A measure of the obscurity of the last organized military confrontation between British North America and the United States is that there’s confusion over the origin of its nickname.
The “Pork and Beans War” of 1839-42, according to various sources, refers either to the regular diet of lumberjacks in northern Maine and southern New Brunswick or to the rations of the British soldiers who were dispatched to said disputed territory, the scene of “the Aroostook War.”
At a time when Canada’s federal government is lavishing money and attention on commemoration of the War of 1812, a bloody and ultimately inconclusive clash, the Aroostook War, arguably a more constructive dispute, remains mostly lost in the mists of time — mostly.
On the western shore of Lac Temiscouata, about midway between the St. Lawrence River and the border with Maine, one finds — if one knows where to look — Fort Ingall. Some 40 years ago, local history buffs, excited by the artefacts and ruins archaeologists were finding on the site, decided to rebuild the fort, which had been abandoned, demolished and forgotten for decades.
On a visit last week, I discovered an impressively reconstructed site surrounded by a palisade of 12-foot logs. The buildings within the walls include soldiers barracks, officers quarters and jail house, all crafted with techniques employed in the 19th century.
The Aroostook War was essentially a bit of unfinished business left over from another, much more spectacular conflict, the War of Independence.
The Treaty of Versailles contained a rather ambiguous description of the border between the State of Maine and British colony of New Brunswick. Something about highlands and headwaters. This was not a big deal until the quest for timber in the region sparked territorial disputes.
The British decided to take steps to defend not only vital timber supplies in New Brunswick but also to protect a vital transportation route known as the Halifax Road. Hence, Fort Ingall and three other fortified garrisons sprung up to guard against an American invasion.
Maine, meanwhile mobilized “posses” and Congress authorized $10 million and 10,000 troops in the event of an open clash.
There were isolated incidents of both sides capturing a prisoner or two over the next several months, but there are no verified reports of actually casualties due to armed conflict, though, typically, some soldiers died from disease or other calamity.
There was no shortage of fervor to engage the enemy, as witness this excerpt from a song about the Aroostook spat: “We’ll feed them well with ball and shot. We’ll cut these red-coats down, Before we yield to them an inch
Or title of our ground.”
In the end, neither side really wanted a clash of arms, less than 30 years since the last costly spat, and left it to diplomats, not generals, to settle the “war” amicably.
Daniel Webster and Lord Ashburton hammered out the Treaty that would bear their names. Besides resolving the questions of territory, the treaty also defined the border in the Great Lakes between Canada and the United States.
Incidentally, the title page from the Webster-Ashburton Treaty is on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa until mid-January. It’s part of an exhibition devoted to peace-making.
Traveling the great expanse of New Brunswick, the mighty Madawaska River separating the province from Maine, you get the sense of the enormity of the effort and commitment that would have been required, in an age devoid of rapid communication, to protect and defend claimed territory in a vast wilderness.
One tries to imagine what that commitment to defense of the realm meant to the soldiers in their rough barracks on the forlorn shores of a frozen lake deep in the forests of New Brunswick.
On the level of military strategy, however, it’s probable that the little forts the British build in the valley were enough of a deterrent to stave off the need for musket and cannon.
With the exception of some brinkmanship in the Civil War’s Trent affair and the bizarre Fenian raids of 1860, there has been no open belligerence between Canada and the United States since cooler heads prevailed to ensure the Pork and Beans War became a pleasantly obscure bit of cross-border history.
Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.