Aroostook War, The
DESCRIPTION: "Ye soldiers of Maine, your bright weapons prepare: On your frontier's arising The clouds of grim war." "Your country's invaded!" "Then 'Hail the British!' Does anyone cry? 'Move not the old landmarks,' The settlers reply."
EARLIEST DATE: 1916 (Gray-SongsAndBalladsOfTheMaineLumberjacks); supposedly written 1839
KEYWORDS: political soldier
1839 - the "Aroostook War"
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Gray-SongsAndBalladsOfTheMaineLumberjacks, pp. 156-157, "The Aroostook War" (1 text)
Cohen-AmericanFolkSongsARegionalEncyclopedia1, p. 4, "The Aroostook War" (1 text)
cf. "Maine Soldiers' Song" (subject: Aroostook War)
cf. "Maine Battle Song" (subject: Aroostook War)
NOTES [1117 words]: When the American Revolution ended, one issue left unsettled was the border between what became the American state of Maine (then still part of Massachusetts) and New Brunswick in Canada. Initially it wasn't much of a problem; there simply weren't enough people in Maine for it to be an issue (there had been provisions in the 1783 treaty between the United States and Britain for a boundary commission, but the commission couldn't figure out what the treaty-makers had intended; Morison, p. 407). Eventually, in the late 1830s, the issue turned into a major boundary dispute. May, pp. 82-83, says, "The dispute was later submitted to the king of the Netherlands, who issued a compromise that the British accepted but the U.S. Senate rejected. Later attempts at mediation also failed, and that winter [1837-1838] new problems arose. Americans who were settling in the area noticed British interest in a road running through the Aroostook Valley, a safe supply route to reinforce Quebec and Montreal, if military necessity so required."
According to Clark, p. 83, the Dutch mediation failed because "the Maine governor argued that the state's constitutional rights would be violated because the state had not delegated to the central government the right to dispose of any of her territory. When the Dutch king actually announced his compromise decision in January 1831, the Main legislature responded that 'no decision made by any umpire under any circumstances, if the decision dismembers a State, has, or can have, an constitutional force or obligations upon the State thus dismembered, unless the State adopt and sanction the decision.'" This is pretty clear poppycock (the Civil War would eventually be fought to prove that Federal authority overrides the several states!), but it was enough to keep the settlement from being adopted.
Brebner/Masters, p. 196, suggests, "The bloodless 'Aroostook War' that brought troops on both sides of the border in 1839 may have been colored by Maine's delighted discovery that beyond miles of her unpromising forest uplands the Aroostook Valley contained broad fertile lands as well as fine trees, but the urgent problem was that its waters and the logs they carried reached the ocean through the St. John in New Brunswick."
Jameson, p. 28, says, "Aroostook Disturbances. In 1838 a band of lawless men, chiefly from New Brunswick, trespassed upon that territory which is watered by the Aroostook, and which was then claimed by noth Great Britain and the United States. The Governor of Maine drafted troops [almost certainly including the man who wrote this song] and drove off the intruders. The President sent General Winfield Scott to the Aroostook country. He arranged that it should be occupied as before, each government holding part, while the other denied its legal right."
Brebner/Masters, p. 150, declares, "The 'Aroostook War' of 1839 came as near as might be to reality, but no lives were lost in spite of raids and counterraids and defense measures which involved Maine and the American Congress on one side, and New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Great Britain on the other." McNaught, p. 104, mentions "sporadic 'warfare' between competing lumbermen of Maine and New Brunswick," without mentioning this conflict in particular. It apparently drew a lot of attention in Washington; congress, according to May, p. 83, authorized President Martin van Buren to recruit as many as fifty thousand volunteers and spend as much as ten million dollars on the conflict. Happily, the President instead sent Winfield Scott to look things over, and he calmed things down.
The British eventually appointed Lord Ashburton, who was unusually friendly to the Americans (he had an American wife; May, pp. 84-85) to negotiate with the pro-British Daniel Webster. In the treaty that resulted, "The United States received seven thousand square miles of the disputed territory, Britain the remaining five thousand (which included the needed military route to defend Quebec). Ashburton conceded... Britain's claim to two hundred square miles at the head of the Connecticut River and accepted New York and Vermont's borders at the forty-fifth parallel. When the value of the real estate is considered, it is clear that the United States received the better end of the deal [because of the rich mineral deposits later found in the territory].... To sweeten the deal for those states that lost territory, Maine and Massachusetts were each awarded $125,000" (May, p. 88).
(Clark's summary on pp. 85-86 is a little different: "The famous Webster-Ashburton treaty settled the matter once and for all in 1842 with a compromise boundary that violated Maine principles, but a $150,000 cash settlement from the Federal government helped sweeten the pill....")
This was not the only border disturbance of the period; an even more serious problem is the subject of "The Battle of the Windmill." The Webster/Ashburton treaty of 1842 at last settled the boundary and ended the problems although McNuaght, writing from a Canadian standpoint, thinks that it gave "a northward thrust to Maine that placed a grave impediment in the path of proposed railway connections between Quebec and New Brunswick -- a concession which left a legacy of serious railway difficulties for British North America." One doubts the composer of this song would agree -- or care.
The Biblical quote, "Move not the old landmarks," is sort of a conflation of several passages, which the King James Bible gives as
* "Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour's landmark, which they of old have set by thy inheritance." (Deut. 19:14)
* "Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set" (Proverbs 22:28)
* "Remove not the old landmark; and enter not into the fields of the fatherless" (Proverbs 23:10)
We might also note Deut. 17:17, "Cursed be he that removeth his neighbour's landmark."
Of course, the problem in this case is that there was no landmark, or settled boundary -- but one suspects that politicians wouldn't let mere facts stop them from whipping up the militia.
In addition to the three songs in Gray-SongsAndBalladsOfTheMaineLumberjacks about the Aroostook War, May, p. 83, quotes another fragment, which I assume is sung to "Yankee Doodle":
Britannia shall not rule the Maine,
Nor shall she rule the water;
That sung that song full log enough,
Much longer than they oughter.
Seba Smith, the Maine author many consider responsible for "Young Charlotte (Fair Charlotte)" [Laws G17], wrote "Jack Downing" stories about the Aroostook controversy (Clark, p. 84, quotes one of "Downing's" letters to Andrew Jackson); I wonder if Smith might not have had a hand in one or another of these songs. - RBW
Last updated in version 5.3
- Brebner/Masters: J. Bartlett Brebner, Canada, revised and enlarge by Donald C. Masters, University of Michigan Press, 1970
- Clark: Charles E. Clark, Maine: A History, Norton, 1977
- Jameson: J. Franklin Jameson, Dictionary of United States History 1492-1895, Puritan Press, 1894
- May: Gary May, John Tyler [a volume in the American Presidents series edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.], Times Books, 2008
- McNaught: Kenneth McNaught, The Pelican History of Canada, enlarged edition, Pelican, 1982
- Morison: Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People, Oxford, 1965
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