ISSUES – The Man Who Went to War With Canada – Atlas Obscura

It’s an old and ongoing story. Who really owns Machias Seal Island … Canada or the United States? This long detailed article tells some of the fascinating tales that originated from this tiny disputed island that floats out there in the ocean just south of Grand Manan. Enjoy!

In 1940, when he was 25 years old, Barna Norton went to a shipwrights’ shop in his hometown of Jonesport, Maine, and ordered a boat. It needn’t be big, he said, but it had to be sturdy. He was going to take it 20 nautical miles out of Jonesport Harbor, through chop and wind, to a 15-acre scrap of stone and grass called Machias Seal Island.

That June, Norton cast off in his new vessel, which he had named If. (“That was ‘If I can get this,’ or ‘If I can get that,’” he later explained.) He brought along his father, some adventurous tourists from nearby Roque Bluffs, and maybe a picnic. After probably a few hours at sea, they reached the island’s rocky shore, and managed to land among the island’s main residents: puffins, razorbills, murres, and Arctic terns.


Later, over decades of interviews with oral historians and reporters, he didn’t share many details about that first trip. But it must have gone well, because in the next 60 years, Barna Norton would travel to Machias Seal Island thousands of times. He would bring tens of thousands of people and lots of picnics, and captain a whole succession of boats, named with increasing confidence.

He would also tell—many, many times—a particular story. “I own the island,” went the simplest version. “It was given to me.”

This story conflicts with the official stances of two powerful nations. It flies in the face of the Canadian lighthouse that has stood on the island for nearly two centuries. It also complicates the United States’s position, which is to claim the disputed island as American territory without making too much of a fuss. But Norton never gave up on his story. In a time when the last thing most people want is another border controversy, I decided to try to find out why.

The Dispute

The border between Canada and the United States is the longest in the world. It spans 5,525 miles, separating the Yukon from Alaska, Saskatchewan from Montana, Ontario from New York. It hosts its share of difficulties: smuggling, undocumented crossings, the militarized edge that has come to characterize such spaces. But in terms of actual land disputes, things are calm the whole way through—almost.

A view from the bird blinds on Machias Seal Island.

A view from the bird blinds on Machias Seal Island. GRETA RYBUS

Then you get to the northeast corner. Depending on whom you ask, Machias Seal Island is either off the coast of Maine or of Grand Manan. It’s also either American or Canadian. It is the only place with this particular unsettled identity that you can actually stand on top of. Although the ownership of some stretches of water is still contested, this island—and neighboring North Rock, which is even smaller and barer—are the last crumbs of their land the two countries don’t agree on.

Stephen Kelly, a former journalist and diplomat who summers in Jonesport and is a research scholar at Duke University, has been studying this dispute for over a decade. He has built up a sense of its progression, which he says “nicely illustrates a lot of the quirks of border-making.”

The American government traces its claim to the islands back to 1783, when the Treaty of Paris assigned “all islands within twenty leagues of any part of the shores of the United States” to that country, except for those that were already part of Nova Scotia.

The Canadians have a solid counter: the 1621 land grant that established Nova Scotia, then a British colony, which included “islands … within six leagues of any part” of that province’s coast. Machias Seal Island is a little over three leagues (almost 12 miles) from both Cutler, Maine, and the southern tip of Grand Manan, a large island east of Nova Scotia, which the two countries also quarreled over for many years.

If the world were more just, this would all be moot: The people of the Passamaquoddy Nation likely used the island long before anyone else even knew it existed. (“Machias,” also the name of precipitous local river, is a Passamaquoddy word that means “bad little falls.”) Instead, even as their identifications and affiliations have shifted, the neighbors have kept squabbling over it, like a pair of growing siblings in a shared bedroom.

Every time they get the chance to settle things—and there have been chances—they don’t. A joint commission in 1817 divvied up other disputed bits of land—including Grand Manan, which officially went to British Nova Scotia—but failed to deal with Machias Seal Island. The construction, in 1832, of a New Brunswick–funded lighthouse on the island didn’t convince the Americans to let up. Neither did its designation as a Canadian bird sanctuary in 1944. Recently, a U.S. ambassador to Canada tried to hash out all the remaining disagreements at once, both land and water, “but he couldn’t get anybody in Washington interested,” Kelly says.

Kelly chalks all of this up to inertia. After all, there are a lot of other things going on. “We maintain our position that this is sovereign U.S. territory,” says Kelly. But “essentially, nobody in Washington cares.”

The Giant

There are people in Maine who care—one person especially. Her name is Holly Davis. She was the longtime partner of Barna Norton’s only son, John Norton, and is the mother of Barna’s sole grandchild. On a late May morning, 79 years after Barna’s first trip to Machias Seal Island, she joins me at the Jonesport Historical Society.

The grave of Tall Barney Beal, said to be as tall as he was. Bill Plaskon, of the local historical society, is over six feet.

The grave of Tall Barney Beal, said to be as tall as he was. Bill Plaskon, of the local historical society, is over six feet. GRETA RYBUS

Like many small communities in coastal Maine, Jonesport evolved from an assemblage of subsistence fishers into a shipping and canning hub before reaching its current incarnation, a 1,300-person lobster-and-blueberries town. The Historical Society building is sardine-stuffed with treasures from all eras. Davis shows me a desk owned by her ancestor, Manwaring Beal Jr., who rode out the Revolutionary War on nearby Beal’s Island. She points out scratches from British bayonets. The Historical Society president, Bill Plaskon, demonstrates a large megaphone trumpet once used to holler at boats across the harbor.

Next they show me tintypes of a man named Tall Barney Beal, trying to explain to me what it takes for someone to earn such a title. The numeric answer is six feet, seven-and-a-half inches, which would put Barney right between Hulk Hogan and LeBron James in sneakers. “They said he could sit in a chair and tap his fingers on the floor,” says Davis.

“It wasn’t just that he was tall. He was very strong,” says Plaskon.

“Rugged,” agrees Davis.

“A bad temper,” Plaskon adds. “Some people claim that he actually, for whatever reason, punched a horse … ”

“And killed it!” says Davis.

AND THERE IS MORE!! Read the whole fascinating story here: The Man Who Went to War With Canada – Atlas Obscura

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