The Border Dispute

How the Maine-New Brunswick border was finalized

A number of US documents on this web site—the 1820 US Census of "Matawascah", the 1830 US Census of the Madawaska Settlement, St.John River, the 1831 Deane and Kavanagh Survey, 1840 US Census of Madawaska North of the St.John River—are surveys or censuses undertaken by the State of Maine or by the U.S. government in communities that are today part of New Brunswick. Likewise, the 1833 New Brunswick Census of Madawaska surveyed communities in what is today Aroostook County, Maine.

The reason for this is that until 1842 both Great Britain and the US claimed both sides of the upper St.John River valley.

Map showing US claim and British claim prior to 1842, as well as the current border. (Click on map for enlarged view)

Map of disputed borders

Map from Deane, facing p.189

"On the map to the left, the blue line is the current border between Maine and New Brunswick and Quebec established by the Webster Ashburton Treaty of 1842 (also in blue is the western border of Maine with New Hampshire).

The yellow line was the line the British claimed as the border.

The red line was the border claimed by the United States, on the basis of which it undertook various surveys and censuses (including the 1830 and 1840 censuses) of the north bank of the upper St. John River.

The green line was the maximum US claim until 1794, which was never actually acted upon.

All of these claims are based on the wording of the peace treaty signed at Paris between Britain and the United States in 1783 by which Britain recognized the independence of the United States. In the Treaty of Paris, in Article 2, the northeastern border of the U.S. was described thus:

"From the northwest angle of Nova Scotia, to wit, that angle which is formed by a line drawn due north from the source of the St. Croix river to the highlands, along the said highlands which divide those rivers that empty themselves into the St. Lawrence, and those which fall into the Atlantic ocean, to the northwestern most head of the Connecticut river."

Unfortunately, the meaning of this description was very unclear, because the vast interior of the region was not yet explored or mapped. The description thus was a reflection of ignorance of the actual geography of the region.  This is a key point because it came to bear on the intentions of both sides in setting their border in 1783.

The green line in the map above is the line beginning at a river which the US originally claimed to be the St.Croix, but which a joint commission determined was actually called the Magaguadavik. The commission decided that the name St. Croix belonged to a river further west, which still bears the name. This resulted in the eastern border--that is, the St.Croix River to its source, and then a line due north from that source--being where it currently lies. The U.S. accepted this in the "Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation"--also known as "Jay's Treaty"--signed on November 1, 1794 and negotiated on the U.S. side by John Jay. This was a time when the United States was seeking to improve relations with England.

Detail of John Purdy's 1814 "A Map Of Cabotia..." which illustrates the line of British claim. 
Click map for more information. 

Map from the David Rumsey Map Collection, reproduced with permission.
Jay's Treaty set the eastern line of the border of the state of Maine, but left the determination of the rest of the border--the definition of the "Highlands" which were to be the border from the point where the line crossed them to the head of the Connecticut River--to a mixed commission of arbitration.

For Great Britain, and the colonial governments in Canada and the Maritime Colonies of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, the border demanded by the U.S. was strategically unacceptable.  During the winter months, the line of communication between Halifax, St.John, and Quebec and the rest of Canada went through the St.John River valley. Thus it would not be realistic for the governments of New Brunswick or Canada to accept US control over the entire St.John River valley. 

From the American perspective, this was an area of marginal strategic value.  What value it held for the US was mainly economic, in particular the vast stands of virgin-growth pine trees that were so important for the shipping and lumber industries, both powerful economic forces in early 19th century Maine; the rivers that provided transportation of that timber to mills and markets; the fertile farmland in the St.John and Aroostook River valleys.

The War of 1812: The border is almost settled

During the War of 1812, the border question was almost settled in a very different way.  The war itself was very unpopular in New England; indeed, immediately following the declaration of war by the US against Great Britain, the residents of Eastport, Maine -- just across the border from New Brunswick -- "unanimously voted to preserve a good understanding with the Inhabitants of New Brunswick and to discountenance all depredations upon the possessions of each other." [Source: Squires, p.107]   In September 1814, following US attacks on Upper Canada (including the burning and pillaging of the capital, York--now Toronto), British forces moved to take control of Eastern Maine, succeeding in gaining possession of that part of the state east of the Penobscot, including Belfast, Bangor and Machias. 

1838 Map of Maine by Thomas Bradford, illustrating US claims to the border. 
Click map for more information. 1831 Map of Maine: US claims
Thanks to the David Rumsey Map Collection.

British control was partially due to the fact that the residents of that area capitulated, and were guaranteed that trade between eastern Maine and New Brunswick and Nova Scotia would be allowed to continue unhindered. [source: "The Capitulation of Maine, September 1814", part of the War of 1812 website]   This move was encouraged by New Brunswick authorities, who were hoping to permanently move their western border further westwards. 

By the end of the war, eastern Maine was still controlled by British forces, but by the terms of the Treaty of Ghent (signed 24 Dec 1814 and came into force 15 Feb 1815), which ended the war, the territory was returned to the United States (even though US forces did not at that time control any British territory).  If the territory had remained in British hands after the war, it seems unlikely that the Madawaska settlements would have come into dispute.

Article V of the Treaty of Ghent dealt with the still-unresolved border dispute -- the demarcation of the "highlands" that were to be the boundary between the US and Britain's colonies.

Article V called for commissioners to be appointed, to survey the area and establish the border; in the case that they commissioners disagreed, the two sides agreed to put the decision in the hands of "some friendly sovereign or State", who would determine the border between the line drawn northward from the source of the St.Croix to the head of the Connecticut River, and from there to the point where the 45th degree parallel crossed the St.Lawrence River, that is, the border between Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York in the US, and New Brunswick and Lower Canada (Québec).

The Arbitration decision of the King of the Netherlands, 1831

The US appointed Cornelius P. VanNess, of Vermont, and Britain appointed Thomas Barclay, who had worked on the commission that had established the St.Croix River.  The two commissioners worked from 1816 to 1821. The result was two very different lines of claim.  Since the commissioners did not agree, in 1829 the two sides submitted their arguments on the border to William I, the King of the Netherlands, who had been chosen as Arbitrator.

Arguments focused on such aspects of the question as the definition of "highland"; the definition of "Atlantic Ocean"; the historical borders and actions of each of the sides in the region in question; the history of the population; and many other arguments. The US evidence alone fills a volume of 588 pages of two statements and 61 Appendices; the British evidence was contained in two statements with 55 appendices, for a total of 418 pages.

In January 1831 the King of the Netherlands, in his decision, set a border that is roughly the same as the current one: the St.John River and the St. Francis River (although the western boundary of Maine was significantly further west than the current border). Though this border clearly did not mark any "highlands", it must be seen as an attempt at compromise, taking into account the claims and interests of both sides  (Click for the full text of the arbitration decision).

The arbitration decision became known in the upper St.John River valley during the summer of 1831, at about the same time that John Deane and Edward Kavanaugh were conducting a survey of the Madawaska Settlement for the State of Maine. W.O. Raymond, in his article on the Deane and Kavanagh report, noted that because of this announcement, their survey of the north bank of the upper St.John -- which had been awarded to the British -- was somewhat hindered by the Warden of the Disputed Territory for the Province of New Brunswick, James MacLauchlin, who "exercised a restraining influence and the information recorded by Deane and Kavanagh is less full" than the information they gathered on the south bank. "At the same time it also appears that the people were disposed to be less obliging to their visitors, and had it not been for Mr. MacLauchlan's aid they would have obtained even less information than they did." [Raymond, p.426]

On February 28, 1831, the Maine Legislature Resolved not to accept the decision of the King of the Netherlands, giving as its reason that he was no longer of any importance since Belgium had since become independent from the Netherlands. They also "Resolved Further - for the reasons before stated, That no decision made by any umpire under any circumstances, if the decision dismembers a State, has or can have, any constitutional force or obligation upon the State thus dismembered, unless the State adopt and sanction the decision," thereby rejecting a treaty obligation of the US federal government.

On March 10, 1831, the Legislature passed another Resolve that apportioned Madawaska (among the other towns) one representative to that body. On March 15, it passed an Act to Incorporate "the territory called and known by the name of Madawaska Settlement" into the town of Madawaska. This incorporation included a huge piece of territory, some 4,272 square miles or more than three times the size of Rhode Island, and directed the local inhabitants to organize their town's government.

On March 25, the President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, communicated to the State of Maine that he was in receipt of the findings of the King of the Netherlands and expressed his desire through the Secretary of State, "that while this matter is under deliberation, no steps may be taken by the State of Maine, with regard to the disputed territory, which may be calculated to interrupt or embarrass the action of the Executive branch of the Government of the United States upon this subject ..." Despite this Presidential order, on April 1, the Maine Legislature passed another Resolve adding "three hundred polls and the sum of $5,714 to the polls and taxable estate ... set to the town of Madawaska ..."

MacNutt states,

"Maine was unsatisfied, and her point of view made American national policy. Immediately following the award her truculence was voiced by an act to incorporate the town of Madawaska. This was a challenge not only to New Brunswick and Great Britain but to the government of Washington as well. It had become a powerful cry that the general government could not barter away the territory of a sovereign state. The state government, urged on by the high-pitched eloquence of local patriots, had become a thorn in the flesh of Washington. [US] President Jackson had no compliments for [Maine] Governor Lincoln, though he went out of his way to express appreciation for the correct conduct of Douglas." [MacNutt p.212]

William D. Williams, a Justice of the Peace, was directed to issue a Warrant for a Town Meeting, which was directed to Walter Powers, inhabitant, and the meeting was scheduled for August 20, 1831 at the house of Peter Lizotte, on the south side of the river, in what is today Maine. This meeting of about 40 men was held out of doors ("en plein air") as Lizotte protested against the meeting being held in his house. A moderator and other town officers were chosen, several French settlers having refused office. British officials arrived and the meeting broke up without any further action. The meeting reconvened on September 12 at Raphael Martin's house in what is today Frenchville, Maine with about 50 citizens present. Captain Peter Lizotte was chosen by 21 to 16 votes over John Baker as Madawaska's Representative to the Legislature.

His Excellency Sir Archibald Campbell, Major General and lieutenant Governor of the Province of New Brunswick, accompanied by two militia officers, the Attorney General of the province, and the sheriff of York County (N.B.) arrived in Madawaska September 25 and issued warrants against all who had voted at the two meetings. Barnabas Hunnewell (moderator), Jesse Wheelock (town clerk), Daniel Savage (selectman) and Daniel Bean were arrested; the French-speaking voters were excused. The first three named were fined 50 pounds each and imprisoned at Fredericton for three months.

When the Legislature reconvened in 1832, Lizotte wrote to Governor Samuel Smith that he had protested at the time of his election that he had no intention of taking the oath of allegiance to the United States, that he was a British subject and intended to die so. The new Governor backed off on the stand his predecessor had taken and the matter of the Town of Madawaska was allowed to rest for the time being.

At the same time, in March 1832 the Maine legislature secretly accepted an agreement with the US government:

The agreement was that Maine provisionally yield to the United States all its claim to soil and jurisdiction in the region north of the St.John and east of the St. Francis.  It would receive as indemnity a million acres of unappropriated federal land in the territory of Michigan, the land to be sold as part of the public domain by the federal authorities, with all proceeds to be paid to Maine.  The proceeds could have amounted to $1,250,000. ... This bargain was approved in secret session by the Maine legislature on March 3, 1832. [Merk, p.51, citing Resolves of the State of Maine (Augusta, 1832-1835), pp.465-467]

In the end, the Maine legislature withdrew from the secret bargain, and the US Senate, at the behest of the State of Maine, rejected the arbitration decision. President Andrew Jackson, who very strongly argued for accepting the compromise line, later expressed his regret for having given in to the arguments of his cabinet and others: "I yielded to this recommendation, but sincerely I have regretted it since." [Merk, p.52, citing Correspondence of Andrew Jackson, John S. Basset, ed.(Washington: Carnegie Institution, 1929), vol.VI, p.162.]

As it turned out, the line chosen by the King of the Netherlands was almost exactly the same as the border that was eventually agreed upon in 1842.

Mars Hill, the "Highlands" claimed by the British as the northern border of Maine.
Photo taken from the New Brunswick side of the current border, June 2005.

The "Aroostook War"

By the late 1830s tensions had risen in the region into what has become known as "The Aroostook War":

Here's a summary of events, from Jennifer Godwin's Web site, containing an American point of view at:

"Canadian lumberjacks entered the Aroostook region to cut timber during the winter of 1838-1839, and in February they seized the American [State of Maine] land agent who had been dispatched to expel them. The "war" was now under way. Maine and New Brunswick called out their militiamen, and Congress, at the instigation of Maine, authorized a force of 50,000 men and appropriated $10 million to meet the emergency. Maine actually sent 10,000 troops to the disputed area. President Martin Van Buren dispatched General Winfield Scott to the "war" zone, and Scott arranged an agreement (March 1839) between officials of Maine and New Brunswick that averted actual fighting. Britain agreed to refer the dispute to a boundary commission, and the matter settled in 1842 by the the Webster-Ashburton Treaty (referred to by the British as the Treaty of Washington).

Note that the underlying assumption in this description is that the timber in the region belonged to the State of Maine, rather than recognizing the area as actually being in dispute, with British claims to it as well.

From a New Brunswick perspective, William T. Baird in his autobiography Seventy Years of New Brunswick Life, notes that the State of Maine started to exercise unwarranted jurisdiction in the disputed territory.  This activity was seen as an aggressive manouevre that portended US invasion of the province. Of course the memory of the US invasion of the British provinces during the War of 1812 was fresh on New Brunswickers' minds, having been only 25 years earlier.  This was further compounded by the fact that many of the settlers along the upper St.John River valley below Grand Falls were veterans of the war against the US, having received grants of land as compensation for their service (see my page on the Military Settlements on the St.John), while much of the population of the province was descended from Loyalists who had fled or be expelled from the newly independent United States in 1783. The possibility of US invasion would have been at the forefront of New Brunswick Lieutenant Governor Sir John Harvey's thoughts, as he had seen the enemy face to face many times in Upper Canada during the war.

Baird continues:

"The loyalty of [New Brunswick's] people was touched, and volunteers, representing the three arms of service, came nobly to the front. Nor was this spirit confined to New Brunswick. The Legislature of Nova Scotia, in a true brotherly spirit of British loyalty, voted a contingent of 10,000 men, and money, to aid New Brunswick in repelling the aggression of the State of Maine.

"It was mid-winter in the year of 1837-38. The regular troops in garrison at Fredericton being the first to move, the Fredericton "Rifle Company" volunteered its services to perform garrison duty, which was accepted. The 36th Regiment went into quarters at Woodstock, supported by the Fredericton Artillery and the Carleton County Militia.

"Reviewing a line of volunteers formed on the ice above the Meduxnakic bridge at Woodstock, the gallant old Colonel Maxwell addressed them as 'hardy and loyal sons of New Brunswick and as possessing bodies of adamant and souls of fire.'

"The Fredericton Troop of Cavalry acted as videttés, stationed on the road between Fredericton and Woodstock to carry despatches. A battalion of infantry was also organized in York County and occupied the Artillery Park Barracks, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Robinson." [Baird, pp.87-88]

Fortunately cooler heads prevailed before it came to war. According to James Hannay in his History of New Brunswick,

"information was received of recent attempts on the part of the State of Maine to take possession of the disputed territory. The Legislature of Maine had from the first displayed a very truculent spirit with regard to this question, and endeavoured to force the Government of the United States into a position of direct hostility with Great Britain. If the people of Maine had been allowed to have their own way, there would have been a war between the two nations, and the result might have been such as to reduce the territory of Maine very considerably, for, at that time, the state had no good means of communication with the Madawaska District, and any contest waged in that quarter, between Great Britain and the United States, would have been greatly to the disadvantage of the latter."

The contrast with the American view is striking.

After this event, the State of Maine continued an aggressive stance, declaring that it would appoint its own commission to determine the border and to enforce its claim:

"On March 18, 1840, [Maine] Governor Kent's Democratic successor, John Fairfield, approved a belligerent set of resolutions by the legislature declaring  that unless the British government should make a distinct and satisfactory proposition during the present session of Congress for the immediate adjustment of the boundary, the duty of the federal government would be to take possession of the disputed territory, and, if the federal government should flinch, it would become the imperative duty of Maine to assume the defense of the honor of the state and nation and expel from its limits whatever British troops were quartered there." [Merk, p.57, citing Acts and Resolves of the State of Maine (August, 1840), pp.226-227]

Massachusetts on the other hand "had exhibited for the most part a spirit of forbearance and restraint".  Why was Maine so belligerent? Merk explains:

"The instransigeance of Maine was a reflection of local politics.  Political parties in the state were closely divided between Democrats and Whigs.  Elections to the legislature and to the governorship were annual, and the voting was so even that the balance normally shifted back and forth.  Anti-British feeling was strong throughout northern New England, and the temptation existed in both parties to escape embarrassing local problems by emphasizing the foreign ones.  Twisting the lion's tail was a national sport, played not only in northern New England, but elsewhere in the nation.  Expansionism was pressed increasingly by the Democrats in other states, and in Maine any yielding to the grasping tactics of hated Albion [England] was considered proof of lack of spirit." [Merk, pp.57-58]

Given the constitutional arrangement in the United States, "Maine held a veto power over any boundary agreement with Great Britain with which it was dissatisfied."

Despite Maine's stance--or rather, because of it--an agreement seems to have been reached with Britain by which the US would prevent agents of the State of Maine from entering the disputed territory.  Evidence of this comes in the form of a letter from J.A.Maclauchlan concerning his encounter with Gorham Parks who was undertaking the federal (US) census of the region in 1840.  Maclauchlan notes that Gorham "assured me that he was not an agent sent to Madawaska on the part of the State of Maine but of the General Government of the United States and that he was fully sensible of the kind intentions and forbearance of His Excellency towards him." The politeness of Gorham was a striking contrast to the confrontational tone of the statements by Maine political leaders. And the reaction of Maclauchlan contrasts to his reaction three years earlier, when the State of Maine sent Ebenezer Greeley to undertake a state census; in that case, Greeley was arrested and imprisoned in Fredericton.

In the meantime, both Britain (in 1839) and the US (in 1840) ordered new surveys of the disputed territories. The British survey was undertaken by R.Z. Mudge and G.W. Feathersonhaugh (published as "North American Boundary, part 2," in Parliamentary Papers, 1840, XXXII); the American survey was authorized by an act of Congress on 20 July 1840.

The Negotiations and Treaty of 1842

In 1841, new governments in the United States and Great Britain came to power which desired to resolve the dispute by diplomacy.  In the US, Daniel Webster was appointed Secretary of State after a failed presidential bid.   One of his goals was to settle the disputed border. The British appointed Lord Ashburton, a personal friend of Webster, to be their negotiator on this issue. The negotiations opened in the spring of 1842.

MacNutt continues, describing how the Madawaska Settlement was divided between the two countries:

"In the face of Ashburton's refusal to surrender territory to the north of the St. John, Webster had to secure compensation for Maine, not only from the British but from his own government as well. Compensations also suggested were Grand Manan and Campobello [in southwestern New Brunswick on the border with Maine].

"No serious consideration was given to most of these suggestions, but Ashburton regretfully consented to the surrender of the Acadian villages on the south bank of the St. John. The establishment of an international Acadian community on the upper river was one of the facts of life that had to be faced. Forgetting the powerful New England animus that in large part had been responsible for the expulsion of 1755, the Americans, in their propaganda offensives, had frequently reminded the Acadians of the brutal treatment they had experienced from Britain in the past. Now the Acadians were to be subjected to another disarrangement resulting from the rivalry of great powers. Ever since Carleton's time, New Brunswick, though unable to help them greatly in a material way, had been solicitous for them. The river communication had tied them to Fredericton. New Brunswick colonial documents contain a great many of their statements, invariably over the signatures of their priests, of their determination to remain British subjects under the jurisdiction of the province. Their impending alienation was the sole obstacle of any importance to a compromise on the British side." [MacNutt, p.311]

As another observer described it,

"In the settlement of the question, the principle that a British subject could never be alienated from his allegiance to his native country has been violated, and the people of Madawaska have been bartered as if they were common articles of traffic." [Gesner, p.64]

The final result of these negotiations was a Treaty, signed on 9 August and ratified by the US Senate on 20 August 1842.  The treaty resolved the border dispute through a compromise that set the border at the middle of the St.John River to the confluence of the St.Francis, from their up the St.Francis (see full text of Article 1, which describes the entire border), thereby splitting the Madawaska settlement down the middle.

"The compromise reached by Daniel Webster and 1st Baron Ashburton (Alexander Baring) awarded 7,015 square miles to the United States and 5,012 to Great Britain. Retention by the British of the northern area assured them of year-round overland military communications with Montreal. Webster used a map, said to have been marked with a red line by Benjamin Franklin at Paris in 1782, in persuading Maine and Massachusetts to accept the agreement." [Godwin]

The story of the map is indeed an interesting one, and explains also why the US Senate approved the Treaty.

Benjamin Franklin's Map

In secret Senate deliberations over the Treaty, in August 1842, it was revealed that an American scholar had discovered Benjamin Franklin's map in the Paris archives. This is the information sent by the American, Jared Sparks (future president of Harvard University), to the US authorities:

"While pursuing my researches among the voluminous papers relating to the American Revolution in the Archives des Affaires Etrangères in Paris, I found in one of the bound volumes an original letter from Dr. Franklin to Count de Vergennes, of which the following is an exact transcript:

'Passy, December 6, 1782

'Sir, -- I have the honor of returning herewith the map your Excellency sent me yesterday.  I have marked with a strong red line, according to your desire, the limits of the United States, as settled in the preliminaries between the British and American Plenipotentiaries.

'With great respect, I am, &c,
B. Franklin'

"This letter was written six days after the preliminaries were signed;  and if we could procure the identical map mentioned by Franklin it would seem to afford conclusive evidence as to the meaning affixed by the Commissioners to the language of the treaty on the subject of the boundaries." [Congressional Globe, Senate, 27th Congress, 3rd Session, The British Treaty--Mr. Rives, p.61]

Sparks then describes his efforts to find the map in question. He was successful, locating it in the geographical department of the Archives:

"After a little research in the American division, ... I came upon a map of North America, by D'Anville, dated 1746, in size about eighteen inches square, on which was drawn a strong red line through the entire boundary of the United States, answering precisely to Franklin's description.  The line is bold and distinct in every part, made with red ink, and apparently drawn with a camel-hair pencil, or a pen with a blunt point. There is no other colouring on the map.

"Imagine my surprise on discovering that this line runs wholly south of the St.John, and between the head waters of that river and the Penobscot and the Kennebec.  In short, it is exactly the line contended for by Great Britain, except that it concedes more than is claimed.  The north line, after departing from the source of the St. Croix, instead of proceeding to Mars Hill, stops far short of that point, and turns off to the west, so as to leave on the British side all the streams that flow into the St.John between the source of the St.Croix and Mars Hill. It is evident that the line from the St.Croix to the Canadian high land is intended to exclude all the waters running into the St.John.

"There is no positive proof that this map is actually the one marked by Franklin; yet, upon  any other supposition , it would be difficult to explain the circumstances of its agreeing so perfectly with its description, and of its being preserved in the place where it would naturally be deposited by the Count de Vergennes.  I also found another map in the Archives, on which the same boundary was traced in a dotted red line with a pen, apparently coloured from the other.

"I enclose herewith a map of Maine, on which I have drawn a strong black line, corresponding with the red one above mentioned.

Jared Sparks"
[Congressional Globe, Senate, 27th Congress, 3rd Session, The British Treaty--Mr. Rives, p.61]

The Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, William C. Rives, added that Sparks' discovery was further corroborated "by proof from the archives of an American Statesman":

"A map has been vauntingly paraded here, from Mr. Jefferson's collection, in the zeal of opposition (without taking time to see what it was,) to confront and invalidate the map found by Mr. Sparks in the Foreign Office at Paris; but the moment it was examined, it is found to contain, by the most precise and remarkable correspondence, in every feature, the map communicated by Mr. Sparks!" [Congressional Globe, Senate, 27th Congress, 3rd Session, The British Treaty--Mr. Rives, p.61]

(Click for the entire transcript of the Secret Session of the Senate discussions of the Treaty, August 1842  )

Lord Ashburton too saw the advantages in promoting the Sparks map.  He apparently arranged, with Webster, for Sparks to visit the governors of Maine and Massachusetts with the information about the map in the French archives. [Merk, p.71]

The Ashburton connection

What is usually not mentioned in accounts of the negotations is that Lord Ashburton, Alexander Baring, was the son of Sir Francis Baring, head of the banking house of that name.  The Baring House had bailed out William Bingham, one of the biggest investors in Maine lumber lands; Bingham had purchased several million acres of land but was unable to meet his payments. Unable to borrow from American banks, Bingham turned to Barings.

Alexander Baring's Maine Lands

Map of Alexander Baring's land holdings in Maine, purchased from William Bingham in 1795. Although none of this land was in the disputed territory, it demonstrates the ties Baring had with Maine timber interests.
From Howard Jones, To the Webster-Ashburton Treaty: A Study in Anglo-American Relations, 1783-1843 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1977), p.99.
"Sir Francis Baring, head of the firm, dispatched his son, Alexander, to America to inspect the land and in the course of this duty he journeyed into Maine with William Bingham and his wife and two daughters.  Alexander reported favorably to his father on the loan and on the Bingham daughter, Anne, as well.

"Moreover, he married the girl and the two families were further bound together when Alexander's young brother married Anne's younger sister, Maria. It was Alexander Baring, by then elevated to the peerage, who was sent to America as Lord Ashburton to attempt to settle the Northeast Boundary Dispute."  [Dietz, pp.136-137]

Thus New Brunswick felt to some degree cheated by its own British representatives, given that they had appointed Ashburton in full knowledge of his conflict of interest. On the other hand, London chose Ashburton specifically because of his good relationship with Webster, as well as his connections to Maine, hoping he would be able to reach a settlement acceptable to the Americans. 

We must also remember that Ashburton was operating under instructions from London.  These instructions "changed from time to time." The instructions started out with the goal of avoiding an outcome less favorable to Britain that the 1831 award of the King of the Netherlands.  In March they shifted, taking into account military and strategic interests, and Ashburton

"was directed to obtain the whole area bounded on the northwest by the highlands and on the southeast by the St.John River, and extending from the St.Francis southward to the source of the St.John,--a rectangle that under the Dutch award, would have gone to the United States. ... Ashburton vigorously protested this hardening of his instructions and a month later [Secretary for Foreign Affairs Lord] Aberdeen retreated, returning to the requirement of a line not less favorable to Great Britain than the Dutch award." [Merk, pp.72-73] 


British reactions

In the end, Britain conceded to the US in a number of areas of the border to the west of Maine, as well as the right to free navigation of the lower St.John River for delivery of timber and agricultural goods of Americans on the upper St.John and Aroostook, while the final border of western Maine was significantly to the east of the 1831 proposal. The final line, in Maine as well as in the rest of the border, from New Hampshire to Minnesota, was very favorable to the United States.  The land retained by Britain, on the other hand, proved to be of marginal economic value.  For the British government, the main goal seems to have been to settle this issue as part of an overall attempt to improve relations with the United States.

The 1842 Treaty was nevertheless harshly critized in Britain, notably by Lord Palmerston, who denounced it as shameful, and as a capitulation to the US.  Sir Robert Peel responded:

"The treaty had won for England... more than the territory Palmerston would have been satisfied to accept under the Dutch award, especially the strategic area north of the St.John through which the road to the city of Quebec ran. The treaty had closed a dispute dating back half a century that Palmerston had failed, during ten years in office, to resolve." [Merk, p.79]

Peel also defended the Treaty by referring to a series of maps from the time of the 1783 negotiations, including one entitled "A Map of the Boundary of the United States, as agreed to by the treaty of 1783, by Mr. Faden, Geographer to the King":

"Now, Sir, that map placed the boundary according to the American claim, yet it was a contemporary map, and it was published by the geographer to the British King. ... But there is still another map. Here--in this country.  In the library of the late King, was deposited a map by Mitchell, of the date 1753.  The map was in the possession of the late king ... but he did not communicate its contents to Mr. Webster.  It is marked by a broad red line, and on that line is written, 'Boundary as described by our negotiator, Mr. Oswald'; and that line follows the claim of the United States. ... On that map, I repeat, is placed the boundary line--that claimed by the United States, and on four different places on that line, 'Boundary as described by Oswald'. Now I do not say that that was the boundary ultimately settled by the negotiators, but nothing can be more fallacious than founding a claim upon contemporary maps, unless you can also prove that they were adopted by the negotiators." [Peel in Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, 3rd Ser., vol.67, 1248-1250 (March 21, 1843), cited in Merk, pp.79-80]

Peel also discounted the authenticity of the Sparks map.  Apparently Peel and others in the British government had serious doubts about the British line, though they swore to the Americans that at the time of the negotiations over the 1842 treaty they had been unaware of the George III map or others which seemed to support the US claim.

In the end, the argument of maps is inconclusive; the 1783 Treaty did not include maps to indicate with certainty the intention of the negotiators, who relied only on the description.  Both sides did, however, use the threat of unfavorable maps to convince doubters at home that the Treaty was indeed a good deal for them.

Nevertheless, it seems hard to imagine that the British negotiators in 1783 intended to cede to the United States the entire valley of the upper St.John, given its vital military significance; or to allow the border to be drawn within 15 miles of the St.Lawrence River, as the US claim to those highlands would indicate.  In the end, it seems that the United States benefited from the lack of precision of the 1783 negotiators, and from the desire of London in 1842 to reach a settlement on good terms with the US.

Reactions in New Brunswick

The only party that seems to be left out is the provincial government of New Brunswick.  Indeed, the debate in the British Parliament focused on what was good for Britain; unlike the State of Maine, which had much influence, both Constitutional and political, in Washington, New Brunswick did not possess the kind of clout that could swing London from what it saw as a decision of importance for the interest of the Empire as a whole.

Gesner comments:

"From a humane desire to preserve peace, the treaty was received in the Province with silent coolness, which has been mistaken for satisfaction; and whatever may be the claims of Lord Ashburton to the praise of an enlightened statesman and politicians, the above treaty reflects no credit upon his ability, and is disgraceful to the country that invested him with the powers of reconciliation." [Gesner, p.65]

MacNutt's comments:

"New Brunswick's feeling was of satisfaction with the new boundary. The general sense was the award of the King of the Netherlands in 1831 was a just one and this new treaty gave more to New Brunswick than before. There was still hard feeling for some who were convinced on the correctness of the British point of view and one person declared that 'the appointment of Lord Ashburton had been the 'cruellest cut of all.' His million acres in Maine would treble in value in consequence of the decision. There has been an American interest, or an American feeling, or both, existing among the majority of persons employed on our side.'" [MacNutt, p.312]

But MacNutt also notes some of the advantages New Brunswick received from the final settlement:

"Yet it was with some sense of elation that the government and legislature of New Brunswick rose to the possibility of squaring the account with the Americans to some extent. For a long time it had been considered desirable to impose a tax on timber exported from the province, a cheap and efficient substitute for the stumpage duties collected from the Crown lands. The treaty allowed the Americans to employ the down-river facilities of the St. John on the same terms as British subjects. A tax on timber exported by native merchants would fall equally on Americans who floated out logs from the formerly disputed territory. This finally went into effect in 1844. Thoroughly irritated, the American government protested; the British government subjected the question to anxious review, but the province was in a strong legal position and succeeded in imposing its policy." [MacNutt, p.313]

As for the population of the Madawaska Settlement, they were not even consulted about the outcome, and their existence as a unified community was not seen as relevant to the outcome. I am unaware of any reports on their reactions to the final settlement.

Maine and Massachusetts compensated for their "losses"

As mentioned above, the US government pledged to pay Maine and Massachusetts $150,000 each in compensation in order to obtain their aquiescence. Massachusetts was granted compensation because it owned half of the public lands in Maine. Prior to statehood in 1820 Maine had been a province of Massachusetts. As part of the agreement allowing Maine to become a state, the state of Massachusetts was granted title to 1/2 of all public (undivided) lands in the new state. Thus Massachusetts too had a direct interest in the outcome of this border dispute. In addition, Maine was reimbursed for its expenses in patrolling the disputed region prior to the treaty; and Maine and Massachusetts were to receive shares in the "Disputed Territory Fund" that had been collected by New Brunswick from fines levied against those who illegally took timber from the territory.

Map entitled "Maine Boundary Controversy, 1782-1842", and was published in The American Nation: a History from Original Sources, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1906), vol. 17.
Click on map for enlarged view
In terms of US public opinion, this compromise was a hard sell because of earlier US and Maine propaganda that portrayed any potential compromise as a "giveaway" of US territory.  Webster "gained popular approval with a newspaper propaganda he paid for with secret State Department funds." [Encyclopedia Britannica, "Daniel Webster"] Webster also secretly employed Francis O.J. Smith, a Maine politician, to quietly persuade Maine elites that a new negotiation to settle the border would be in Maine's interest. The success of this strategy was seen in May 1842, when the Maine legislature approved the US reentering into negotiations with Britain, as well as in Maine's subsequent acquiescence in the final treaty line.

The communities of the upper St.John and Aroostook River valleys and the 1842 Treaty

As mentioned above, the people who lived in the disputed territory were not consulted or asked about what their desires were.  But the Treaty did address an issue vital to them: ownership of land.

Article IV of the 1842 treaty provided for legalizing land ownership issues for the persons who had settled in the disputed territory, most of whom had either paid the British government for grants of land in what was now the US, or who had settled and improved land without the benefit of grants. For more details on this provision of the Treaty, and for the report of the US Commissioners which lists names of settlers, dates of settlement, etc., see my page on the "Joint Report of the Commissioners to locate grants and determine the extent of possessory claims under the late treaty with Great Britain."

Thus was established the current border between Maine, New Brunswick and Québec, and thus was the community of the Upper St.John River Valley divided by an international border.

Both the 1831 arbitration and the final decision adopted in 1842 rejected arguments based on the interest of the local population; that is, the international border divided what was an integral community that did not see the river as a boundary or border. The result has been that while the population in New Brunswick -- the only officially bilingual province of Canada -- have maintained their French culture and language, the population on the US side has assimilated into the Anglo-dominant culture of the US. The border thus not only divided the community but created the conditions which would split that community asunder.

Clearing on Maine-NB border
Looking south along the Maine-New Brunswick border. Note the clearing through the trees along the border.

border marker
border marker

One of the markers that stands exactly on the current Maine-New Brunswick border: "Treaty of Washington, Boundary August 9th, 1842". On the other two sides of the marker are the names of the US and British Commissioners. Click on photos for enlarged view.

Thanks to Norm DeMerchant for the section on New Brunswick perspectives, as well as for guiding me to the border itself in June 2005.

For a fascinating look at the history of these two communities, and how what were once identical populations came to diverge so greatly, see the paper (online) by Louise Gravel Shea, "L'influence de la Frontière Canado-Américain sur la population de Grande-Rivière Madawaska" ("The influence of the Canadian-American Border on the Population of Grande-Rivière Madawaska") (in French; in PDF format)

Here are a couple of articles from CBC New Brunswick on how the recent US tightening of border restrictions is affecting the border region:

Here's a link to the Bibliothèque Nationale du Québec's website, to the "Map to Illustrate the boundary line established by the Treaty of Washington, 1842." Clicking on the map will bring you to a very large detailed image file of the same map.

This border dispute was also an issue in New Hampshire, on its border with Québec, where there was briefly established the independent "Indian Stream Republic" on the territory between the 45th parallel and the current border (Indian Stream runs through the heart of that territory). As in Madawaska, this border dispute was also finally settled by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty / Treaty of Washington of 1842.

Here are a few websites on this aspect of the US-Canada border dispute:

Return to the Upper St.John Valley Communities Page
Return to the 1820 US Census of Matawascah Parish
Return to the 1830 US Census of the Madawaska Settlement
Return to the 1831 Deane and Kavanagh Survey of the Madawaska Settlements
Return to the 1833 New Brunswick Census of Madawaska
Return to the 1840 US Census of Madawaska
Return to the 1844 Joint Report of the Commissioners

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Last revised 23 Oct 2011
© 2004-2011 C. Gagnon