I’m always amused when historians label a particular incident “a war,” particularly when in spite of displays of hostility, not a single shot was fired in anger. The Pork and Beans War  (also known as the Aroostook War) was more on the order of a diplomatic kerfuffle, an undeclared confrontation. So —no war. Sorry.
The relationship between the United States and Great Britain between 1812 and 1850 was one of continual disagreement and some of these had significant consequences. In 1838-39, the United States and Great Britain had one of several disagreements over the international boundary between British North America (Canada) and the US state of Maine. The dispute was eventually resolved but going down that road both sides began ruffling their feathers and squawking about going to war. The rattling of swords did little more than upset people who lived in the area of contention.
High tensions and heated rhetoric in Maine and New Brunswick led both sides to raise a militia, arm them, and march them to the disputed territories. President Martin Van Buren quickly sent Brigadier General Winfield Scott and Daniel Webster to work out a compromise —which they did. It was called the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, establishing an agreed-to boundary between Canada and the United States. Most of the disputed area went to Maine and the British were accorded a vital connection between the Canadian provinces.
The Treaty of Paris (1783) ended the Revolutionary War, but it failed to clarify the British Canadian/US border. Thereafter, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts began issuing land grants in its (then) district of Maine —including areas that the British claimed were theirs. During the War of 1812, Great Britain occupied most of eastern Maine, including the counties of Washington, Hancock, and portions of Penobscot. The British occupation lasted eight months. While it was Britain’s intent to permanently annex the region to Canada when the war ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, the initial understanding from the Treaty of Paris left intact.
Both the Americans and British made a collaborative effort to survey and mark the source of the St. Croix River, which was the primary 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 marker was placed 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 asserted a continual interest in the matter, as it retained half of the public lands in Maine, including a large part of the disputed territory as its sole property.
As late as September 1825, land agents in both Maine and Massachusetts were issuing deeds, timber permits, collected census data, recorded births, deaths, and marriages within the contested area of the St. John River valley and its tributaries. Massachusetts Land Agent George Coffin, exercising his duty, recorded that a thunderstorm had ignited a forest fire. The 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 also recorded this destruction with comments indicating that the economic survival of New Brunswick depended on the vast forests in the disputed area.
A mixed population inhabited this region, mostly early Acadians (descendants of the original French colonists) that settled in Saint John and the Madawaska River basins. Some Americans later settled in the Aroostook River Valley. Between 1826-1830, provincial timber interests also settled the west bank of the Saint John River and its tributaries; British families made their homes in Woodstock, Tobique, and Grand Falls, in New Brunswick.
The French-speaking population of Madawaska were nominally British subjects —who considered themselves otherwise. They belonged to the unofficial “République du Madawaska.“ They professed no allegiance to the United States or to British Canada. The population of the area increased with migratory lumberjacks, which caused some anxiety in the governments of Maine and Massachusetts. After all, in their view, the states were responsible for the protection of natural resources within their borders and were entitled to the revenues of their respective states. Some itinerant lumbermen eventually settled year-round in the Saint John valley. The remoteness of the land and the penchant the states had for taxing settlers caused them to ignore making land claims. Various groups maneuvered for control over the forested areas caused disputes.
Then, on 4 July 1827, patriotic John Baker raised a homemade American flag above his homestead; he was arrested by British authorities and fined £25. To ensure the flag wasn’t raised again a second time, the British held Baker in jail until he paid the fine.
In preparation for the US census of 1830, the Maine Legislature sent John Deane and Edward James to northern Maine (also regarded as northwestern New Brunswick) to document the numbers of inhabitants and to assess the extent of British trespass. Their point of view was hardly subjective, however. Later in that summer, several residents of the west bank of the Saint John River at Madawaska filed requests for incorporation into Maine. Acting on the advice of Penobscot County officials, a meeting was called to select representatives preparatory to incorporating Madawaska township. A local resident from the east bank of the Saint John river alerted local representatives of the New Brunswick militia, who entered the meeting hall and threatened to arrest any resident attempting to organize. Reflecting the stubbornness of local culture, these citizens continued their meeting. The militia called for reinforcements and New Brunswick authorities ended up arresting some residents while others fled into the nearby wood. Local Americans notified Maine authorities of the incident, and they also sent letters to the United States Government in the city of Washington, which prompted the US Secretary of State to contact his British counterpart.
The Acadian majority was ambivalent about joining either the United States or British Canada but they identified more with French-speaking Quebec and supported its territorial claims in Madawaska.
In 1830, someone even went so far as to petition King William I of the Netherlands to arbitrate the border dispute. King William thought the best solution was a compromise between the squabbling parties. He suggested a border very close to the eventual settlement. Surprisingly, the British accepted King William’s solution. Not surprisingly, the State of Maine rejected it, arguing that King William exceeded his authority. More to the point, the king represented an unwarranted (and unwanted) foreign influence upon the prerogatives of the United States. Beyond this, King William’s proposal would surrender territory to Britain that US citizens and residents of Maine and Massachusetts had already surveyed, sold, and settled. Neither Maine nor Massachusetts was interested in surrendering a territory held by them since 1800.
President Andrew Jackson was inclined to accept King William’s proposal, if for no other reason than to avoid diverting attention away from his Indian removal policy, and particularly with regard to the emerging Republic of Texas. Moreover, the United States Constitution forbade the federal government from altering state ownership of properties without the consent of the state government, which Maine and Massachusetts would not grant.
US Senator Peleg Sprague of Maine was outspoken in his opposition to Jackson’s Indian policy and of the president’s interference in the internal affairs of the government of Mexico. Sprague led the US Senate to reject King William’s proposal.
Great Britain and the United States agreed to a provisional settlement in 1831-32 —the band-aid approach. Both government’s agreed that the territory already in the exclusive jurisdiction and authority of the respective state and provincial authorities would remain as such and that neither would be permitted to extend jurisdictional authority over areas still in dispute.
As a consequence of President Jackson’s closing the Second Bank of the United States in 1837, Maine decided to issue a refund to all its residents who paid taxes. The state also created a special census to determine the identity of eligible recipients. Penobscot County’s Census Representative thus began work in the upper Aroostook River territory. Word of an official from Maine offering money to settlers quickly reached New Brunswick authorities. The newly appointed governor of New Brunswick, Sir John Harvey, ordered the arrest of the Census Representative. Additionally, 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. Maine Governor Robert Dunlap issued a general alert announcing that a foreign power had invaded Maine.
According to the legislature of Maine, both American and New Brunswick lumbermen were cutting timber in the disputed territory during the winter of 1838-39. 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 squatters from New Brunswick. The posse left Bangor, Maine, on 8 February 1839 and established an encampment at the junction of the Saint Croix River and the Aroostook River. They confiscated New Brunswick lumbering equipment and arrested foreign lumbermen. After learning of these activities, a group of New Brunswick lumbermen broke into the Woodstock arsenal. Now armed, they formed their own posse and arrested the Maine Land Agent and his assistants in the middle of the night. Both men were transported in chains to answer charges in Woodstock.
Describing these two officials as political prisoners, Sir John Harvey notified the US government in Washington that since he lacked the authority to act on the arrests both men would remain in custody until he received instructions from the British government. Meanwhile, he intended to exercise his authority over the Aroostook. He also demanded the removal of Maine officials from the contested region. To back up his demand, he dispatched a militia to confront Maine officials and order them to depart Brunswick territory.
Maine officials refused to leave the area and to underscore this point, arrested the senior Brunswick militia commander. On 15 February 1839, the Maine Legislature authorized Major General Isaac Hodsdon to lead 1,000 volunteers to augment the posse on the upper Aroostook River. Sir John Harvey warned that the British government had ordered in regular army reinforcements from the West Indies. Beyond this, the Mohawk nation offered their allegiance and services to Quebec.
The Governor of Maine ordered the conscription of citizens to augment the State Militia. Infantry and dragoon companies mustered in Bangor and on 26 February 1839, began moving toward Fort Fairfield along the Upper Aroostook.
Back in Washington, Representative Francis Ormand Jonathan Smith briefed the House of Representatives on these events. Smith emphasized that it was the federal government’s responsibility to protect and defend American territory and its citizens but declared that Maine would defend its territory alone if the government chose to not fulfill its obligations. It was at this point that President Van Buren directed General Winfield Scott, who was then involved with Cherokee relocation, to attend the area of the border dispute. He arrived in Boston in early March 1839.
In May 1839, the US Congress appropriated $10-million and authorized a military force of 50,000 men, placed at the disposal of the President in the event foreign military troops crossed into United States territory. Maine committed an additional 10,000 militia —one of these was a young lieutenant by the name of James Henry Carleton.
During the War of 1812, Sir John Harvey had supervised (then) Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott during the time he spent as a prisoner of war. President Van Buren and his advisers saw this relationship as one of mutual respect. Pursuant to the terms of the truce for administration within the disputed area, and with the advice of General Scott, Maine recalled its militia, substituting instead a civil posse of armed men. Deputy Land Agent William Parrott and Captain Stover Rines supervised the posse. Meanwhile, the US Army began construction of permanent structures at Fort Fairfield and Fort Kent. Major R. M. Kirby commanded the military barracks at Hancock near Houlton, Maine; his forces included an artillery regiment.
Representing Canada were four companies of the British 11th Regiment from Quebec; they began to construct a barracks across the St. Johns River. New Brunswick authorities provided regular and militia forces and stationed them at every tributary of the Saint John River that flowed from the Aroostook Territory.
In 1840, Maine created Aroostook County to administer the civilian authority of the area. However, reports of collusion resulted in the Maine Executive Council assigning Alphus Lyons to investigate County Sheriff Packard and County District Attorney Horace Tabor. As Brunswick and Maine continued to squabble, American and British diplomats agreed to refer the dispute to a boundary commission.
Daniel Webster and Alexander Baring, 1st Baron Ashburton settled the boundary dispute in 1842. Included in the agreement was not only a resolution to the Maine/Canada border issue but also the boundary between Canada and New Hampshire, Michigan and Minnesota. The treaty awarded 7,015 square miles to the United States and 5,012 square miles to Great Britain. The British retained the northern area of the disputed territory, including the Halifax Road with its year-round overland military communications between Quebec 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, discovered 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 should reach British ears and convince the British to refuse.
Later historians have varying points of view with regard to this map. Some claim that the Americans hid their knowledge of the Franklin map. Others say that Britain apparently used a map supposedly favorable to the United States claims but never revealed its reliance on this map. Some even claim that Britain faked the Franklin map to pressure the American negotiators. Available evidence today, however, suggests that the British map did place the entire disputed area on the American side of the border.
The only real losers to this dispute were native Indians in the region. Moreover, the Aroostook War, though devoid of actual combat, did not lack casualties. Private Hiram T. Smith from Maine died of unknown causes in 1828. Additional Maine militiamen died from illness or injury while engaged on the Aroostook expedition and several more went out on patrol and were never seen again.
 I would like to see what a Pork and Beans Campaign Medal looks like …
5 thoughts on “The Pork & Beans War”
Great article. Fascinating history. I had never heard of this conflict, or missed the day that it was discussed in my history class. It seems like I learn something new, everyday. Thanks.
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Thanks, Bob … I didn’t know it either until I researched Carleton. What an interesting time in US history, eh?
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If Jackson wasn’t so busy, running off the Cherokee, he probably would have been intent on giving the English a black eye. — He hated the English.–
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Jackson was a complex man. I’m no expert on his presidency, but at least in his own mind, he had the good of the nation at the center of his various policies. No doubt his “Indian Removal” policy garners the most emotional reaction to his presidency, but I often wonder if by removing native Americans from areas that were in the path of a stream of westward-moving migrants, that he wasn’t trying to preserve them as much as getting them out of the way of land speculators. In any case, given the times, it must have been a perplexing time to serve as president. As we will see in a few weeks at Old West Tales, the Cherokee lined up with Mexican insurrectionists against Texas which did little more than “make them the enemy” in the minds of most people around Nacogdoches. I think you will agree that ours is a most-interesting —thought-provoking history. Thanks for stopping by, Warren.
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The Cherokee had the unique ability of choosing the wrong side of a war, starting with the French Indian War. They are the only Indian Nation to have their own written language, Constitution, Congress and newspaper. It’s a long story and I won’t go into it here but they were driven out for reasons of greed and jealously more than any other reason. They were so intermixed with the Scot-Irish that today you will find more Scot/Irish names in the Cherokee NC phone book than Greencorn’s and Mankiller’s.
From my cell phone
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