When History Stops at the Border

Editor’s note: This is the fifth article in “Soundings,” a series of articles jointly published by The Otter ~ la loutre and the Acadiensis Blog that considers new approaches to history and the environment in Atlantic Canada. The entire series is available here on the Otter and here on Acadiensis.

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For my post on history and the environment in Atlantic Canada, I want to discuss … Maine. My premise is that the U.S.-Canada border skews our understanding of the Northeast-Atlantic ecoregion and its history. Knowing either side of the border requires studying both.

Early 21st century American Red Cross map of “Miramichi and Maine Fires,” goo.gl/JANh8A.

For a time, the American Red Cross’s website disasterrelief.org contained information on historic natural disasters. Its list of forest fires began, as most such lists do, with the 1825 Miramichi Fire, and it included this map to the right.[1] The creators presumably mistook a forest fire that torched parts of the state of Maine and the neighbouring British North American colony of New Brunswick as one that torched Maine and the town of New Brunswick, New Jersey. This is somehow fitting, the messy culmination of the fire’s historical memory over the past two centuries.

Eighteen twenty-five was one of the hottest years of the nineteenth century in eastern North America, and forest fires raged throughout the region that August and September. On 7 October 1825, a forest fire swept across northeastern New Brunswick, destroying communities on the northern bank of the Miramichi River and killing at least 160 people.[2] Given that Maine shares much the same terrain, vegetation, and climate as its Canadian neighbour, it is not so surprising that the state also dealt with forest fires that day. A Bangor newspaper account would describe conditions identical to those experienced in the Miramichi – hurricane winds, panicked animals, flames suddenly bursting from the woods – with one important exception: the nature of the suffering. “But the most distressing part of our relation is yet to come,” the editor intoned. “Twelve buildings with most of their content were totally destroyed.”[3] The fires in the Pine Tree State resulted only in the loss of property and pine trees, not persons. 

The standard estimate is that 3400 square kilometres burned in central and eastern Maine that day, making it the most extensive fire in the state’s history. I have combed contemporary Maine newspapers and diaries for references to where the fire raged, compiled them in the Google map below, and overlaid them on an 1829 map documenting the the northward spread of white settlement in the state. The map’s yellow band represents places first settled between 1800 and 1820, so it is clear that the fire centred on recently settled or largely unsettled areas.[4] Because remote locales contain fewer potential witnesses, and fewer newspapers to witness to, we may reasonably wonder if the fire’s range was actually underreported, and burned unobserved in other parts of the 1829 map’s blank northern portions, or beyond it.

Reports of forest fires in Maine on & around 7 October 1825, overlaid on Moses Greenleaf map “Maine, inhabited part,” 1829, courtesy of David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, goo.gl/jrVuy4. Thanks to Josh MacFadyen for assistance with this.

Once it was understood that Maine and New Brunswick had each experienced historic fire events on the same day, some supposed the fires must be connected – that they were not fires at all, but a single fire. But with so much of the eastern part of the state and the western part of the colony lightly settled, there was no real way of mapping its range accurately, let alone to determine if it tracked a path across the border. The closest anyone came to trying was when “W,” a contributor to the Chatham Gleaner and Northumberland Schediasma, described the New Brunswick component of the fire in 1831. Writing with authority and precision, “W” has the fire starting at the colony’s extreme southwest corner, right on the border with Maine, and traveling northeast from there.[5] “W” was almost certainly journalist Robert Cooney, who worked at the Gleaner at the time. A year later, Cooney published A Compendious History of the Northern Part of the Province of New Brunswick, a book that focused on the Miramichi component of the blaze so as to position it as the defining event in the Miramichi’s history.[6] Cooney’s book had lasting influence: the writer who had most carefully mapped the Miramichi fire beyond the Miramichi became the writer who, more than anyone, solidified its range as principally on the Miramichi.

Natural disasters – and perhaps all historical events – undergo a process of temporal and spatial consolidation as they move into the past. Boundaries become firmer. And because there were two core areas to the 1825 fire, one in Maine and one in New Brunswick, they drew apart and consolidated separately. That there was an international border between them greatly exacerbated this process. As histories of forest fires, forestry, the province, and the state came to be written, whether the author and audience were from one nation or the other increasingly determined how, or even whether, the other part was discussed. Nevertheless, the fact that the fire on the Canadian side produced deaths and more damage and encompassed a larger known area meant that the overall 1825 fire complex was remembered as the Miramichi Fire.

Charles Fobes map of historic forest fires in Maine, 1947.

This has resulted in a strange dynamic in writing about the fire in Maine. Standard inventories of Maine’s historic forest fires present it as a small bulls-eye in the centre of the state.[7] Renowned early Maine forester Austin Cary noted that the blaze in the state was commonly referred to as the Miramichi Fire but declared that it was “a different fire, being separated from the other by many miles.”[8] Mid-twentieth century American fire historian Stuart Holbrook downplayed it as “a Canadian fire” before discussing it solely in terms of its impact in Maine.[9] Stephen J. Pyne is unusual in writing about the fire on both sides of the border – but it is worth noting he does so separately, in two distinct national histories.[10]

In essence, there was never, or never only, a “Miramichi” fire. There was a massive complex of fires that burned throughout thinly populated areas of New Brunswick and Maine (and Lower Canada, but that’s another story) on and around 7 October 1825, undoubtedly joining, separating, and rejoining in the process of encompassing a range that is ultimately utterly unknowable. That was the historical event, but that has never been its history. Memory of it has been determined by the fact that it is known by a Canadian name, that it was more disastrous on the Canadian side, and that there have always been ten times as many American writers and readers, all of them ten times more interested in America than Canada. Whereas the international border meant nothing to the Miramichi Fire, it has meant a great deal as to how it has been remembered.

**

[1] The site no longer exists, but is archived – with the map link broken, unfortunately – at http://web.archive.org/web/20050310050329/http://www.disasterrelief.org/Library/WorldDis/firestuff/imagepages/fire32.html.

[2] The most influential historical interpretation of the fire in New Brunswick, including a map of its presumed range there, may be found in W.F. Ganong, “Note 90 – On the Limits of the Great Fire of Miramichi of 1825,” Bulletin of the Natural History Society of New Brunswick 24 (1906), 410-18.

[3] Quoted in Concord New Hampshire Patriot, 12 December 1825.

[4] It goes without saying – except, of course, it shouldn’t – that the map ignored Indigenous settlement in the area, just as newspapers ignored the fire’s effects on the Indigenous population.

[5] “W,” “Forests of New-Brunswick, No.4,” Chatham Gleaner and Northumberland Schediasma, 20 September 1831.

[6] Cooney, A Compendious History of the Northern Part of the Province of New Brunswick… (Halifax: J. Howe, 1832); and Alan MacEachern, “Popular by our Misery: The International Response to the 1825 Miramichi Fire,” Land and Sea: Environmental Histories of Atlantic Canada, eds. Claire E. Campbell and Robert Summerby-Murray (Fredericton: Acadiensis Press, 2012), 161-80.

[7] Charles B. Fobes, “Historic Forest Fires in Maine,” Economic Geography, vol.24 (1948), 270. See also a map of early fires in Richard W. Judd, Edwin A. Churchill, Joel W. Eastman, eds. Maine: The Pine Tree State from Prehistory to the Present (Orono, Me: University of Maine Press, 1995).

[8] Austin Cary, “Early Forest Fires in Maine,” Report of the Forest Commissioner of the State of Maine, 1894; reprinted in Report of the Forest Commissioner of the State of Maine, 1902 (Augusta, Me: Kennebec Journal Print, 1902), 32.

[9] Stuart Holbrook, Burning an Empire: The Story of American Forest Fires (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1943), 59.

[10] Stephen J. Pyne, Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982); and Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007), 127-32.

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About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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