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Trouble at Madawaska, 1831

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Trouble at Madawaska, 1831

It was intended by the 1783 peace treaty that the New Brunswick border go along the Saint Croix River to its source, and then follow a line northward to the highlands separating the waters that flowed to the Saint Lawrence from those that flowed to the Atlantic. The border would then proceed along the highland, or watershed, westward.

This left room for debate. For example, Britain said that the Mar’s Hill, northwest of Florenceville, was about as ‘high’ a place as could be found. This would have chopped off the northern half of the present state of Maine. The United States took the ‘highlands’ to be the Saint Lawrence watershed, which would have extended Maine well into present day Quebec. The American position was more defensible in terms of the treaty, but would have cut off New Brunswick’s access to Quebec City via the Saint John River and made the Madawaska region American. Both sides had a lot to lose, and neither would accept the other’s interpretation until the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 finally settled the matter.

Competing land claims

Competing Land Claims

The diplomats agreed at an early stage that neither side would interfere with the status quo while negotiations were in progress. That should have meant no public administration, no elections, no granting of land or timber rights, no courts, and no soldiers. That sounds quite ideal, if you wanted to be left alone, but such situations rarely last for very long and even the Republic of Madawaska is now just a, perhaps wistful, memory. But the Republic would be another story for another day.

This story describes the border intrusions of 1831 and the resulting diplomatic turmoil. The State of Maine interfered with the status quo by imposing public administration, but there are no entirely clean hands in this affair. We will meet a British militia captain living in the disputed territory, for example, and also a British Justice of the Peace.

Camp Green River

Camp Along the Green River

W.F. Ganong, 1912 – N.B. Museum

The Maine State Legislature incorporated the Town of Madawaska in 1830. The present Town of Madawaska is still within the state, but it was part of the disputed territory at the time. The town was also more of a region, at that time, and included land on both sides of the present border. The Governor later said that he had interpreted the Act as a declaration of jurisdiction over the area, but that he had had no intention of acting upon it until the border negotiations were complete.

The State already knew where the border was, at least as far as they were concerned, and the ongoing negotiations were likely to reduce their territory. The King of the Netherlands acted as an arbiter of disputes during negotiations, and the State was also unhappy about that. The Governor therefore wrote to the State Department in Washington, enclosing some resolutions of the Legislature about the whole affair. They replied with a copy of a decision by the King of the Netherlands, and American protests about his decision. They promised, however, that the central government would keep the State’s interests in mind, and get back to them in due course. They also said, and significantly, that Maine should not take any steps that might “interrupt or embarrass” the negotiations. All of this was in March of 1831.

Madawaska, having been incorporated into a town within the State of Maine, would require under normal circumstances that a local government be set up. Therefore, a Justice of the Peace in Penobscot County, ordered that the townspeople be gathered together at Peter Ligott’s house on August 20th, to elect town officials and selectmen. Walter Powers posted notices, ordering the people to assemble.

The first of two meetings, the one at Lezard’s house, was raucous. There were 50 or 60 people present, when Leonard Coombs, a captain of militia, and Francis Rice, a local Justice of the Peace both objected to the proceedings. There were threats of arrest and imprisonment, and names were taken down. Nonetheless, Jesse Wheelock, Daniel Savage, John Harford, and Amos Maddocks were elected to town office. Another meeting was held at the home of Raphael Martin, where Peter Lezard was also elected.

A New Brunswick military force began to assemble at Madawaska chapel, almost a month after election activities began, on September 25, 1831. Archibald Campbell, the new Lieutenant Governor was there, and arms were stockpiled at the home of Simon Hebert. The people were ordered to a meeting and, by evening, both Daniel Savage and Jesse Wheelock were arrested. The next day, about 20 soldiers took to canoes and secured the house of John Baker, who fled to the woods. Barnabus Hunnewell, Daniel Bean, and several French settlers were also arrested. About 50 more soldiers arrived, and Baker quit the area altogether, while the troops moved on to St. François in search of more election participants.

There are some interesting characters in this play. Sir Archibald Campbell was Lieutenant Governor and was not a man to be toyed with in military affairs. He was a seasoned commander and was known as the Hero of Ava for his part in the Anglo-Burmese War. John Baker had raised the American flag and declared the Republic of Madawaska, but his flag was taken down and he was arrested, jailed for a while, and fined.

Daniel Savage and Jesse Wheelock were taken downriver toward Fredericton, and were joined along the way by about thirty French prisoners, and two Americans, Barnabas Hunnewell and Daniel Bean. The rest of the Americans had fled to the woods.

The Governor of the State of Maine, Samuel E. Smith, told the Secretary of State that the election activity had been unauthorized, and that he had had no prior knowledge of it. Nonetheless, there were Americans in custody in Fredericton and he, on their behalf, demanded that they receive protection from the government. If Washington would not do this, then the state might have to act on its own. The Secretary replied that he would do what he could, but could be more vigorous in those effort had the problem not been caused by state. The Governor upped the ante, by saying that the state did not support the present negotiations, and that the federal government could not alienate part of the state’s territory without their participation and agreement.

The diplomats took an entirely different tone, since no one wanted the situation to escalate. The Secretary of State wrote to the British Chargé d’Affaires and suggested that, since the intrusion into the disputed territory had not been authorized, it would be appropriate for the Lieutenant Governor to exercise his prerogative and release the prisoners. Otherwise, local passions in Maine might be difficult to restrain. The Chargé d’Affaires agreed and referred the matter to Archibald Campbell, who found that he also had to agree. The prisoners were released on November 8, 1831. The French prisoners all gave bonds, some for trial and some for good behaviour.

In the meantime, another dispute was unfolding. Way back in March, the State Legislature passed a resolve that the Governor appoint someone to survey landholders in the disputed territory to determine their numbers and what title they had to their lands. John G. Deane and Edward Kavanagh carried this out, with only Simon Hebert and his sons Simonet and Joseph refusing to answer. A man then met with them saying that he had come from Fredericton to ask what was going on and on what authority. There was no physical conflict, and the man agreed to accompany them to keep an eye on the proceedings.

There was a flurry of diplomatic exchanges in September and October, even before the prisoners from the previous affair had been released. In the end, all that was accomplished was to establish that the survey was complete and that everyone had gone home.

Principal Reference:

The Administration of Andrew Jackson, Message from the President of the United States … Relating of Capture … of American Citizens by New Brunswick, 1831. This is a collection of correspondence, which the Senate had requested concerning “the capture, abduction, and imprisonment of American citizens, by the provincial authorities of New Brunswick, and the measures which, in consequence thereof, have been adopted by the Executive of the United States.”


There were too many principal characters in the events of 1831 to name them all. Following is a list of some pf them, for genealogists and family historians:

American Government Authorities

  • Andrew Jackson – President of the United States.
  • Martin Van Buren – Secretary of State (1829-1831), Washington. Only a few of the earlier pieces of correspondence from the State Department were signed by Van Buren. He later became President.
  • Edward Livingston – Secretary of State (1831-1833), Washington. Most of the correspondence from the State Department was from Livingston.
  • Samuel E. Smith –Governor of the State of Maine.

British Government Authorities

  • Charles Bankhead – British Chargé d’Affaires, stationed in Washington.

New Brunswick (British) Government Authorities

  • Sir Archibald Campbell – Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick (September 3, 1831 to 1837). He was present at the military response to the election activities.

Madawaska Residents who Acted Against the Election Activities

  • Leonard R. Coombs – A New Brunswick militia captain at Madawaska, who objected to the election meeting, and participated in the militia activities which followed.
  • Simon Herbert – A resident of Madawaska and a New Brunswick militia captain. Arms were collected at his house following the election.
  • Francis Rice – A New Brunswick Justice of the Peace at Madawaska, who objected to the election meeting.

Those who Acted in Favour of the Election Activities (both sides of eventual border)

  • William D. Williamson – Justice of the Peace, County of Penobscot. He ordered the elections.
  • Walter Powers – A resident of Madawaska. He posted notices ordering the people to assemble for the election, per a directive by William D. Williamson. One of those who took to the woods when the soldiers arrived.
  • Peter Ligott – A resident of Madawaska. The first election meeting was held at his house, and he was elected as a representative.
  • Barnabus Hunnewell – Moderator of the first election meeting. Arrested for election activities.
  • Raphael Martin – A resident of Madawaska. The second election meeting was held at his house.
  • Jesse Wheelock – Elected a Selectman and town clerk of Madawaska, and subsequently arrested.
  • Daniel Savage – Elected a Selectman of Madawaska, and subsequently arrested.
  • John Harford – Elected a Selectman of Madawaska.
  • Amos Maddocks – Elected a Selectman of Madawaska. One of those who took to the woods when the soldiers arrived.
  • Daniel Bean – Elected a Selectman of Madawaska. He was reported to have been arrested, but was not one of those who were imprisoned in Fredericton.
  • Nathaniel Bartlett – One of those who took to the woods when the soldiers arrived.
  • Joseph Miles – One of those who took to the woods when the soldiers arrived.
  • Augustin Webster – One of those who took to the woods when the soldiers arrived.
  • Charles M’Pherson – One of those who took to the woods when the soldiers arrived.

People who Deposed as to What Happened at Election Time

  • John Baker – A resident of Madawaska and a mill owner, who was present at the election meetings and who later made a deposition describing his experiences. He became known as the ‘George Washington of the Republic of Madawaska.’
  • Phinehas R. Harford – A resident of Madawaska, who was present at the election meetings and who later made a deposition describing his experiences.

Principal Characters Involved in the Survey of Madawaska Residents

  • John G. Deane – Appointed to conduct the survey of the people of Madawaska.
  • Edward Kavanagh – Appointed to conduct the survey of the people of Madawaska.
  • Joseph Herbert – A resident of Madawaska. A son of Simon Hebert. He refused to answer the questions of the survey takers.
  • Simonet Herbert – A resident of Madawaska. A son of Simon Hebert. He refused to answer the questions of the survey takers.
  • James A. Maclauchlan – New Brunswick warden in the disputed territory between Maine and New Brunswick. He objected to the activities of the survey takers.

Written by johnwood1946

July 16, 2014 at 9:28 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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