New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Ashburton Treaty

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This essay is by William F. Ganong, and appeared in The New Brunswick Magazine, Saint John, Volume 1, 1898.

The Ashburton Treaty of 1842 established the border between the state of Maine and the Province of New Brunswick. The northern part of N.B. was disputed territory before the treaty, and there are countless stories about those years. The Americans would, for example, send census-takers into the Madawaska region; the authorities at Fredericton would respond by sending troops; the Americans would then complain that agreements not to militarize the region were being broken; troops and census-takers would withdraw; and the whole dance would begin again.

In this essay, Ganong examines the border as established by Ashburton and concludes that New Brunswick got a better deal than it was entitled to on the basis of the treaty of 1783 between Britain and the United States.

Ward Chipman

New Brunswick’s Ward Chipman. He was aware that the 1783 treaty limited British territorial claims in northern ‘N.B.’


The Ashburton Treaty

There are probably but few people in New Brunswick, who, knowing anything at all about the boundary disputes terminated by the Ashburton treaty of 1842, would not claim that this province was sadly defrauded by that treaty and through it lost a great and valuable territory belonging to her by right. This statement is passed along from one generation to another, accepted without question and repeated without investigation. Not only is it current in conversation but it has even been promulgated by high officials in public addresses. But this condemnation of the Ashburton treaty is not confined to New Brunswick alone, for it is equally intense and widespread in the other country affected by it, the state of Maine, which claims that it, and not New Brunswick, was the heavy loser. Naturally, as a New Brunswicker, I formerly thought our own view of the case necessarily the correct one, but an investigation of the whole subject, so far from confirming this opinion, has forced me to the opposite conclusion, namely, that Maine is right and we are wrong, that the Ashburton treaty took from Maine much territory awarded her by the treaty of 1783, and so far from robbing us of what was our due, it really gave us territory not awarded us by the treaty.

My own attention was first turned to this subject through studies upon the early maps of New Brunswick. I noticed that the maps of the last century, almost without exception, sustained the American and not the British claims. I accordingly investigated all other evidence and all documents accessible to me bearing upon the subject, with the result stated above. I have given in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada for 1897 (Section II, page 383) a brief discussion of the evidence. It is a pleasure to be able to add that Mr. James Hannay, in various newspaper writings, has expressed independently substantially the same opinion.

The American claim, it will be remembered, was that the due north line from the source of the St. Croix should cross the River St. John above Grand Falls (instead of stopping as it does at the river) and continue to the highlands just south of the St. Lawrence, and that all west of this line was awarded to them by the treaty of 1783. The British claim, which was first introduced in this century, was that the north line should stop at Mars Hill, south of the Aroostook, and thence run west along the Aroostook-Penobscot watershed. The present line, secured by Lord Ashburton, roughly splits the difference between the two claims. It does not give us a convenient nor natural boundary, but for that the British Commissioners who negotiated the treaty of 1783 should be held responsible and not Lord Ashburton, who saved us from a part, though he could not save us from all, of the consequences of their action. Yet for these Commissioners, too, there is excuse, for events and odds were fearfully against them.

The boundary in part between the United States and British America was defined in the treaty of 1783 as follows:

“Art. II. And that all disputes which might arise in future on the subject of the boundaries of the said United States may be prevented, it is hereby agreed and declared, that the following are and shall be their boundaries, viz.: From the North-west Angle of Nova Scotia, viz., that angle which is formed by a line drawn due North from the source of St. Croix river to the Highlands, along the said Highlands, which divide those rivers that empty themselves into the River St. Laurence, from those which fall into the Atlantic Ocean, to the North-Westernmost Head of Connecticut river.” (Here is the description of the remaining boundaries of the United States, of no importance to our present subject until the following occurs.) “East, by a line to be drawn along the middle of the river St. Croix from its mouth in the bay of Fundy to its source, and from its source directly North to the aforesaid Highlands which divide the rivers that fall into the Atlantic Ocean from those which fall into the river St. Laurence, comprehending all islands,” etc. (Murdoch, Nova Scotia III, 24 25).

Though drawn up in good faith and apparently with unmistakable clearness, this description of boundaries fitted so badly the country it tried to describe that it gave rise to over half a century of international disputes, so bitter as to bring the two nations near to the verge of war, so important as to require successive weighty Commissions for their settlement, and so lasting that their final echoes have hardly yet died away. This entire subject of the evolution of our boundaries has not been adequately treated by any New Brunswick writer, and it yet awaits a thorough and judicial treatment. But so far as our present subject is concerned we have to deal with only one phase of the disputes, that which has to do with the length of the due North line from the source of the St. Croix, and the resultant position of the “Northwest angle of Nova Scotia.”

The question then now before us is this, what was understood by the Commissioners who framed the Treaty of 1783 to be the “Northwest angle of Nova Scotia”? For answer we turn naturally to the best documents and maps of the time. In October, 1763, a royal proclamation fixed as the southern boundary of Quebec, and hence as the northern boundary of Nova Scotia and Maine (then a part of Massachusetts), the highlands separating waters flowing into the River St. Lawrence from those flowing south. In November of the same year a royal commission to a governor of Nova Scotia (then including New Brunswick) defined the limit of that province as a line drawn north from the source of the St. Croix to the southern bounds of Quebec, and other official documents of 1774 and 1783 reaffirmed these bounds. Naturally these boundaries are given on the maps of the time, and indeed no others appear on all of the large series of maps between 1763 and 1783. Between 1763 and 1783, then, there was no question as to the meaning of the “Northwestern angle of Nova Scotia” – it was the angle of intersection between a line drawn north from the source of the St. Croix river, and the line of the highland watershed just south of the St. Lawrence. It is precisely this boundary which Maine has always claimed, and if the treaty of 1783 had simply mentioned this “Northwestern angle of Nova Scotia,” and had not attempted to define its position in words, I have no doubt that Maine today would possess her full claim, and that the western boundary line of New Brunswick would continue across the St. John northward to near the St. Lawrence, throwing all the Madawaska and Temiscouata region into Maine. But, happily for us, the treaty attempted to define in words the Northwest angle of Nova Scotia, and described it as “that angle which is formed by a line drawn due north from the source of St. Croix river to the Highlands . . . which divide those rivers that empty themselves into the River St. Lawrence from those which fall into the Atlantic ocean.” Now if one takes a modern and correct map, and draws a line due north from the source of the St. Croix to the highlands south of the St. Lawrence, it does not reach highlands separating rivers falling into the St. Lawrence from those which fall into the Atlantic Ocean, but it reaches highlands separating rivers falling into the St. Lawrence from those which fall into Bay Chaleur. But the Commissioners in 1783 had not correct modern maps before them, but only the very imperfect ones of their time, a time far preceding any surveys of any kind in the region of these highlands. But what maps did the Commissioners have before them in their negotiations? Happily we have most satisfactory information upon this point, for commissioners from both parties later agreed that while other maps were from time to time consulted, the one actually used in the negotiations was that of John Mitchell of 1755. This map has often been reproduced and a copy of it may be seen in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, recently issued, (III, section II, page 378). Now the watershed intersected by the line drawn north from the source of the St. Croix on that map does separate rivers flowing into the St. Lawrence from those flowing into the Atlantic Ocean, and this is not only true on Mitchell’s map, but also on most others of that time. Of course the maps were wrong in this, but nobody then knew it, and hence the commissioners gave a perfectly correct description of the “Northwest angle of Nova Scotia” as it would appear if drawn out on Mitchell’s map and in the only way in which it could be known to them. In the face of these facts I cannot see any escape from the truth and justice of the Maine claim that the commissioners meant to make the boundary line between Maine and Nova Scotia run north to the highlands just south of the St. Lawrence.

There is yet other evidence of the right of the American claim. Not only did England never dispute it until well into this century, and perhaps then, (as has been suggested) only because the war of 1812 showed how the communication between eastern and western British America would be cut off if the American claim were admitted, but documents are extant showing that the American claim was recognized and admitted as a matter of course by at least two of the ablest lawyers and most devoted loyalists in New Brunswick’s early history. One of these was Ward Chipman, the elder, whose part in the foundation of New Brunswick and services in connection with the settlement of the boundaries are well known. In several of his letters in 1796-99 to the authorities in England (of which his own manuscript copies are now in my possession) he refers to the north line as crossing the St. John and cutting off communication with Canada, and to the need there will be for a future negotiation to secure an alteration of that north line; and in no case does he hint at the least doubt that the treaty awarded that north line as the boundary. In the following passage, from a letter of Oct. 19th, 1796, addressed to William Knox (formerly undersecretary of state for America), though expressing doubt as to the intention of the framers of the treaty, he fully admits the legal justice of the American claim:

“With regard to the principal question it is to be lamented that by the most favorable decision we can obtain, that it, a boundary line running- due North to the Highlands from the source of the Western Branch of the Scoudiac River, our communication with Canada by the River St. John will be interrupted, as that line will probably strike the River St. John upward of 50 Miles on this side of the grand portage somewhere near a very valuable settlement called the Madawaska which is a circumstance not generally known, and some future negotiation will probably become necessary to preserve that communication unbroken. Tho the line will unfortunately run in this manner, it cannot be supposed to have been intended when the Treaty of Peace was formed, either on the part of the United States to claim or on ours to yield a boundary which should in fact cut through the provinces it was intended to limit. But the decision of the present question agreeable to His Majesty’s Claim will render the tract of country in such case to be negotiated for of much less value and importance and probably secure the acquisition of it upon much easier terms.”

In a letter of December 1, 1798 to Mr. Knox he says: “If a negotiation is necessary for an alteration of the north line as now established in order to preserve our communication with Canada,” and here also he expresses no doubt as to the validity of the American claim.

Again in a letter written by Col. Edward Winslow at the close of 1798 or beginning of 1799 (for a copy of which I am indebted to Rev. W. O. Raymond) occurs the following:

“My last two summers have been spent in the American States in the execution of a very arduous and laborious duty as Secretary to the Commissioners appointed under the fifth article of the Treaty of Amity, Commerce, etc. to determine the eastern boundary line. The business closed in October last and under all the existing circumstances the decision may be considered as favourable to great Britain. Had the Americans established their claim to the Magaguadavic, the River St. John would have been intersected within a few miles of Fredericton, the whole of St. Andrews and other valuable settlements, together with two military posts of some importance would have been embraced within their limits. As it is we lose not a single British settlement. A few miserable frenchmen at Madawaska on the route to Canada fall within their territory. I presume that some future negotiation will remove even this difficulty and give us a free communication with Canada.”

This statement of a leading Loyalist, lawyer and Secretary of a Boundary Commission, is indeed strong for the American claim.

There are also documents in existence which show that in 1787 Lord Dorchester was aware of the necessity for carrying the Quebec-New Brunswick boundary far to the south, even to Grand Falls, in order to provide a reason for stopping the due North line as far South as possible.

It was Joseph Bouchette in his “Topographical Description of Lower Canada,” 1815, who first definitely formulated the British claim which was adduced to offset that of the Americans. In brief, it was pointed out that the “Northwest angle of Nova Scotia” as defined by the Treaty does not exist, which is true, and this point was emphasized throughout the discussion to the total neglect of the fact that the “Northwest angle of Nova Scotia” did have in men’s minds in 1783 a definite meaning independently of the precise details of the topography of the country it covered, and a meaning, too, which could very readily have been applied to the actual topography had all so willed. The Highlands were held to begin at Mars Hill, south of the Aroostook, and to run westerly between that River and the Penobscot headwaters. The two parties stood stoutly for their own claims, submitted them to the arbitration of the King of the Netherlands, refused to accept his decision, came nearly to war in the Aroostook valley, and settled the matter by splitting the difference in the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842.

There remains one important point yet to be noticed, why did the British Commissioners in 1783 consent to a boundary which thrust Maine as a great wedge far North into British America, cutting off communication between its eastern and western parts? The answer seems to be plain. Massachusetts had become an independent state, Nova Scotia remained a loyal province. It was obvious that the international boundary must separate these two. But the extent of each of them was perfectly well known at that time to everybody, and it was universally understood that the boundary between them was a north line from the source of the St. Croix to the highlands just south of the St. Lawrence, and thus this line became the natural international boundary. We can imagine with what fine scorn the American Commissioners, representing the victorious states, would have received a proposition to cede a part of the free state of Massachusetts to Great Britain in order that it might be added to Nova Scotia to improve the communication between that province and Canada. Probably it never occurred to the British Commissioners to make so preposterous a proposition.


Written by johnwood1946

November 27, 2013 at 9:53 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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