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THE UNITED STATES BUREAU OF CUSTOMS AND
SMUGGLING ON PUGET SOUND, 1851 TO 1913
ROLAND L. DE LORME
Among the records of federal agencies that participated in the settlement and development of the American West, none are more interesting or instructive in the problems of frontier governance than those of the Puget Sound District of the Bureau of Customs. The 450 cubic feet of papers comprising this record group are located in the Seattle Federal Records Center and span the years 1851 to 1913. They document the regulation of commerce, immigration, fur sealing, and navigation within a district that at one time boasted a volume of shipping second only to New York. Most sig. nificantly, they record the customs service's vain struggle against smuggling activities that began with American occupation of the Oregon Country and have continued unceasingly into the twentieth century.1
San Francisco became the first official United States port of entry on the Pacific coast in 1849. Within two years the northward thrust of population and lumbering activities that accompanied the California
boom dictated the establishment of a customs district for Puget Sound. By 1854 the Puget Sound collector was headquartered at Port Townsend, Washington Territory, a tiny settlement in the eastern corner of the Olympic Peninsula, which commanded an entrance to the lower sound. Smaller stations were located at subports on the sound and along the Washington coastline south to Astoria. Inspectors manned outposts on the chief overland routes between British and United States territory, and vessels of the revenue marine patrolled American waters.2
Smuggling grew rapidly, nonetheless, fostered by the tempting proximity of British havens, the natural cover afforded by vast forested areas and by the coves and inlets of countless, heavily timbered islands, and by public apathy and even approval. Although American settlers welcomed the assertion of national control to the forty-ninth parallel, they were less amenable to restrictions on the development of trade with Vancouver Island. They wanted the duty-free rum and woolens offered by the British and feared that the imposition and enforcement of permanent tariffs on goods from British North America might result in the loss of
The author would like to thank Philip Lothyan and Ann Kennedy of the Seattle Federal Records Center for their assistance in the preparation of this article.
1 The Puget Sound District customs records are described in Elmer W. Lindgard, comp., Records of the Collector of Customs, Puget Sound District, in the Federal Records Center, Seattle, Washington, Preliminary Inventory no. 122 (Washington, D.C., 1960). Additional information may be found in General Records of the Department of the Treasury, Record Group 56, National Archives Building.
2 List of Employees in the Customhouse and Lighthouses, Puget Sound District, 1871-86, 1889, passim, Records of the Bureau of Customs, Record Group 36, Federal Records Center, Seattle, Wash. (hereafter cited as RG 36, FRC Seattle).
British markets for American products. Such fears were well founded. When United States customs officers seized the Hudson's Bay Company steamer Beaver in 1851 for a technical violation of the revenue laws, it not only signaled an end to an era of unrestricted trade in the Pacific Northwest but drove some traders on both sides of the international border into illicit commercial arrangements. British wool, blankets, and liquor were the principal articles of this trade until after the Civil War. Then, in the 1870s, responding to a market created by Chinese laborers on the Pacific slope who were addicted to smoking-opium but could not afford the heavily taxed legal variety, the smugglers extended their operations to include traffic in opium. Early in the following decade, attempts to restrict Asian immigration encouraged the smuggling of Chinese into the United States. Near the close of the nineteenth century, it was only a slight exaggeration when one customs official averred that the
and daring of Puget Sound smuggling were reminiscent of the stories of smuggling on the Irish coast and histories of the African slave trade.3
The popular view of smugglers as men of great daring had some basis in fact. Although law enforcement personnel considered them hardened criminals and “rough customers to deal with," the nature of their activities-coded messages, dashes in small but swift boats across rough seas in the dead of night, exchanged lantern signals, hiding places, caches of precious goods deep in the forest, and high stakes-provided an aura of mystery and even romance.4 As late as
1898, a journalist could report "many who openly sympathize with them and who manifestly do not regard such violations of the law as in any sense a matter of serious concern."5 The press depicted smugglers as swashbucklers who snapped their fingers at the customs officers, and local residents contributed to, and helped preserve, a body of folklore that focused on the smugglers' exploits. So much British wool was smuggled into the San Juan Islands to be sold as domestic wool by American sheepmen, it was said, that naive textbook writers credited San Juan sheep with the world's record per capita average of 150 pounds of wool.6
It was claimed that the sound's liquor smugglers had shown their contempt for authority by supplying whisky to both occupying forces during the American-British confrontation over San Juan Island.? Whether the illicit cargo was rum, wool, sugar, opium, or frightened Chinese, smugglers employed audacity and wile to confound lawmen. One smuggler reputedly traveled to and from the principal ports disguised as an Indian. Women posed as legal immigrants or tourists and hid contraband in the folds of their clothes or under false bandages and generally took advantage of the customs inspector's disinclination to violate female modesty. Smugglers also crossed the border disguised as peddlers with untaxed goods hidden in boxes or trunks on wagons. Federal inspectors learned of one smuggling ring that was sending large quantities of opium south in wooden boxes attached to the undercarriages of railroad cars. The smugglers apparently knew that they were under surveillance, for when customs officers stopped a train and pried the lid from a box, they found it packed with horse manure. Contraband opium commonly was packaged in coal-oil tins, then stashed aboard sound steamers in gunny sacks, crates, or casks with disarming labels. Chinese, too, sometimes entered the United States in potato sacks, which were cast overboard, some claimed, if a revenue cutter drew near. Some overly zealous smugglers were known to have hidden human cargo in the wheelhousings of steamers for the trip from Victoria, British Columbia, to Port Townsend; the surviving handful were taken ashore at night.8
3 Port Townsend Leader, June 5, 1891; James G. McCurdy, By Juan de Fuca's Strait: Pioneering Along the Northwestern Edge of the Continent (Portland, Ore., 1937), p. 66; McCurdy, “CrissCross Over the Boundary: The Romance of Smuggling Across
the Northwest Frontier,” Pacific Monthly 23 (1910): 182-183.
4 Tompkins Brew to Wymond 0. Hamley, Mar. 19, 1869, British Columbia Customs Department Papers, British Columbia Archives, Victoria; Port Townsend Argus, July 26, 1883.
5 Friday Harbor Islander, June 30, 1898. See also E. H. Thomas, "Kleastino: A Tale of the Kul Quienum," The Coast 4 (1902): 31-35, a fictional romance about smuggling on Puget Sound.
Port Townsend Weekly Message, Jan. 21, 1871; Bellingham Herald, June 26, 1966.
7 Lelah J. Edson, The Fourth Corner: Highlights from the Early Northwest (Bellingham, Wash., 1968), p. 106.
Smuggling was not confined to regular steamship or railroad runs. Small and stocky sloops, called plungers because of their behavior in stormy seas, scurried across the border laden with contraband. Occasionally these sloops evaded inspection by anchoring a short distance off Port Townsend and transporting cargo ashore after nightfall by canoe or skiff. More often, sloop masters set course for harbors where customs surveillance was either nonexistent
8 Letters Received from Subports and Inspectors, 1882-86, 1889-1905, vol. 4, passim, RG 36, FRC Seattle; Herbert F. Beecher to J. B. Moore, July 31, 1885, Outgoing Subject Correspondence, 1869-1902, vol. 7, ibid.; Port Townsend Argus, July 17, 1875; Port Townsend Leader, Oct. 12, 1889, June 5, 1891.
or very lax. Port Angeles, Dungeness, Whatcom, Coupeville, and, on the lower sound, Brown's Point, were favorite ports of call for smugglers. A customs inspector estimated in 1891 that at Coupeville alone sloops delivered thirty Chinese weekly, a figure corroborated by the Coupeville Times. At Dungeness, Chinese were landed nightly in groups of ten. High profits, furthermore, encouraged a continuous search for alternate routes. Some smugglers traveled the Canadian Pacific Railroad from Vancouver to Haney, British Columbia, ferried across the Fraser River, then continued on horseback to Blaine, skirting the trail at that point to avoid the tiny border station. Others, traveling via New Westminster, followed a trail south to Point Robers, then boarded a sloop for Mukilteo. One smuggling ring operating out of Victoria used a sea route from that port to the northern tip of San Juan Island, then, sailing by night, through the narrow passes of the San Juans past Whidbey Island to Seattle's Elliot Bay. During the summer months, when coastal waters were smooth, plungers from the north carried illicit cargoes around the Olympic Peninsula, then up the Quinault and Queets rivers. The contraband would be shipped the short distance to Aberdeen by rail or wagon road
Port Townsend Harbor in the 1880s. (Courtesy of the Jefferson County Historical Society, Port Townsend, Wash.)
and loaded on vessels bound for Portland or San Francisco. Apart from such sea routes, according to one inspector, there were scores of trails used for smuggling within easy riding distance of Blaine. Also, large groups of Chinese reportedly crossed the border at Lake Osoyoos, which was east of the Cascade Range and approximately ninety miles from the nearest customs office at Fort Colville.
The Bureau of Customs was ill prepared to cope with such massive lawbreaking. A major reason for the service's inefficiency and its lack of public support was its dependence on the spoils system for personnel. Despite the introduction of civil service reforms in the late nineteenth century, most customs officers were political appointees more interested in political favors than in enforcing the revenue laws. The Puget Sound District had a particularly bad record in this regard. One of the first collectors had been Victor Smith, friend and political ally of Lincoln's secretary of the treasury, Salmon P. Chase. During the sensitive years of sectional strife, Smith used his post to wage war on his partisan enemies and to speculate in real estate. He sought removal of the port of entry to the site of his property holdings. On one occasion he threatened to turn the guns of a revenue cutter on Port Townsend in order to confiscate the customhouse records. Later, during a public excursion aboard the same cutter, he locked the entire crew in the hold for allegedly plotting mutiny and forced the frightened excursionists to sail the vessel
to Victoria. If most of Smith's successors were less impulsive, few proved to be efficient administrators, and the press found little to praise and much to criticize. It was difficult to rally support for the bureau when newspaper accounts ridiculed its bungling and characterized the collector as “dough-headed" and his deputies as “Uriah Heeps."
." 10 Even worse, customs officers had to divide their attention among a vast and continually expanding number of duties: responsibility for the enforcement of anchorage regulations, destruction of derelict vessels, regatta patrol, and inspection and supervision of commerce and immigration. The revenue marine branch of the Puget Sound District, in addition, was charged with protecting American fisheries and seal rookeries in the North Pacific region and helping to provide law and order in the territory of Alaska 11
It was an impossible task. The cutters assigned to Puget Sound were too few in number and too slow to catch the fast sloops of the smugglers. For a time the collector commanded only a leased private vessel and a canoe. The steam-powered cutter Oliver Wolcott was acquired in 1875, but, although supposedly capable of a full speed
9 A. W. Bash to A. D. Attridge, July 7, 1883, and Bash to E. Legman, July 7, 1883, Outgoing Subject Correspondence, vol. 5, RG 36, FRC Seattle; A. Wasson to P. C. Sullivan, Aug. 8, 1892, vol. 8, ibid.; Port Townsend Leader, May 24, 1891; Coupeville Times, quoted in Port Townsend Leader, June 16, 1891; San Francisco Examiner, Feb. 23, 1890; Port Townsend Argus, July 26, 1883; Friday Harbor Islander, May 30, 1901; George A. Hoyt to Charles Bradshaw, Sept. 16, 1891, Thomas P. Hopp to Wasson, Oct. 30, 1891, Bolcom to Bradshaw, Sept. 28, 1891, and Charles A. McLennan to Bradshaw, Aug. 3, 1891, Letters Received from Subports and Inspectors, vols. 1, 4, RG 36, FRC Seattle.
10 Victor Smith's misadventures are partly documented in the Puget Sound District records, Chronological File of Letters Sent, 1852-53, 1862-63, 186681, vol. 2. RG 36, FRC Seattle; Port Townsend North-west, Jan. 11, Apr. 19, Aug. 9, 1862; McCurdy, By Juan de Fuca's Strait, pp. 54-57. Typical attacks on customhouse officials are to be found in the Port Townsend Weekly Message, Apr. 29, 1870, and Port Townsend Argus, May 4, 1871. Smith and some of the records of his tenure as collector were lost in the shipwreck of the Brother Jonathan off Crescent City, Ore., in July 1865. Additional records of the Puget Sound District were damaged in a flood a few months later. See also Ivan Doig, “Puget Sound's War Within a War," American West 8 (1971): 27.
11 Walter C. Capron, The U.S. Coast Guard (New York, 1965), pp. 16, 19; Don Whitehead, Border Guard: The Story of the United States Customs Service (New York, 1963), pp. 65, 67; Laurence F. Schmeckebier, The Customs Service: Its History, Activities and Organization, Institute for Government Research Service, Monographs of the United States Government no. 33 (Baltimore, 1924), p. 18.