When Canada Was the Problem Neighbor (Life on the Border, Part 1)


A Canadian Mountie and Vermont State Trooper pose at the border near Highwater, QC, in 1941, for the opening of the Montreal-Portland (Maine) oil pipeline. (Libraries and Archives Canada)


From out these wilderness haunts, bands of men have for years made systematic raids on…settlements, and woe to the man, woman or  child who has interfered with them, or aided the officers of the law in any way.  Once a man was arrested on the land of a settler who did not even know he was there, and two days after, his cattle were poisoned, his woodland set on fire, and he met financial ruin, as his buildings disappeared in the flames…

For two years [smuggling] has been carried on boldly and to a considerable magnitude.  Liquor and clothing were the principal articles handled, and to the former is due the fact that fully a score of unmarked graves have been made along the track of the…road.  The few politicians who held the custom house under their control were either weak-kneed or powerless, and did not lift once, a successful hand to check the outlaws.

Lewiston [Maine] Saturday Journal, June 10, 1889

Gangs of wanted men, smuggling illicit substances across the border; murder, theft and destruction of property.  The above is not a scene from the “narco wars” on the Rio Grande, but an account of the activities of one Ulric Dulac, a French-Canadian whose “gang of desperadoes” haunted the Moose River region of Maine (in northern Somerset County) for years in the late 1880s, before being apprehended  in 1889.

The example of the Dulac gang is a reminder that the US-Canadian border was not always the quiet, peaceable place it is today.  It’s also a reminder that, even in the 19th century, Maine had something of the air of a frontier state, as much as parts of the Wild West.  Dulac was only arrested when the federal government hired private law enforcement agents from the Pinkerton Detective Agency to apprehend the Canadian. (In this era, when the federal Department of Justice had too few resources to hire its own full-time agents, outside contractors were regularly employed).  Areas of legal jurisdiction were grey, and access to many of these areas was difficult, which led to all kinds of illicit activity taking place.

(Lest you think life on the border was all criminality, I do plan to offer an account of peaceful co-existence in a later post).


The St. Paul Mission, French Prairie, Oregon, nd (Oregon Historical Society / franceamerique.com)

One reason that the border was such a grey zone of illegality is that relations between the United States and Canada, now some of the friendliest in the world, were not always so cordial.  Maine almost became a battlefield in the 1830s as Britain and the US squabbled over the precise location of its northern border (the so-called “Aroostook War”).  On the other coast, the status of the Oregon territory was also disputed until 1846.  In the meantime, Ango-American and French-Canadian fur traders worked and settled alongside one another in the wilderness:

There are about seventy-five to eighty French Canadians settled in the country, principally discharged from the Hudson Bay Company; there are also about fifty Americans settled in the country: making, perhaps, 125 to 130 male inhabitants, who are married to Indian women. They raise from their farms, on an average, from three to five hundred, and some from ten to twelve hundred bushels of wheat, besides great quantities of pease, potatoes, oats, barley, corn, &c.

A letter from the Willamette Valley, Oregon, Feb. 19, 1841, published in the New York Tribune, January 18, 1842

Turbulent times in both countries made the border alternately a safe haven, or a battle zone.  The efforts of African-Americans to escape slavery via the Underground Railroad to Canada are well-known, but French Canadian rebels escaping British reprisals fled to Vermont, New York and elsewhere after the Patriote Uprisings in Quebec and Ontario in 1837-8.  Louis Riel, a Métis leader of the primarily mixed-race Franco-Indians of Manitoba, was exiled to New England and New York after a failed rebellion against the British authorities in Canada.  After spending time among Franco-American communities in the states, he moved to Montana, where he became a US citizen, before returning north to Saskatchewan to led a celebrated but doomed resistence by the Métis people there.


Battle of St Eustache, 1837 (Lithograph, artist unknown.  Wikimedia Commons)

The US Civil War led thousands of French Canadians to head south to enlist in the Union Army, but fighting wasn’t confined to the battlefields along the Mason-Dixon line.  Irish-American members of the “Fenian Brotherhood” led armed attacks into Canada, in opposition to the same British authorities who were, in their view, occupying Ireland.  Most of this was confined to the New York-Ontario border, but there were raids further west and east.  In 1866, the Richmond [Virginia] Dispatch even reported rumors of a Fenian attack planned from Calais, Maine to St. Stephens, New Brunswick. Meanwhile, a small group of Franco-Americans in Elmira, New York, founded a society, the Fils de la Liberté, or Sons of Liberty, which was apparently inspired by the Fenian movement (the English-language press on both sides of the border portrays them as “French Fenians”, but I could not find evidence that they participated in armed insurrection):

Hundreds of thousands [of] French Canadians warn England that her tyranny over our native country must soon end…All our ambition is the disenthralment of our countrymen; and to do this, we see nothing more prompt or effectual than annexation of Canada to the United States.  We do not seek for vengeance for past suffering; and we do not wish for bloodshed; our revolutionary movements are conducted with the strong arms of logic.

Eastern Townships Gazette [Granby, QC], Jan. 5, 1866.

It’s worth remembering how long the Canadian-US border is – 5,500 miles.  In fact, it’s the longest international border in the world.  Its modern path was not fully fixed or surveyed until 1908.  Maine, which borders two  Canadian provinces, has the second-longest land border with Canada of any state (Alaska’s is the longest.  Michigan shares a longer border with Onatrio, but much of that is a martime border through the Great Lakes).  As late as 1902, the New York Tribune reported that the boundary in Vermont and Maine was reported to be poorly marked.  Existing markers had fallen down or been removed, which had resulted in some strange incidents.  The family of a man killed at a railroad crossing on the Vermont-Quebec border had difficulty seeking damages because nobody knew which country the incident occurred in.  A factory on the same line might have been violating customs laws by operating in two countries simultaneously.  It’s easy to see why Maine’s heavily-forested frontier became something of a “fertile but crime ridden region,” as the Lewiston Evening Journal described it.

Line House_Jackman_1913

Jackman Line House, 1913 (Zilla Holden/Ruth Reed/Francomaine.org)

More common than the Vermont border factory were buildings known as “line houses”, which straddled the international border.  These became popular taverns when visitors from Maine (which was a “dry” state from 1851 through 1933) could enter one side of the building and head to the bar which was located in Quebec.  Fortin’s Line House in Fort Kent performed a similar function.  The Jackman line house (I believe) still stands – abandoned in the no-man’s land between the gleaming modern customs stations of the US and Canada.

Smuggling was also something of a cottage industry.  The Dulac band were engaged in smuggling clothing and liquor (again, presumably selling Canadian alcohol to thirsty Mainers), an activity which the Journal notes was made easier when the Canadian-Pacific Railroad was brought to Jackman.  In the early 20th century, the period of national prohibition (and national bootlegging), Franco-Americans were engaged in the same business of “rum-running” as many others.  It’s hard to pin down numbers for illegal activity like this, but it’s not hard to imagine that, with their family connections in Canada, Francos had an advantage in this arena.  Albert Ducharme of Lewiston, along with his father and brother, used to transport moonshine both ways across the border – something that allowed his family a relatively comfortable living during the Great Depression, until Ducharme was arrested in Lévis, Quebec, and jailed for five years.[1]

Occasionally, the smuggled cargo was people.  Immigration from Canada (or South America) to the US was not restricted until the second half of the 20th century, but the introduction of immigration laws in the US, beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, meant that Canada became a back door entryway, at least until cooperation between the two countries increased in the 20th century.  An article in the Washington Times of 1901, demonstrates that even Maine was a port of entry for Chinese immigrants seeking to circumvent the restrictions.


A description of Chinese deportees published in the Topeka [Kansas] State Journal illustrates the prejudice these would-be immigrants faced from the press and general public.







This brief run through the checkered history of the US-Canadian history offers a lesson in perspective.  While calls for the US-Mexico border wall to be completed have grown in this election cycle, very few people would call for the same on our northern frontier.  Yet the peaceful state of the United States’ longest frontier is a relatively recent development that was accomplished not by draconian security impositions, but by cooperation with another sovereign nation.  Politicians railing against unrestricted immigration, criminal gangs and the need to “secure the border” might look northward for an alternative approach.



[1] Georgette Ducharme Menealy, interview with Joshua Gauthier and James Myall, Lewiston, Maine, August 2014.  Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine.

James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.