Britain agreed to refer the dispute to a boundary commission.  The matter was settled in 1842 by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty.  Daniel Webster and Baron Ashburton's compromise awarded the United States 7,015 square miles, and the British received 5,012.  The northern area was retained by Britain, assuring them year round, overland communication with Montreal.  Britain paid the United States a sum $150,000, and the Americans, in turn, reimbursed the British for expenses incurred defending the area against encroachment.

Although the war was a bloodless conflict, there were several non-combat related fatalities.  Private Hiram T. Smith, of the United States, is sometimes referred to as the "only casualty of the Aroostook War".  His cause of death remains unknown, with the most common theories being that he froze to death, was run over by an army supply wagon, or killed by a horse he was tending to.  Several Maine militiamen sent to the area actually died of various causes (most likely illness), but none were of a combat nature. Legends also speak of a farmer killed while tending his field by American soldiers taking target practice, a pig that was shot after wandering into Canadian territory, and a cow shot outside an American blockhouse.  

The conflict also went down in history as the only war between a single U.S. state and a foreign country.

Today's International Boundary between Canada and the United States is the St. John River, just as King William I had suggested.  The river runs between the towns of Edmundton, New Brunswick, and Madawaska, Maine.



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