Maine

Maine’s Unluckiest Man: ‘The Luck of Hiram Smith’

An old expression in New England says that if nothing seems to go right for you, you have the luck of Hiram Smith.

And Hiram Smith definitely had bad luck, though no one knows exactly how the expression got started.

Landing and scaling logs, Aroostook Woods, Maine. (Library of Congress)

Landing and scaling logs, Aroostook Woods, Maine. (Library of Congress)

Hiram Smith at War

Legend had it that Hiram was the only casualty of the war that no one ever fought.

In the winter of 1838-39, the country did seem destined for war. A decades-long dispute simmering between the U.S. and Canada (then under British rule) had broken open. Both the U.S. and Britain claimed possession of the northern tip of what is now Maine. Timber men had come south and forced the Maine state land agent into retreat.

Traditional English-French rivalries helped escalate the tension. Maine raised a militia of 10,000 men, so the U.S. Congress authorized raising a 50,000-man army. It also set a budget of $10 million to fight.

Gen. Winfield Scott went north to take charge of the fighting. But once there, he reached an agreement with the Canadians: the border dispute was better settled through negotiation. Both sides accepted that the 1783 treaty that ended the American Revolution had made an oversight. It had failed to set a border.

Daniel Webster

Daniel Webster and Alexander Baring, 1st Baron Ashburton set the border that we have today.

Aroostook War

Thus, the Aroostook War went into history as the “bloodless” war. What fighting there was resembled a barroom brawl more than a military engagement. But it wasn’t really bloodless at all. More than 30 men died of disease or accidents in the run-up to the fighting that never happened as they built a long military road through the northern tip of Maine and suffered through a difficult winter. One of the dead was Hiram T. Smith.

hence his unlucky status, though others died as well. Perhaps the expression got started because Smith is said to have died in so many different ways.

Some said he drowned (in both a lake and pond), that he was injured during construction, that an army supply wagon ran him down, that he was trampled while feeding horses, that he froze to death after deserting (though many say he died in July.)

Either way, there is a grave marker on Route 2A in Haynesville in far northern Maine to commemorate his sacrifice. And his status as the unluckiest man in Maine has kept his memory alive.


This story last updated in 2022.

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