Fifty-Four Forty or Fight

The Gray Zone

Off the east coast of North America sits a small island, which both the United States and Canada claim as their own. Machias Seal Island is not much to look at — flat, treeless, and generally uninspiring. It sits at the point where the Gulf of Maine meets the Bay of Fundy.

Machias Seal Island, image by Melissa McMasters (CC BY 2.0)

The island has no permanent residents, just visitors who come to watch the puffins. In the summer, 30 people are allowed on the island each day, half from the US and half from Canada. The dispute, which still echoes in these numbers, dates all the way back to the 1700s.

In 1783, the Treaty of Paris officially ended the Revolutionary War between Great Britain and American colonies. That treaty gave American colonies ownership over all islands within 20 leagues (roughly 70 miles) of the American shore. That’s roughly 70 miles. Machias Seal Island is less than 10 miles from the town of Cutler, Maine and so it satisfies the conditions of this treaty. However, the treaty also exempted islands that had been part of the British colony of Nova Scotia (which is now part of Canada). So the Canadians argue that Machias Seal Island was included in a 1621 land grant which deeded Nova Scotia and its islands to its British colonizers. That land grant laid out that any island within 6 leagues of the Canadian coastline would be declared part of Canada. So, Machias Seal Island also satisfies the conditions of that treaty. To make matters murkier, both Canadian and American paperwork fail to specify Machias Seal Island by name.

So Machias Seal Island was claimed by both countries. Then, in 1832, the British took the first step in occupying the territory by building a lighthouse there. When Canada became a country a couple of decades later in 1867, they inherited that lighthouse. And, to this day, the Canadian Coast Guard sends lighthouse keepers to stay on the island, even though the lighthouse is entirely automated. Two guards operate in rotating four-week shifts, all to supposedly protect Canada’s claims to sovereignty. They don’t even fix the lighthouse if it goes out.

Barna Norton raising a US flag on “his” island

Further complicating things, Barna Norton, a private citizen in the US, long claimed ownership of the island and went so far as to ask the Canadian lighthouse keepers for rent (a request they responded to with their own request that Barna stop landing a boat on the island). Strangely enough, the US State Department came to his defense in 1983, sending him a letter that Canadian regulations need not apply.

The dispute over Machias Seal Island still persists, and if anything has gotten more and more intense over the years. And that’s because of an area called the “gray zone,” which is the body of water that surrounds this island. Whoever owns the island also lays claim to these waters. And these waters happen to be the richest area for lobster fishing in the world, which means it’s an area that neither country is willing to lose control over. At times, this tension has manifested in threats, theft, and sabotage across national lines between those who come to fish from either side of the border. Despite these tensions, the status of the island and its surrounding waters remain in dispute to this day.

  1. CHRIS PISARRA

    The article still doesn’t address who owns the property. It could well have belonged to the original Barnabas, then to his heir and now to the further descendents. The issue of what country the island belongs to is separate from the personal ownership issue-one can own property in the US or in Canada.

  2. Peter Varley

    Great show! I was expecting mention of Point Roberts just south of Vancouver to be mentioned but there is so much you can put in one show. Most of all, I was excited that Roman mentions, “we invaded them” when speaking about America’s relationship with British Canada (at 0:20). I think almost all Americans know that the British burned down the White House but very few know how that war started. So 1812 but also 1775.

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