If only all wars could be like the Aroostook War, a boundary dispute fought mostly with fists rather than cannon. The conflict featured a battle broken up by a bear, an arrest over a homemade flag and soldiers who shivered in ridiculous uniforms.
It was also known as the Pork and Beans War, either because of lumbermen’s diet or the British regulars’ rations.
The Aroostook War, which took place from 1838-39, involved timber-hungry Mainers and timber-hungry New Brunswickers. They squared off until Daniel Webster settled the whole thing.
Though the conflict was more farce than war, the mythical Republic of Madawaska that started it is taken seriously by its inhabitants today.
Robert Pike in Tall Trees, Tough Men characterized the Aroostook War as starting when ‘Maine carted a couple of brass cannon up north to shoot at Canadians stealing Maine timber.’
The trouble started when the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution, but left ambiguous the border between Maine, then a district, and the Canadian province of New Brunswick.
The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, still left the boundary unsettled. Conflict seemed inevitable as the British needed the tall pines along the St. John River for the navy’s masts. But the Americans had a voracious appetite for lumber as well.
People called the disputed land Madawaska, settled by French people. The French had little love for the British, who crowded them out of their land in Nova Scotia. They called themselves Les Brayons, and farmed peacefully.
The lumbermen caused all the trouble, fighting among themselves for the best stands of trees.
Enter John Baker
In 1817, a settler named John Baker arrived in Madawaska with his family from Kennebec. He earned a reputation as ‘the Washington of the Republic of Madawaska.’
Baker pursued his rights to land as an American, and obtained a land grant north of the St. John River after Maine became a state in 1820.
Baker built up a successful millworks, which still stands, in territory claimed by the British. The U.S. government recognized the British claim, but that didn’t stop Baker. On July 4, 1827, he hoisted a homemade flag his wife Sophronia had sewn with an American eagle above six stars. Baker declared the Republic of Madawaska an American republic. He then threw a party with Les Brayons and a French fiddler in what is now Baker-Brook, New Brunswick.
The next month, John Baker declared American Aroostook Independence Day on Aug. 10, 1827..
New Brunswick demanded Baker take down the flag. When he refused, they arrested him and hauled him off to a Fredericton jail. No sooner did he leave her sight than his wife hoisted another homemade flag.
A New Brunswick court tried Baker for conspiracy and sedition, convicted him, fined him and sent him home. The U.S. government protested vigorously. Washington sent U.S. regulars to Houlton, and they began to build an invasion road and fort.
The Road to the Aroostook War
Negotiators appointed under the Treaty of Ghent had requested a survey of Madawaska. But according to local legend, the Americans got the British surveyors so drunk they surveyed the wrong river. In the end, the two sides couldn’t agree, so they appointed the King of the Netherlands umpire. His decision satisfied neither side.
Madawaska then organized a government under John Baker’s leadership and elected Pierre Lizotte, a Brayon, to represent them. Lizotte wisely rejected the honor because New Brunswick officials arrested, tried and convicted people who voted.
The Maine Legislature subsequently retaliated by recognizing the Town of Madawaska. The ‘town’ measured three times the size of Rhode Island.
Tempers continued to flare. Fists flew, officials got arrested and tensions finally boiled over in 1838 with the Battle of Caribou. ‘Battle’ may be too strong a word.
On December 29, American woodcutters spotted New Brunswick lumbermen cutting down trees on an American’s estate. The American woodcutters rushed to stand guard, and a shouting match ensued. The lumbermen drew arms and prepared to fire, but a black bear attacked three New Brunswickers. The New Brunswickers shot and killed the bear, but the Americans thought they were being fired at. They fired at the fleeing New Brunswickers – and missed.
The next month, Maine Gov. John Fairfield sent a posse to arrest the New Brunswick timbermen. The British arrested the posse’s leader. New Brunswick officials arrested Maine’s land agent and held him in New Brunswick. Then the the Americans incarcerated New Brunswick’s land agent in Bangor for a while. British troops began to gather on the Saint John River.
America readied for the Aroostook War, led, as usual, by the press. “Maine and her soil, or BLOOD!” screamed one editorial. “Let the sword be drawn and the scabbard thrown away!” Congress authorized 50,000 troops and a $10 million budget and forts were built along the frontier, sometimes within sight of each other.
Newspapers sent war correspondents to the front, and Maine militiamen took target practice at effigies of Queen Victoria. A farmer who wandered onto the firing range became one of the few casualties of the war. Another soldier succumbed to the measles.
No one actually died in battle during the Aroostook War. The soldiers who marched through the snow suffered from the cold because of their light uniforms. That deficit was made up with thick red shirts and pea-green coats.
One local legend has it that a New Brunswick lumber camp cook and his large girlfriend wandered over to the American fort one day, only to find it deserted. The Americans fled because the girlfriend wore a red dress and they thought the Redcoats were coming.
Peace, At Last
The diplomacy of U.S. Gen. Winfield Scott and New Brunswick Lt. Gov. John Harvey averted bloodshed. The two men had become friends when Scott was imprisoned under Harvey during the War of 1812.
In the end, Maine got the fertile Aroostook River Valley, the heavily forested upper St. John, the right to navigate freely on the lower St. John and duty-free status for Aroostook timber in British and U.S. ports.
The treaty placed John Baker’s sawmill in British Canada, where he stayed. His remains are buried at Fort Fairfield, where a monument incorrectly declares him a Maine hero.
The memory of the Aroostook War and the myth of the Madawaska Republic live on. The flag that Sophronia Baker created flies at the city hall in Edmundston. Madawaskans fly the banner at Madawaska festivals. And the mayor of Edmundston assumes the honorary title of ‘President of the Republic of Madawaska.’
With thanks to Beauty Tips From Moose Jaw by Will Ferguson. This story about the Aroostook War was updated in 2023.