Maine: Fort Kent and Madawaska

The town of Fort Kent grew up around the fort of the same name. The fort was built in 1839 as a means of securing the northern U.S. border, which at the time was subject to dispute. The fort has been restored as a historic museum. Madawaska was the site of settlement in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by French speakers who had been expelled from their former colony of Acadia in Canada. Madawaska is still populated by many people of Acadian descent and has several sites commemorating the early settlers.

Site Offices:

Fort Kent State Historical Site

Blockhouse Road and West Main Street

Fort Kent, ME 04743

ph.: (207) 834-3866

Fort Kent Historic Site

c/o Department of Conservation

1235 Central Drive

Presque Isle, ME 04769

ph.: (207) 764-2041

Madawaska Historical Society

P.O. Box 258

Madawaska, ME 04756

Fort Kent, in the “big country” of Aroostook County in northern Maine, contributed in a symbolic and tangible way to the establishment of the northeastern boundary between the United States and Canada. It was one of several forts that were built in an attempt to secure the northern U.S. border. Three expeditions were responsible for these forts: the U.S. Army, from 1828 to 1845; the Maine land agents’ “civil posses,” from 1834 to 1841; and the Maine militia, between February and May of 1839. It was a civil posse that established Fort Kent, but all three forces occupied the garrison at one time or another.

Early History

Before the boundary conflicts in the nineteenth century, the area around Fort Kent–particularly the Madawaska Territory in the St. John River valley–was notable for its population of exiles from Acadia. The Acadians had emigrated from France in the early seventeenth century to settle in an area that includes present-day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, as well as parts of Quebec and Maine. Acadia–geographically isolated from other French Canadian settlements–was subject to repeated upheavals as the French and British vied for supremacy over the eastern maritime region.

After yet another round of conflicts, control of Acadia passed from the French to the British through the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. For a quarter of a century, the French-speaking Catholics were not seriously affected by British control. The Acadians repeatedly refused to take a blanket oath of allegiance to England’s monarchs–an oath that might require them to fight the French–but even so, the repercussions of this intransigence were minimal. As the Acadian population grew, however, so did the anxiety of the British. Nova Scotia governor Charles Lawrence determined that the Acadian opposition was insidious and had to be removed. He wished to repopulate the peninsula with pro-British New Englanders. Lawrence succeeded in exiling an estimated ten thousand Acadians through multiple expulsions, beginning in 1755; some fled before being forcibly removed.

The actual removal of the Acadians from their lands was swift and brutal, as the population was ordered to board ships immediately. Many of the displaced Acadians headed for the New England colonies, especially nearby Massachusetts, where they were accommodated, but with little enthusiasm. The Acadians often did not settle permanently at their destination points; some of the exiles tried to return to Acadia, and others, such as the settlers in the Madawaska Territory along the St. John River, did not arrive there until thirty years after the initial exile.

Resettlement of the Acadians

They first tried settling in other parts of New Brunswick, which had been separated from Nova Scotia in 1784, but encroachment by New Englanders after the American Revolution displaced the Acadians once again. Finally, the governor of Quebec provided for two hundred acres per family on land one and a half miles below the mouth of the Madawaska River, near the present St. David’s Church. The first Acadians arrived there in June, 1785. In that remote location they built a colony of log houses, where they were able to live with little interference from either the British or the Americans; the settlers more frequently encountered the British, however, for whom the St. John River was an important waterway.

The French-speaking settlers also migrated farther downstream, to a small American settlement that had been established in 1817 along the St. John River, near the eventual site of Fort Kent. The first Acadian to move there was Jose Nadeau, who settled in 1829 at the confluence of the Fish and St. John Rivers. The Acadians throughout the valley were mostly farmers and remained largely isolated, both physically and culturally, from the settlements that were being established in western Maine by New Englanders. By the time Maine achieved statehood in 1820, the Acadians were well established in Madawaska. Occasional commercial disputes between the United States and Great Britain over the Aroostook Valley’s valuable fur, lumber, and minerals were negotiated to the satisfaction of both parties without inconvenience to the area’s residents.

Exploitation of the Land

In fact, the major concerns really were about access to the land and its commercial benefits, not necessarily ownership of the territory. A sort of commercial tolerance developed as fur trappers and lumbermen were allowed to cross from New Brunswick into Maine, and vice versa. Increasingly, however, timber was cut from private lands along the Aroostook River and its tributaries and sent down the St. John River to British subjects who shipped it to England. Canadian shipbuilders also had an eye on Maine’s lumber supply. By 1838 Maine and New Brunswick were contending ever more seriously for absolute control of the lucrative spruce, cedar, and white pine forests in the Aroostook Valley. The lumber trade was so active in the area that as late as 1840 shingles occasionally served as currency in parts of the Aroostook.

The residents along the St. John River had carried on with their lives, remaining more or less unaffected by the quibblings about the border that had begun in 1783, when the treaty ending the American Revolution had been signed. Serious friction occurred in 1827, when settlers on the St. John near Madawaska were arrested by New Brunswick authorities after celebrating the American Independence Day. Furthermore, since 1825 Maine and Massachusetts land agents had been investigating New Brunswick’s timber depredations, and in September, 1827, it was determined that arbitration was required. Treaty conventions led to the selection of King William I of the Netherlands to arbitrate the boundary dispute. Available facts about the local terrain were so scanty that in his 1831 decision the king could offer only a vague resolution to the territorial dispute.

The era of the boundary dispute had seen the rise of various local militia companies and small, ad hoc fortifications, but by the end of the 1830’s, hostilities intensified to the point of war. The stage was set in the winter of 1838-1839, when the governments of the United States, Great Britain, Maine, and New Brunswick amassed thousands of troops in the disputed border areas. The Aroostook War officially began on February 20, 1839, when Maine legislated that a militia should join the civil posse in the area. The U.S. Congress prepared for a major military effort, approving the dispatch of fifty thousand troops and a budget of ten million dollars. Thanks to the intervention of U.S. General Winfield Scott and British negotiator Sir John Harvey, the Aroostook War remained a bloodless one. Forces reached a truce only weeks later, on March 21, 1839, and the soldiers departed the area.

Joint Occupancy

Under the terms of joint occupancy, New Brunswick was to hold the Madawaska settlement, while Maine would control the Aroostook River. Madawaska in particular remained disputed, because it was ambiguous whether New Brunswick was to control just the north bank of the river or both sides. Maine took the initiative in defending what it considered its rightful territory on the south bank of the St. John River and insisted to President Martin Van Buren that the federal government step in and remove the foreign invaders. Maine also had the backing of Massachusetts, which had formerly owned Maine and was still a major property holder in the state.

On March 27, 1839, Charles Jarvis, provisional land agent for Maine, ordered Captain Alvin Nye and twenty-three civil posse and militia volunteers to an island at the confluence of the St. John and Fish Rivers. His intention was to erect a boom to stop the British from transporting timber from the south on the Fish River, and to protect that facility with a blockhouse. Nye was not to cross the adjoining St. John River, however, as this would be an obvious encroachment on New Brunswick. Ironically, the Aroostook War was ending just as Jarvis was planning these bold maneuvers. On March 23, 1839, the Maine legislature withdrew the state’s militia from the area, and word reached Jarvis six days later. Though his men were recalled, Jarvis deemed the establishment of jurisdiction to be vital to Maine’s interests.

By April 23 the boom was in place, and construction of the blockhouse was under way. One correspondent referred to the project, perhaps facetiously, as “Fort Jarvis.” The boom–from the island south to the mainland–stopped six hundred to eight hundred tons of timber. Rumors of construction of a British blockhouse stepped up the building of the fort in late summer of 1839. Captain Stover Rines, who replaced Nye, and thirty-five members of the civil posse had to build the fort before winter set in, and they continued with the blockhouse, cookhouse, and other service structures.

The new fort was remote from the rest of Maine–there were no serviceable land connections–but New Brunswick saw the fort not as an outpost but as an intrusion near vital transportation routes. Even as the British protested this new garrison, however, they were busy beefing up their own defenses. In reality, the fort was little threat: Lack of funds precluded a cannon, and supplies were scarce. The force there soon was reduced to twenty-five men, and eventually to eighteen.

As negotiations stalled in the national capitals, the contentious local face-off continued through 1840. In November of that year, the valley’s Americans attempted to vote in the presidential election, and a New Brunswick official from Madawaska interfered. The ensuing personal insults and affronts led to more troops being sent to the area.

Despite the continuing hostilities, the atmosphere at Fort Kent was more farmlike than siegelike. No stockade was built to surround the heavy timber blockhouse, and surrounding the blockhouse, cookhouse, stables, and other buildings were two hundred acres of cultivated land and livestock. The blockhouse itself was an anomaly: The square cedar-log building was an anachronistic structure. Its bulky, rough-hewn timbers and second-story overhang topped by a hip roof harked back to fortification design of the pre-Revolutionary period.

Adoption of the Name “Fort Kent”

The Fish River post became known as Fort Kent only in 1841, named in honor of Maine’s new governor, Edward Kent. On August 14, 1841, U.S. forces relieved the civil posse at Fort Kent, and a month later, Captain Lucien B. Webster arrived to take charge. He continued to use Fort Kent’s upper story and attic as living quarters, and the lower story remained a guardhouse and clothing depot. He did commission the building of an additional officers’ quarters, which was completed the next spring.

The British had responded to Maine’s bold maneuver by setting up their own stronghold twenty miles from Fort Kent. Tensions in the area eased with the arrival of the more professional federal troops. The British military rightly considered them to be less volatile than the local regiments. In fact, the U.S. and British officers fraternized frequently, to the point that the Americans requisitioned additional rations so they could properly entertain their peers from across the border. While at Fort Kent, the federal troops improved the facilities there. In addition to completing a new officers’ quarters, they outfitted the blockhouse with new floors and built a hospital, log huts for the company’s laundresses, and a school for the few children at the post.

New leaders of both the United States and Great Britain were more inclined toward diplomacy than toward war. The two powers set out to resolve a number of long-standing mutual disagreements, including the issue of the Maine-New Brunswick border. Great Britain sent Alexander Baring, Lord Ashburton, to represent its interests, while Secretary of State Daniel Webster was to negotiate for the United States.

Webster approached the whole affair with compromise in mind, prepared to relinquish some of the land claimed by Maine in favor of strategic concessions elsewhere along the border. Lord Ashburton had every reason to be conciliatory, too, and even pro-American. He had spent some time as a young man in New York, handling the American aspect of his father’s banking business, and he was married to the daughter of a Pennsylvania senator. His business interests in the United States continued.

Important to New Brunswick and the British was the maintenance of an adequate defense and commercial corridor that would follow the St. John River around Maine from the Atlantic coast to Montreal; this presupposed control of the northern and western parts of the disputed area. In exchange for a boundary that would allow such control, Ashburton was prepared to ensure the free transport of U.S. lumber products on the St. John River.

Settlement of the Land Dispute

After much negotiation, including resolving doubts about contentious maps and surveys that had been made in 1783 and earlier in the nineteenth century, the Treaty of Washington–also known as the Webster-Ashburton Treaty–was signed on August 9, 1842. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty on August 20 by a vote of thirty-nine to nine, and the United States and Great Britain proclaimed the boundary’s settlement on November 10, 1842.

In the Fort Kent-Madawaska area, the St. John River ultimately was determined as the border between Maine and New Brunswick, and families with members on both sides of the river were split between the two nations. There were occasional infractions and arrests as the new boundary took effect. Residents on the American side remained concerned about the British and requested maintenance of federal troops at Fort Kent. The United States prepared to withdraw its men in September, 1843, partly because Fort Kent simply was too difficult to service; there still was no suitable road from the south to the St. John River valley. Maine passed a resolution calling for the continued presence of federal troops, though, and the government briefly complied, keeping a reduced force there through 1844.

Generally, the treaty resolved amicably the hostilities between Maine and New Brunswick, and Fort Kent’s brief role in defending U.S. interests at the border came to a close. By 1858 all the property had been sold for private residential use. The town of Fort Kent was incorporated in 1869. The fort returned to the public realm in 1891, when Maine–in what likely was the first publicly funded preservation attempt in that state–authorized three hundred dollars to purchase the fort for restoration.

Modern Preservation Efforts

Today the blockhouse–near the center of town and mostly restored to its original form–serves as a state-run museum of local history, including exhibits of antiques related to river transportation and lumbering. Further information that relates to the fort’s immediate history explores the era when the northeastern boundary of the United States and Canada was anything but certain.

In Madawaska, where the Acadian dialect can still be heard, the early settlers are commemorated by a number of sites. The Madawaska Historical Society has preserved a one-room schoolhouse used by the Acadians, as well as a nineteenth century homestead. An Acadian cross marks the immigrants’ point of entry to Madawaska.

For Further Information

  • Callahan, James Morton. American Foreign Policy in Canadian Relations. New York: Macmillan, 1937. Offers a scholarly account of the entire border crisis, including an excellent chapter on the Webster-Ashburton Treaty.
  • Clark, Charles E., James S. Leamon, and Karen Bowden, eds. Maine in the Early Republic: From Revolution to Statehood. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1988. Covers the Acadian settlements.
  • Corey, Albert B. The Crisis of 1830-1842 in Canadian-American Relations. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1941. Narrows the discussion about the two countries to the period of their most trying conflicts, including the Maine-New Brunswick crisis that was resolved by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty.
  • Griffiths, Naomi. The Acadians: Creation of a People. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1973. A more immediate, detailed account about the original settlements of the Acadians in North America leading into an extensive discussion of the deportations of the eighteenth century. For its small size, this book offers an excellent range and depth of insights into the motivations of the Acadians and those who governed them.
  • Louder, Dean R., and Eric Waddell, eds. French America: Mobility, Identity, and Minority Experience Across the Continent. Translated by Franklin Philip. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993. Adapted from the collection Du continent perdu à l’archipel retrouvé: Le Québec et l’Amérique française (Quebec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1983). Puts the Northeast Acadians in the context of the larger Acadian migrations that included Europe and Louisiana.
  • McDonald, Sheila. “The War After the War.” Maine Historical Society Quarterly 29, nos. 3-4 (1990). Provides a remarkably detailed look at the whole system of defenses during the boundary dispute with the British and at the minutiae of how Fort Kent came to exist.
  • McInnis, Edgar W. The Unguarded Frontier: A History of American-Canadian Relations. New York: Russell & Russell, 1970. Further explores the border issues as a prime determinant in relations between the United States and Canada.
  • Scott, Geraldine Tidd. “Fortifications on Maine’s Northeast Boundary, 1828-1845.” Maine Historical Society Quarterly 29, nos. 3-4 (1990). A detailed look at the system of defenses during the boundary dispute with the British and at how Fort Kent came to exist.