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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

March 4, 2015: Forgotten Wars: The Aroostook War

[Two hundred years ago this week, the U.S. declared war on the North African nation of Algiers, leading to the unremembered conflict about which I wrote in Monday’s post. That Second Barbary War is one of many such forgotten wars in American history, and I’ll also highlight and AmericanStudy others for the remainder of the week’s posts. Leading up to a special weekend post responding to a relevant recent piece by one of my model AmericanStudiers.]
On national history, local history, and lumberjacks.
I wrote a paragraph about the 1839 Aroostook War in this 2012 post on complex American histories of territorial conflict and expansion, and argued there for that forgotten and bloodless war’s significant national and international connections and legacies. Much like the far more extended, violent, and famous (if inaccurately remembered) Mexican American War, the Aroostook War helped determine a border that has become a permanent part of the national and continental landscape. And its culminating Webster-Ashburton Treaty likewise illustrated and amplified the period’s international policing of the continuing, illegal slave trade, giving the war, like the state of Maine in which it took place, a promiment role to play in the era’s tensions over slavery and gradual moves toward sectional division and the Civil War.
Better remembering (or rather remembering at all) this forgotten war would thus help us engage with a number of significant 19th century, national and international histories. Yet just as no history of the Mexican American War can ignore the much more specific local histories at play, neither can we tell the story of the Aroostook War without a deep engagement with particular details of Northern Maine, New Brunswick, and their environment and world. Or rather with one specific such detail: timber, the vital natural resource that was and still is found in particular abundance and quality in precisely the disputed territories between those northeastern regions. If we have to understand the period’s two Barbary Wars as centrally defined by and illustrating international relationships and histories (as I have argued in the week’s prior two posts), then it seems just as clear that, its national and international consequences and meanings notwithstanding, the Aroostook War was the era’s (and perhaps American history’s) most local conflict, the most driven by issues and realities present on the ground in (and to a degree only in) the specific area in question.
Plus, lumberjacks. From one of the most prominent mythological representations of American identity (and his big blue ox) to the unique and popular sports competition show that has become a mainstay of ESPN’s non-major-sport coverage, lumberjacks have occupied a longstanding place in our collective consciousness. Yet despite that cultural presence, I don’t know of any well-known American histories that include this community or allow us to engage with what they have contributed to our national story and identity. Well, the Aroostook War provides just such a history and opportunity, one that can also help us locate historical lumberjacks in the central role they played in the development of the Industrial Revolution in America (and around the world). After all, there’s a reason why both the U.S. and Britain were so desperate to lay claim to those disputed northeastern territories and their miles of prime timber—and better remembering their dispute can help put timber and those who work with it back in our historical as well as cultural narratives.
Next forgotten war tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other under-remembered conflicts you’d highlight?

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