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The Census (and Census Taker) That Helped Start a War

Censuses provide current information to governments and historical information to genealogists. In this case, a census also provided fuel to an international dispute. Learn about the special census of Maine which helped cause the Aroostook War, and the thrice-arrested census taker at the heart of it.


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When census taker Ebenezer Stevens Greeley walked into the upper St. John River valley of Maine/New Brunswick in 1837, censuses were already a sore point.

Since 1783, the area had been a source of dispute between the young United States of America and British North America. At question was where the eastern border of Massachusetts, and after 1820, the eastern border of Maine, ended and where the western boundary of New Brunswick began.

The Pine Tree State escalated the conflict with an unusual provocation - a census. To prepare for the 1830 United States census, census takers went into the area, also known as Madawaska, to count all the Maine residents as well as tally up the British "trespassers".

Transcriptions of this census are available through, which notes that census taker John Webber was an assistant U.S. Marshall and that the names Webber took are often misspelled, being Anglophone approximations of the French names he heard. (The population of the area consisted mostly of French and Acadians, who felt no strong loyalty to either the Americans or the British fighting over their land.)

The state of Maine then commissioned John Deane and Edward Kavanagh to compile a report in 1831 on who was living in the disputed area. Although not a census, writes that the report contains information on where settlers originated from, how much land they owned and other information.

To the Canadians, this survey was another act of aggression. "People were told that if they did not cooperate they would lose their property," writes the province of New Brunswick on its website. "Maine wanted the whole of Madawaska Settlement. Town meetings were held and British officials arrested the American agents."

After the ruckus from that survey settled, disputes continued over the valuable timber in the region, as well as over building roads and other matters.

Then the Second Bank of the United States shut its doors. This meant the state of Maine ended up with a surplus which it decided to distribute to residents. But first the fledgling state needed a special census to determine who was eligible for the refund, which is how Ebenezer Greeley ended up in the disputed area in May of 1837, sent on the authority of Penobscot County, Maine.

From the Canadian point of view, it's easy to see why Greely ended up being arrested three times by British authorities: here was an American census taker not just taking names, but promising cash.

"He told the inhabitants they would shortly receive $2 or $3 per head of family out of the surplus revenue of the United States," writes the province of New Brunswick. "His goal was to persuade as many as possible that they were American citizens, living in the country of Penobscot, Maine."

The first time Greeley was arrested, he was sent to Woodstock, New Brunswick, where the sheriff refused to accept him. The British arrested him again a week later and took him to Fredericton.

The U.S. government stepped in to secure Greeley's release, but no sooner was Greely free than he was census taking in the area again. He was arrested a third time and it took a few months to free him this time.

The arrests infuriated Greeley. A letter he wrote to Major General Isaac Hodsdon is available through the Maine Historical Society website:

"Have things come to this, that the State of Maine cannot have the privilege of sending their servants on to the disputed territory to do their business, without being molested, arrested and imprisoned by the authorities of New Brunswick? Can the brave sons of Maine pass this over with impunity?" Greeley wrote after his second arrest, adding that he wished troops had been with him as he conducted the census.

Relations between the squabbling neighbours deteriorated to the point that both sides had soldiers and militia members ready to battle in 1838/1839. In 1901, a 90-year-old Maine veteran recalled for the Lewiston Journal the day a militia officer rallied volunteers to make war against New Brunswick:

"People of North Norway were at a church service on Sunday when a militia officer brought his horse to the doors and shouted "To arm! To arm! The Bluenoses are coming!"

"Men shrieked. Boys yelled. Women screamed and fainted."

The veteran was one of several who built Fort Fairfield, Maine, in preparation for battle. Fortunately, the "Aroostook War" never had a shot fired and a treaty in 1842 finally settled the dispute.

In 2001, the province of New Brunswick hosted a re-enactment of the Aroostook War. Special mention was given to actor Mac Storr, who played the part of arrested census-taker Ebenezer Greeley. As for Greeley's census, which he braved arrest three times to conduct, it cannot be located by the provincial archives of New Brunswick or the Maine state archives.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2012.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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