Books By Dr. Dena Winslow

Aroostook County, Maine, is the second-largest county in the United States.  It contains 6,408 square miles today and is larger than the states of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined.  Originally Old Map Compass Rosepart of Washington County, Aroostook County was incorporated on March 16, 1839.  “The County,” as Aroostook is fondly known, is surrounded on three sides the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Quebec.  The county is named for the river which meanders through it.  Originally called, “Restook” the word is a Native American word meaning, “beautiful river.”

Between 300 and 500 million years ago, Aroostook was mostly under a warm shallow ocean, as recorded in the many sedimentary rocks filled with early fossils throughout the County.  That’s the period when some volcanic hills squeezed up from the ocean floor – not erupting, but rather just oozing up with hot lava to create hills such as Haystack Mountain. 

Then the temperatures cooled and during the last ice age, approximately 12,700 years ago was when the first humans arrived.  They were living on the margins of the glaciers, which were up to two miles thick in places, and were known as the “Paleo Indians” (meaning “early people”).  The climate warmed again and the environment changed eventually to the one we know today.  Native American Micmac and Maliseet people continue to make Aroostook County their home.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s the first non-Natives began arriving.  Priests came first, along with explorers and fur traders.  One of these priests, Father LeBrun, is said to have planted a flag on Mars Hill Mountain in 1607.  In the mid-1780s the French Acadians arrived and settled in what is now the northern part of Aroostook County along the St. John River in the area of present-day Madawaska. 

It was about this time that the huge “Pumpkin Pine” trees in the Aroostook forest were discovered.  These trees made great mast trees for the English Navy and the British sent people into the forest to mark the trees with the King’s Broad Arrow, claiming them as the possession of the English Navy.  An example of a King’s Pine marked with the “Broad Arrow” can be seen today at the Ashland Logging Museum in Ashland.

Following the end of the Revolutionary War, timber harvesting flourished in Aroostook County, with the timber being floated down the rivers and streams and into the St. John River and then into the lumber mills located in present-day New Brunswick.

When Maine became the 23rd state on March 15, 1820, separating from Massachusetts, it was 5,500 square miles larger than it is today.  That is about the same size as the state of Connecticut.  The story of how Maine shrunk is a fascinating one which began on September 14, 1814, when Canada was still part of England.[1]  It was on that date that, for the first time, the British Commissioners in Canada began to question the boundary “by which the direct communication between Halifax and Quebec becomes interrupted…” and they claimed, “that the greater part of the territory in question is actually unoccupied.”[2]  Because the maps[3] up to that time clearly show the northern border to be located near the St. Lawrence River, this was an effort on the part of the British Commissioners to claim the land in order to protect their “Communication” route which ran directly through what was at that time the State of Maine.  It was a great ploy and, in the end, it worked in allowing what would become New Brunswick to claim a large portion of Maine.[4]

The dispute between Maine and England over the northern border represents the only time in Aroostook County Maine history that a State has declared war on another nation.  The hostilities, known as the “Aroostook War” were eventually settled by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, and ultimately cost Maine and Aroostook County 5,500 square miles of land, and established the border where it is presently located today.

Aroostook History by Dena WinslowLumber production was an important early industry in Aroostook County and continues to be so today.  The towns of Ashland and the surrounding towns are the gateway to the North Maine Woods, one of the significant areas for lumbering in the County today.

Farming has also been a significant industry in the County, and it, too, continues to this day.  Picturesque small-town Mapleton Maine is a good example of a small potato farming community.  One important but often overlooked ingredient to the highly successful potato farming industry in Aroostook County was the development of the iconic Native American baskets which were made by Micmac and Maliseet people.  These unique baskets were sturdy and perfect for the hundreds of people who picked potatoes each fall, including many Micmac and Maliseet people.  Today, the labor to harvest the potato crops is largely mechanical and the potato basket has become a symbol of the time when, right after WWII ended and into the mid-1940s, Aroostook County farmers grew more potatoes than any other state.  It was during this time that Aroostook County became known as the “Potato Capital of the World.”

Among the many significant events that have made Aroostook County unique has been the only lynching, the lynching of Jim Cullen, in New England in 1873 when the residents of Presque Isle lynched Jim Cullen, a New Brunswick native. 

In addition, Aroostook County is well known as a hot air ballooning destination with the two major Trans-Atlantic balloon crossings launched from here.  The first was the successful crossing of the Atlantic in August 1978 when the “Double Eagle II” left Presque Isle and landed in Miserey, France.  The second was when Col. Joe Kittinger, Jr. flew the “Rosie O’Grady’s Balloon of Peace” solo across the Atlantic in September of 1984, launching from Caribou, Maine, and landing in Montenotte, Italy. 

Aroostook County Maine has a rich and varied history.  We hope you will enjoy some of it presented on this website.

[1] Canada was founded in 1867 as a union of the British Colonies.  It gained full independence from the UK in 1982.

[2] Buchanan, James, Chair of the Committee on Foreign Relations, US Senate, “Report to the Senate of the United States,” July 4, 1838, 9.

[3] Ganong, William, A Monograph of the Evolution of the Boundaries of the Province of New Brunswick, Contributions to the History of New Brunswick, No. 5, From the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, Second Series, 1901-1902, Volume VII, Section II, Toronto and London, 1901, page 239 says, “The cartographical history of the boundaries during this period is very simple.  Up to 1763 all of the English maps which showed the western boundary of Nova Scotia laid it down as a direct line from the source of the St. Croix due north to the St. Lawrence.  On the maps after 1763 a boundary is laid down along the highlands just south of the River St. Lawrence, and the north line of the St. Croix stops there.  This is as far as I know universally the case; it is certainly so in the many maps I have examined…”

[4] Within the past few years, someone jokingly called the Aroostook War the “Pork and Beans War” as a derogatory reference to the lumber that was one issue leading up to the War.  Unfortunately, many people who have not done their research have latched onto this and continue to use the inappropriate and inaccurate term.  This is a misnomer for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the real genesis of the hostilities that ultimately brought the two nations to the brink of war again was the issue of the location of the “Communication Route” which England (Canada) so desperately needed to maintain control over.  The second problem with the misnomer is that although lumbermen 100 years LATER did eat pork and beans as regular woods fare, at the time of the Aroostook War, although pork was a staple food of the lumbermen, there is almost no evidence that they ate any beans to speak of (I did find a reference to one small bag of beans being taken into the woods for food over the winter among the thousands of documents I have looked at pertaining to this series of events).  This anachronism would be like calling the Aroostook War the, “Chainsaw War,” when chainsaws did not exist at that time.